For someone whose entire knowledge of the British legal system is derived from the television adaptation of Rumpole of the Bailey, a visit to the Middle Temple library was quite a revelation. I knew that tradition was valued to a certain extent, as seen in the wigs and robes, but this visit proved that there was much more to it.
Anyone wishing to attempt to become a barrister must first join one of the four Inns of Court: Lincoln’s, Gray’s, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple. Each of the Inns of court has its own coat of arms. Lincoln’s Inn has a lion, Grey’s has a griffin, Middle Temple a lamb, and Inner Temple a winged horse.
In order to join an Inn of Court, candidates must attend twelve sessions, called “dinners” at the Inn of their choice. Though the Inns of Court are intended for barristers, this is a difficult feat that few accomplish. In fact, there have been a lot of people who have joined the Inns of Court for the benefits and connections to be had there, rather than through any real intent to become barristers; Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker, for example, did this very thing.
All of the Inns of Court have long histories. The Inner and Middle Temple get their name from the headquarters of the Knights Templar, known as the Temple. When the Templars fell out of favor, this paved the way for the barristers to move in, and they are there still.
Each of the Inns of Court has its own library. The Middle Temple Law Library proved very resilient, surviving both the Great Fire and both of the World Wars, but sadly, the structure was so weakened by the bombing that it had to be pulled down and rebuilt. Today it is actively used as a functional law library for the Middle Temple barristers. It keeps copies of every edition of every law textbook, among other law books. The books are not classified, but rather are divided into large sections, in which they are arranged alphabetically by author. This organization system prevents shelf browsing from being an effective method of use, but every item held by the library is catalogued and can be located on an online database. There is no remote access to databases available, but computer access within the library is completely free and open, with no logins needed.
No mention of the Middle Temple would be complete without some mention of the Middle Temple Hall. Built in 1570, this hall is used for official functions and dinners. The double hammerbeam roof in the hall is very unusual; it would have been much more expensive than a single hammerbeam, but the added strength allowed the room to be built on a larger scale. During the time of Elizabeth I, this would have been quite a lively building. The long oak table donated by Elizabeth herself was ideal for feasting, where entertainment would be provided by the minstrels and musicians who were on the payroll of the Inn. On at least one occasion there was even more notable entertainment provided: the first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was held in this very room. This tradition of hospitality continued on into the modern day. One of the Inn’s royal benchers, the Queen Mother, enjoyed visits to the Middle Temple Inn quite often, and was a great favorite there.