On Symbols

By George Neilson

1897

The wayward fancies of mankind are well illustrated in the diversity of symbolic observances, some never losing their meaning, some absolutely unintelligible in their historic form, and some as much characterised by a befitting dignity, as others are by the want of it. All once were self-explanatory and possessed a measure of propriety proportioned to the state of the people amidst whom they originated. But tradition is long, centuries elapse, each modifying a ceremony, and when the procedure emerges within the knowledge of record, it has often so lost touch with its surroundings, that it is hopeless to speculate how it arose.

Symbols are drawn from and applied to every field of human activity. Of course in a general sense man expresses himself only so, and a regular alphabet is but a comparatively trifling advance on the language of signs. What we call civilization, is at bottom little more than a clear recognition of certain symbols of government. The Queen’s crown, the Judge’s ermine, the Mayor’s mace, what are they else? The sceptre is only a glorified stick, of which the policeman’s baton is a humbler shape. Each embodies the great thought that behind it stands a nation’s determination to be ruled by law.

In the history of law, symbol and the traces of symbol meet us at every turn. The middle ages teemed with them. Roman law had bequeathed not a few. Perhaps the most wondrous of them all is one that has long ceased to have any legal connection, although its mark is all-powerful over civilisation. How daring was the imagination which prompted the choice, for the heraldic badge of Christianity, of the dread emblem of capital punishment by crucifixion! In the pure domain of the law of the early and middle ages, a perfect wilderness of symbols presents itself to eyes which strive to explore the origins of institutions.

Law is ever beset by a tendency towards formalism, and in early times a severe insistence upon ceremony, no doubt, gave prominence and prescriptive sanction to symbolic acts. Law and custom after all only mean that the way things were done yesterday is the safest way of doing them to-day. The acceptance of a common form implies a very large public consent, which is equally necessary to its abrogation, once it is accepted. No small part of its value lies in its certainty, “certainty which,” Coke well says, “is the mother of quiet and repose.”

Hence the fixity and longevity of many emblematic methods of performing acts affecting status or property rights. The constitution or discharge of slavery, or the transfer of a slave from one master to another, had a variety of set forms. A freeman might deliver himself to serfage by putting a leathern thong upon his neck. When a church was the donee, the ceremony might take place at the altar, and the man present himself there with cords round his throat. “Thus he offered himself,” says an old record, “to the Almighty Lord.” A coin or two on the head was also a customary part of the process. In the manumission or liberation of the slave, these coins struck off the head served the purpose of declaring him free, as did the companion symbol of open doors, or the placing him at four cross roads, and bidding him go whither he would. Another common symbol of enfranchisement was the delivery of an arrow, thought to denote the right confined to freemen of bearing arms.

Even a short account of legal symbols would make a very large treatise. Single instances such as the ring, the staff, the glove, and the horn would each furnish material for an elaborate monograph. The theme would call for a discussion of the great war of investitures, and would touch very many points of ecclesiastical, civil, and criminal law and history. The scope of the present unambitious article is only directed to a few illustrations in relation to the transfer of land, the act of divesting the old proprietor and clothing the new with his rights. Although such symbols usually had a connexion with the subject conveyed, there are many types in which that connexion is not readily traceable. Why for example amongst the Saxons should a resignation of all interest in an estate have been made by a gesture with curved fingers? One can understand why a sod should be so often a token, but why does the glove play so large a part in Merovingian and Carolingian conveyancing? Was it, indeed, as German scholars speculate, because the donor metaphorically took it off and the donee put it on, making his the covered hand, the vestita manus, that would defend the land conveyed? How came an eleventh century magnate to attest his renunciation of justiciary rights to a monastery “by cutting off the top of the silk band by which his fur robes were fastened to his breast, and with that segment re-investing three monks therein?” In this case a portion of that silken band was carefully sewn up, as an adminicle of evidence, in the writ recording the transaction. How again came it that a claim of feudal service might be departed from by the delivery and placing of a wand (virgula) upon the altar? All these are much more personal symbols than real. They are mainly guarantees of the grantor’s good faith. They do not seem to be primarily emblems of possession. The contrast between these two classes will be best appreciated by considering types of the latter.

When a purchaser proceeded to set up fresh boundary marks, or to take a spade and dig, or when he received delivery of a sod with grass or shrubbery upon it, or lifted from the ground the charter granted by the seller with amongst other things a sod laid thereon, the act of seisin, the formal occupation is visibly completed. Of this class of symbol, the sod (cespes) is probably the best and most typical for a few words of illustration. We read of litigants laying judicial claim to land in the mall or public court by putting their spears into a sod, representative of the subject in dispute. We hear of the sods being cut in the shape of bricks, and of their being preserved as memorials, with the twigs growing in and incorporated with them. We hear of sods offered on the altar when the grant of land was being made to a church. We hear of transfer from one vassal to another being accomplished by the grantor delivering the sod to the over-lord, and the latter passing it on to the grantee.

Of all the symbols employed in connection with feoffments, however, the rod (festuca) had the widest vogue on the continent. Not that it was restricted to transactions in land; it was a more or less lineal descendant of the Roman stipulation, a contract visibly expressed by the parties breaking a straw between them. Under Charlemagne a renunciation by certain priests was made by them “holding straws in their hands and casting them from them before God and his angels.” Later this appears as a recognised method of renunciation, but with a rod substituted for the straw. In some cases the fact of renunciation is emphasised by the rod being not only thrown to the ground by the resigner, but trodden under foot when there. The rôle of the festuca was peculiarly important amongst the Frankish peoples. Galbert of Bruges, a Flemish twelfth century historian, states that the counts of Flanders gave investitures to their vassals, after receiving their fealty and homage, by a wand (virgula) held in hand, and he has a dramatic passage describing how the people of Bruges, in token of their renunciation of their feudal bond to Hacket the castellan, “picking up bits of stick exfestucated their homage and fealty,” i.e. cast the rods from them, and so doing severed all connexion with their former chief.

In England and in Scotland, this rod symbol (fustis et baculus) also played a large part. Bracton referred it specially to land without houses. Tenure by the verge, a species of copyhold, had its name, we learn from Littleton, from un petite verge, delivered by the old tenant to the steward or bailiff of the manor, who re-delivered it to the new holder. Jordan Fantosme tells us that when Brien, messenger of Ranulf Glanvil, in 1174, announced in Westminster the capture of the Scottish King at Alnwick, Henry II. rewarded him for his good news by handing him a stick (bastuncel), which vested him in ten librates of land. In Scotland the feudal resignation by a vassal to his overlord for the re-investure of a fresh owner was effected by “staff and baton” (fustis et baculus), and references to those symbols occurred in every day conveyancing until far into the present century. Indeed this picturesque ritual was, strictly speaking, not abrogated, although made unnecessary, by the Act 8 and 9 Victoria ch. 35.

The commonest conveyancing symbol for land in England was the formal delivery of turf or twig of the ground conveyed, made by a representative of the grantor, to a representative of the grantee. The most familiar in Scotland was the handing over of “earth and stone.” This latter was the normal form of seisin, and its history goes far back, not only in Scotland, but on the continent as well. A curious Saxon legend attests this. Widukind narrates that some Saxons, having landed from their ships in Thuringia, one of them, wearing a golden torque and bracelets, met a Thuringian, who asked if he would sell his ornaments. The sly Saxon entered into an odd transaction; the Thuringian gave him in exchange for his gold, a lapful of soil. The Thuringians rejoiced exceedingly over the smart bargain their countryman had made, but changed their tune when soon afterwards the Saxons claimed the land as theirs, purchased with their own gold, and by force of arms made good the demand.

Our chronicles have a good many stories about symbols. In the Norman Brevis Relatio, a sketch of the origin of William the Conqueror, is told of his grandfather, Duke Richard the Good, that once when staying at a monastery, after prayer in the morning he laid a spindle on the altar. Upon being asked what it meant, he named the manor which he had by so homely a symbol bestowed for the good of his soul. When the infant William came into the world, it was said,—and afterwards noted as prophetic—that when they laid him down upon some straw, the little hands each clutched a handful. Acquisitive tendencies were foreshadowed! The Roman de Rou tells that in 1066, when William landed in England, he stumbled and fell, an omen which for the moment disconcerted his followers, but rising with a shout, he swore by the splendour of God that with his two hands he had taken possession of the land. Prompt to catch the occasion, one of his men ran forward to a cottage, tore a handful of thatch from the roof, and passed it to his chief, with the cry, “Receive this seisin,”—quasi-ceremonial words which with William’s pious, “God be with me,” the curious may compare with the formalities of English livery in deed, as described (sec. 59), in Coke upon Littleton.

The normal symbol of seisin for a house in England, was (before the Act 7 and 8 Victoria ch., 76, superseded these archaic ceremonies), was the ring or hasp of the door, known in Scotland for houses in burghs as “hasp and staple.” In the latter country also, there were a good many special types of symbol characteristically appropriate to seisin in special kinds of property. Thus for mills “clap and hopper,” for fishings “net and coble,” for teinds (Anglice tithes) a sheaf of corn, for the patronage or advowson of a church a psalm-book and keys, attained the figurative purpose requisite. There were many others less familiar amongst them, one, a hat, worthy of a few words all to itself. Our own generation may not regard this as a particularly dignified symbol, but there is a cloud of witnesses to shew its very various applicability. The priest’s cap or biretta was sometimes employed to instal him in a chaplainry or benefice. And apart from the place of the hat in the regulations of the tilting ring, it was occasionally used in Scotland as a symbol in connection with what were known as heirship goods. But it had in the twelfth century been accorded the very loftiest use to which secular symbolism could be turned. In 1175, King William the Lion, taken prisoner the year before, relinquished the independence of Scotland, and did homage to the English King at York, as a condition of his liberation. The contemporary records are silent regarding symbolic details, but in 1301 Edward I. stated in his letter to the Pope that “in token of his fealty, William the King of Scotland, had, on the altar of St. Peter’s, at York, offered his cap (chappelus), lance, and saddle, which until this day remain and are preserved in said church.” Any incredulity which a fair-minded Scot can entertain, regarding this allegation that the freedom of his country was once symbolically surrendered in King William’s cap, will be materially lessened, and Scottish patriotism so far consoled, by the recollection that under very similar circumstances the realm of England was in 1193 given away with the bonnet (pilleus) of the captive Richard I., who, thus (as Hoveden tells us), gave investiture of his kingdom to his arch-enemy, the Emperor Henry VI. This was, however, only formal: the Emperor at once re-invested King Richard in his realm with a double crown of gold, though subject to an annual tribute of £15,000—a business transaction painfully illustrative of the Christian chivalry of the Crusades.

The annals of Scotland boast one instance of a royal symbol much more regal than either of these two. About the beginning of the year 1124, King Alexander I., restoring by charter to the Bishopric of St. Andrews an extensive tract of land, completed the grant according to Andrew of Wyntoun (vii., 5), in a truly stately fashion. He—

 Gert than to the awtare bryng
Hys cumly sted off Araby
Sadelyd and brydelyd costlykly
Coveryd with a fayre mantlete
Off precyous and fyne welvet
Wyth his armwris off Turky
That pryncys than oysid generaly
And chesyd mast for thare delyte
Wyth scheld and spere off sylvyr qwhyt.

It was a special occasion, for Bishop Robert’s appointment, which had led to the grant, was a Scottish victory over the pretensions of the See of York. There is an appeal to the imagination so strong in the scene, that, in spite of the interval of 300 years betwixt the event and this oldest record of it, one is slow to offer any criticism on the charger; more especially as the entire verity of the silver spear is corroborated by Walter Bower’s enshrining in his Scotichronicon the fact that in the fifteenth century it was doing duty as the shaft of the cross in the Cathedral. Yet the unexampled symbol, coupled with the analogy from York in 1175, compels the suggestion, that perhaps during these 300 years an original capellus have been mis-read as caballus, or mistaken for Scottish capul, and thus by the magic of mistranslation, a king’s cap may have been transmuted into an Arab steed.

Whilst of course a crown was the standard symbol of investiture for a kingdom, inferior rights of principality were often typified by other things, such as a sword, a spear, or a banner. And as feudal forms were observed in the bestowal, so were they sometimes in the taking away. England dispensed with several of her monarchs, but apparently in no case was a deposition attended by the feudal solemnities. In Scotland when, in 1296, King John Balliol was pulled out of the throne by the same hands as had placed him in it, Edward I. spared his vassal little of the indignity of the situation. Balliol, deprived of his royal ornaments, with the ermine stripped from his tabard, resigned his realm by the symbol of a white wand.

Than this Jhon tuk a quhyt wand
And gave wp in till Edwardis hand
Off this Kynryk all the rycht.

No Scottish historian has noticed the absolute legal propriety of this, and it is worth noticing. By contemporary law (Britton, ii., 22), une blaunche verge was the recognised symbol of disseisin by consent. The thirteenth century was very particular, even in small things, about its law. Disseisin, provided for by statute of 1429, in disputed successions to real property, and known to Scotland as the breaking of seisin, was symbolically affected—frangendo discum—by the curiously expressive act of breaking a dish or dishes, with fire underneath.