Of all the outstanding books we acquired from the collection of Anthony Taussig (see our previous post), one has special importance: an abridgment of statutes considered to be the very first printed book of English law. Known as the Abbreviamentum statutorum, it was printed in London by John Lettou and William de Machlinia, probably in 1481.
The Abbreviamentum statutorum arranges summaries of English statutes under 304 subject headings, and derives from one or more manuscript abridgments of statutes that circulated in 15th-century England. Most of the summaries are in Law French (Anglo-Norman), although a few are in Latin. The layout is similar to that of manuscript commonplace books, with generous space left in the margins and between titles that enable the reader to update his book. The book also includes a 12th-century glossary of Anglo-Saxon legal terms under the title “Exposicio Vocabulorum,” and thus could be considered the first proto-dictionary of English law.
Lettou and Machlinia were London’s first printers. The Abbreviamentum statutorum was the first of five law books they published, which included two editions of Littleton’s Tenures and two collections of statutes. For a summary of their work, see “Legal Printing in London” by Lotte Hellinga, a leading authority on early printing, in the excellent First Impressions website of the University of Manchester Library.
– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian