in Warden

Chapter 04 – Hiram’s Bedesmen

fiat justitia ruat coelum

The phrase means “let justice be done, [although] the world may perish.”  It is often attributed to Gnaeus Piso.  Seneca writes an account of the story.  Piso ordered a man executed for murder.  When the man was about to be executed the supposed victim stepped out of the crowd saying that he was alive.  Next, the centurion in charge returned to Piso and explained the events to him.  Piso’s response was that all were to be executed:  the centurion for not following his orders, the murderer because a death sentence cannot be revoked, and the man supposed to have been murdered because he had caused the deaths of two innocent men.  The phrase is used to say that the letter of the law must be followed.  In the end the results are still tragic.  It signifies a sense of just injustice and law without conscience.  To John Bold, however, it seems to mean that justice must be carried out despite his personal feelings.  He uses the phrase to comfort himself.  Regardless of his concern for Eleanor he feels that the letter of the law must be carried out.  [TH 2005]

Although the phrase is commonly linked to the story about Piso told by Seneca in his De Ira, Seneca does not use this phrase itself.  Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations identifies the phrase in use in English by the early 17th century and a similar phrase (fiat justitia et ruat mundus) in use by the 16th.  [RR 2011]

Sources:  Entry in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Entry in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.


non compos mentis

The phrase literally means “not in possession of one’s mind.”  However, it is often interpreted as “not of sound mind.”  Finney proposes that a petition signed by all of the bedesmen and addressed to the bishop would help increase the support for John Bold’s side in the suit.  Realizing, however, that Bunce would never sign the petition, Finney says that 11 signatures would be enough.  He says that Bunce can be declared non compos mentis.  It is an attempt by Finney to claim that Bunce can’t speak for himself.  If he is not able to speak for himself, then not having his signature would be less of an issue.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest recorded use of the phrase in English was in 1607.  [TH 2005]

Sources:  OED. for non compos mentis and compos mentis.


Skulpit’s clouded brow

Job Skulpit’s hesitation to endorse the other bedesmen’s petition may stem in part from his uncertainty about his penmanship.  It had been a point of his pride that he–unlike his peers–could write his name, but when the time comes to put pen to paper, he delays.  His worry dissipates when Abel Handy suggests that Skulpit could use a mark instead of a signature so that his sign of endorsement does not seem different from the rest.  Trollope tells us that at this suggestion “the cloud began to clear from Skulpit’s brow.”  The image of a clouded brow may have a Classical origin:  in one of his Epistles, Horace urges his addressee to strike the cloud from his forehead (deme supercilio nubem) in order to appear more pleasant.  [RR 2014]

Source:  Horace, Epistle 1.18.94.