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Daily RC Article 62

Medieval Lawyers

Paragraph 1

By the mid-fourteenth century, professional associations of canon lawyers (legal advocates in Christian ecclesiastical courts, which dealt with cases involving marriage, inheritance, and other issues) had appeared in most of Western Europe, and a body of professional standards had been defined for them. One might expect that the professional associations would play a prominent role in enforcing these standards of conduct, as other guilds often did, and as modern professional associations do, but that seems not to have happened. Advocates’ professional organizations showed little fervour for disciplining their erring members. Some even attempted to hobble efforts at enforcement. The Florentine guild of lawyers, for example, forbade its members to play any role in disciplinary proceedings against other guild members. In the few recorded episodes of disciplinary enforcement, the initiative for disciplinary action apparently came from a dissatisfied client, not from fellow lawyers.

Paragraph 2

At first glance, there seem to be two possible explanations for the rarity of disciplinary proceedings. Medieval canon lawyers may have generally observed the standards of professional conduct scrupulously. Alternatively, it is possible that deviations from the established standards of behavior were not uncommon, but that canonical disciplinary mechanisms were so inefficient that most delinquents escaped detection and punishment.

Paragraph 3

Two considerations make it clear that the second of these explanations is more plausible. First, the English civil law courts, whose ethical standards were similar to those of ecclesiastical courts, show many more examples of disciplinary actions against legal practitioners than do the records of church courts. This discrepancy could well indicate that the disciplinary mechanisms of the civil courts functioned more efficiently than those of the church courts. The alternative inference, namely, that ecclesiastical advocates were less prone to ethical lapses than their counterparts in the civil courts, seems inherently weak, especially since there was some overlap of personnel between the civil bar and the ecclesiastical bar.

Paragraph 4

Second, church authorities themselves complained about the failure of advocates to measure up to ethical standards and deplored the shortcomings of the disciplinary system. Thus the Council of Basel declared that canon lawyers failed to adhere to the ethical prescriptions laid down in numerous papal constitutions and directed Cardinal Cesarian to address the problem. In England, where medieval church records are extraordinarily rich, similar complaints about the failure of the disciplinary system to reform unethical practices were very common.

Paragraph 5

Such criticisms seem to have had a paradoxical result, for they apparently reinforced the professional solidarity of lawyers at the expense of the enforcement of ethical standards. Thus the profession’s critics may actually have induced advocates to organize professional associations for self-defense. The critics’ attacks may also have persuaded lawyers to assign a higher priority to defending themselves against attacks by nonprofessionals than to disciplining wayward members within their own ranks.

Topic and Scope:

Medieval religious lawyers; specifically, why medieval religious lawyers failed to enforce ethical codes of conduct among themselves.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to explain why medieval religious lawyers failed to enforce ethical codes of conduct. His specific main idea is that they failed to do so because they didn’t have either the procedures or the will necessary to do so.


paragraph 1 reveals the passage’s topic and scope. The first sentence of the text tells you that the passage is going to be about medieval religious lawyers, while the next couple of sentences narrow the text’s scope to the issue of non-enforcement of ethical codes of conduct. The rest of this paragraph  simply supplies some further details about non-enforcement. Up to this point, the author hasn’t explicitly stated either his purpose or main idea; however, it’s predictable that his purpose will be to explain why codes of conduct weren’t enforced. If he isn’t going to examine this question, why would he introduce the issue in the first place?

paragraph 2 confirms this prediction. The author describes two possible reasons why medieval religious lawyers failed to enforce ethical codes: (1) ethical violations were rare and (2) medieval religious lawyers didn’t have the necessary tools to police themselves properly. Note that while the author’s purpose has now become clear, his specific main idea (i.e., what he believes) still hasn’t been stated.

At last, the opening sentence of paragraph 3 introduces the passage’s main idea: the author says that the latter explanation is the more compelling of the two. The rest of paragraph 3 and all of paragraph 4 supply more information concerning why the author believes that medieval religious lawyers were delinquent: in a nutshell, evidence from medieval court and church records backs up the claim that they were delinquent.

paragraph 5 adds that medieval religious lawyers, under attack by the church for their failure to enforce codes of conduct, reacted defensively: instead of rooting out corrupt lawyers, they opted for group solidarity, thereby protecting those who violated legal ethics.

The Big Picture:

  • On Test Day, a passage like this one—a passage in which the author’s purpose and main idea aren’t made explicit early on—should be left for later in the Reading Comp. section, even if its content and prose are as uncomplicated as the content and prose of this passage. In general, passages in which the author’s purpose and main idea appear early on are easier to handle.
  • Note the classic structure of this passage. The first paragraph  introduces a “problem”—the failure of medieval religious lawyers to enforce codes of conduct. The second paragraph  provides proposed “solutions” to this problem—the two possible explanations concerning lack of enforcement. The remaining paragraphs “solve” the problem—the author provides his opinion and evidence to support that opinion. On Test Day, you may well run into a passage that proposes a “problem,” discusses possible “solutions” to the problem, and then “solves” the problem.

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