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Possession is How Many Points of the Law?

This post from Colm MacCrossan, one of our editors at the University of Oxford, illustrates how the EEBO-TCP corpus can shed new light on old proverbs–and the challenge of sifting through and making sense of the results. The links throughout this post point to EEBO, the version of EEBO-TCP hosted by the University of Michigan Library, and the Oxford English Dictionary Online, and may require authentication/authorization.

One of the greatest pleasures of reviewing new texts for EEBO-TCP is the way in which it constantly confronts each of us with new perspectives on things we may feel we know so well as to be unquestionable. This can be profound (as in Becky’s recent blog post showing that ‘progressive’ attitudes to schooling shouldn’t be assumed to be uniquely modern), but can also begin as simply as stumbling across something oddly unfamiliar in an old use of an expression we still commonly repeat today.

Title page of  "Foure Treatises Tending to Disswade all Christians from … the Abuses of Swearing, Drunkennesse, Whoredome, and Briberie" (1609)Reviewing John Downame’s Foure Treatises Tending to Disswade all Christians from … the Abuses of Swearing, Drunkennesse, Whoredome, and Briberie (1609), my eye was caught by the following allusion: ‘…[A]s the common proverbe is, there are but twelve points in the law, and possession is as good as eleaven of them.’ Having grown up with the notion that ‘Possession is nine points of the law’ (that is, nine tenths), I was surprised, and began to wonder whether Downame had garbled his proverb, or whether it had simply shifted in time.

Certainly Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (Millenium Edition, Revised by Adrian Room, p.932) supported the ‘nine points’ version, even going so far as to try to enumerate each of the nine.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online told a slightly different story. While favouring ‘nine points’ it acknowledged that ‘eleven’ was ‘formerly’ used as well, though one of its two entries dealing with this proverbial usage (within the definition of ‘possession, n.’) suggests that ‘eleven’ was used ‘hyperbolically’.

Nine of the eleven quotations the OED used to define this proverb in its ‘possession, n.’ context, dating between 1616 and 1998, followed the ‘nine points’ usage. The remaining two, from 1650 and 1712, suggested ‘eleven points’. By contrast, four of the nine quotations used to illustrate the same phrase within its definition of ‘point, n.1’ (ranging from 1639 to 1792) favour the ‘eleven point’ usage, with an equal number (ranging between 1616 and 1991) holding to ‘nine points’. (The ninth quotation states that ‘Possession is ninety-nine points of Lunacy law’; the OED editors’ note that this number is being used ‘hyperbolically’ is here harder to second guess.)

What begins to emerge from these sources, then, is a sense that ‘nine points’ has clearly come to dominate modern usage, but that ‘twelve points’ seems to have had some kind of currency in an earlier age. But how to pin down this hunch into a more concrete understanding of how this proverb was used in the early modern period?

Using the ‘Proximity Search’ feature available via the TCP’s full-text search interface, it is possible to design a simple search that quickly generates several dozen examples of this proverb’s usage from across the whole span of the seventeenth century – without filtering out either the ‘nine’ or ‘eleven points’ versions. This is a sufficiently large sample with which to begin to determine with more confidence the dominant form in the period to 1700.

Using the default search operator ‘near’, and changing the default proximity range from ‘40’ to ‘120’ characters, a user can search the whole corpus of over 40,000 texts in seconds, identifying all of the occasions in which all three of the words ‘points’, ‘law’, and ‘possession’ occurred close to one another.

Screen shot of the proximity search designed to return examples of the "...points of the law" proverb

This search on September 13, 2012 resulted in 52 matches in 48 records. (Phase I-only partners conducting the same search would only have discovered 38 matches in 34 records.) In other words, the three words appeared close to one another in 48 of the books printed in the EEBO period so far captured by the TCP.  The additional four matches indicate that in some books the three words coincided more than once.

Sorting these results by date from earliest to latest (‘date ascending’) reveals that the earliest text to fall within this search is Sir Thomas Ridley’s A View of the Civile and Ecclesiastical Law (1607) and the latest is an anonymous treatise on The Law of Ejectments, printed for John Deebe in 1700.

In fact, both of these turn out to be false positives – although all three search terms occur within 120 characters of one another in the texts, they do not form the proverb in question. The earliest (though numerically-unspecific) allusion to the proverb itself therefore turns out to be an account in John Taylor’s All the Workes of John Taylor the Water-Poet (1630) (p.137) of a man named John Rowse who is driven to despair and eventual murder as a result of losing his land to a supposed friend. The friend’s declaration ‘And seeing that I have all these especial points of the Law … and a sure possession, take what course you will’ is taken by Rowse as irrefutable, triggering his terrible spiral.

The latest allusion to this phrase uncovered by this search meanwhile is a translation of The Fables of Young Aesop, printed by Benjamin Harris in 1700. This concludes the fable of ‘The Crocodile and the Dogs’ with the moral: ‘In fine, Consider, when thy Table is spread, if thou goest to it with an unsavoury Heart, thou dost not know but the Devil may be in the first Morsel and Choak thee: and then thou’lt remember this common Sentence, Possession is Eleven Points of the Law!’ (p.77)

Returning to the question that initially provoked this search: whether the understood proportion of ‘possession’ was ‘nine points’ or ‘eleven’: of the 39 hits which are not false positives – and which therefore do positively reference this proverb – 36 identify ‘eleven points’ as the magic number, with only three agreeing with the modern convention of ‘nine’. It is possible to interrogate these results further in order to try to assess whether (for example) the beginning of the shift to modern usage might be detectable here, but even at this point the evidence of this corpus can be taken to strongly suggest that possession was far more likely to be assumed to be eleven points of the law before 1700, than nine.

The practical application of this specific example may be limited, but it demonstrates one way in which the EEBO-TCP corpus allows researchers to re-examine the understood contexts and significance of key words and phrases in a way which is both rapid and wide-ranging. The occurrences of this proverb uncovered by the search discussed above come from a broad range of genres including politics, philosophy, theology, astrology, poetry, and travel. Most of them are brief, passing references toward which a simple catalogue search could not possibly have pointed, but collectively they form a cohesive and potentially convincing body of usage, which in turn can form the basis of broader questions, such as what epistemological reasons might lie beneath this apparent shift from a duodecimal to a decimal scale of legal weight.

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