Monday, May 16, 2011

Say it in verse

“[I]n antient time, before letters were in common use, the Lawes were many times put into verse; that the rude people taking pleasure in singing, or reciting them, might the more easily reteine them in memory.” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 26.)
Today, we are told, the law needs to deal with the problem of forgetting. There is still a time, though, that lawyers need to remember: the exam. And so lawyers-to-be have always tried to come up with ways of making sure they don’t forget. So they use mnemonics or nutshell summaries to help them get past the exam and then forget it all.

Or verse. Eighteenth century English lawyers who were supposed to master the cases in Edward Coke’s reports have come up with a method: a two-line verse summary of all the cases in his reports. You can read the whole thing online: The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, Kt., in Verse.  

You can’t get much information in two lines, so these sub-haikus were probably only meant to serve as a reminder.

Can you guess what that case is?
Who physic gives, by college is
Not to be punished, but who does’t amiss. 

This is Dr. Bonham’s Case, 8 Co. Rep. 114 (1610), a case that influenced (or, at least, was cited and discussed in) Marbury v. Madison.

Here is another:
For building hogsty, house to die,
Limekiln, if prejudice, action doth lie.

This one is Aldred’s Case, 9 Co. Rep. 57b (1610). This one a leading case in nuisance.

And a last one:
Monopolies, Granted by king are void,
They spoil the trade in which they youth’s imploy’d

This is the Monopolies Case, 11 Co. Rep. 84b (1599), an early antitrust case.

Who is the author? Why did he do it? The first edition of the book, published in 1742, opens with a preface by John Worrall (d. 1771), a legal book seller from Bell Yard, then as now part of legal London. “An ancient manuscript of the following verses falling accidentally into my hands,” is all he says of the origins of the book. Jacob Larwood claims in his Forensic Anecdotes, or Humour and Curiosities of the Law and of the Men of the Law (1882) that it was Worrall who wrote the book himself, but there is no indication for that.

Worrall explained that the book might be useful “not only to refresh the memory, and instruct, but also to afford pleasuring recreation to gentlemen of the law, and others.” This may indicate that lawyers were a humorless bunch already then, but the book proved popular enough to find a willing publisher who put out a third edition in 1826. By then it probably served as the sort of gift that a certain sort of uncle would give to his nephew upon graduation.

Still, can this method help students these days? How about this one:
Before confession police must warn,
Or else people’s case is thrown.

Although, if you can’t remember this one, you may need more than a two-line verse to help you.

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