Thursday, December 22, 2016

Jessica Winston's "Lawyers at Play"

Jessica Winston is Professor of English and Chair of History at Idaho State University. She is the author of numerous articles on the English laws schools and legal societies, Inns of Court and, with James Ker, she is editor of Elizabethan Seneca: Three Tragedies (2012).

Winston applied the “Page 99 Test”“Page 99 Test” to her new book, Lawyers at Play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558–1581, and reported the following:
In 1567, the poet George Turberville (c. 1540–1597) published a translation of the ancient Roman poet Ovid. Near the close of the work, he claimed, “It is a work of praise to cause | A Roman born to speak with English jaws.” In the 1560s, the word “cause” connoted force. What is praiseworthy about forcing an ancient Roman to speak in English? Page 99 of Lawyers at Play discusses the almost jingoistic fervor for classical translation in London in 1560s and 1570s, particularly among members of the early English law schools and legal societies, the Inns of Court. Page 99 asks, why was classical translation so popular among innsmen at this time?

The answer to this question lies in the central background and major claims of Lawyers at Play. In Renaissance England, sons of nobles, aristocrats, and well-to-do commoners often attended an inn of court to learn law and make social connections that would serve them later at court and in other prestigious social circles. While at the Inns, many of these men, such as the poet and future Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne (1572–1631), also wrote poetry, translated classics, and performed plays. And this made the Inns important literary centers too. At the Inns, legal study was not required and, for young men with time on their hands, writing and sharing verse, performing plays, and publishing translations of classical and continental texts were important social pastimes—ones that sharpened linguistic skills, promoted social connections, and facilitated professional networking.

The Inns originated sometime in the fourteenth century, but the literary culture only emerged strongly in the sixteenth century. The Inns were always legal and social centers. So why did literature become a prominent part of this world only in the 1500s? Lawyers at Play proposes that the literary dynamism of the Inns was part and product of the legal culture the period: The Inns’ literary culture of the Inns intensified in decades of profound transformation in the legal profession. To illustrate this point, Lawyers at Play focuses on the 1560s, the period when the Inns first became an important literary hub. The book’s central claim is that the artistic surge of this time grew out of and responded to a period of rising litigation and attendant expansion in the legal profession. In this context, writing and performance carried a cultural cachet that elevated the status of law students and legal men. At the same time, it defined the members of an emerging profession as centrally important to the culture and prestige of the nation.

So how does this relate to page 99? In the 1560s and 1570s, translations of the classics were especially popular, particular works by Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Caesar, even Euclid, and Ovid too. Lawyers at Play shows that translations were important since they assisted members of the Inns in the move from educational to professional life, allowing them to demonstrate linguistic ability and more: for civic-minded innsmen, translation was itself a form of national service. They imagined translation as a form of translatio imperii and translatio studii—that is, as a way of transferring the political and intellectual dominance of Greece and Rome to England. By importing the might and learning of ancient empires, translation helped to catalyze men looking for positions in the state into contributing members to the commonweal, at just the time when the local and national government was looking to hire more legally trained me into bureaucratic and administrative roles. Thus when Turberville describes his translation as a laudatory form of physical transmogrification, he suggests that his work is a salutary force for another kind of change: the transformation of the professional personas of translators themselves and the vitalization of the intellectual and cultural world of England, a point that other chapters develop with respect to lyric poetry and drama too.
Learn more about Lawyers at Play at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue