Notes – The Sergeant at Law

Notes – The Sergeant at Law



Sergeants-at-law were the king’s servants (servientes) in legal matters, chosen from among barristers of sixteen years’ standing, and on their appointment had to give a feast of almost royal magnificence, at which the king himself was sometimes present. From among them were chosen the judges of the Courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas. The sergeants who were not judges could continue to plead in court, and win fees and robes from suitors. By means of the wealth they gained, fairly or unfairly, the great lawyers in Chaucer’s time were enabled to acquire much landed property, and this ‘purchasing’ (1, 320) was commonly brought as an accusation against them by the satirists of the day.

310. That often hadde been at the Parvys: a Parvys (or Paradise) appears to have been the name given in medieval France and England to a covered place attached to a religious establishment where people could walk about for their pleasure under shelter. At Norwich children were taught to read and sing at the Parvys of S. Martin’s Church; at Oxford a Parvys was used for disputations in logic, and at London the portico or Parvys of S. Paul’s Cathedral was the great meeting places for lawyers after the courts had shut at mid-day, for consultations and interviews with their clients. [Post meridiem curiae non tenentur, sed placitantes hunc se divertunt ad pervisum et alibi consulentes cum servientibus ad Legem et aliis consiliariis suis. Fortescue, De laudibus legum Angliae, cap. 51.]

313. He semed swich, etc. Chaucer implies that he would only answer for the Sergeant’s words, not for his character, as being ‘of great reverence.’

314. Justice he was ful often in assise, etc. Assizes are literally ‘sittings,’ hence the term came to be applied to all legal proceedings before juries, and so to the sessions held periodically (according to the provisions of Magna Charta, modified by subsequent enactments) in each county of England “for the purpose of administering civil and criminal justice by judges acting under certain special commissions, chiefly and usually, but not exclusively, being ordinary judges of the superior courts.” The last sentence in this quotation from the New Eng. Dict, explains the sergeant’s position. He was not a permanent judge of the court of King’s Bench or Common Pleas; had he been so he could not have continued to plead. But when there were not enough judges of the superior courts to go on circuit, he had often acted as an Assize judge by the king’s letters patent (i.e. a document ‘open’ for any one to read, not closed like a letter to an individual) and commission.

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315. pleyn commissioun. The word ‘pleyn ‘ may be emphatic here. The sergeant’s commission was as full and unrestricted as if he were a judge of a superior court.

317. Of fees and robes hadde lie many oon. The judges received robes three times a year from the king, but the allusion is not to this, but to the robes, which were given by clients, in addition to fees in money. [Dr. Flügel quotes appositely from Wyclif ‘Of Servants? etc.: “and yit men of la we that schulden distroie siche falsnesse bi here offices and don eche man right and reson meyntenen wrong for money and fees and robes, and forbaren pore men fro here right, that it is betre to hem to pursue not for here right, be it nevere so opyn, than to pursue and lose more catel for disceites of delaies and cauellacions and euele wilis that they usen.”]

318. So greet a purchasour was nowher noon. The accepted explanation of ‘purchasour’ is ‘conveyancer,’ but quotations brought together by Dr. Flügel from Robert of Brunne, Gower, and Wyclif prove that it has its ordinary sense of ‘buyer,’ or perhaps rather that of a ‘buyer up,’ with an idea of haste and unscrupulousness which would agree with its derivation from O.Fr. purchacer (to pursue eagerly, acquire, get), and account for its being so constantly used in an invidious sense of the dealings of lawyers in land. [The best of Dr. Flügel’s parallels is from Wyclif s Thre Thingis, where, after accusing lawyers of knavery, he goes on ‘and hereby thei geten hem gold and purchasen rentis and londis of lordis and distroien verrey heieris, and this distroieth moche oure land. For hou schulde right be among suche men, that this day han but here penye, and anoon purchasen rentis and londis to be peris with knyttis or barons.’]

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319. Al was fee symple, etc. ‘Fee simple’ is the legal term for unrestricted possession. The suggestion seems to be that the lawyer bought some rights over a property and converted it by chicanery into ‘fee simple,’ his skill enabling him to defeat any attempt to annul the purchase on the ground of fraud (1. 320).

322. And yet he seined bisier than he was, i.e. to make clients think more of him. [It has been suggested that Fielding had this couplet in his mind in his character of Dowling, the lawyer in Tom Jones, who is always in a hurry.]

323. In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle, etc. English common law has been built up on legal decisions, and the Sergeant could quote all the cases and judgments from the time of the Conqueror. ‘In termes ‘ is explained as ‘exactly, precisely.’ [I have sometimes thought that it might refer to something like the ‘Year Books,’or annual reports of decided cases, which were already in existence in the reign of Edward III. This would suggest the meaning: “He had all the legal judgments from the time of the Conqueror arranged under the terms when they were delivered.” But the other interpretation is more probably the right one.]

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325. make a thyng: draw up a deed.

328. He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote, etc. In the Ellesmere picture the Sergeant has a scarlet robe, with open sleeves, faced with blue (this combination of colours is apparently what Chaucer meant by ‘a medlee cote’ and Fortescue by stragulata vestis) and ornamented with stripes or ‘barres smale.’ On his shoulders is a white furred hood, and on his head the Sergeant’s coif, or head-dress of white.


These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are generally enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.



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