Rare Books Blog

Cover to "Law's Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection"
April 24, 2018

I am extremely pleased and honored to announce that Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection (Clark, New Jersey: Talbot Publishing, 2017) has earned the 2018 Joseph L. Andrews Legal Literature Award from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). The Joseph L. Andrews Legal Literature Award “recognizes a significant textual contribution to legal literature” based on the work’s creativity, originality, and judgment. It is the highest award bestowed by AALL for publications.

As many of you know, Law’s Picture Books is the catalogue of the landmark exhibition that the Lillian Goldman Law Library mounted at the Grolier Club in New York City, September 13 - November 18, 2017. The full-color, 220-page catalogue includes images and descriptions of each of the 140 volumes displayed at the Grolier Club, plus four introductory essays.

My profound thanks to…

  • My esteemed co-author, Mark S. Weiner, who collaborated with me for four years on this project, and with whom I share this award.
  • Greg Talbot of Lawbook Exchange for publishing the catalogue and for his advice.
  • Valerie Horowitz of Talbot Publishing, the publishing arm of Lawbook Exchange, for her superb editing and design.
  • The Charles J. Tanenbaum Fund, Yale Law School, and the Pine Tree Foundation for their generous support of the exhibition and its catalogue.

Thanks also to the Grolier Club’s director, Eric Holzenberg, Exhibition Coordinator Jennifer Sheehan, and Irene Tichenor of the Public Exhibitions Committee for hosting the exhibition; Jolande Goldberg of the Law Library of Congress and Erin Blake of the Folger Shakespeare Library for their excellent essays, and Library Director Teresa Miguel-Stearns for her unflagging support.

Law’s Picture Books joins an illustrious list of Andrews Award winners from Yale, including Ann Laeuchli’s Bibliographical Catalog of William Blackstone (2015), Morris Cohen’s Bibliography of Early American Law (1998), and Fred Shapiro’s Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations (1993).

Copies of Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection can be checked out from the Lillian Goldman Law Library, or can be purchased from Talbot Publishing.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Woodcut initial "F"
April 19, 2018

Those who monitor our Flickr site may have become aware of my latest obsession: woodcut and engraved initial letters. I am compiling examples from our Rare Book Collection in an album entitled “Decorative initials.”

The capital “F” at left is from a dissertation submitted to Leipzig University in 1721 for a doctorate in law (Alexander Augustus Arnold, Dissertationem juridicam De declinanda recognitione documentorum propter deficientem causam debendi in processu executivo (Leipzig: Immanuel Tietze, 1721)). German legal dissertations like this one are a rich source of woodcut initials and other decorative elements. The Law Library has thousands of these German legal dissertations. Written in Latin on topics that are now arcane and obsolete. For me, their typography and decorations are now their most interesting features. Several of them are featured in our current exhibition, “Law Books Bright and Beautiful.”

Decorated initials are still used in modern graphic design. They made their first appearance about fifteen hundred years ago and represent a survival from early Western manuscript culture. Their function has always been to mark the beginning or major divisions of a text. The more elaborate initials, adorned with gold leaf, are called illuminated initials, such as this one marking the opening of a 14th-century manuscript of the Constitutions of Pope John XXII:

Illuminated initial from a 14th-century canon law manuscript

Constitutiones cum apparatu Joannis Andree (14th century). Full image in Flickr.

Old habits die hard, among both publishers and readers. As a result, printed books from the first half-century of printing left spaces in the opening lines of text, which could be filled with illuminated initials like the ones found in medieval manuscripts:

Illuminated initial "A", Germany, 1479.

Henricus de Segusio (Hostiensis), Summa super titulis Decretalium (Speier: Georgius de Spira, 1478-1479). Full image in Flickr.

Soon printers began using woodcut initials to take the place of the painted initials. They are called “historiated” initials when their decoration includes human or animal figures, such as this one from the “Law Books Bright and Beautiful” exhibit:

Woodcut initial "I", Italy, 1556.

Manifesti et Cartelli passati tra gli Illust. Signori, il Signor Bartolomeo delli Marchesi del Monte Santa Maria, & il Sig. Conte Camillo Castiglione (Pesaro: Bartolomeo Cesano, 1556). Full image in Flickr.

In the late 17th century, printers began using copperplate engravings for initials, which provide much finer detail than woodcuts. Unlike woodcuts, however, engravings had to be printed on a different press, thus requiring patience and skill to print the engraved initial in the blank space left in the printed text. Below is one of the fine engraved initials from Thomas Madox’s History and antiquities of the Exchequer of the kings of England (London: J. Matthews, 1711). Note the faint marks around the edge left by the engraved plate:

Engraved initial "H", England, 1711.

Thomas Madox’s History and antiquities of the Exchequer of the kings of England (London: Printed by J. Matthews, 1711). Full image in Flickr.

Decorated initials went out of fashion in the late 18th century as book design became more austere. They returned in modern times with the fine printing renaissance. Brian McGinty’s Haraszthy at the Mint (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1975), also from the “Law Books Bright and Beautiful” exhibit, is an example:

Decorative initial "T", California, 1975.

Brian McGinty, Haraszthy at the Mint (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1975). Full image in Flickr.

I close with a couple more of my favorite woodcut initials from German legal dissertations. To learn more about woodcuts and engravings, there is no better starting place than “Woodcut, engraving, or what?”, an illustrated explanation by Erin Blake at The Collation, the excellent blog of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Woodcut initial "E", Germany, 1736.

Christian Köhler, Dissertatio juridica de attestatis = Von Kundschafften (Halle: Hendel, 1736). Full image in Flickr.

Woodcut initial "P", Netherlands, 1711.

Heinrich von Cocceji, Dissertatio juridica de momentaria possessione & lite vindiciarum (Leiden: Johan Elsevir, 1711). Full image in Flickr.

Woodcut initial "M", Germany, 1745.

Knorr, Karl Gottlieb. Dissertatio De differentiis iuris Romani et Germanici in nobilitate adoptiva (Halle: Grunert, 1745). Full image in Flickr.

Students viewing early American legal manuscripts
April 6, 2018

The Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog marks its tenth anniversary this week. The first post was on a presentation to Professor James Whitman’s “Western Legal Traditions” class.

Exactly ten years later, the Rare Book Collection took part in another class session. This time it was the seminar on “Research Methods in American Legal History” taught by my colleague John Nann. After talking with the class about biographical and archival research, they visited the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Reading Room to see a sampling of our manuscript resources for American legal history, such as Aholiab Johnson’s account book for his law practice (see below). They were only the latest of several classes to make use of the collections this year.

I have always been eager to promote instructional use of our special collections. Lately, the increase in classroom use has influenced my efforts and perspectives on collection-building. For one thing, it puts duplicates in a whole new light. The texts of classic works of the common law, such as Bracton or Glanville or Fitzherbert’s Graunde Abridgment, no longer have the research value they once had since their text is readily available online. However, the original printed books remain highly valuable as teaching tools. Having duplicate copies of these works reduces wear and tear on individual copies.

The original printed books and manuscripts also make a visceral impact on students that a PowerPoint slide will never have. They are the tools of the students’ professional ancestors, and virtually our only tangible connections with them. We should conceive of rare book and manuscript purchases as investments in instructional technology, every bit as effective as “smart classrooms,” if not more so.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Pages from Aholiab Johnson's law practice ledger, 1840

Account book of Aholiab Johnson (1825-1840).

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