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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Yale Acquires an Impressive Collection of Early English Law Books and Manuscripts

Photo Credit: Harold Shapiro; See more photos on Yale Law School's Facebook Page

Last Week Yale University announced that it had acquired a large collection of historical English law books and manuscripts from the collection of Anthony Taussig, a London barrister and legal historian who had been amassing the collection for the better part of the last four decades.  There are about 200 books and 400 manuscripts spanning from the thirteenth through nineteenth centuries being added to Yale's collection.

Many books are of great historical significance, such as the first printed English law book and a manuscript copy of the Magna Carta, from the 14th century.  But that's not all.  According to the New York Times's story:
There is "a wealth of materials relating to England’s Poor Laws, a system for dealing with the indigent before the advent of the modern welfare state, like a document recording the plight of a woman who was abandoned by her husband during the Napoleonic Wars...Other everyday items reveal the way people thought about bankruptcy and other morally charged issues that are still passionately debated today, including the honor — or lack thereof — of lawyers themselves.
The printed collection will be housed  the Lillian Goldman Law Library.   The more noteworthy printed books include:
  • The first printed book of English law, a 1481 abridgment of statutes.
  • The first justice of the peace manual (The boke of Iustyces of peas, 1506).
  • The first edition of Blackstone’s famous Oxford lectures of 1759, annotated by a student who attended the lectures.
  • The first English book on women’s legal rights (The lawes resolution of womens rights, 1632).
  • The first English legal bibliography (Thomas Bassett’s Catalogue of the common and statute law-books of this realm, 1671).
  • A pamphlet from the famous Sommersett case of 1772 that outlawed slavery in the British Isles, annotated by the English abolitionist Granville Sharp, who financed the litigation.
The manuscript collection will be housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  Some of the notable manuscripts include:
  • A “pocket-sized” manuscript copy of the Magna Carta, from the 14th century.
  • An early 14th-century manuscript copy of Britton, the first summary of English law in Norman French.
  • A late 13th-century manuscript of English jurist Henry de Bracton’s De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae ("The Laws and Customs of England"), the only copy known to have been still in private possession.
  • The main surviving archive of the manuscript notes papers and correspondence (with a few annotated printed books) of Sir Michael Foster, an 18th century justice of King's Bench.
  • A collection of correspondence by and relating to William Blackstone, 18th-century English jurist and politician, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England was the single most influential book in the history of Anglo-American common law.
  • The letter-book of some 207 letters written to William Tidd, 18th-century English special pleader and legal writer.
  • Manuscript pocket diaries, with detailed notes on income and expenditures, from the 17th-18th centuries.
The historical value for these works is extraordinary.  Those of us who are students of legal history can look forward to a rich source of primary material.  I myself am coauthoring a biography on the judge who decided the famous Sommersett case, which outlawed slavery in England and Wales, and I am excited to see the material related to that case.

Yale is planning to exhibit these new books and manuscripts soon and also has plans to digitize some of the material.

Read more about Anthony Taussig and the new collection:

See more photos of the collection HERE