The robe or suit of clothes worn by the pilgrim known as the Man of Law in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, pictured in Figure 1, provides insights into his status and wealth. In his Prologue, Chaucer offers a brief description of the Man of Law’s clothing:
"He rode but simply in a particolored coat/ Girdled with a belt of silk, with small stripes."
There was nothing simple about a fashionable parti-colored coat or a silk belt with striped decoration. When the artist of the Ellesmere Chaucer manuscript drew the Man of Law, he picked up on the fashionable state of the Man of Law, whom Chaucer also described as a social climber. The artist did not draw the silk belt, but he did elaborate on the parti-colored coat, which was part blue and part red, had decorative white piping across the front (perhaps made of fur), fur trimming at the cuffs and hem, and fashionably-shaped sleeves with gold buttons. The robe reached to his knees and fell over red-colored hose on the one leg that is visible.
The Man of Law is one member of a larger group of pilgrims from London making their way to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Along their journey, the pilgrims have a story-telling contest, the prize being a free meal at the Tabard Inn in Southwark upon their return to London. The Man of Law is viewed as wise and noble by the group, mainly due to the status and rank as a Serjeant-at-Law, working directly for the king. These lawyers were chosen from a group of barristers with at least sixteen years’ standing. The Man of Law is perceptive and well-educated, and is lauded for his ability to draft clever deeds.
In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century when Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, the Courts of the Common Bench, the Courts of Chancery, the court of King’s Bench (Figure 2), and the Exchequer all had chamber quarters located in Westminster Hall. St. Paul’s Cathedral was also an important site for the emerging legal profession, serving as the spot where lawyers, such as the elite Serjeants-at-Law, met with their clients, reportedly at the porch at the western entrance. Lawyers and their apprentices lived in inns and hospices located between Westminster and St. Paul’s. These inns were the main legal schools in medieval England, with ten inns comprising what became known as the Inns of Chancery. It is likely that the character of the Man of Law is based on these elite lawyers who would have stayed and studied within this educational system. Figure 3 depicts Staple Inn, the last surviving inn of the Inns of Chancery. The cost of legal education during this time is also noteworthy, as it was expensive. Men would have to be of some means and status to afford this type of training. The barriers to entry to the evolving legal profession were meant to reserve enrollment exclusively for prominent or wealthy families.
The use of robes or garbs designated strictly for the early English legal profession did not emerge out of necessity, but were rather adopted as an imitation of the robes of Benedictine monks and university scholars, many of whom were clergy working with the English courts. The robe’s long, gown-like design is believed to have been inspired by the Roman toga. The types of robes worn by Serjeants-at-Law were also referred to as “medlee cotes”. The Man of Law’s robe has a vibrant scarlet color on the right side of the robe, complemented by a dark blue on the left side with a detailed ermine embroidered red and white pattern. This particular style of robe is known as parti-colored, stripped either diagonally or vertically. Parti-colored garments became popular with the rise of heraldry, using color and pattern to express one’s place in society. Many medieval people dressed in parti-colored clothing, so this style was not specific to legal dress. The Man of Law’s medlee coat also signifies that he is a layman and not a member of the clergy, as clerics would not be allowed to wear very colorful garments.
As fashion trends evolved over time and the light surcoat became more popular than the long gown worn by legal practitioners, robes became a corporate symbol of the English legal profession, and were considered a necessary uniform by the first part of the fourteenth century.
It is likely that the robe was made of a combination of wool and fine fabric like silk, as law was a high-status profession and quality fabric would reflect a lawyer’s status and wealth. Silk was not easily accessible in London during the middle ages, and was imported from the East. While there is a chance that the robe was imported and sold in London, there is also the possibility that it was made and tailored specifically for the Serjeant-at-Law within London’s walls. Silk traders existed in London at the beginning of King Edward III’s reign, and in the fourteenth century many silk workers were women. The “silkwomen” of London followed a craft guild system in which young girls worked an apprenticeship under a mistress to learn the skills of the industry.
The tailor’s guild in London in the fourteenth century was known as the Fraternity of St. John the Baptist. Tailors were scattered around the city of London in the late thirteenth century, with a high concentration in the wards of Cheap, Cripplegate Within, and Broad Street. In the mid-fourteenth century Tailors’ Hall was acquired in Broad Street, establishing a location for the tailors’ guild. A tailor was likely commissioned to make an elaborate robe like the one worn by the Man of Law using fine woven wool for the main garment and silk for decoration and perhaps the lining.
Serjeants also wore a short cape called a “shoulder piece” with a hood attached, lined with lambs’ wool. Another essential part of a medieval lawyer’s uniform was a coif, secured by two strings under the chin (Figure 5). The coif became such a symbol of the legal profession that lawyers were said to be part of the “Order of the Coif”. It was the most essential part of the lawyer’s uniform, so much so that it was mandatory to wear a coif when in the presence of the King. Although coifs were commonly worn in the middle ages by people of all social classes, they became an essential part of a lawyer’s uniform.
It is also possible that the robe was given to the Man of Law as a gift or a form of payment, which was common practice at the time. Lawyers did receive cash payments for their services in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but sometimes their pay from an important or powerful client was augmented by or came mainly in the form of elaborate robes.
1 Pollard, “Notes - The Sergeant at Law”.
2 Seaman, “Lawyers in Chaucer’s Time,” 188.
3 Seaman, “Lawyers in Chaucer’s Time,” 191.
4 Chroust, “Legal Profession,” 286.
5 Blok, "A Brief History of Court Attire," 65.
6 Chroust, “Legal Profession,” 286.
7 Picard, “Chaucer’s People,” 203.
8 Dale, "The London Silkwomen of the Fifteenth Century," 324.
9 Davies, “The Tailors of London,” 9.
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