Bracton, Henry De

, a celebrated English lawyer in the thirteenth century, was, according to Mr. Prince, born in Devonshire; and studied at Oxford, where he took the degree of LL. D. Applying himself afterwards to the study of the laws of England, he rose to great eminence at the bar; and, in 1244, was by king Henry III. made one of the judges itinerant. At present he is chiefly known by his learned work, “Delegibus et consuetudinibus Angliae,” the first printed edition of it was in 1569, folio, Jn 1640 it was printed in 4to, and great pains was taken to collate various Mss. One of the most authentic manuscripts of this work was burnt in the fire which consumed a part of the Cotton library, Oct. 23, 1731. It is a finished and systematic performance, giving a complete view of the law in all its titles, as it stood at the time it was written. It is divided into five books, and these into tracts and chapters. Consistently with the extensiveness and regularity of the plan, the several parts of it are filled with a curious and accurate detail of legal learning, so that the reader ever fails of deriving instruction or amusement from the | study of this scientific treatise on our ancient laws, and customs. It is written in a style much beyond the generality of the writers of that age; being though not always polished, yet sufficiently clear, expressive, and nervous. The excellence of Bracton’s style must be attributed to his acquaintance with the writings of the Roman lawyers and canonists, from whom likewise he adopted greater helps than the language in which he wrote. Many of those pithy sentences which have been handed down from him as rules and maxims of our law, are to be found in the volumes of the imperial and pontifical jurisprudence. The familiarity with which Bracton recurs to the Roman code has struck many readers more forcibly than any other part of his character; and some have thence pronounced a hasty judgment upon his fidelity as a writer upon the English law. It seems, indeed, to be a fashion to discredit Bracton, on a supposition of his having mingled too much of the civilian and canonist with the common lawyer; any notion that has got into vogue on such a subject is likely to have many to retail it, and few to examine its justness. Among others who have most decidedly declared against Bracton, we find M. Houard, the Norman advocate: this gentleman was at the pains to give an edition of Glanville, Jb’leta, and Britton but has omitted Bracton, because his writings had corrupted the law of England. But his conceptions about the purity of the law of England have seduced him into a very singular theory. He lays it down that Littleton’s tenures exhibit the system introduced by William the Conqueror in all its genuine purity; that this system was corrupted by a mixture from other polities in the writings of Britton, Fleta, and Glanville, but more particularly in those of Bracton. Full of this preposterous idea, he published an edition of Littleton, with a commentary, and, to decide the point without more debate, has entitled it “Anciennes Loix des Francois.” After this, the admirers of Bracton will not apprehend much from this determined enemy to his reputation as an English lawyer.

The value set on this work soon after its publication is evinced by the treatises of Britton, and Fleta, which are nothing more than appendages to Bracton. The latter was intended as an epitome of that author; and the merit of the former is confined to the single office of supplying some few articles that had been touched lightly by him, with the addition of the statutes made since he wrote. In | after-times he continued the great treasure of our ancient jurisprudence. Thus was Bracton deservedly looked up to as the first source of legal knowledge, even so low down as the days of lord Coke, who seems to have made this author his guide in all his inquiries into the foundation of our law. 1


Reeves’s History of the English Law. Prince’s Worthies of Devon.­Brooke’s Bibl. Legum, vol. II. p. 60. Biog. Brit. Bale, Pits, and Tanner.