No. 18, March 2008

The lawyer settles a dispute over an oyster

  Click the image to enlarge it Of all the professions the public would most like to see punished, lawyers are probably top of the list, and Shakespeare was clearly picking up on this popular antipathy to the legal profession when he famously has the rebel Dick Butcher in King Henry VI Part 2 say, that as soon as their rebellion is successful, The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. While probably very few early modern English men and women would have wanted to go that far, lawyers were fair game as the target for visual satire throughout our period.

A broadside ballad of c.1630 which offers general advice (e.g. keepe still in Compasse—a maxim which was itself the subject of a fine Elizabethan print 1 ) is also a general satire against Jesuits, quack doctors, whores, fortune-tellers and lawyers. Those who resort too readily to the last-named are addressed thus:

You that for nothing
will goe to Law,
Vexing your neighbours,
for a sticke or a straw,
Because of your lawing,
your purse will grow low:
You’l prove your selves Coxe-combs
I tell you but so.

Forget not I say,
that Embleme so rare,
Which teaches you how
the Oyster to share,
Thou must have one shell,
the other thy foe,
The fish is the Lawyers,
I tell you but so.

That anti-lawyer Embleme so rare was, in fact, pictorialised by the engravers John Simon 2 and Sutton Nicholls (the latter’s print entitled, The Lawyer and his Clients), probably in the first decade of the eighteenth century, apparently after a painting by William Dobson (d.1646).

The broadside ballad and Dobson’s lost painting are thus the earliest examples of the motif of which I am aware, but it was to enjoy considerable popularity throughout the rest of the century. Poor Robins Almanack for 1665, like all English almanacs, lists the law terms, 3 but adds anti-lawyer verses for each term, that for Michaelmas Term alluding to the subject of the present ‘emblem’ thus:

Two finds an Oyster, which they will not part,
Both will have all or none, the Lawyers art
Must end the strife; he fitts their humour well,
Eats up the fish, and gives them each a shell.

The caption to Nicholls’ engraving runs to two verses (only the first appears on Simon’s mezzotint):

Blind Plaintiff, lame Defendant Share
The Friendly Laws impartial Care
A Shell for Him a Shell for Thee
The Middle is the Lawyers Fee.

When willful Blind doth Law Commence
And Lame in Purs acts in Defence;
The Lawyer gets the greatest Gains,
And next to nought for them remains.

The first verse is apparently taken from Matthew Prior’s Two Beggars disputing their Right to an Oyster they had Found; a Lawyer thus decides the Cause (?1720), though the same anecdote was also the subject of Ned Ward’s tenth fable, The Plaintiff and Defendant, which appeared in his Aesop at Tunbridge or, A few select Fables in Verse (1698). A single unillustrated sheet published in Dublin in 1727 entitled A satyr on the lawyers concerning two clowns and an oyster also retells the story, also in verse. Late in the century our ‘emblem’ was again the subject of a mezzotint compositionally based on Simon’s but now moved to an indoor setting, issued by R. Sayer & J. Bennet in 1779 (re-issued by Sayer alone in 1787), 4 and of another contemporary mezzotint also in an indoor setting but compositionally different, published by Carrington Bowles under the title, A Sharp Between Two Flats. 5 I know of two impressions of Simon’s mezzotint, that in the British Museum was published by Edward Cooper, 6 that in the Library of Congress, Washington, by John Smith.

The notion that the lawyer is only too likely to ‘fleece’ both parties in any dispute is instanced again in a detail represented in a magnificent print probably issued in the 1620s entitled The Common Weales Canker Worms. 7 Not only does he say to the men who precede him in the order, I fleece these five, but his ‘emblem’ 8 is the fox about to pounce on the simple goose, with the disturbing motto, Legem pone! [Set aside the law], while his verse reads as follows:

What lett fall such an advantageous cause,
And beare such wronges why tis against the lawes,
Ile prosecute it & uppon my troth,
Ile never leave it till I haue fleecd you bothe [i.e. both parties to the case].

Another instance of a lawyer shown accepting purses—fees, or more likely, bribes—from both parties in a case can be seen as the detail which occupies the top two quarters of the shield which features as part of a burlesque coat of arms. The lawyers coat of arms, dedicated to their clients for the use of Michaelmas Term is undated, 9 but an advertisement in The Post Boy of 21-24 February 1708, which cites the full title as just given verbatim, states that it is to be had from J. Morphew near Stationers Hall. 10 The verse describes the burlesque coat well enough and includes a reference to this inset scene:

Nay; rather than his Modesty he’ll hide,
He’ll take a Private Dawb 11 o’ t’other side:

The crest is a fox-headed lawyer (hence the verse’s Sly Volpone and old Reynard), and the motto Dum vivo thrivo [While I live, I thrive]. It seems likely that it was still being sold in the 1760s, because Dicey & Marshall’s catalogue of that date lists a woodcut print of The Lawyers Coat of Arms, &c. Or, a Looking-Glass to all hasty, unthinking, and Purse-proud People, fit to be seen by all Degrees and Stations of People, in which description the word purse-proud which is used in the verse of the early eighteenth-century version is particularly suggestive of the identity with that print. Of particular interest is the fact that the image of the burlesque coat was transfer-printed c.1760 onto the inside of Liverpool delftware punch-bowls. 12

British Museum 1874,0808.2304. Dimensions of original: 211 mm x 153 mm


Uniquely preserved in Harvard University's Houghton Library, albeit in an eighteenth-century impression. Back to context...
There are impressions of the mezzotint by John Simon in the Library of Congress in Washington and in the British Museum, Department of Prints & Drawings, 1874,0808.2304—they bear slightly different imprint information (see below). Back to context...
The rhyme—as given in the print-captions—is found, for example, in the 1733 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack where it is entitled The Benefit of Going to Law. Back to context...
Offered for sale by Bloomsbury Auctions on 15 April 2007. Back to context...
BM Satires 3762; described in F.G.Stephens, Catalogue of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: Satirical and Personal Subjects, vol. 3, part 1 (London, 1877), p. 1250. Back to context...
BM Satires 1284. See below, n. 10. Back to context...
Again, only two impressions are known to me, in the Brotherton Library of Leeds University, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Back to context...
And also to be found in the same context on a riddle print issued in 1623. In my forthcoming book I set out the evidence for believing this print was issued in the 1620s, not c.1650 as dated by Globe. Back to context...
Two impressions are known; the title survives only on that in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shelfmark Harding 2° (1). Timothy Clayton , The English Print 1688-1802 (New Haven and London, 1997), p. 78, notes that it was one of the Merry Fancies being sold by Henry Overton. Back to context...
A reference I owe to the ‘Advertisements for Prints’ section of C.H.L. George’s website, Early Modern Rambler The situation regarding this print is confusing. As BM Satires 1284 it is dated ‘1692?’ in F.G.Stephens, Catalogue of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: Satirical and Personal Subjects, vol. 2 (London, 1873), p. 42, Stephens’ uncertainty doubtless due to the fact that the date, squeezed uncomfortably in between the bottom of the cut and the verse, may well have been added in manuscript, and need not be contemporary with the print. Back to context...
Not recorded in this sense as a noun by OED, but cf. daub v., sense 2c. To bribe,'grease'. slang : B. E., Dictionary of the Canting Crew (London, 1700), Dawbing, bribing; Francis Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785), The cull was scragged [hanged] because he could not dawb. Back to context...
R. Massey, ‘Satirical Delftware: The Lawyers Coat of Arms’, ECC Transactions, 16 (1997), 235-6. Back to context...