Leonard W. Cowie traces the development of a peculilarly English legal institution, from the pre-Reformation era, into Dickensian times.
‘Ay know not, nor is it very material, whether it I be that the advocates are but “common A doctors” or that the chief thing they are remarkable for is their “commons”; or that it is the common unenclosed where the doctors feed on their foolish clients, I know not’, so wrote Tom Brown ‘of facetious memory’ in his Amusements Serious and Comic (1700), an imaginary itinerary of London with an Indian as a companion.
Doctors’ Commons was, indeed, a strange institution, concerned primarily with three diverse aspects of English law—‘wills, wives and wrecks’—which still, generations after its demise, remain linked together by the ties of history.
One strand of this combination originated with the bishops of the English Church, who, in the Middle Ages, exercised a manifold jurisdiction through their consistory courts. They had jurisdiction over the clergy for ecclesiastical offences and all crimes except treason; and they had jurisdiction over all men for spiritual and moral offences, which meant that they were concerned with questions of marriage and legitimacy.