Rare Books Blog

The Common Law Epitomiz'd
September 2, 2014

“The Common Law Epitomiz’d: Anthony Taussig’s Law Books” is the latest exhibit from the Yale Law Library’s Rare Book collection. It showcases the Law Library’s acquisitions from the greatest private collection of rare English law books ever assembled: the collection of Anthony Taussig.

Anthony Taussig, a London barrister, assembled his outstanding collection of rare law books and manuscripts over a 35-year period.

The exhibit is on display through November 15, 2014, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery on Level L2 of the Lillian Goldman Law Library (127 Wall Street, New Haven, CT).

The books on display include the very first printed book of English law, the first book on women’s rights in English law, the first justice of the peace manual, notes from Sir William Blackstone’s Oxford lectures, a trove of pamphlets on law reform, and a relic of the opening salvo in the struggle to abolish slavery. The acquisition was made possible by generous grants from Yale Law School’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.

The exhibit was curated by Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at the Yale Law Library, and Ryan Greenwood, Rare Book Librarian at the University of Minnesota Law Library and the 2013-14 Yale Law Library Rare Book Fellow.

Running concurrently is “Uncommon Law: A Celebration of the Taussig Collection,” an exhibition at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The exhibition features Taussig’s outstanding collection of legal manuscripts acquired by the Beinecke. It is on display September 5 through December 15.

For more information, contact Mike Widener at (203) 432-4494, email <mike.widener@yale.edu>.


Statuti, e leggi della Valle Seriana Superiore (Bergamo, 1769)
August 15, 2014

The core of our outstanding collection of early Italian municipal statutes is a private collection purchased in 1946. Thanks to Rare Book Cataloger Susan Karpuk, this original collection, “Italian Statutes Collection, 1946 (Accession no. 46-209)”, is now reunited in the Law Library’s online catalog, MORRIS, and can be browsed via a collection-level record here. The link brings together 643 records for printed books and 51 for manuscripts.

The library purchased this collection in 1946 from the Italian bookdealer Nardecchia, in Samuel Thorne’s first year as Law Librarian. In his annual report for the 1945-46 academic year, 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, more than a few unknown to Luigi Manzoni whose Bibliografia statutaria e storica italiana is the standard bibliography of the class.”

In 2008, a representative of Nardecchia reported that it had no records of the sale or of the identity of the “learned Italian lawyer” who built the collection. One of the goals in identifying the volumes that made up this collection was to find clues to the collector’s identity. We indeed found some clues, inscriptions in several of the 20th-century volumes, and are in the process of investigating them.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Battista Aimo, De alluvionum iure universo (Bologna, 1580).
July 20, 2014

My friend and collaborator Mark Weiner has produced the latest installment in his series of videos on rare law books. “Water, Paper, Law” is an almost poetic meditation, in which “an eighteenth-century Italian legal treatise about water inspires some thoughts about law, rare books, and the passage of time.” I’ve embedded the video below. You can also view it on Weiner’s Worlds of Law blog. When the video appeared on the Environment, Law, and History blog, blogger David Schorr wrote “I’d love to hear more about these works!”. In partial satisfaction, here’s a list of the books that Mark included in the video:

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Front cover, Leggi ... della provincia d'Istria (1757)
June 13, 2014

A question about Italian block-printed paper on the the EXLIBRIS-L listserv a couple of weeks ago reminded me that we have several lovely examples in our collection. I scanned all the examples I could find and put them in a new album, Italian block-printed paper, on the Rare Book Collection’s Flickr site.

My thanks to Lenore Rouse, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at Catholic University, for citing several sources of information on Italian block-printed paper:

  • Rosamund Loring, Decorated Book Papers (Cambridge: Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, 2007).
  • Richard J. Wolfe, Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990); see especially this excerpt on Google Books where Wolfe discusses the role of the Remondini family in the manufacture of block-printed papers).
  • Tanya Schmoller, Remondini and Rizzi: A Chapter in Italian Decorated Paper History (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 1990).

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian


Portrait of Sir William Blackstone
June 6, 2014

“Blackstone Goes Hollywood” is the latest video production by our friend Mark Weiner. What better location to shoot a video about Sir William Blackstone than our Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Reading Room, home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of Blackstoniana? And there is certainly no one better to interview than Wilfrid Prest, Professor Emeritus at the University of Adelaide and the world’s leading expert on Blackstone.

You can view “Blackstone Goes Hollywood” on Weiner’s Worlds of Law blog, and on YouTube.

In addition to talking with Mark Weiner about Blackstone, Prest spent time working with me on an upcoming exhibit. In Spring 2015 Prest and I will co-curate an exhibit marking the 250th anniversary of the publication of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, the single most influential book in the history of Anglo-American common law. Plans are for the exhibit to go on display March-June 2015 at the Yale Law Library, and then travel to the Middle Temple in London in Fall 2015, and end up at the University of Adelaide in December 2015.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

May 8, 2014

Rare law books often contain much more than meets the eye. Their value lies partly in their individual and particular histories, and the physical features and contexts which bring these to light. Things like bindings, binding fragments, bookplates and other ownership marks, inscriptions and annotations, illustrations, printing history and readership (among others), can provide insights into aspects of history, and legal history, which are understudied or unknown. The Law Library’s rare book collection is a rich source for information of this kind.  One – or in fact two – good examples can be found in the catalogue under the title Casus decretorum, held at the library in two early printed editions (Basel, 1489 and Leipzig, 1495-1500).

A beautiful image from the first of these books, shown above, was recently chosen for a poster which will hang in the stairwell connecting the Upper and Lower East Side of the Law Library. The image will help guide (and hopefully please) students and researchers going between levels, while the book itself is a study in navigating legal texts.

The Casus decretorum is a 13th-century gloss, or set of short, explanatory comments, on Gratian’s Decretum, one of the fundamental texts of canon law. The work was a revision by Bartolomeo da Brescia (d. 1258) of glosses written by a canonist named Benincasa da Siena (d. 1206). Slightly later, Bartolomeo revised the work of Johannes Teutonicus to create the standard gloss on the Decretum, the interpretative text read alongside the Decretum for centuries by European law students, jurists and clergy.

The Library’s first printed copy of the Casus decretorum (1489) is a first edition, complete with original wooden boards. Not uncommonly, the Casus is bound with other teaching texts in the same book, and would have been particularly useful for young students: included are the Syllogianthon of Lodovico Bolognini (Bologna, 1486) and the Margarita decreti of Martino Polono (Martinus Polonus) (Strasbourg, 1489).  

There are truly unique features of the Casus decretorum. Opening the book, the reader can find medieval manuscript pastedowns, or leaves of parchment (generally calf/cow, sheep or goat skin) attached to the inside of the boards (see image below at bottom). The parchment leaves were likely used to protect pages from the wood. The manuscript written on them dates to about 1175-1250CE, and features texts of readings for two masses, both feast days of saints. The feast days also relate to luck and protection – which may be one reason they were chosen to protect this particular book. The parchment is fading, but the manuscript ink is probably as clear as when it was written, some 800 years ago.

The reader can also find leather tabs glued to the edges of various pages. Each title in the book is keyed with a leather tab, and these can be found on other pages as well (the Syllogianthon is tabbed at its index, for example). Some tabs may indicate sections that a 15th- or 16th-century reader used frequently – but it is a question for further study.

Convenient navigation is essential for law books. This is true for these texts as well, particularly because they were most likely used for basic teaching or easy reference. The Casus decretorum and Syllogianthon are organized according to the divisions in Gratian’s Decretum, while the Margarita decreti is itself a topical index to the Decretum. To help with navigation, all the texts are rubricated, a technique of adding colors – originally red – in order to emphasize certain words and passages. Although the texts are printed, the rubrication on them is done by hand, sometimes in vivid red, blue and green. This hand rubrication is also typical of incunables, books printed before 1501.

In the Casus and Syllogianthon, colored initial letters draw the reader’s eye to each principal division in Gratian’s text. Within each passage, colored markings also guide the reader to important citations. In the Syllogianthon, which provides fuller reference than the Casus decretorum, red, blue and green paragraph marks highlight citations to the standard gloss on Gratian’s Decretum, other passages within the Decretum, Biblical passages marshalled in support of the discussion and Roman law (see image below at left).  

Some final, and interesting aids to navigation are added by readers themselves. There are annotations, sometimes simply as a note to oneself (a reader sometimes writes “note” in the margins), while in other places there are elaborate manicules, or drawings in the shape of a hand, indicating a notable passage (see image below right).

All of these were used – and were needed! – to get through the thicket of material in a typical legal text of the Renaissance. It should be easier to navigate a modern law book, or to get from the Upper to Lower East Side. But if the bright initial “I” from this book can act as a kind of signage, it has done (some of) its job!

– RYAN GREENWOOD, Rare Book Fellow 

April 23, 2014

A team of Yale University Library conservators will present “The Surface of Things: Using New Imaging Techniques to Study Bookbindings and Other Cultural Objects” on Wednesday, April 23, 2-3pm, in the Sterling Memorial Library Lecture Hall. They will demonstrate how Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) offers exciting new possibilities for safely capturing a book’s surface decorations, revealing details that cannot be seen using traditional methods or the naked eye.

The speakers are Chief Conservator Christine McCarthy and Conservation Assistants Fionnuala Gerrity and Ansley Joe, from Yale University Library’s Conservation & Exhibition Services.

The talk, sponsored by the Lillian Goldman Law Library, is in conjunction with a Law Library exhibit, “Reflections on Bindings: Using New Imaging Technology to Study Historical Bindings.” In the exhibit, RTI was applied to the study of bindings from the Law Library’s Rare Book Collection.

The exhibit is on display through May 24, 2014, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery on Level L2 in the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


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