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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XIII. Legal Literature

§ 15. English as the Language of the Law

When Selden’s Fleta was published, the tragedy of Charles I’s career was drawing to its close. Two years later, it was finished, and the commonwealth was established. During the period of this rule, when all institutions were in the melting-pot, few matters received more anxious consideration than did the laws of England. There was, indeed, abundant need of reform. The delays of litigation were proverbial; the expenses of the courts were inordinately heavy, legal procedure was a maze of technicalities amidst which justice frequently lost itself. Everywhere was felt the pressure of the dead hand of the Middle Ages. On 22 October, 1650, a committee was appointed to consider the matter of legal reform, and, three days later, parliament resolved that one thing, at any rate, should be done—English should be made the language of the law. A bill was accordingly brought in and passed on 22 November, 1650. Till then, Latin had remained the language of the records, and French the language of pleadings in court. But in the seventeenth century, what Latin and what French! This is no place to enter into the subject, great as is its literary interest, and it must suffice to mention, as a specimen of the Latin, the indictment of a man in the Savoy, quia tetheravit vaccam apud watermill, and, as a specimen of the French, the report of an incident at the Salisbury assizes in 1631, when chief justice Richardson fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony que puis son condemnation ject un brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist. The resolution of the House that these jargons should cease led to a good deal of activity in translation. But, apart from this desirable concession to common-sense in the matter of language, very little was accomplished. When discussion turned to questions of substantial reform, the would-be reformers could not agree. Hugh Peters, for instance, would have liked to introduce the laws of Holland, while John Rogers would have preferred the Mosaic code: “The body of laws,” he said, “lies ready before you in the Word of God.”