The Rare Book Collection opens 2017 with an outstanding gift

Novae narrationes (1561)
January 3, 2017

The Rare Book Collection is honored to be the recipient of a bequest from the estate of Professor S. F. C. Milsom (1923-2016): the 1561 Richard Tottel edition of the Novae Narrationes. What makes the gift special is the stature of its donor, the book’s connection to Milsom’s career, and Milsom’s connection to the Yale Law School.

Professor Milsom (“Toby” to his friends and family) has been called the “dominant intellectual voice in English legal historiography” for the last fifty years by his colleague David Ibbetson. In a eulogy to Milsom, Sir John H. Baker said, “He was perhaps the last writer in legal academia whose works could be regarded as literature.” Milsom is best known for his groundbreaking book, Historical Foundations of the Common Law (2nd edition 1981).

Milsom’s first publication in legal history was Novae Narrationes (1963), Volume 80 in the Publications of the Selden Society series. The Novae narrationes was a collection of model oral pleadings (“narrationes” or “counts”) which initiated litigation, dating from the reign of Edward I in the late 13th century. As Milsom described them, “The count became the formal opening gambit in a game in which many moves were possible, and dexterity in making these moves became the preoccupation of the bar.” The 1561 printed edition of the Novae narrationes was the last of four printed editions. The volume’s immaculate condition suggests that Milsom did not use it in his original research for the Selden Society volume, but he knew its contents intimately and it undoubtedly held a special place in his affections.

Milsom’s academic career was primarily in his native England, at Oxford, the London School of Economics, and finally at his alma mater, the University of Cambridge, where he was Professor of Law from 1976 until his retirement in 1990. Milsom was in great demand as a visiting professor at U.S. law schools, and nowhere more than at the Yale Law School, where he was a visiting professor from 1968 to 1986. He recalled his time at Yale in an oral history interview: “It’s always fun, because the students have no idea at all about legal history, and don’t really want to know. But they … ask very difficult questions, and that’s good, makes one think.”

Lesley Dingle and Daniel Bates provide a thorough and lively account of Milsom’s career in the Eminent Scholars Archive of the Squire Law Library, University of Cambridge. It includes a bibliography of Milsom’s writings and videos of his oral history interviews.

The book itself is a fine copy. It boasts a Riviere binding and the bookplate of Thomas Jolley, whose enormous book collection was dispersed in a series of Sotheby’s auctions from 1843 to 1855. It consists of three works: (1) the Novae narrationes; (2) Articuli ad narrationes novas, a commentary on the first work, and (3) Diversite des courtes & lour iurisdictions, a guide to court procedure. All of these would have been useful works for a practicing lawyer, and the small format would have made the book handy in court. The table at the end of the second work has been annotated in an early hand; see the image below.

One final point of interest… The book was published by Richard Tottel, who held the patent for printing English law books from 1552 to his death in 1594. Among other things, Tottel is known for spelling his own last name 11 ways, including two different ways in this one book: “Tottell” on the title page and “Tottil” in the colophon.

The Law Library thanks Mr. Charles Perrin, the administrator of Professor Milsom’s estate, and Sir John Baker for their help in effecting Professor Milsom’s bequest.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

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