The Early Modern Inns of Court and the Circulation of Text was an ambitious two-day conference which took place in the light and airy North Terrace of Bush House at King’s College London on the 14th and 15th of June 2019. It included events at Middle and Inner Temple, an exhibition of materials curated especially for the conference, and a professional revival of The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587), written by lawyers at Gray’s Inn, in the Chapel at Gray’s Inn, by specialist company, The Dolphin’s Back. Just over a month on, we feel ready to share reflections on the event and say how much we enjoyed it! We’d also like to use this space to reiterate thanks to our beneficent sponsors. The conference was supported generously by research groups within King’s College London, the Centre for Early Modern Studies, the English Department, the Collaborative Seed Fund Partnership, and the Text Histories and Politics Research Cluster. Outside King’s, we owe thanks to the London Shakespeare Centre, the Society for Renaissance Studies, the Inner Temple and the Society for Theatre Research. Thanks should also go to our speakers and chairs, some of whom travelled from as far afield as America and New Zealand to be a part of our conference!
The conference and the performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur were very well attended. We heard from early career and established scholars in the same sessions, which was truly inspiring, and the generous nature of questions and responses in the post-panel discussions created a sense that participants were really learning from each other. The dedication of speakers and delegates lasted right into the Q&A following the closing plenary (which debated the use of the terms ‘social network’ and ‘coterie verse’ by literary scholars) in an unusually energetic way for the end of a two-day conference. Luckily, those who were able to stay until the end were rewarded with a wine reception and dinner at which we continued to profit from the amicable atmosphere created at the conference.
The conference began with the aim of highlighting the importance of the Inns of Court as centres of literary production, centres which created texts whose transmission had a powerful influence on the social and political culture of early modern England and it resulted in revealing just how diverse those texts were. The opening plenary, by Professor Michelle O’Callaghan (University of Reading), broadened the humanist, self-governing ideal of the enclosed environment of the Inns by exploring letters that record female presence at the Inns, a miscellany of nonsense verse attributed to Middle Templar John Hoskins and Lady Mary Jacob and accounts for monies paid by the Inns to laundry women. Professor Arthur Marotti’s (Wayne State University) closing plenary shared details of manuscript collections kept by law students that include unique sets of poems, accounts of sobering deaths and records of dancing in revels. These collections trace courtly and provincial connections between the Inns and their members and reveal a non-systematic approach to textual collection which reflects the heterogeneous interests and pursuits of these communities. We were honoured to have such wonderful plenaries book-ending the conference and these talks highlighted the sheer range of textual predilections played out at the early modern Inns.
The panels generated a similar sense of the diversity of texts read and disseminated by students and lawyers at the Inns. For example, Penelope Geng (Macalester College) discussed Gray’s Inn member Francis Bacon’s distinctively poetic 1625 translation of the Psalms as an act of “professional piety”, Joshua Eckhardt (Virginia Commonwealth University) explored records of books owned by Innsmen and where they bought them from, while Jennifer Young (University of Greenwich) used the variant texts of Shakespeare’s Othello to demonstrate marketing and editing practices aimed at the specific readership of the Serjeants Inn. Other types of Inns-related texts explored by our speakers were poems by members of Lincoln’s Inn – Leonard Lisle’s The Husband and Thomas Overbury’s The Wife now the Widow, published in the wake of Overbury’s death in the Tower in 1613 – by Charles Cathcart (Open University), the record of the earliest known revels in the account books at Inner Temple, by Professor Alan Nelson (Berkeley) and even the names of Inns members, like Walter Raleigh and Henry Wriothesley, engraved on their smoking pipes, which Lauren Woking (University of Liverpool) used to illustrate Middle Temple’s close ties with the tobacco trade in the seventeenth century. Realising the extent of the diversity of the texts which were produced by and for the communities based at the Inns was a particularly rewarding outcome of the conference. Speakers and delegates were struck by the new ways of thinking about their own research which unfolded because of the conference’s, in effect, recategorisation of material as ‘Inns of Court literature’.
The diversity of approaches taken to Inns-related texts were also frequently commented on during the course of the conference. Our speakers demonstrated a variety of approaches from James Wallace’s (Independent Scholar/Director) historical digging and detective-work, which presented persuasive evidence for John Lyly’s being the subject of two poems by John Donne, to Amanda McVitty’s (Massey University) surveying of annotations in legal yearbooks as illustrations of a particular kind of legal character and masculinity performed and recorded in marginalia. Equally differing approaches were evident in papers from Kate Shaw (University of Reading) which focused on a 1563 marriage treatise by Mary Moore that was clearly influenced by her having to appearing in court to answer her first husband’s posthumous and outstanding debts, and Maria Salenius (University of Helsinki), which went from analysing sermons preached by Donne for the consecration of Lincoln’s Inn Chapel to showing how the need for buildings which house religious – and indeed legal – practices is a human, rather than spiritual one. This level of diversity made the conference thoroughly engaging for all participants, who, at one point or another, were exposed to a methodology totally different from their own.
The conference also created new ways of thinking about the relationship between the law and the lawyers. Many students and members of the Inns were dedicated to the learning and practice of the law, which, of course, provided the rationale for residence and membership of the Inns, although they are, in literary studies at least, more famous for playgoing and revelling than attending to their studies. Interestingly, the conference noted a shift in this stereotype. Speakers highlighted that only forty-two percent of the in-take at the Inns had been to university before beginning their legal education, and while the conference paid close attention to the recreational culture in which the Inns engaged, it underlined the fundamental importance of the law to the students and residents at the Inns. Jackie Watson (Independent Scholar), in her discussion of Lording Barry’s 1608 comedy, Ram Alley, revealed that while some Innsmen supported and enjoyed the transgressive satirical drama, lawyers at Inner Temple also complained heavily about the actual Ram Alley, and how this liminal space allowed “lewd and idle persons” to pollute the space of the Inns. Similarly, Blessin Adams (University of East Anglia) pointed out that the sonnets in Ralph Stawell’s legal commonplacebook were written out just as carefully as his legal notes, showing that poetic and legal rhetoric were equally important to his education at Middle Temple, and Emma Rhatigan (University of Sheffield) demonstrated how Donne’s sermons on John 5:20 and 8:15, written for delivery at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, reflect the interconnected power of the trinity and the different judicial systems which underpinned the professional lives of Donne’s original audience. Reconnecting the students and residents at the Inns of Court to the practice of the law itself might sound obvious, but participants noted the importance of remembering to do so alongside studying the textual records of the leisure culture fostered at the Inns.
Our received impression of the Inns as, in W. R. Prest’s words, “institutions devoid of any legal practice”, derives in part from the strong culture of dramatic production which formed part of their pedagogical practice. Dramas produced at the Inns were explored in detail by our speakers in new and productive ways. Molly Clark (Merton College, Oxford) used a discussion of rhyme in the earliest surviving Inns drama Gorboduc (1562), to show that the play is more experimental than we tend to assume because of its innovative use of half-rhyme, rather than continuous end-rhyme. Doyeeta Majumder (Jadavpuru University) Skyped in to give another perspective arguing that the custom of primogeniture which Inns tragedies, like George Gascoigne’s Jocasta (1566), Gorboduc, Tancred and Gismund (1566) and The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587) all demonstrate is an abuse of natural law. Alice Equestri (University of Sussex) used plays and legal records to illuminate the distinctions between fools and madmen, or idiots and lunatics, in the early modern legal system; the concept of idiocy was a legal construction designed to establish whether or not an individual could manage their own property or not; the formal process of determining idiocy is reflected in plays like Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling.
The Inns drama which received most attention from our speakers, fittingly, given its prominence elsewhere in our programme, was The Misfortunes of Arthur, written and performed by lawyers at Gray’s Inn and before the Queen for the 1587-8 revels. Felicity Brown (Jesus College, Oxford) discussed the play’s heavy textual borrowing from classical texts and the emphasis on incest which it shares with Jocasta. Professor Lorna Hutson’s (Merton College, Oxford) hugely informative and exciting paper highlighted the reasons behind the incest which is written into the Pendragon family by The Misfortunes of Arthur, proposing it as rather a genius strategy on the part of Thomas Hughes and his co-writers to naturalise the idea of a Scottish succession. Lorna Wallace (University of Stirling) ended the panel by reminding us about the special relationship which the Inns of Court enjoyed with the Crown and the coded political counsel which would have been located in the play by its original, and importantly, courtly audiences.
Producing a script-in-hand performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur to an extremely high professional standard, and creating a filmed record of the performance, was the most challenging aspect of this conference. We secured the invaluable involvement of expert practitioner James Wallace and The Dolphin’s Back, the company he founded specifically to stage rarely performed early modern dramas, early on in the planning stages. Wallace cut down the play from over three hours to a more manageable 90 minutes and put together an impeccable cast of eight actors whose command of the play’s relentless iambic pentameter, dense Senecan stichomythia and overwhelmingly long speeches were incredibly well received. Our cast was as follows:
Alan Cox – Gorlois, Chorus 4, Herald, Gilla, Howell
Laura Rogers – Guenevora, Chorus 3
Lucy-Rose Leonard – Fronia, Chorus 1, Gawin
Jen Shakesby – Angharad, Chorus 2
Patrick Walshe McBride – Mordred
Mark Hammersley – Conan, Nuncius 2 (Act 4)
Matthew Flynn – Cador, Nuncius 1 (Act 2)
Oliver Senton – Arthur
Audience members commented on their excellent diction, passion and clarity, and the way Wallace’s relatively static staging increased focus on the words themselves. Readers might be wondering why, given how off-putting The Misfortunes of Arthur sounds from a performance perspective, we were interested in staging it at all!
The answers are simply that it has not been professionally attempted, ever, and that the play deserves more attention as a record of English drama in development, a bridge between esoteric neo-Senecan tragedies and later plays like Christopher Marlowe’s wildly popular Tamburlaine the Great, and those resonances can only be fully realised in performance. We worked with a camera crew from Kaleido Film to record this one-off performance which will be made available as a research tool. Please get in touch with one of the organisers if you would like more information about accessing this resource and watch this space for future research outcomes on the play!
Our access to the Chapel as a performance venue was kindly given by Gray’s Inn and we also received very generous support from Inner Temple, with whom we collaborated on an event in Temple Church. On 4th June, members of the Inner Temple Drama Society performed excerpts of The Misfortunes of Arthur interspersed with commentary and context from Nuttall, Neuhauser, Wallace and Professor Lucy Munro, who kindly agreed to add her expertise to the event. We have also strengthened the existing relationship between King’s College London and Middle Temple through this conference by working with Middle Temple Library. David Williams, a King’s College London MA student, under guidance from the organisers and Renae Satterley, the Inn’s Librarian, curated an exhibition of materials from the Middle Temple Library to which the conference gave its participants unique access, the library is not normally open to non-Inns members. The exhibition spoke clearly to the aims of the conference, for example, displaying translations of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid by Innsmen, Sir John Davies (Middle Temple) and Barnabe Googe (Staple Inn), respectively, alongside sixteenth century works on policy by Guillaume de la Perrier (which were donated to the library in the early eighteenth century by lawyer, propogandist and Middle Templar William Petyt), to emphasise the importance of classical texts to early modern legal practice and education.
Our programme also included a preliminary event held at Middle Temple Library on 13th June, at which former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Igor Judge, gave a fascinating address on the formation of the Inns and their impact on Shakespeare’s history plays, as well as showing some of the items he has donated to the library. This talk is another indicator of the fruitful relationships which have been created with the Inns of the present through studying their early modern counterparts, and we look forward to building on those relationships in the future. Those interested in the next phase of our research can keep following on Twitter @EarlyModernInns and on this blog. We would like to thank all our speakers, delegates, collaborators and sponsors once again for what was a truly exciting and rewarding conference.