One of the many great things about doing this blog is that it makes me more fully realize my inner geek. And this past weekend I took a big step forward in my geekdom – I went to a Renaissance Fair for the first time! It was a ton of fun and I don’t know what I liked most: the bawdy song and joke routines, the jousting, or the amazing costumes so many other attendees were wearing.
Being a novice, I wasn’t sure at first what age and area the fair was supposed to be depicting (after all, I didn’t get a Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance vibe there). But there was a parade with Queen Elizabeth and there were lots of dirty jokes and songs, so I finally figured out that the focus was on the Elizabethan era in England.
Walking around, I saw a lot of jokers, knights, merry maids, and queens, but no lawyers. Guess the Renaissance Fair isn’t that interested in the legal issues of the age, but they’re actually missing out. According to my research, the law was very popular in Elizabethan England. Not only were they very litigious, but they also loved attending court as a form of entertainment (guess it was the original “Law and Order.”)
While common law was prevalent in England at this time, there was also a particular legal philosophy that was very popular during the Renaissance. Called natural law, it believed that the laws were derived from nature and therefore universal. While it influenced common law, it did not think that law came from a bunch of judges. Instead, it believed that there were certain rights and values that were recognized through our human reason and very nature.
Natural law is no longer common but different treatment for the rich and the poor is still a problem in our legal system. In England during the Renaissance, recognizing that some people may be too powerful for the legal system, they created the Star Chamber. Based at Westminster, its proceedings were held in secret with little of the legal rights or procedures we would be familiar with. Over time, unfortunately, it turned into a political weapon that was used against political foes.
Anyway, back to the English viewing their legal system as a form of entertainment, I have to end with some quotes from the greatest entertainer of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare himself. Acknowledging the prominent place of the legal community in popular culture of the time, Shakespeare included many references to lawyers in his plays (most of them fairy unfavorable). The first is the quote that concerns me the most, because it often shows up in science fiction stories. The others are just some of my favorite legal quotes from Billy himself.
- The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. (2 Henry VI, 4.2.59, Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade)
- Help, master, help! here’s a fish hangs in the net, like a poor man’s right in the law. (Pericles, 2.1.153, Fisherman)
- The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept. (Measure for Measure, 2.2.112, Angelo to Isabella)
- All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen, They call false caterpillars, and intend their death. (2 Henry VI, 4.4.36, Messenger to Henry VI)
UPDATE: My brilliant brother has pointed out that Shakespeare’s line regarding killing the lawyers, which is often used by those who would criticize us, was actually a point regarding the importance of lawyers and their role in protecting democracy and individual rights. Thanks Wyatt!