Conventions of Peers

Jessie Allen, School of Law, University of Pittsburgh

BOOK THE FIRST.  Chapter the fifth.  Of the COUNCILS belonging to the KING.

This chapter describes the four different consular bodies that advise the King of England: parliament, the peers of the realm, the judges of the courts of law, and the privy council.  Among other things, we learn that along with parliamentary sessions, “instances of conventions of the peers, to advise the king,” were once common.  (p. 221)

One of pleasures of reading Blackstone is catching sight of the cultural ephemera he occasionally uncovers (or, for all I know, invents).  The sections on governmental structures have been particularly rich.  For instance, in an earlier chapter we were informed that a member of the house of lords, on his way to and from parliament, may, while passing through the king’s forests, “kill one or two of the king’s deer without warrant,” but only “in view of the forester, if he be present; or on blowing a horn if he be absent, that he may not seem to take the king’s venison by stealth.” (pp 161-62)  In this chapter, Blackstone mentions a real estate deal between Henry IV (1366-1413) and the earl of Northumberland, in which the lands’ value was to be settled by parliament “if any should be called before the feast of St Lucia or otherwise by advice of the grand council (of peers) which the king promises to assemble before the said feast.” (p. 221)

I don’t know why exactly, but I find these evocations of aristocratic life in Ye Olde England oddly engaging.  I am not at all interested in the kind of detailed histories that readily provide this kind of information.  But there’s something about having it slipped in on the edges of a more abstract project that makes it kind of shimmer — little concrete bits of lived experience that are inevitably so much more involved than even complex legal rules and governmental structures.  Catching just a glimpse of this stuff out of the corner of one’s eye makes it seem mysterious and meaningful.

The other thing that makes these descriptions resonant, I think, is the ritualization — which over the distance of centuries appears in all its strange distinction.  The customs Blackstone describes are part of lived experience, as opposed to the abstraction of legal doctrines, but not ordinary lived experience.  There’s a kind of performed formality that overwhelms intention here — I mean, blowing the horn before killing the deer?  (And by the way, are these tame deer that just stand around while people blow horns at them?  I mean maybe so — they’re in the royal forest after all — maybe they’re tame.  Ugh.  Surely not.  Maybe you’re supposed to blow the horn just after you’ve killed one?  That makes more sense.)  In any case, reading about the horn blowing and the feast of St. Lucia and the king “issu[ing] out writs under the great seal to call a great council” (p. 221) made me think of the observation in my new favorite book, that “ritual creates and re-creates a world of social convention and authority beyond the inner will of any individual.”  Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, Seligman et al. (Oxford 2008) at 11.

It so happens that when I read this chapter of Blackstone I was myself attending a kind of consular session.  It was a gathering of county election officials, voting rights advocates, and academics convened by a midwestern Secretary of State to advise on policy reforms.  And I began to reflect on all the ways the familiar forms of the conference that I usually take completely for granted might shimmer to some future observer as selected tidbits of ritualized twenty-first century governmental culture.   The shiny folders with the state seal on the front, those clear plastic pockets on braided black cords with the little aluminum clips that held the preprinted name tags we all wore around our necks.  The “working lunch” at round tables draped in heavy white cloths, with rolls served with tongs, little round butter pats molded into rosettes, and waiters in black jackets passing plates and pouring out coffee from brown plastic beakers.  And the clothes — the care each participant put into choosing what to wear —  the men in suits, or a least shirts and ties; the women in suits, too, mostly, and stockings, heels, makeup.  Local voting rights advocates wore brighter colors and drapier textures — as if exercising their prerogative to dress in this freer, livelier more comfortable style, as a reward, or a badge of honor, for eschewing official power, national visibility, and/or academic tenure, all of which for some reason demand clothes that are tighter, darker and less forgiving.

It’s easy to trivialize or mock the modern equivalents of the ceremonies accompanying the policy convocations Blackstone describes.  These days, any mention of such details generally signals an intent to do just that.  But I actually think these things are important. Without them you have a lot of smart, experienced people who would be better occupied at home by themselves thinking and writing and maybe talking to each other sometimes, but you don’t have a council, you don’t have a conference, you don’t have a convention.  It’s the conventions that make the convention.  And, in some sense, it’s out of this kind of conventional formality that policies get made.  Otherwise you just have ideas. Policies are something more concrete than ideas — though maybe not as concrete as, say, practices.

It’s almost as if you take the participants’ theories and ideas and memories and suggestions and mix them with the concretized ritual practices and objects of the conference — the milling and talking, the hugs and handshakes and pecks on the cheek, the agendas and water pitchers and cardboard name placards and little gelatinous chocolate mousse cylinders and somehow the very concreteness of these predictable “conventional” acts and objects mixes with the abstract content of people’s thoughts, opinions and proposals and becomes that abstract-practical hybrid thing:  policy.

Then I had to come home from that convention of my peers because my mother — who is 91 — fell down.  And on the plane I was thinking how picky my generally easy-going mother was until quite recently about a certain few things, for instance the way she drank her coffee (the cup had to have a thin lip) and the way she always opened up one corner of the little sugar packet and poured in just a few grains and stirred, stirred, stirred with a spoon and then set the spoon down on a napkin — and how if there wasn’t a spoon or a napkin she kind of acted like civilization might just be coming to an end.  And I was thinking, well, maybe so.  Because, as Seligman et al. put it, such rituals “create[] a shared and conventional world of human sociality.” (p. 17 ) And for my poor mother, the loss of the ability — or inclination? — to drink her coffee in her own particular ritualized fashion snuck in there sometime shortly before she lost the ability to drink coffee without spilling it, and really seems to have been the beginning of the end of the world.