Rare Books Blog

March 12, 2012

Blackstone, Sir William (1723-1780). Istolkovaniia angliiskikh zahonov [Commentary on English Laws of Mr. Blackstone]. Moscow, 1780-82. 3 vols. Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Catherine II became aware of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) through the French translation. It became her bedside book, replacing Montesquieu, and greatly influenced her ideas on law and administration. Only volume I of Blackstone was translated into Russian, at her behest by S.E. Desnitskii (c. 1740-1789), the Glasgow-educated first Russian professor of law, and A.M. Briantsev (1749-1821). While Catherine had a special need for the book, it was part of her larger commitment to translations expressed in the establishment of a Society for the Translation of Foreign Books, which survived until 1783 and which she subsidized handsomely.

Among the 700 pages of notes which Catherine II took while reading Blackstone were drafts for a High Court of Justice. On her trip to the Crimea in 1787 Catherine II took her notes on Blackstone and her Nakaz with her to compare the two texts and work on further plans for constitutional reform. Her scheme for a High Court of Justice drawn from Blackstone seemed to combine legislative features of Parliament in England with judicial elements. Her contemplated High Court would have chambers consisting of appointed councilors and assessors elected by the local nobility, urban dwellers, and State peasants.

Blackstone wrote approvingly of Catherinian reforms in penal law:

“Was the vast territory of all the Russias worse regulated under the late Empress Elizabeth, than under her more sanguinary predecessors? Is it now under Catherine II less civilized, less social, less secure? And yet we are assured, that neither of these illustrious princesses have, throughout their whole administration, inflicted the penalty of death; and the latter has, upon full persuasion of its being useless, nay, even pernicious, given orders for abolishing it entirely throughout her extensive dominions.” – William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 4, p. 10.

See: I. de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History (1990).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


March 12, 2012

 Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832). Izbrannyie sochinieniia Ieremii Bentama. Tom Pervyi. [Selected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Volume One. Introduction to the Bases of Morality and Legislation. Basic Principles of a Civil Code. Basic Principles of a Criminal Code], transl. A.N. Pypin & A.N. Nevedomskii. Preface by Iu. G. Zhukovskii. St. Petersburg, 1867. Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Jeremy Bentham, the noted jurist and legal philosopher, spent nearly all of 1786 in Russia, visiting his younger brother Samuel (1757-1831), who was in Russian service for more than two decades. The two brothers were unusually close, Jeremy supporting Samuel financially, morally, and intellectually. Samuel made important contributions to Russian industry, shipping, naval victories, and commerce. The two brothers corresponded frequently.

While in residence at the estate of Prince G.A. Potemkin (1739-1791) at Krichev in modern Belarus, Jeremy Bentham composed and sent back to London for printing his celebrated Defence of Usury (1787) and commenced work on his ideas for a modern penal institution, eventually published as his Panopticon (an outline of which appeared in 1790). The Benthams were close to the Russian Ambassador in London, S.R. Vorontsov (1744-1832), and the family of Admiral N.S. Mordvinov (1754-1845).

M.M. Speranskii and Emperor Alexander I were attracted by Bentham’s early writings in French on codification and invited Bentham’s secretary, Etienne Dumont (1759-1829), to St. Petersburg to supervise a translation of Bentham’s writings on codification into the Russian language (published in three volumes, 1805-1810, omitting only Bentham’s strictures on press censorship). Every major law reform in Russia through the end of the Imperial Period was attended, in one fashion or another, by a translation and publication of one of Bentham’s works.

The present volume contains Bentham’s classic treatise on codification. First published in 1803, the edition shown here appeared soon after the celebrated Russian judicial reforms of 1864, in a fresh translation and with additional materials added from the Collected Works of Bentham edited by Sir John Bowring (1792-1872) and the French versions of Dumont. Only volume one appeared.


See: Ian Christie, The Benthams in Russia: 1780-1791 (1993).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


March 4, 2012

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” the latest exhibit from the Yale Law Library’s Rare Book Collection, is perhaps the first rare book exhibit in the U.S. to focus on the history of Russian law.

The exhibition features principal landmarks in Russia’s pre-1917 legal literature. Among these are the first printed collection of Russian laws, the 1649 Sobornoe ulozhenie, and three versions of the Nakaz, the law code that earned Empress Catherine the Great her reputation.

The exhibit draws on the riches of Yale University libraries, augmented by loans from the Harvard Law School Library and a private collection.

“The post-Soviet era of Russian history has made the legacy of the pre-1917 era newly relevant in ways unimaginable,” writes William E. Butler, one of the exhibit curators. “It is not merely a country recovering historical experience suppressed or distorted for ideological reasons during the Soviet regime, but a country seeking to modernize partly on the basis of its earlier legal legacy.”

Butler is the John Edward Fowler Distinguished Professor of Law and International Affairs at the Dickinson School of Law,  Pennsylvania State University. The exhibit’s co-curator is Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

Butler is the pre-eminent U.S. authority on the law of the former Soviet Union. He is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of more than 120 books on Soviet, Russian, Ukrainian, and post-Soviet legal systems. He is a member of the Grolier Club, the leading U.S. society for book collectors, and the Organization of Russian Bibliophiles. He is also a leading bookplate collector who has authored several reference works on bookplates.

Widener has been Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library since 2006. He is a member of the Grolier Club and a faculty member of the Rare Book School, University of Virginia.

The exhibit is on display through May 25, 2012 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, located on Level L2 of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, 127 Wall Street. The exhibit is open to the public, 9am-10pm daily. The exhibit will also go online via the Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog.

For more information, contact Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian, at (203) 432-4494 or .@yale.edu>

February 25, 2012

The latest issue of Law Library Journal is a special issue, “A Tribute to Morris L. Cohen (1927-2010).” Our own Fred Shapiro organized this fitting tribute to our mentor and friend. All of the articles can be downloaded from the LLJ website. – MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Law Library Journal
Volume 104, no. 1 (Winter 2012): A Tribute to Morris L. Cohen (1927-2010).

“Introduction.” Fred R. Shapiro.

“Morris L. Cohen, 1927-2010: A Remembrance and Celebration.” Vincent DiMarco, Kent C. Olson, Balfour Halévy, Lika Miyake, Mary Jane Kelsey, Sharon Hamby O’Connor, & Robert C. Berring.

“In Praise of Morris L. Cohen’s Bibliography of Early American Law.” Daniel A. Cohen.

“Morris L. Cohen: A Reminiscence.” Morris S. Arnold.

“Memories of Morris–and How I Use His BEAL.” Jordan D. Luttrell.

“Morris Cohen and Rare Book School.” David Warrington.

“Morris Cohen and the Art of Book Collecting.” Michael Widener.

“Cornerstones for Enduring Law Libraries: Morris Cohen’s Influence at Yale.” S. Blair Kauffman.

“Birth of a Nutshell: Morris Cohen in the 1960s.” Kent C. Olson.

“The End of Scholarly Bibliography: Reconceptualizing Law Librarianship.” Robert C. Berring.

“Appeals to the Privy Council Before American Independence: An Annotated Digital Catalogue.” Sharon Hamby O’Connor & Mary Sarah Bilder.

“Blackstone and Bibliography: In Memoriam Morris Cohen.” Wilfrid Prest.

“Booksellers in Court: Approaches to the Legal History of Copyright in England Before 1842.” James Raven.

“Practicing Reference … ‘That Most Congenial Lawyer/Bibliographer’.” Mary Whisner.

“Reflections: An Interview with Morris L. Cohen.” Morris L. Cohen & Bonnie Collier.

“Morris L. Cohen: A Bibliography of His Works.” Ryan Harrington & Camilla Tubbs.


February 24, 2012

The Lillian Goldman Law Library was delighted to host a book talk by Rosemarie McGerr on Feburary 24, on her new book, A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes: The Yale Law School New Statutes of England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011). The book is an in-depth study of a Rare Book Collection showpiece, the Statuta Angliae Nova (ca. 1450s-1470s). A summary of the book is in a previous post.

In her talk McGerr pointed out areas where work remains to be done on the manuscript. In its creation and design, the manuscript shows the influence of Sir John Fortescue (1394?-1476?), chief justice of King’s Bench under Henry VI and author of De laudibus legum Angliae (A Treatise in Commendation of the Laws of England; 1st ed. 1543), an often reprinted treatise that, like our New Statutes manuscript, was prepared to educate Henry VI’s son in the duties of kingship. One of the manuscript’s later owners was Sir Thomas Elyot (1490?-1546), English humanist and author of yet another “mirror of princes,” The Boke Named the Governour (1st ed. 1531). Here’s hoping someone takes the bait and discovers what else this manuscript holds for us.

Our thanks to Rosemarie McGerr for sharing her time and knowledge with us and our guests today.


Rare Book Librarian

Rosemarie McGerr, Professor of Comparative Literature and director of the Medieval Studies Institute at Indiana University, with the Law Library’s Statuta Angliae Nova, which is the subject of her latest book, book, A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes: The Yale Law School New Statutes of England (2011)

January 25, 2012


We have just acquired an early printing of Brazil’s first constitution, Constituição politica do imperio do Brazil (Lisboa: Na impressão de João Nunes Esteves, 1826). Measuring only 10 cm. tall, it still retains its original printed wrappers; a remarkable survival. From the dealer’s description (quoted by permission):

“First edition to appear in Portugal? There are several editions with the same imprint; priority has not been established. Originally published Rio de Janeiro, 1824, this constitution was written in large part by the Emperor D. Pedro I. It served, with some modifications, until the end of the Brazilian Empire in 1889. Similar to the Portuguese Carta Constitucional, the second Portuguese constitution, written and promulgated in Rio de Janeiro in 1826 by D. Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, in his capacity as D. Pedro IV, King of Portugal, it is no accident that the Brazilian constitution also appeared in Lisbon that year. Though liberal in its day, it was more conservative than the constitution the Brazilians would have had if D. Pedro had not intervened and their constitutional convention had had its way.” – Richard C. Ramer Old & Rare Books (Jan. 2012).

Rare Book Librarian

December 17, 2011

Our 15th-century manuscript of the statutes of Montebuono, Italy, is now available in a full-color facsimile edition, along with a full transcription and three scholarly studies. Lo Statuto di Montebuono in Sabina del 1437 (Rome: Viella Libreria Editrice, 2011) is available for purchase from the publisher’s website. It includes an introductory essay by Mario Ascheri, the leading scholar of Italian statuti, as well as a history of medieval Montebuono by Tersilio Leggio, and a detailed study of the Montebuono statutes by legal historian Sandro Notari. In addition, Alda Spotti of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma provided a transcript of the Latin manuscript.

I was honored to speak at a symposium marking the publication of the volume on November 23 at the Biblioteca del Senato della Repubblica in Rome. Other speakers included Mario Ascheri (Università di Roma 3), Sandro Notari, Sandro Bulgarelli (director, Biblioteca del Senato della Repubblica), Maria Teresa Caciorgna (Università di Roma 3), the Hon. Dario Santori (mayor, Comune di Montebuono), and Yale’s own Professor Anders Winroth. Following is an excerpt from my talk:

My library’s involvement with the Statuto di Montebuono began in 1946. In that year Samuel Thorne was appointed as the head librarian of the Yale Law Library. Thorne was not a librarian by training. He was a legal historian, one of the outstanding historians of medieval English law in the 20th century. However, Thorne had a librarian’s instincts. With the help of a large endowment, he began a ten-year campaign of buying rare books and manuscripts. He put the Yale Law Library into the first rank of historical law collections in the United States.

In his first annual report, for 1946, Thorne wrote: “The outstanding acquisition of the year was the notable collection of Italian statuta, numbering almost nine hundred volumes, purchased from a learned Italian lawyer who had brought it, over a period of fifty years, to its present completeness. It contained fifty-two manuscripts of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, nine incunabula, and many sixteenth-century editions.”

With this single purchase, the Yale Law Library acquired what is still the largest collection of Italian statuti in the Americas. Among these nine hundred volumes was the 15th century manuscript of the Statuto di Montebuono.

In 2007, Professor Anders Winroth brought his medieval legal history seminar into our Rare Book Collection. One of his doctoral students, Ms. Oriana Bleecher, chose the Statuto di Montebuono for her research project.

Ms. Bleecher was perhaps the key catalyst in the project that led to the book we are celebrating today. She asked me if the Law Library could acquire a book that the Fondazione Gabriele Berionne had just published, Montebuono e il suo territorio. The Fondazione refused to sell us the book. Instead, Renata Ferraro insisted on donating this beautiful book to my library, on behalf of the Fondazione. As a token of gratitude, I sent Sig.ra Ferraro a copy of Ms. Bleecher’s seminar paper.

Soon after, Sig.ra Ferraro sent me a full-page article from the newspaper, Montebuono Spazio Comune, about our Montebuono manuscript and Ms. Bleecher’s research. In 2008, my library featured the Statuto di Montebuono in the inaugural exhibit in our new exhibit gallery. The title of the exhibit was “The Flowering of Civil Law: Early Italian City Statutes in the Yale Law Library.”

At Sig.ra Ferraro’s request, we digitized the Statuto di Montebuono, and then I put her in touch with Mario Ascheri, the world’s leading scholar of early Italian statutes. The result of their collaboration, Lo Statuto di Montebuono in Sabina del 1437 (Rome: Viella Libreria Editrice, 2011) is before us today. The Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, and I are deeply, deeply honored to have played a part in making this publication a reality.

I learned that my Italian colleagues consider the Montebuono statutes to be particularly significant: medieval municipal statutes from the Sabina region are generally rare, and especially such sophisticated statutes from a small rural community.


Rare Book Librarian

Biblioteca del Senato della Repubblica, Rome, 23 Nov. 2011. L-R: Prof. Maria Teresa Caciorgna (Università di Roma 3), Sandro Notari, Prof. Mario Ascheri (Università di Roma 3), Prof. Anders Winroth (Yale University), Mike Widener.


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