The “billiards-like” trajectory of progress in this quest continues! Somehow, surprising outcomes seem to regularly come about when one line of inquiry turns up a thread leading down some new path… I’ve been “offline” for a few weeks now because I have been back in research mode – following up on an important new lead I was given by a law professor at the University of Richmond.
Professor William Bryson is a legal historian who authored a book containing a modern collection of early Exchequer court cases NOT already published in other reports volumes (like “Lane’s Reports”). These cases were drawn together from scattered manuscripts or were Exchequer cases buried in other early court reports volumes. Initially, I was most thrilled to discover that Professor Bryson’s book includes a fabulous and unique preface explaining the history and relevance of the Exchequer Courts.
Before reading this preface, my understanding of what the Exchequer Courts were, and why they were important always seemed a bit hazy. The word “Exchequer” is itself already faded into history – the courts that bore this name ceased to exist after the English legal reforms of the 1870s. I’ve learned that the Exchequer Courts were established originally by William the Conqueror in the late 1000s, and were concerned with nothing less important than property and the revenues of the crown. By the 1600s, they were one of three courts of the common law, along with the King’s Bench and the Court of Common Pleas.
To understand the importance of Lane’s Reports, you must first realize that routine official recording of court cases only began in the 1800s. Before that, the only record of the arguments before these courts were the unofficially taken notes of individual lawyers (or law students) in attendance. Without such records, there was no body of knowledge lawyers could reference to understand how the laws should be interpreted (or had been interpreted in the past). Soon, middle 1600s book publishers realized that the dawning importance of legal precedent was driving a lucrative market for published volumes of such reports. And so, such reports were sought out, and volumes of them began appearing on the shelves of booksellers along the legal corridor of London’s Fleet Street.
Although some scattered cases may be found in various extant manuscripts, “Lane’s Reports” is the earliest published volume of cases heard before the Exchequer Courts. This book is a 119 page volume covering 62 cases and 17 other arguments heard in the years 1605-1612. By the time it was published in 1657 (seven years after the death its author, Sir Richard Lane), this book was already historically relevant.
When I read the wonderfully comprehensible preface regarding the Exchequer courts in Professor Bryson’s book, I sent an email congratulating him, and stating my hopes to find out how much about Richard Lane and Lane’s Reports his research had turned up. Professor Bryson was very kind, but the news was disappointing – his book was a collection of a scattering of Exchequer court cases he had encountered that were not included in other published volumes of early reports (including Lane’s).
Then he dropped the bomb. He considered it likely that “Lane’s Reports” may not have been based on cases recorded by Richard Lane. This opinion was based on an academic paper he felt made a compelling argument to that effect. Professor Bryson was good enough to provide the specific reference to G.D. G. Hall’s (excellent) 1953 analytical paper on the authenticity of “Lane’s Reports”.
This analytical paper is an excellent and substantial work by an Oxford researcher who had clearly done his own homework! In it I found mention of a number of unique records I had independently dug up regarding Richard Lane’s personal history and the publication of “Lane’s Reports”. Frankly, I was disappointed to find that Professor Hall had “beaten me to the punch” on many of these little finds – by about 64 years! Sigh. But the find was worth it!
Professor Hall (who died in the 1970s, unfortunately) was concerned that important cases in common law were being influenced by early reports of dubious origin – a concern shared by John William Wallace in his landmark 1882 book “The Reporters”. Professor Hall’s article specifically focuses on the most important case in Lane’s Reports, often referred to as “Bates Case of Impositions”.
Professor Hall tried to find the manuscripts used by the publishers of Lane’s Reports and to analyze the book and those manuscripts to see if the authorship of Lane’s Reports could be proven. He seems to have done everything but a handwriting analysis toward this end (never mind – he did that too), ultimately concluding that although it could not be proven either way, the effort had left him with no evidence beyond the posthumous attribution of the publisher to suggest that the cases the book contained were actually Lane’s.
I have read (or tried to read) this 22 page paper several times. And I have had to dive into related research to come to terms with its various content. Honestly, its been a useful but rather painful learning experience! I’ve been learning about the Julian vs Gregorian calendar, the 4 annual terms of court named for different religious festivals, and the confusing convention known as dating by Regnal years. I’ve realized that the only anno domini date reference in the whole book is the year of its publication on the title page. I learned lots of linguistic conventions – for example, that “Jac.” is an abbreviation for “Jacobi”, and that Jacobi is a cognate for James (two names derived from the same original name). This matters because the date convention used in the book is regnal – and the ruling monarch at the time was James I. How are we doing?
But having pushed through a lot of painful details, I have also completed my first independent analysis of Lane’s Reports – in part to see if I can confirm Professor Hall’s analysis and to better understand the basis for his assertions. I will be publishing a sequence of articles on various things I am learning, and perhaps in the end, whether Professor Hall’s conclusions seem well founded… Either way, his paper has been a wonderful fulcrum for inquiry!
In the meantime, I have also written to the archives office at Oxford University…it appears the papers (files?) that belonged to Professor Hall (who died in the 1970s) have been retained. I wonder what I would discover if I had the chance to browse the research files of the only 20th Century researcher I’ve found who has done serious study on Richard Lane?
More to come…
Note: during my Spring 2018 research trip to the UK, I was able to follow through and review Professor Hall’s notes with the kind assistance of the folks at Oxford. Although it was interesting on its own merits, we found no traces of the research that went into the relatively early paper on Lane’s Reports. It was worth a try!
Your comments and corrections are gladly welcomed. I admire great writing, but have to approach this task as one of grinding a workable edge onto a rough blade – with my thanks for your generosity of spirit and firm critique in the meantime!