Writer to the Signet

Solicitors in Scotland were previously known as “writers”; Writers to the Signet were the solicitors entitled to supervise use of the King’s Signet, the private seal of the early Kings of Scots. Records of that use date back to 1369. In 1532, the Writers to the Signet were included as Members in the newly established College of Justice, along with the Faculty of Advocates and the Clerks of the Court of Session. The Society was established in 1594, when the King’s Secretary, as Keeper of the Signet, gave commissions to a Deputy Keeper and 18 other writers.

Writers to the Signet began as clerks to the Keeper of the Signet, and were afforded the privileges of freedom from taxation by the Burgh of Edinburgh, exemption from military duty, and rights of audience (to appear as lawyer on behalf of another) before the bar of the College of Justice. Writers were involved in drawing up summonses to the Court of Session (civil trial and appeal court). Writers were, however, de jure prohibited from acting as procurators (barristers/lawyers) but de facto this was often ignored.

Historically there have been privileges afforded lawyers. The privileges do however have some basis of entitlement.  Not so long ago the talent of reading and writing was predominantly limited to lawyers and the clergy.  Indeed it was considered somewhat mean or irrelevant to read and write when the manly preoccupations of the day were farming, hunting and horseback riding.  Even when cities began to arise in importance the stench of sewage and other foulness of the air caused by wood and coal burning made urban life intolerable except for those rooted there by necessity or poverty.  It is no accident that the townhouse was a minature of the country estate.

If one were cynical it might be observed that both lawyers and the clergy made a point of maintaining incomprehensibility for their own purposes.  The Roman Catholic Church  was conspicuously slow to escape the utter unintelligibility of Latin.  A less abusive angle may be attributed to lawyers who spared the hardworking people of the country estates from having to devote themselves to the inutility of reading and writing.

Lawyers compensated the apparent obstacle of illiteracy in the case of the celebrated “indenture” whence the usage of “indentured servant” arises. A man or woman could only be committed to personal service for a maximum of one year; and even at its inception the contract between the householder and the servant was commonly in writing.  In anticipation of the illiteracy of both parties to the contract, the lawyer drew (composed) the document in duplicate.  After the householder and the servant had been read the contents of the document they impressed their seal (usually the householder) or an “X” (normally the servant) as testimony of approval.  The lawyer folded the contract (in duplicate) twice, then cut the top of the contract to form a succession of serrated edges or indents.   When the documents were unfolded, one copy given to each party, the proof (in a court of law or otherwise) of the contents with the “signatures”of both parties was  conformity of the indented edges.

In Europe, the printing press did not appear until 150 years after Wang Chen’s innovation (1297). Goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg was a political exile from Mainz, Germany when he began experimenting with printing in Strasbourg, France in 1440. He returned to Mainz several years later and by 1450, had a printing machine perfected and ready to use commercially: The Gutenberg press.

In 1452, Gutenberg produced the one book to come out of his shop: a Bible. It’s estimated he printed 180 copies of the 1,300-paged Gutenberg Bible, as many as 60 of them on vellum. Each page of the Bible contained 42 lines of text in Gothic type, with double columns and featuring some letters in color.

Having literate persons readily at hand – especially for the monarchy and its minions – meant that both lawyers and the clergy were afforded putative privileges to enable them to remain separate and apart from any contaminating enterprise or obligation. To this day for example lawyers are prohibited to act as jurors (a deprivation most lawyers willingly suffer).

My innately mischievous mind provokes me to comment that signets and writing, while distinct, were nonetheless of parallel comport. The traditional signet rings worn by the laird of the manor was as much an exhibition as the trappings of literacy worn by clergy and lawyers.

And some seals were so ponderous as to require a decorative handle to enable transport to the academic arena for embossing. All of which is merely another illustration of how the often revered people of society are nothing more than costume and appearance. As a former lawyer I will however attest to the legitimacy of apparel not because it proved anything in the long run other than a estimate of the importance of one’s client and the case at hand; to have dressed otherwise might have communicated at the very least a lack of dignity.