Chapter 25a


Inns of Court, London, November 12, 9 AM


The four questers met Stanley George esquire in a medium sized conference room with a long table, leather chairs and square yards of leather bound books of case law on the shelves on the wall. 


“Did you sleep well?” the barrister asked.


“Nicely,” said Hapgood.


“Dreamy,” said Tracy.  “It’s all so elegant.”


“The Inns of Court used to have, back in the Middle Ages, dormitories for what amounted to a law school.  The buildings were built along the lines of other colleges.  There are four inns, Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn and Inner and Middle Temple.  We still have students living here, although it is now mostly law offices.  The universities, Oxford and Cambridge, taught classical law, which means Roman law.  The technical study of English law was carried out here. 


“Each of the inns is a private organization, and we do not make all the details of our history public.  But everyone knows that Middle Temple and Inner Temple were established originally by the Knights Templar.”


Hapgood laughed comfortably.  “We have been running into a lot of secret organizations with enormous power.  It looks like we have four more.”


“Not powerful,” said George.  “But we do have a lot of tradition and a lot of alumni who would hate to see us vanish.  Don’t get the idea that English law is carried out in a lot of secret meetings.  Our courts are public, like yours.


“On the other hand, if you are looking for a clique that is above the law, I dare say your own Supreme Court just about fills that bill.  One would think you were protected from such things by having a written constitution.  But as it turns out, your courts can declare a law ‘unconstitutional.’  In effect it means that they can strike down laws at whim.”


Hapgood rose to the challenge.  “But in the absence of a constitution, you lack any code of basic rights.  Your parliament can pass laws at whim.”


“Ah, but they are elected,” said George.  “So they are subject to removal if they offend the voters. 


“Now we do have the concept of ‘against Magna Charta.’  The Magna Charta was held, long after it was written, to establish the rights of all Englishmen.  That wasn’t a bad start.  It had been written by the barons to establish the rights they wanted for themselves.  Unsurprisingly it is rather close to listing the rights anybody would want. 


“But the Magna Charta is not the law of the land.  It is certainly not amended with changing times.  It rather establishes a spirit and serves as a reference.  Your constitution, once your Supreme Court has decided it ‘means’ something on a given subject, is your supreme law.  It can then only be changed by an enormously difficult process.  One might say it takes everything short of an armed insurrection to alter something established by a bunch of old men who answer to nobody.”


Ivan said, “You are a kingdom.  So at least in principle your government answers to your queen.”


“That,” said George, “Is true only in the most literal sense.  The prime minister is required to keep the monarch informed of what he has done with ‘her’ government.  He meets regularly with her and describes everything of consequence that has been done.  And she is not above asking questions.  He is obliged to answer, but he is under no compulsion to do as she directs.  Indeed she does not even make suggestions.  Only asks questions.”


“The power of the observer,” said Jon.


“I beg your pardon?”


“On the way here we were talking about how having a respected observer changes the tone at least of what goes on.”


“Quite,” said George.  “But if she did not remain effectively neutral, if she started to throw her weight around as you Americans are wont to say, I suspect thinking people would begin to suspect it were time for a change.


“On the other hand, she does have a degree of power of her own.  She ordered her own household troops into Northern Ireland to try to help cope with the troubles they have there.  Protestants and Catholics murdering each other and so forth.  They were her own troops.  She did not ask the permission of parliament to do so.”


“But your law itself,” said Hapgood.  “I imagine it is very ancient indeed.”


“Not so ancient as you might suspect,” said George.  “In your own state of Louisiana the law is based on the Napoleonic code.  That is more ancient than our own code of law, although of course not nearly so old as Magna Charta.  Most of the United States bases its law on English Common Law.  But since the time of your independence, we have had a major reform.  All of the old laws were replaced, so your system is more ancient than ours.”


Hapgood said, “And Common Law was the law that went back to before history, I suppose.  It was the way it was always done.”


“That is the tradition.  In effect, though, it was established by Henry the Second of the House of Plantagenet and Anjou.  He was a turbulent man in turbulent times.  He was French, actually.  He reigned thirty four years but he spent twenty of them in France.  Either he was a brilliant administrator or else he commanded the loyalty and service of brilliant assistants.  When he came to the throne, England was quite the mess, barons seizing each others land and no well organized court system to handle quarrels.  By the time he died in France, there were well organized courts which were efficient and highly respected.  He claimed that he was that he was just restoring the natural rights and customs of England.  But nothing before had been that well organized. 


“At a stretch, one might say he invented a past that was suitable for the needs of his own time.  But as I say, common law no longer holds.


“In the twelfth century, the time of Henry the second, there were basically three kinds of law in England.  There was land law, there was trial by battle and there was commercial law.  I understand that you are interested in contract law, which would be commercial law.  But let us dismiss the others first.


“Any government will establish laws in an attempt to assure its own stability.  Otherwise things are likely to disintegrate very badly.


 “In any society, life must be livable or things again disintegrate.  But what people think of as livable varies a great deal.  In colonial New England, for instance, the government was quite intrusive.  The local neighborhood inspector was expected to enter every home and evaluate it.  If he found something he thought improper, for instance if husband and wife were not having regular sexual intercourse, he was empowered to break the home up and send the members of the family to live in homes that were well regulated.  A man living alone was simply not tolerated.


“I am sure there were those who did not like it, but it was what people expected.  What they demanded.  Of course over the past three centuries you have moved to the opposite pole.  You have a government that is so permissive that your murder rate can be matched only in the third world.  And while a child once was supposed to be disciplined, now a child can be removed from a home because the child has been spanked.  In short, what is livable is very changeable.  The law simply complies with what people want it to be.


“Land law was intimately bound up with the stability of the government.  William the Conqueror had assessed all the land and divided it among the nobles, expecting in return their loyalty.  So it should have been a very stable system.  Land stayed with the owner or his heirs.  But since there might be multiple heirs or none, problems arose, and there were no efficient courts to resolve them.  Henry addressed this problem.


“Trial by battle was supposed to cover anything else.  If a person had a grievance or was accused of misconduct, the matter went to the field of honor.  You Americans still take the view that a court case is a battle.  Henry made improvements in that system as well.


“But as the society became richer and more complex, commercial law became an ever greater part of law.   The wheels of commerce need their grease.  The contract provides it.


“A contract consists of an agreement.  There may be no written agreement of even a word spoken.  Suppose you regularly shop at place where you have a charge account.  You enter, pick up what you need, catch the eye of the proprietor and show him what you have.  He nods.  You now have a contract.  You are free to take the object, and he is free to charge it to your account.


“There was a time when a contract had to be put into writing.  Otherwise no agreement was recognized.  They would right it twice on a piece of paper or parchment and cut the two copies apart along a zigzag line.”


“Yes,” said Hapgood.  “An indenture.  We have seen one.”


“Precisely.  Now suppose you are in the business of buying and selling codfish.  You can imagine how troublesome it would be if you were doing business in large quantities.  And every time you delivered some fish you had to wash your hands and sort through a lot of indentures to see which one matched.  You would not be delivering fresh fish. 


“So in Henry’s time, and for long before and long after, there was a steady evolution of contract customs to make it more and more simple to establish a contract.  And the courts, charged with the responsibility of enforcing those contracts, had to change with the times.  It is one thing to look at a contract written out fairly in unambiguous Latin with a jolly great dollop of wax and a ribbon on it and a seal impressed in the wax and say, ‘Yes.  This is the agreement.’  It is far more difficult to judge what has been agreed with a nod of the head. But in effect it must be done.


“And then, of course, as life becomes more complex, deals are made extending far into the future.  Situations may change and one party or the other might decide the deal is no longer advantageous.  There must be a way to decide what is proper in that case.


“So the courts, the law, must become ever more sophisticated to permit business to be carried on with greater volume and complexity but with the greatest convenience.”


Jon said, “But there had to be a time when things were simpler.  There had to be a time when a bargain was just a bargain.”


George went on, “If so, we have no record of such a time.  All we see in history is an evolution toward greater convenience and efficiency.”


“That may be true in England,” said Jon.  “But that must just be due to the way history worked out here.”


“Forgive me if I differ,” rejoined the barrister.  “Remember I said that the universities taught Roman law while the Inns of Court studied English law.  Now the theory of Roman law is quite different from that of English law.  To the Romans, all of society was a social contract.  It was a bargain everyone had struck that benefited everyone.


“For instance, suppose you and I meet on a field of battle in war.  I am trying my best to kill you, but you are better.  You are winning, and it appears probable that you will be able to kill me.  You now have the choice of whether to kill me or not.  The most convenient thing for the moment is for you to finish me off and go about your business.  But let us say that I surrender.  I lay down my weapon and beg for your mercy.  And let us say that, at no little risk to yourself, you accept my surrender. 


“So far, both of us are better off.  I have escaped almost certain death, but you have avoided at least some risk of death.  Since mine is the greater gain, I am deeply in your debt.  So you make me your slave.  I am better off than dead, and you are better off still.  In that sense, the enforceable institution of slavery has saved a life, probably mine.  To the Roman mind, this was all quite fair and legitimate.  We have simply struck a deal, and deal that is well accepted by our society.


“Needless to say, that is not the modern way.  But it was done then and was quite consistent with their idea of how people dealt with each other.  It was the social bargain.


“English Common Law, of course, was based on a different theory.  That theory was, ‘If we have always done it this way, it must be right.’  And yet despite a profound difference in the theory of law, the same evolution of contract law occurred in Rome as it did in England.  Things became more and more simple rather than more and more complex.”


Tracy said, “But things must have started as simple at some time.  That just makes sense.”


“But it is not what we see.  Getting away from contracts, for a moment, consider a case in which I have cursed you.  I went to my room and muttered spells and burned herbs.  You spied on me and saw what I was about.  So you take me into court for having injured you.  In a modern court, that would be a cause of mirth.  But there are societies today where people are being murdered for suspected witchcraft at a rate that is higher even than the overall murder rate in parts of the United States.”


“But that’s nonsense,” said Jon.  “That curse wouldn’t have any effect at all.”


“Not upon you or me,” said George.  “But it is well recorded among the Australian aborigines, even in the past century, of a curse being laid upon a man and the man dying.  Perhaps the man was already ill.  Perhaps the curse meant that he was shunned by his friends.  Perhaps in his despair he neglected to eat or drink.  There may be no real mystery in the cause of his death.  Yet it appears that someone deliberately killed him.  How would the law handle that?


“I am not saying that there is no answer.  I am saying that just because people are very poor does not mean they have no problems that are very complex.  The same is true of contract law.”


“You have been very kind to meet with us,” said Hapgood.  “And we much appreciate your time.  I have one other question, and I doubt it will be of interest, but the fact is that we are interested in Isaac Newton.  So far as I know, Newton and contract law have nothing in common.”


“I had not thought about it,” said George.  “But I do find your question interesting.  You see Newton spent the greater part of his life running the royal mint. 


“In a manner of speaking a piece of money can be thought of as a contract.  Coins were once made of precious metal.  They had intrinsic value.  Of course governments would debase their currency by issuing the precious metal alloyed with a cheap one.  But it was understood that it was still supposed to represent the value of the pure metal.  Then paper money was introduced.  At first it was a contract between the holder and the government.  The government agreed to redeem the paper for metal money on demand. 


“Paper money does not last so long as metal, so it was no savings, but it made business simpler.  By now neither the metal money nor paper has substantial intrinsic value, but one might still consider it a contract.  The government undertakes to maintain the value of the currency irrespective of what the price of gold might be.  They have been doing it fairly well in recent years. 


“A contract is any bargain.  If I agree to repair your roof in return for a basket of tomatoes, that is a contract.  But almost universally now, a contract is an exchange of some good or service for money.  Again it makes life a lot simpler.


“When Newton took over, the currency was in as sad a condition as the law was at the time of Henry the Second’s accession to the throne.  And like Henry, Newton tackled matters with brilliance, enormous energy and utter ruthlessness. 


“Most of the coins at the time were very old.  They varied a great deal, and to make matters worse, many people were engaged in counterfeiting and in shaving bits off the edges of coins.  Shave enough coins and one had enough gold to counterfeit a new one.  And the process of making coins was far more expensive for the government than it had any business being.


“So Newton replaced the currency.  He introduced the placing of ridges around the edge of coins so it was clear if one had been shaved.  And he created a secret service to catch and prosecute the people who were debasing the currency. 


“By the time he was through, he had created a currency that was so sound that it formed the basis of the enormous growth of the British economy over the next century.  In fact I should think it would be fair to say that he was instrumental in the creation of the international market place.  It was not many years after his death when international commerce became a world wide phenomenon for the first time.  England was at her height.  Her currency was the backbone of world trade.”


“That’s ironic,” said Hapgood.  “The idea we are pursuing implies that globalization carries an inherent risk of disaster.  Newton predicted a disaster, and he may have been just about right as to when it will occur.  Now it seems that globalization was Newton’s own doing.


“His as much as anyone’s,” said the barrister.  “But world wide disasters are not my field.  My own disasters are far more modest.


“If you are interested in the first contracts, I would suggest you drop around and visit Dr. Mortimer at the British Museum.  He is an expert on ancient Mesopotamia.  He would know far more about the earliest hints of contract law than I.  If you like, I shall telephone him and tell him you are coming.  He should be in his office after lunch.”


They thanked him and left the conference room.  They deposited their bags with the porter and decided to walk to the British Museum.  


The Inns of Court fronted on a large square.  As the party skirted the square, Tracy noticed a small sign saying, “Soan’s Museum.”  It wasn’t the British Museum, but they had plenty of time and decided to check it out. 


They went up steps that could have belonged to any Victorian fine city home and entered a hallway where they left their cloaks and collected a brochure.  After a few yards, the hallway opened into the study, the gemstone of the museum. 


Soan had been a successful architect, and his hobby had been making alterations in his home and collecting decorations for it.  It was the time when the excavations of ancient Egypt were very active before it was decided that ancient artifacts found in a country were the heritage of the country rather than the heritage of the world.  Soan had been able to buy an enormous amount of ancient and renaissance art with which to pursue his hobby. 


Although much of the art had vanished while on public display, there was much that remained, including a stone sarcophagus from the time of the pharaohs in a case in a lower hall.  There were stone architectural ornaments, portraits, landscapes and detailed studies of Italian palaces lying in ruins.  One nook he had dubbed the “Mad Monk’s Den” had stone masks of grotesque appearance. 


The architectural genius of Soan showed in his capacity to arrange things in three dimensions, so that one floor of the house might give a strategic perspective on the floor below.  There were paintings mounted on doors that could be opened to reveal another collection of paintings on doors behind, which could be opened to reveal yet more. 


But the study, with parlor en suite, was the largest space.  Upon the south wall hung a huge picture of Soan himself, dressed in formal black, looking thin and possibly consumptive as he reclined in his chair, his languid head resting on a still, limp hand.  There was a subtle air of neglect about his person embodied both in his careless pose and his ill fitting wig.  There was a softness in his eyes that bespoke not ill health but a dreamy melancholy of long duration.


Following the gaze of Soan brought the viewer’s gaze to the object of his reverie, a portrait on the opposite wall.  It was of a young woman, also in recline but with an energy about her body that seemed ready for happy exertion.  Her good nutrition and muscle tone were in contrast with that of her admirer.  She was dressed in filmy white fabric that opened coyly at her bosom to reveal a pink nipple.  Her eyes had the eagerness of the fairy in the painting they had seen in Edinburgh.  The eyes returned with humor and confidence the pining regard of the meditative man. 


Above the shelves of leather bound books were ornamented arches of dark wood.  Behind them the walls were mirrored to give the illusion of space beyond, giving the impression that all was within the room rather than on the walls.  At the same level, there were a number of white plaster busts.


“It looks like something from Edgar Allen Poe,” said Tracy. 


“Or the other way around,” said Hapgood.  This museum was already open to the public at the time Poe studied in London as a boy.  I imagine he came here himself.”


“This would be the chamber in the poem, ‘The Raven’,” said Jon. “That would be the poet, and the woman would be Lenore.  Somehow I always thought Lenore was skinnier.”  He referred to probably the most popular poem ever to come out of America.  The poem is complex, but the story is simple.  A man is interrupted at his studies by the arrival of a bird, a raven, rapping at his window during a stormy knight.  The raven enters and perches on a white bust of Pallas Athena above the door to the room.  It is at first a welcome guest and diversion, but the black bird innocently causes the man to reflect on the grief and horror of his own life.


Tracy said, “And that must be the bust of Pallas above the door.  I always wondered how a bust could be above a door.”  Indeed, there was one bust that stood on a platform above a door.


Tracy went to look at it.  “It’s Sapho,” she exclaimed.  “It isn’t Pallas at all.  The sign says it’s Sapho of all people.” 


“Who?” asked Ivan.


Sapho,” said Tracy with gentle awe, “Was the first Lesbian.  She lived on the island of Lesbos in ancient Greece.   She was the only woman who ever published love poems to another woman.  She died of love in the end.”


“It must have really struck Poe for him to write about this place many years later,” said Hapgood.  “So the poem has themes of ancient wealth and power, grief, self punishment, loneliness, horror, loss and it seems homosexuality.  Poe changed the bust from Sapho to Athena, even though ‘Pallas’ is an awkward choice and ‘Sapho’ would have fit his rhythm and sound pattern better.  He seems to have been hiding a meaning.”


“And what was that?” asked Ivan.


“Beats me,” said Hapgood. 


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