In 1936, the Harvard Governing Boards had shields designed for all the schools and college houses as part of the university’s celebration of its tercentenary. The shield for the Law School used the sheaves of wheat from the Royall crest. After World War II, under the direction of then-dean Erwin Griswold (1946–1967), the display case that you are looking at was made. The pediment at the top of the display case connects the sheaves of wheat in the shield with lines from Geoffrey Chaucer’s late-fourteenth century poem, ‘The Parliament of Birds’ (1:22-25). In modern English:
For out of old fields, as people say,
Comes all this new grain [‘corne’ in Chaucer’s original] from year to year;
And out of old books, in good faith,
Comes all this new knowledge that people learn.
Making this connection was appropriate, perhaps even brilliant. Other than its connection with the Royalls, there is nothing particularly appropriate for a law school in the common heraldic device of sheaves of wheat. A connection may, however, be made with a quotation that is said to be one of Sir Edward Coke’s favorites. Coke, in turn, was the most distinguished English lawyer and judge of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the author of Coke’s Reports and of Coke’s Institutes, and ultimately the opponent of the autocratic tendencies of King James I. We may not all think today that our new knowledge comes out of old books, but we owe our intellectual origins to men who thought that it did. Unfortunately, the connection of the shield with the Chaucer poem was largely forgotten, and the shield was increasingly used in the kinds of kitsch that you see displayed in this case.
A further word is in order here about Dean Griswold’s connecting the Law School shield as it then existed with Chaucer and with Lord Coke. That Griswold thought that the Chaucer quotation was important is clear enough from the fact that he used it in the title of his memoirs, which were not published until 1992. What was going on in his mind in the late 1940s when he had the Chaucer quotation coupled with the shield is not documented, but the following chain of thought seems plausible. There seems to be no connection with the sheaves of wheat and a law school other than the fact that sheaves of wheat were used in the Royalls’ heraldry. Sheaves of wheat might be an appropriate symbol for a school of agriculture but not one of law. Griswold may not have been as uncomfortable as we are today with the fact that the Royalls were slave-owners, although his views on civil rights were quite advanced for his time. He certainly, however, would have been uncomfortable with the fact, which he certainly knew, that the Royalls were widely believed to have been on the wrong side, from the American point of view, of the Revolution.
American law does, however, owe a great deal to Sir Edward Coke, and the Harvard Law School has always celebrated that fact. Coke is said to have quoted to James the First’s face from the 13th-century English treatise Bracton: the king is “Not under man, but under God and the law.” That quotation, in Latin, is now, and was when Griswold was thinking about the problem, carved in stone on the frieze of Langdell Hall. The quotation from Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Birds’ is said to have been one of Coke’s favorites. It illustrates Coke’s method well. To oppose James I, he quotes from an ‘old book’, Bracton’s thirteenth-century treatise on the laws and customs of England. Coke’s applications of Magna Carta, written in 1215, to the political and legal problems of his own day are well known. He seems to have genuinely believed that the learning found in the medieval Year Books could solve most, perhaps all, of the numerous problems with which the English legal system of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was faced. As he says at the end of the preface to the first volume of his reports: “To the Reader mine advise is, that in reading of these or any new Reports, hee neglect not in any case the reading of the old Books of yeares reported in former ages, for assuredly out of the old fields must spring and grow the new corn.” Chaucer’s simile is apt: Just as new grain comes out of old fields, so new knowledge comes out of old books.
Eureka! Here is a way to disassociate the sheaves of wheat on what was then the Law School shield from the Royalls and connect it with something much more respectable, Sir Edward Coke and his opposition to autarchy. Indeed, we might imagine that Griswold thought the poem would be an appropriate motto for the law school. That, however, did not happen. All that remains of the association that Griswold tried to make is the pediment on the display case and the title of Griswold’s memoirs.
- Charles Donahue, Paul A. Freund Professor of Law, Harvard Law School