Institutes: Commentary Upon Littleton Quotes

"If It Be Against Reason, It Is Of No Force In Law"

Context: Lord Coke, who was speaker of the British House of Commons in 1593, made a life-long enemy of Francis Bacon by defeating him for the position of Attorney General, in 1594. He became Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, in 1606, and was the first to be called Lord Chief Justice of England. Like all lawyers Coke got part of his training by poring over legal tomes. One, based on Justinian's "Institutes," was the work of Thomas Littleton (1422–1481), who wrote in French under the title Tenures the earliest treatise on English law ever printed (1481). It covered legal procedure dealing with obligations of landholders to their landlords. Though Coke called it "the ornament of Common Law and the most perfect and absolute book that was ever written in any humane Science," he must have found it difficult reading, because when later he published his commentaries on Littleton's treatise, he offered encouragement to other students in his Introduction. "If the Reader does not in one day reach the meaning of our author or our commentaries, let him proceed on some other day, and that doubt will be cleared." Book I deals with "Estates in Lands and Tenements." It is one of four Institutes of the Lawes of England written between 1628 and 1644, and it is generally referred to as "Coke Upon Littleton." It was the standard legal text until the nineteenth century. Each page was divided into three columns. One printed the French opinions of Thomas Littleton, the second provided a statement of the law in English, and in the third, Sir Edward Coke, greatest exponent of England's Common Law, explains, interprets, and gives helpful comments for law students. Perhaps his son was one of those for whom he intended it. At least in several sections he starts the comment with "My son." In his interpretation of Section 80 of Chapter 10 (There is a total of 749 sections), Littleton's text is: "And so it is to bee understood, that in divers Lordships, and in divers Manors, there be many and divers customes, in such cases as to take tenements, and as to plead, and as to other things and customes to be done, and whatsoever is not against reason, may well bee admitted and allowed." Coke's comment on the text follows:

This was cautiously set downe, for in respect to the variety of customes in most mannors, it is not possible to set downe any certainty, only this incident inseparable every custome must have, viz., that it be consonant to reason; for how long soever it hath continued, if it be against reason, it is of no force in law.