28 August 2007

The Church of Saint Paul the Disseisor

Another wonderful linguistic trouvaille in Maitland and Pollock (I:499-500, nonessential footnotes omitted):

At least for the purposes of popular thought and speech, God and the saints became the subjects of legal rights, if not of legal duties. [ . . . ] In the old land-books the notion is put before us in many striking phrases. In the oldest of them the newly converted Æthelbert says, ‘To thee Saint Andrew and to thy church at Rochester where Justus the Bishop presides I do give a portion of my land.’ The saint is the owner; his church at this place or that is mentioned because it is necessary to show of which of his many estates the gift is to form part. [ . . . ] Gradually (if we may so speak) the saint retires behind his churches; the church rather than the saint is thought of as the holder of lands and chattels. When it comes to precise legal thinking, the saint is an impracticable person, for if we ascribe rightful we may also have to ascribe wrongful possession to him, and from this we shrink, though Domesday Book courageously charges St Paul with an ‘invasion’ of land that is not his own*.

*D.B. ii. 13: ‘Aliam Nessetocham tenuit Turstinus Ruffus ... modo Sanctus Paulus invasit.’ We might compare this to those phrases current at Oxford and Cambridge which tell how Magdalen has won a cricket match and the like; but there is less of conscious abbreviation in the one case than in the other.

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