Rare Books Blog

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

Ryan Greenwood
May 28, 2014

The Rare Book Collection’s homepage is back! The completely redesigned Rare Books website is up and running at:

On the homepage you will find a brief overview of the collection, hours, and contact information. The menu on the left of the screen provides links to more detailed collection descriptions, our ever-growing Flickr site, digital projects, research tools, visitor information, and even a video tour. The site will always be a work in progress, so your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

The Rare Books website is one of the many outstanding contributions of our 2013-14 Rare Book Fellow, Ryan Greenwood. His nine-month fellowship ended on May 15. I am delighted to report that Ryan is headed to the University of Minnesota Law Library, where he will be their new Rare Book Librarian, beginning in July. Congratulations, Ryan!

– 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.

Samuel Blackerby, THE JUSTICE OF THE PEACE HIS COMPANION (London, 1711).
April 21, 2014

Among the 363 English law titles the Lillian Goldman Law Library acquired from Anthony Taussig, by far the largest group is justice of the peace (JP) manuals. Taussig wrote to me that “I have pursued justice of the peace manuals because from a very early date they provide interesting overviews, constantly revised, of the areas of law of contemporary importance.”

In the preface to his Office and authority of a justice of peace (London, 1704), William Nelson gives a colorful synopsis of the office’s roots in the Middle Ages: “The Office of a Justice of Peace did at first consist chiefly in suppression of Riots and unlawful Assemblies, it being usual in former times for men of Estates to give Liveries every Year to rude and disorderly people who were not their Menial Servants, and this was to engage them in all their Quarrels for that Year…”

From the JP’s origins in criminal law, the office grew to become the most important in local government, with extensive judicial and administrative powers. Although Justices of the peace were drawn from the local elite, few them had legal training. Thus the need for guidance, met by the JP manual. As Parliament frequently changed the duties of JPs, new JP manuals and form books were published with the updated information. JP manuals became consistent best sellers for their publishers.

We have covered some of the authors of JP manuals in previous posts on the Taussig Collection: William Lambarde, whose Eirenarcha Is considered the best JP manual of the 16th century; William Sheppard; and Giles Jacob.

The highlight of the Taussig JP manuals is the very first printed JP manual:

The book of justices of peace (London, 1506)

The boke of iustyces of peas (London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1506). This anonymous work went through over thirty editions in the 16th century, under various titles. It was never adequately updated and soon became obsolete.

Other JP manuals from the Taussig Collection include…

Anthony Fitzherbert (1470-1538), Loffice et auctoryte des justyces de peas (London, 1538). This is the first edition of Fitzherbert’s popular JP manual, but the only edition in Law French. There were ten editions of English translation, three of which we acquired from Taussig to join the two we already had. The Taussig acquisition also included four of the six expanded editions of Fitzherbert’s JP manual prepared by Richard Crompton.

Michael Dalton, The countrey iustice: containing the practise of the iustices of the peace out of their sessions (London, 1619). Dalton’s Country Justice went through 20 editions, the last in 1746, and was often plagiarized for other JP manuals. This second edition is one of five we acquired from Taussig.

Forms for proceedings on such seizures, as by the late act for preventing frauds, &c. in the publick revenues, are to be heard and determined by justices of the peace (London, 1720). This form book for JPs is one of the rarest items in the Taussig Collection; the only other known copies are at the British Library and the National Library of Scotland.

To learn more about the history of justice of the peace manuals, see:

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian


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