How to Write Like a 13th Century Archbishop

By Matthew P. Crouch, Esquire

If you would, kindly step this way and mind the gap. Please enter this time machine of legal writing. Admittedly, it’s a low-budget version without a special effects team, but let’s transport you to the year 1213.

In general sweeping terms, your firm has been asked (well, “sort of” hired) by a group of potential new clients (with real swords) to assist with a sensitive matter involving a local government officer who is acting in his official capacity. As one of the firm’s lead personnel you have been tasked to help write a proposed settlement that you know will not fully satisfy any parties involved, including your own firm, and it might even result in you being labeled a traitor and/or your own possible death.

There is more. You are an educated person, though your career path has had a few external hiccups involving various parties. You are one of less than 2% of the world’s population that can read and write at this time. Your clients have talents that might include skill in literacy but in a limited dimension, they mostly rely on you, your firm, and other scholars for this. The main opposing party here—the governmental official—is more of a temperamental party that does have access to this skill. However, they also don’t like to have anything written down on sheepskin. They like their word to be enforceable no matter what anybody else thinks and enforceable when they wish it.

By the way: your bosses will be working out of a different firm location for the next several years; you have a group of helpful, eager, albeit nameless young associates; you have no internet; no phones; a few couriers; the final meeting with all parties to sign will be in an English meadow in 1215; and it is going to rain.

Yes, you are the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, about to start the task of writing one of the first versions of Magna Carta.
Archbishop Langston, the barons, King John, and any of the rest of the people involved from 1213 to the first signed Magna Carta of 1215 and even to the later versions of Magna Carta in 1225 didn’t know of the impact it would have on the world. In fact, during their lifetimes it was a success, a failure, rewritten a few times, a success and again a failure, rewritten again, and then abandoned and started over as a template with a new set of writers in different centuries in other locations.

Now fast forward to today, sitting at your desk reading this article. Magna Carta is perhaps one of the best examples of legal writing because it contains what we as modern scholars attempt to do—write in terms so all may understand the writing clearly, both now and in the future.

So how do you write like a 13th century archbishop? There are some hidden legal writing tips in Magna Carta, whether it is the 1215 version or the one from 1225.

First tip: clarity

Langton knew the barons were relying on him to convey their worries into terms that all the parties—the barons, the church, and King John—would understand and accept. He didn’t waste sheepskin to use double negatives or fluffy words. Having personally viewed copies of Magna Carta in Washington, DC, and in England, I can tell you it is tightly written in Latin. Even looking at it, every word must have been weighed for necessity and clarity. Certainly, it names all the parties upfront like many of our modern court documents, but after that it goes right to the issues at hand.

Second tip: know the intended audience.

This is still one of the important lessons from my law school’s first-year writing class that was drilled into me by Professor Peter Bayer: know who you are writing for. Langton and Bayer both knew and, through example, taught the value of knowing how to craft your words to your audience while simultaneously managing the reader’s expectations. Legal writing is part gently nudging the reader forward and part assisting the reader into agreeance in ways that seem natural.

A common example is when we write for judges, aiming for them to understand and hopefully agree with our reasoning. At the same time, we write to preserve our position within the public’s eye, for the record and for our clients. It is a delicate balance on paper not to speak down to a judge or opposing counsel, yet speak in terms that a majority of the public can understand.

Third tip: be mindful of errors and punctuation

In truth, looking back, Magna Carta does have some errors and punctuation issues in it, but in fairness, there are a few errors and punctuation issues in many of our legal writings as well. All of us strive toward excellence by using best practices and tips to assist. However, the archbishop used one of the best practices to reduce errors. Because the reading levels among the barons was varied, drafts of Magna Carta were probably read aloud to them. This action of reading a piece of legal writing out loud can reduce the number of errors in a document. This same technique is used today more in the capacity for finding errors rather than assisting barons who couldn’t read Latin.

Giving a human voice to a sentence provides the writer with the insight of cadence and clarity. It also assists with verb tense, helps avoid ambiguity, and aids in dealing with unnecessary modifiers. Hearing it out loud frees up writing space for more substance.

The other part of this exercise concerns punctuation, which is hard in Latin and sometimes even harder in English. By reading out loud, the writer’s breath is used to aid what punctuation could be used and where. Periods, commas, semicolons, and other basic punctuation marks are used to ensure the reader can follow along with the writer’s reasoning. A wrongly placed comma might not be world-ending, but it can lead to unnecessary questions rather than comprehension of your statements in the reader’s mind.

Modern-day legal writing is a reflective interpretation of those early days when the rule of law was being established. It contains the good, the bad, the ugly, plus the re-dos and even the multiple drafts over the centuries. Some of the greatest legal writing ever produced has been done by colleagues that you or I will never meet. Yet, we see their words and understand their meaning because they followed the legal writing tips of the authors, both known and unknown, whose skills and lineage can be traced back to the legal principles of Magna Carta and other seminal documents.

Perhaps the single most important legal writing tip from Magna Carta is something that the archbishop wasn’t aware of—that 800-plus years later, the writings that he and others labored over, using sheepskin and ink would still be of relevance and still representing the rule of law. Switching to today, it is quite a thought to think that among us in the profession the next motion to compel, those answers due on Friday, and that brief-that-is-not-so-brief waiting on the desktop are all part of the same lineage of legal writing that will live on beyond our earthly years as an attorney, much like Magna Carta lives on beyond its own history.

What an honor bestowed on our profession. Even though we are not all 13th century archbishops, we all are using those early legal writing tips and therefore we are, in a way, writing the next Magna Carta in our own voices. Perhaps it would be best put this in Langton’s Latin: “Verba volant, scripta manent” or “Spoken words fly away; written words remain.”

Matthew P. Crouch, Esquire, is an alumni member of the Garland Walker American Inn of Court of Houston, Texas. Having recently moved to San Francisco on the continuing adventure of being a tax attorney, Crouch puts his passion for legal writing to daily use. A licensed attorney in Texas and Colorado, Crouch is also a solicitor of England and Wales who hopes one day to see the other two of the remaining four original Magna Carta in person and make a legal writing pilgrimage to Runnymede and the Canterbury Cathedral in England.

© 2023 Matthew P. Crouch, Esquire. This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.