1615-16 (Second Essay)
Bill Long 12/11/04
With a Digression on IGNORAMUS
In the previous essay we saw that 1616 was a watershed year in the relationship of law and equity [It was also the year that Shakespeare died]. The central issue was whether equity's power to enjoin proceedings at law or executions of judgments would be trumped by law's claim to give final disposition of all matters which fell within its jurisdiction. Before getting to the results of the Commission appointed by James I in 1615 to deal with questions of equity's reach, I must relate one other incident that no doubt only obliquely touched on the raging conflict, but nevertheless helps capture the tenor of the times.
In the Spring of 1615 (some authorities say 1616), the stage play Ignoramus, or the Academical Lawyer, written by George Ruggle (1575-1622), was performed at Trinity College, Cambridge, Coke's old college. King James sent a host of courtiers to attend and himself showed up for the performance. The principal character in the play was a silly old common law lawyer named Ignoramus, who was consumed with envy for the aristocratic mode of living, and whose bawdy and inappropriate pig-latin versicles brought down the house. Old Ignoramus composed lines for his love, such as "Et dabo FEE SIMPLE, si monstras love's pretty dimple...." The King was delighted, and actually returned to Cambridge for a second performance. Anything to bring the common law laywers down a peg, he thought, was very good.
The Early History of Ignoramus
It was through this play that the word Ignoramus meaning "an ignorant person," came into English. But the word has a colorful history in law that should be more widely known. The first attestation in English of Ignoramus is in 1577: "If they (the grand jury) doe not find it (the indictment) true, they write on the back-side Ignoramus ("We known nothing of it"), and so deliver it to the Justices." Blackstone, writing nearly 200 years later, has a description of the practice in his Commentaries (4.23). When speaking of the several modes of prosecution, among them the presentment, indictment and inquisition, he says,
"When the grand jury have heard the evidence, if they think it a groundless accusation, they used formerly to endorse on the back of the bill 'ignoramus,' or we know nothing of it; intimating, that though the facts might possibly be true, that truth did not appear to them: but now, they assert in English, more absolutely, "not a true bill," and then the party is discharged without farther answer. But a fresh bill may afterwards be preferred to a subsequent grand jury. If they are satisfied of the truth of the accusation, they endorse upon it, 'a true bill;' antiently, 'billa vera.'"
Blackstone went on to describe this manner of indictment as an example of how "tender" the law of England was (when, in fact, there were hundreds of crimes for which one could get the death penalty) because no "man" can be convicted of a capital crime in England unless it is by the unanimous voice of twenty-four "equals and neighbors." That is, it takes a unanimous grand jury (from 12 to 23 members) to indict and a unanimous petit jury (12 members) to convict. Ho-Hum and all is well in Oxford with the common law. It was Jeremy Bentham's aboslute repulsion to this manner of expression and thinking that lay behind his vicious attacks on Blackstone and the common law tradition as practiced in his day.
More on Ignoramus
So the primary way that ignoramus was used in English before Ruggle's play in 1615 was as a legal term in the context of grand jury proceedings. "Ignoramus" or "We know of no crime," written on the reverse of the indictment, was enough to dismiss the charge. The most famous Ignoramus of all was in response to the 1681 indictiment of the Earl of Shaftsbury for treason. After the grand jury returned the Ignoramus, Shaftsbury fled with his friend John Locke to the Continent. Such a jury became known as the Ignoramus jury. Thus, contrary to what one might initially think, if you were prosecuted by a zealous advocate, the thing you most wanted was an "ignoramus jury." If a person was freed from prosecution by an Ignoramus, he could be said to be Ignoramus'd. "Hi, hon, how are you?" "Not bad, just got ignoramus'd by the grand jury." "The ignoramus jury was wise not to indict." Don't you think it is just too bad that the signification of the term today has been narrowed to mean an ignorant person, as in the line of Charlotte Bronte, "I am quite an ignoramus, I know nothing--nothing in the world."
This pleasant digression has refreshed me to return to the affairs of 1616 (next essay). Before I do so, however, I must say that the discovery of ignoramus'd brought to mind another word or two, where we put a proper noun in the past participial form to indicate an action completed. Many of the usages are humorous. Space allows only for three:
1) Grimthorped. Derived from Edmund Beckette, first Lord Grimthorpe (1816-1905), who was in charge of the renovation of St. Albans church. He restored it with lavish expenditure but without any skill or aesthetic appeal. Thus, a building that has been grimthorp'd has been unskillfully restored. One might even use this of a person who gets a "makeover"--but that gets me into sexual politics, and people get offended and huffy right away.
2) Rafshooned. This is a term that does not appear on the Internet, but I recall seeing it about 25 years ago to describe what happened to a person who had met with Jimmy Carter's advisor Gerald Rafshoon. I don't recall, actually, what it meant, but it should mean something like "getting the shaft," because of the "shoon." But someone else will have to help me on this one!
3) Bangalored. This is the latest (and cutest) word to describe when your job has been "offshored" because of cost-cutting measures. It has, no doubt, been transferred to India, where young people sit in message centers of thousands of workers (probably in Bangalore) where they call unsuspecting American citizens at any time of the day or night peddling products and asking you if you want low interest loans or credit cards.
Let's return now to 1616.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long