The Historian as Accidental Poet

G. O. Sayles (1901–1994) payed out, volume by volume, a lifetime over the king’s bench rolls at the UK Public Records Office, now The National Archives. His is the second life, consumed by those rolls, and that’s only up to Henry V.[1] Several more will be claimed, I am sure, by the vastly more numerous records of the later kings and queens who sat, figuratively if not literaly, in propre persona.

That Sayles did not regret this process is abundantly clear in the introductions to each of his seven volumes of extracts, written over a 35 years for the Selden Society.[2] I am collecting those introductions because they are the fullest description of the court, its jurrisdiction, and its records, one will ever find.

This work is eased somewhat by Sayles rather unexpected talent as a writer. His 1959 paper delivered to the society should have alerted me to his wit and humour but it was a surprise all the same to see him wax poetic about the rolls.[3]

“What Maitland in one of his early works described as a repulsive mass of pothooks and hangers ceases within a few weeks to be repulsive and gains an interest of its own […] and those who have become thoroughly conversant with legal records never abandon the pleasure of reading them. For there is no doubt about their fascination, a fascination which in its variety cannot be rivalled by that of any other group of mediaeval records.”[4]

That’s something I can look forward to I suppose.


[1] The first human candle, burnt to slightly bitter soot, before the rolls, was that of Arthur Agarde (1535/6–1615), who compiled a collosal collection of excerpts from the rolls, some of which were printed while others remain in manuscript at the TNA. G. H. Martin, ‘Agard, Arthur (1535/6–1615)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 25 May 2013]. For a nice biography of Sayles see Paul Brand, ‘Sayles, George Osborne (1901–1994)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [, accessed 25 May 2013]
[2] These are volumes 55 (1936), 57 (1938), 58 (1939), 74 (1955), 76 (1957), 82 (1965), and 88 (1971) in the Selden Society primary series. There is an excelent review of the series, which acts as a nice sort of tribute to Sayles in F. B. Weiner, ‘Tracing the Origins of the Court of King’s Bench’, American Bar Association Journal, 59 (1973), pp. 753–59.
[3] First published as a little monograph for society members, it was compiled with other essays as ‘The Court of King’s Bench in Law and History’, in G. O. Sayles, ed., Scripta Diversa (Hambledon Press: London, 1982) pp. 219–37.
[4] Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench Under Edward I, vol. III, (Selden Soc. vol 58, 1939), xc

3 thoughts on “The Historian as Accidental Poet

  1. Maitland’s comment about the repulsive mass of pothooks and hangars refers to record type, and not to script. Maitland’s skill as a palaeographer is evident to anyone who has looked at Bracton’s notebook.

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