Forensic Architecture

The Latin adjective forensis originally meant “pertaining to the forum.” The forum was a busy place: among other things, a market, a meeting place, the place where the court convened. Cicero used the adjective forensis in a number of his speeches, and while this was often in the broader sense, as the general art of the forum, he seems at times to have used it in the more narrow, legal sense. In the Middle Ages the Flemish translator Willem van Moerbeke used “forensis” to translate the Greek adjective dikanikos which appears in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and which literally means judicial. This was an unambiguously legal use of forensis, though restricted to the way lawyers plead. The English language only absorbed the Latin term in the form “forensic” in the seventeenth century. The original meaning—pertaining to the forum or court—persists into the early nineteenth century, when Carlyle speaks of “forensic eloquence.” Only in the mid-nineteenth century, during a time of great scientific development, did the term forensic become used to denote a legal-scientific investigation. The first instance of this modern meaning of forensic can be found in H. J. Stephen’s New Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in four volumes in 1844. Early in the introduction he states: “To gentlemen of the faculty of physic the study of the law is attended with some importance, not only to complete their character for general and extensive knowledge, a character which their profession has always remarkably deserved, but also to enable them to give more satisfactory evidence in a variety of cases in which they are liable to be examined as witnesses.”

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