Jessica Winston, Lawyers at Play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558-1581

Jessica Winston, Lawyers at Play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558-1581 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016) 286 pp. £60 Hb. ISBN: 9780198769422

Jessica Winston is both Professor of English and Chair of Department of History at the University of Idaho. This book provides an interdisciplinary link between these two areas of study - English and History - by putting some long neglected texts into their political and historical context. Some of us may have read a few of these texts, certainly the more well-known masques created for the Inns of Court by the likes of George Chapman, with scenery by Inigo Jones, or works by John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney.  However, Professor Winston provides a study of seventy–five lesser known poetry collections and translations. Indeed, this detailed study compliments the recently published The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700 (2017) in which Professor Winston herself has a chapter on how satirical writings of the 1590s shaped legal behaviour.

Chapters are organised mainly according to genre. In the thesis upon which this book is based, Winston notes that genre fashion changed according to the decade, with didactic poetry and translation being popular in the 1560s and 70s, Ovidian poetry and satire in the 1590s, and masques and the pastoral in the 1610s.1 In Lawyers at Play Professor Winston analyses the works in terms of genre for several reasons:  the Renaissance itself may be defined in terms of genre, as it was built on a rewriting of classical texts, an idea and ideal which came later to England than to Catholic Europe due to the effects of the Reformation; it also allows the analysis to explore how the genre type utilised by these writers differentiated itself from the usual expectations of the genre; in addition,  Winston explains that her use of genre categories in this case allows an analysis of how genre can shape ‘smaller scale social networks’(15). This social aspect is introduced with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2, in  one of my favourite scenes, in which Shallow and Silence (satirical lawyers names if ever I heard one), reminisce about their ‘swinge-buckling’  days in the ‘Inns O’ Court’, Swallow having been a member of ‘Clement’s Inn’. This leads in to a section outlining the role of these Inns, which were Legal societies in which the sons of nobles, aristocrats, and well-to-do commoners came to ‘learn the common law’, but also to enjoy a varied social life (23). Professor Winston describes them as a ‘non-aristocratic, university educated, Protestant group’, who wrote as a means of improving their careers either within the law, or moving on to gain positions at court, and describes how the legal societies became both a cultural and political hub.  The fact that all these junior members, once admitted to the Inns, were known as ‘gentlemen’ apparently helped to level these social differences (34). The Inns themselves acted as finishing schools for these young men, as well as a legal education, and a meeting place for provincial lawyers, such as Shakespeare’s Shallow, who describes himself as off ‘to the Inns O’ Court shortly’ (27).

Chapter One describes how the law was absorbed by the young lawyers, and also, interestingly, how the Inns seemed to be religiously tolerant centres during the Tudor period, at a time when this may have been unexpected.  For example, in the mid-sixteenth century many of the older members, ‘Benchers’ were still Catholic.

This is followed with a chapter on ‘Minerva’s Men’ which begins with a well-known description of the literary standing of the legal profession of the time, from the preface to Jasper Heywood’s translation of Seneca’s Thyestes of 1560, in which  the Inns of court are described as where,

Minerva’s men
And finest wits do swarm…
In Lincoln’s Inn and Temples twain, Grays Inn and other mo,
Thou shalt them find whose painful pen thy verse shall flourish so…
And all their works with stately style….(46)

The chapter on Translatio Studii discusses the links between early translations of Seneca and the Inns of Court. The dedications of some of these translations, to those such as Nicholas Bacon and Sir William Cecil, were seen as a means of furthering the careers of the translators themselves (108). But in addition there was a sense of an awareness of England’s inferiority in this area (115), and of catching up at last with the learning of the Continent by bringing the learning of Greece and Rome to England (113). The audience for these translations was seen as two-fold, ranging from aristocrats with no Latin, to the ‘mean sort of men’ (118). But the aim for all was the same, to provide a ‘virtuous exercise for the unlatinated …to fill their minds with the moral virtues’ (116).

Their aim in writing was as an aspect of ‘Self-fashioning’, a continuation of the idea first outlined by Stephen Greenblatt.2 Their texts aim to create an image to ‘foster a virtuous public image’ both of themselves, and the institutions for which they worked (215). However, in addition to this, their writing often focuses on the English preoccupation with the balance between the ‘authority of the monarch and the law’ (2) – a debate which in later centuries resulted in the death of one king (Charles I) and the banishment of another (James II). The choice of Seneca for translation is significant in this respect, as his works deal with questioning the role of authority, a theme which ties in with this legal and political preoccupations of the Inns themselves (123).

Overall it is impossible to do justice to this rich and densely packed volume, with its extensive bibliography. It certainly reinforces the idea that that culture is ‘intimately connected’ with political outlook.3

Anna Brunton, University of Oxford


1 Jessica Winston, Literature and Politics at the Early Elizabethan Inns of Court, 2002, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, p 13.

2 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-fashioning : From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

3 Peter Burke, ‘Strengths and Weaknesses of Cultural History’, Cultural History, 1:1, (2012), p 1