February 2019: Readers & Readings

This month sees one of the Inn's two annual readings, delivered by Lent Reader Master Carol Harlow. We take the opportunity to look back on the history of this tradition of readings at the Inn, and of the office of Reader, and explore the ways in which both have evolved and adapted over the centuries.

The history of readings at the Inn stretches back over five hundred years, the earliest record of one dating from the 1430s. In these early centuries of the Inn's existence, readings were a very different affair to those we know today. Taking place over several weeks in either the Lent or Autumn 'learning vacations', each Reading would focus on a particular statute, and in the days before widespread access to legal texts this was crucial for the education of the Inn's student body. Each session would start with the Reader reciting a section of his chosen statute, before moving on to expound, analyse and appraise it and its implications. After this, more junior members of the Inn would put and plead sample cases while standing at the Cupboard - a wooden table, a successor of which forms the centrepiece of the modern day Call to the Bar ceremony - and the discussion of these would continue over dinner.

The present day ‘Cupboard’

The Readership was a heavy burden - in addition to the weeks of lecturing, the Reader was also called upon to provide, at his own expense, the hospitality and feasting for those attending the reading. The reward, however, was undeniably attractive - serving as Reader was the only route to becoming a Bencher of the Inn and thus entering into its governance. The Reader was assisted in his duties and expenses by Stewards and 'Cupboardmen' - the barristers who would argue cases at the Cupboard. Many prominent figures in the Inn's history served as Reader, including Edmund Plowden, under whose auspices the Hall was completed in the 1570s, and Richard Martin, who as a young man was elected 'Prince of Love' during the Christmas Revels and later served as Recorder of London.