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American Historical Review



T has been more or less generally supposed that the assembly which came to be called Parliament was at some earlier time called the "Common Council "-that would be some time between the Conquest and, say, the middle of the thirteenth century, when Parliament was rapidly becoming the usual name. No doubt most who have been teaching the history of this period with any care or engaged in research upon it have become suspicious of this term and disinclined to use it. But there it stands in most of the best books to trouble us with doubts. It is not a harmless term. It may play a trick upon any unwary reader and even the cautious writer may corrupt himself with his own phrases. To English minds "Common Council" (as it is often translated and capitalized) is bound to suggest things national or representative or related to the middle classes, or all of these. If there is no ground in the phraseology of the time for such suggestion we should know it. Not enough study has been given to matters of language in connection with the origin of Parliament; words and phrases have been taken for granted and traditions respecting these have been passed on from generation to generation of students, and no one has stopped to put them to the test of the sources and find out securely what they originally meant. In this time of gleaning after the great workers and the great discoveries in English constitutional history it has seemed worth while to devote one bit of investigation directly to this phrase.2

1 It is not in the least the object of the present paper to discuss whether or not the central assembly might have been appropriately called a common council at that time-if indeed there is anything to discuss along this line. The concern here is to know whether it was so called.


2 When this investigation was nearly completed, my attention was called by Professor G. B. Adams to a statement by Mr. Robert Steele in A Bibliography of Royal Proclamations of the Tudor and Stuart Sovereigns (Bibliotheca Lin(1)


For it has been just these great workers who have continued the tradition respecting the "common council" and given that tradition. authority. The Lords' Committees who drew up the Reports on the Dignity of a Peer, Thomas Duffus Hardy, Hallam, Stubbs, Pike, Bémont, Maitland, Liebermann, are examples; and the text-books of Taswell-Langmead and Medley. It is not necessary to extend the list or cite instances; all students of English history know the fact. And the myth is not dying out. Some very recent works even emphasize the phrase in this sense. Pasquet not only uses it frequently but takes pains to state that magnum concilium and commune concilium (spelling the latter word with a c) superseded curia and concilium. And Dr. McKechnie, in the second edition no less. than in the first edition of his great work on Magna Carta, makes it his regular appellation for the larger central assembly. Some of his pages bristle with it, and he states in several places that this was the assembly which became Parliament. Thus, when speaking of the omission of the twelfth and fourteenth articles in the 1217 edition of Magna Carta, he says: "All mention of the Commune Concilium that predecessor of the modern Parliament, that germ of all that has made England famous in the realm of constitutional

desiana, vol. V.), I. li-lii. "A phrase familiar to modern students is liable to much misconception-the 'commune concilium [sic] regni'. It is important in such matters to adhere to the language of authentic records, which have, at any rate until their forms have become mere conventions, a real meaning. The difference between 'concilium' and 'consilium' does not exist in our records until comparatively late, and the term ' commune consilium regni', while it is often applied to the advice offered by a meeting, large or small, of magnates, unquestionably on some occasions means nothing more than what we should call public opinion. No assembly calling itself or called commune concilium regni' has left any trace upon the records, though many have given the 'commune consilium regni' to the King who summoned them. The former use of the term seems entirely due to the mistakes of the Stuart parliamentary antiquarians." While I can not at all agree with Mr. Steele about the lack of an early distinction between concilium and consilium, he has surely stated an important truth about commune consilium (though showing an unnecessary anxiety to connect regni with the phrase). But he could not in this place offer any proof of his statement, even supposing it had ever been a matter of enough interest with him to make the necessary collection of references. For that reason or because of its rather obscure and incidental appearance, it has passed unnoticed, at least unheeded. It is perhaps fair to add that I had adopted the large and small assembly sources of commune consilium and the "public opinion" idea and phrase as part of my classification and had so used them in a paper read publicly on the subject before I knew of Mr. Steele's statement. His suggestion that the "common council" tradition goes back for its source to the Stuart parliamentary antiquarians is interesting. I have made no attempt to trace it back of the nineteenth century.

3 D. Pasquet, Essai sur les Origines de la Chambre des Communes (Paris, 1914), P. 3.

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Sometimes, as here, he adopts the name untranslated, always, however, taking the liberty to change s to c in the second word; sometimes he calls it the "Common Council"; and he summarizes his notions of the term by saying that "The same Latin words which signify joint consent' or counsel thus came to signify also . . . that 'Common Council' afterwards of such vital constitutional importance, continuing under a new name the old curia regis . . . and passing in turn into the modern Parliament.'


In the course of the investigation the results of which are here submitted, much of the matter in print which was written in England between the Conquest and the middle of the thirteenth century has been examined." No claim of exhaustive search is made, yet it is believed that the process has been carried far enough so that any new instances found will not be likely to upset the conclusions, supposing these to have been correctly drawn from the evidence already in hand. Two hundred and fifty-eight independents instances of the use of commune consilium have been found in this period, and these have been transcribed with accompanying text. Besides these

4 W. S. McKechnie, Magna Carta (Glasgow, 1914), p. 149. 5 Ibid., p. 249. The term curia regis is another about which much has been assumed and a good deal of myth and tradition gathered. It also should be studied.

6 Yet it would have been hard and in some cases inadvisable to hold strictly to these boundaries, and it will be observed that they have sometimes been passed rather freely both as to time and place. While it is hoped that a fair degree of care has been used in going through the material, there can be no doubt that some instances have escaped notice. Besides the material indicated in the references, the following have been examined without revealing any instances of the phrase in question. Hence the references and this list (under the time-limits indicated) constitute the bibliography of this paper: William of Malmesbury; Gesta Herwardi; Eadmer, Life of Anselm and Miracles of Anselm; William of Poitiers; Brevis Relatio; Guy of Amiens; William of Jumièges; Simeon of Durham; John of Hexham; Aelred of Rievaulx; Ann. S. Edmundi; Henry of Huntingdon; Gervase of Canterbury; Robert de Monte; Richard of Devizes; Étienne de Rouen; Champollion-Figeac, Lettres de Rois, Reines, et Autres Personnages des Cours de France et d'Angleterre. Various other sources, promising little of value for the present purpose, such as Domesday Book, Pipe Rolls, Publications of the Selden Society, etc., have been more or less fully examinedsome of them very carefully.

7 The writer is wholly aware, however, that whatever value this paper has lies, not in the conclusions, but in assembling the references and drawing the attention of specialists in this field to an undoubtedly questionable tradition.

8 Cases in which one chronicler copies the identical language of another are, of course, counted but once. But there are not a few in which, while there has been evident borrowing of ideas or fact, the form of statement was independent, and these are properly independent instances for the present purpose.



there have been collected, out of numberless examples, some two hundred cases of words or phrases similar to or in some way illustrating the phrase under discussion, such as "common assent", common consent ", common choice", common discussion ", common sentence" or "judgment", common decree", common consideration", common estimate ", and the like. These latter cannot, of course, be examined within the limits and purposes of this paper. And yet they constitute a fashion or trick of phraseology of the time which helps one to sense the contemporary force and meaning of the phrase in question. Some of them come very close to frequent meanings of "common counsel", and often there are combinations of the phrases (illustrations of this may be found among those given below), made apparently in order to bring clearness or emphasis. Commune consilium, in its standard uses, clearly belongs to a large family of serviceable phrases.

Several different shades of meaning and usage of commune consilium begin to stand out before the work of collection has gone far, and a possible classification suggests itself when a large number of contexts is studied together. A five-fold classification has appeared convenient for presentation here. Others might serve as well, and, under any scheme, some of the cases would be very hard to classify; no two people would do it in the same way. One point-the spelling of the second word-applies equally to all these uses, and should be mentioned before they are taken up individually. Writers have felt free to change commune consilium to commune concilium (also to capitalize the words either untranslated or translated); the latter form looks better in connection with their interpretation of it as an assembly name, and they have taken this liberty evidently upon the assumption that consilium and concilium were interchangeable in the Latin of the time. This brings up a rather important linguistic point which cannot be dealt with here. Suffice it to say that after noting thousands of instances-too many to make it ever feasible to prove the point by a list of references-the writer is convinced. that there was at least as much distinction between these words in the writings in England during the two centuries following the Conquest as there was in classical Latin. Concilium was always the name of an assembly; consilium regularly meant counsel; exceptionally it denoted an assembly." But, leaving this assertion un

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9 It is my belief, however, that from early in the thirteenth century consilium, while retaining its standard meaning of advice or counsel, came also to be the regular name of the king's smaller, perpetual council, that which later became the Privy Council. See American Historical Review, XIX. 740-741, 868; XX. 330-333I intend at some time to furnish further evidence of this.

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