Rare Books Blog

November 5, 2009

I was pleased to welcome about 30 freshmen from Yale’s Directed Studies program to the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Room on November 4. They were accompanied by three of the Directed Studies faculty: Edwin Duval (French), Paul Freedman (History), and Justin Zaremby (Yale College and Law ‘10).

Directed Studies provides an interdisciplinary study of Western civilization to 125 selected Yale freshmen via three year-long courses – literature, philosophy, and historical & political thought – that focus on the central texts of Western civilization.

We viewed several books and manuscripts from among the foundational texts of European and English law, and how these texts shaped and were shaped by legal education. From Europe there was a 13th-century compilation of the Institutes, Code, and Novels of Justinian, and a 14th-century manuscript of the Clementines from the Corpus Juris Canonici, which show the development of the gloss as an outgrowth of the law lectures at the university in Bologna. The Institutes themselves had been promulgated by the Roman emperor Justinian in the 6th century as a textbook for learning Roman law. Likewise for canon law, the Decretum of Gratian was not merely a compilation of papal legislation, but a tool for teaching canon law at Bologna. Early printed editions of Justinian’s Institutes (1516) and the Liber Sextus (1514) show how the structure of text-and-gloss shaped the layout of early printed law books. Legal humanists later stripped away the medieval gloss, but an 18th-century scholar replaced the gloss with his own study notes in an interleaved copy of the Institutes.

University-trained jurists in Europe had to plow through every line of Justinian’s texts or the Corpus Juris Canonici to earn their doctorates in law. In England, by contrast, lawyers did not study English common law in universities but at the Inns of Court, and they did not study foundation texts as the Europeans did. On view for the students was one of our two 13th-century manuscripts of Bracton, the text that tried to do for English law what Justinian’s Institutes did for Roman law, but failed. Education in the common law was practice-based; students attended hearings in the royal courts and studied cases from the Year Books, the anonymous medieval case reports that focused on procedure rather than outcomes. The first text written for English law students was Littleton’s Tenures, a little treatise on land law that ws reprinted over seventy times across four centuries. Sir Edward Coke’s commentary on Littleton once again adapted the device of the gloss, with Coke’s dense and learned notes almost swallowing up Littleton’s original text. The copy of Coke on Littleton (1633) that the students viewed has additional layers of extensive manuscript notes, attributed to the English author Samuel Butler (1612-1680), author of a best-selling satire on the Puritans, Hudibras, and Butler’s patron William de Longueville (1639-1721).

The book that revolutionized common-law legal education, especially for do-it-yourself’ers in the early United States, was Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, the first book to give a comprehensive overview of English law in prose that an educated layman could digest. On view for the students was the 1790 edition of the Commentaries printed in Worcester, Mass., by the pioneering American printer Isaiah Thomas, as well as a student notebook (New England?, 1810?), where the student’s geography notes are followed by “Questions and Answers upon Law: Blackstone’s Commentaries.”

My thanks to Justin Zaremby for organizing this visit. The students enjoyed the chance to see the books up close and actually handle them. Let’s do it again!


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