An English Lawyer’s Handbook … in Latin and French

Worcester Cathedral Library manuscript Q. 36 is a kind of lawyer’s handbook, probably compiled sometime in the first half of the fourteenth century. It contains most of the important Statutes that had been passed to govern the English people at that time … and yet not one word of it is written in English. You might expect Latin to be the language of medieval laws, and indeed many of them are in Latin. But a lot of them are in French, which is perhaps a big surprise!


A page of Q .36 decorated with marginalia. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

It is not the French that was spoken in Paris, but the French that was still common in England at that time, now called Norman French. By the early fourteenth century most new laws were being written in French rather than Latin.

The practice of the law is of course much more than just passing statutes. Each law has to be enforced through written orders telling people how to behave, or summoning them to appear in court for failure to do so. The law must be interpreted in thousands of individual cases, some arising from behaviour that seems to challenge the law, and many more from disputes between individuals that require judgements to be made. All the judgements should be recorded for future reference. Most of this day-to-day legal practice was carried out in Norman French.

Almost 300 years after the Norman Conquest French was still the language of the ruling classes, taught at home to their children by multi-lingual clerics. It was commonly spoken by those that had any dealings with the ruling classes, including lawyers. Kings and barons could all understand dealings in French, but very few remembered any Latin they might have once been taught. Translations were needed, and a French version of Magna Carta from 1215 is still in existence.


The fore edge of Q. 36. Just visible are little scraps of paper used to mark specific pages … medieval Post-It notes! Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

This Latin and Norman French manuscript is catalogued as Q. 36, where the ‘Q’ stands for ‘Quarto’, meaning it is smaller in size. It measures 165mm X 120mm, just about as big as a modern serious paperback, but it is considerably thicker, with 286 vellum leaves. It dates from the first half of the fourteenth century, probably not very long before the terrible catastrophe of the Black Death. There is a short text at the beginning dated 22 May 1334, signed by Thomas Charleton, then Bishop of Hereford, from his palace at Bosbury. We may speculate when and why it came from Hereford to Worcester!

We need not wonder at a book of the laws of England written only in Latin and French. Q. 36 is a fascinating reminder of the continued use of Norman French almost 300 years after the invasion of 1066. Geoffrey Chaucer comments with humour on the Prioress riding with the other pilgrims to Canterbury:

And French she spoke full fair and fetisly (nicely),

After the school of Stratford-at-the-Bowe,

For French of Paris was to her unknowe.

This refers to Stratford, East London, where there was a Benedictine convent, and where elegant ladies who had taken the veil could converse in the language of their upbringing.


Woodcut of the Prioress in ‘The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer’ (1721). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Although the Pleading in English Act of 1362 ruled that court proceedings be conducted in English, a peculiar archaic legal French survived in the lectures and debates of the London Inns of Court, and was used until about 1700. And many of the most common legal words still in use are derived from Norman French: ‘assizes’ (sittings), ‘attorney’ (appointed person), ‘defendant’, ‘jury’ (sworn to uphold the law) and ‘parole’ (word of honour) are all examples.

Norman French has also survived in Parliament where certain stages of the passage of a Bill are announced in that language. When the House of Lords accepts a Bill it is written that “a ceste Bille les Seigneurs sont assentus”. But if the Lords disagree then “Ceste Bille est remise aux Seigneurs avecque des raisons” – it is sent back to them for further consideration with a list of reasons, although the reasons themselves are in English. And the Royal Assent, the very last stage of the passage of the Bill, is marked thus: “La Reine le veult.”

Another pilgrim described by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales is a Sergeant of the Law, a title granted by the king to people skilled in the legal arts. And he appears to be carrying books very similar to the Cathedral manuscript!


Text from General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1721). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


In Year Books he kept all the cases and judgements

That had happened since the time of King William

And from these he could draw up and create a document

Such that nobody could find fault with his writing;

And he could quote all the Statutes by heart!

And from these quite respectful words we can see why such a lawyer would need books of the law just like Worcester Cathedral Library manuscript Q. 36.


Tim O’Mara


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