Rare Books Blog

Scottish herringbone binding, early 18th century
February 12, 2019

The Rare Book Collection’s current exhibition, “Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library,” can now be viewed online in our Flickr site, in the Legally Binding album.

The album contains images of all 34 volumes displayed in the exhibition, plus three more that were cut from the physical exhibition for lack of space. The Flickr captions contain the text from the exhibition labels, as well as links to the catalog records for each book. For some of the books, the Flickr album contains images of both front and back covers, which were impossible to display in the exhibit cases.

This is an opportunity to point out two excellent online databases of historical bindings that include items from our Rare Book Collection.

“Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library” is on display through May 24 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery on Level L2 of the Yale Law School.

In closing, I and my co-curator, Michael Laird of Michael Laird Rare Books, wish to thank the following individuals for their contributions to the exhibition.

  • William E. Butler, Dickinson School of Law, Pennsylvania State University
  • Scott Husby, Princeton University Library (retired)
  • Shana Jackson, Lillian Goldman Law Library
  • Ryan Martins, Yale Law School
  • Pamela Rentz, Lillian Goldman Law Library
  • Yuksel Serindag, Lillian Goldman Law Library
  • Eric White, Princeton University Library
  • Benjamin Yousey-Hindes

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Binding with arms of Cardinal Francesco Ricci
February 4, 2019

Many of the historic volumes in the Lillian Goldman Law Library are significant not only for their texts, but for their extraordinary bindings. Over thirty of these are featured in the Rare Book Collection’s Spring 2019 exhibition, “Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library.”

The curators of the exhibition are Michael Laird, owner of Michael Laird Rare Books in Lockhart, Texas, and Michael Widener, the Law Library’s Rare Book Librarian. They selected bindings for their beauty, craftsmanship, functionality, and historical significance.

“These bookbindings tell stories about the people who owned them, read them, or sold them at some point in their long histories,” write Laird and Widener. “The bindings reflect the time and place of their creation, and reveal attitudes about the legal texts they continue to protect. They also illustrate chapters in the history of book binding.”

The examples date from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century, and from across Europe and the Americas. They include bindings prepared for students, lawyers, public officials, noblemen, wealthy magnates, a book collector, an Italian cardinal, a chained library in England, the tourist trade in China, the Queen Regent of Spain, the English diarist John Evelyn, and a palace of the Tsar of Russia.

“Legally Binding” is the latest in a series of exhibitions that examine law books as physical artifacts, and the relationships between their forms and content.

“Legally Binding: Fine and Historic Bindings from the Yale Law Library” is on display February 4 to May 30 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, located on Level L2 of the Yale Law School (127 Wall Street, New Haven CT). The exhibition is open to the general public 10am-6pm daily, and open to Yale affiliates until 10pm.

For more information, contact Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian, phone (203) 432-4494 and email <mike.widener@yale.edu>.

Batton Lash
January 26, 2019

Our Rare Book Collection aggressively collects the works of several authors. Most of them are English lawyers and judges from long ago, most notably Sir William Blackstone. The exception is the comics author Batton Lash, a Brooklyn native. Our collection of his Supernatural Law comics is the most complete of any library in the world. I am sad to report that Batton Lash passed away January 12, after a long battle with brain cancer.

Supernatural Law documents the exploits of Wolff & Byrd, “Counselors of the Macabre.” The duo made their debut in 1979 in a comic strip for The Brooklyn Paper, which also ran in The National Law Journal from 1983 to 1997. In 1994 Lash and his wife Jackie Estrada founded Exhibit A Press and published over 50 bimonthly issues of Supernatural Law, including several starring Wolff & Byrd’s legal secretary, Mavis. They have also issued 17 trade paperbacks, such as The Gods Must be Litigious (2010) and the most recent, Supernatural Law: Grandfathered In (2018). Three of the titles have been translated into French and Spanish. Estrada and Lash also authored an excellent bibliography, The Supernatural Law Companion: A Reader’s Guide to Wolff & Byrd (2015), complete with back stories and anecdotes. Lash relied on a lawyer friend, Mitch Berger, to vet the comic for legal accuracy.

Batton Lash was known as an innovator in the comics world. Exhibit A Press was a pioneering venture in self publishing. Lash was one of the first comics artists to publish online, at http://supernaturallaw.com/. His colleagues dubbed him the unofficial “Mayor of San Diego Comic-Con.”

The Yale Law Library’s collection grew out of my parallel interests in legal illustration and law & popular culture. Supernatural Law comics were included in our 2010 exhibition, “Superheroes in Court: Lawyers, Law and Comic Books,” and in our 2017 exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City, “Law’s Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection.”

Batton Lash’s death prompted an outpouring of eulogies in social media, where friends and colleagues remembered him as witty, unfailingly kind, and as a very sharp dresser. The Comics Reporter has compiled links to dozens of eulogies. See especially the obituaries in The Brooklyn Paper, The San Diego Reader, The Comics Journal, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

I regret that I never had the privilege of meeting Batton Lash in person. My deepest condolences to his widow, Jackie Estrada, and to all who knew and loved him.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Batton Lash, Zombie Wife, and Other Tales of Supernatural Law (San Diego: Exhibit A Press, 2014).

Printing and the Mind of Man
December 19, 2018

‘Tis the season for making lists. One popular way of taking stock of the past year is through lists of the year’s “greatest hits.” My colleague Fred Shapiro recently issued the 2018 edition of his annual list of most notable quotes, and lists of the year’s best (or worst) books and movies abound.

“All time greatest” lists are also popular and even useful pastimes. The book world is well supplied with such lists. Perhaps the most influential is Printing and the Mind of Man (2nd ed. 1983), which began as the catalogue of a 1963 exhibition in London. It has become a guide and yardstick for collectors.

For those who prefer round numbers for their lists, the Grolier Club has produced several “Grolier hundred” bibliographies, in conjunction with exhibitions, showcasing the 100 most famous books in fields including science, medicine, children’s literature, and English literature.

So what are legal literature’s greatest hits? We have a few lists to choose from. “Five books stand out pre-eminently in the history of English law,” wrote Sir William Holdsworth in Some Makers of English Law (1966):

  1. Ranulf de Glanvill, Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Anglie (late 12th century, first print edition 1554)
  2. Henry de Bracton, De legibus & consuetudinibus Angliae (13th century; first print edition 1569)
  3. Thomas Littleton’s Tenures (1st ed. 1482)
  4. Sir Edward Coke, The first part of the Institutes of the lawes of England (1st ed. 1628)
  5. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1st ed. 1765-69)

For American law, we have the list of ten greatest American law books compiled by legal historian Bernard Schwartz in A Book of Legal Lists (1997):

  1. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist (1788)
  2. James Kent, Commentaries on American Law (1826-30)
  3. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833)
  4. Thomas M. Cooley, A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations which Rest upon the Legislative Power of the American Union (1868)
  5. Christopher Columbus Langdell, A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts (1871)
  6. Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Common Law (1881)
  7. Benjamin N. Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process (1921)
  8. Jerome N. Frank, Law and the Modern Mind (1930)
  9. James C. Carter, Law: Its Origin, Growth and Function (1907)
  10. Richard A. Posner, Economic Analysis of Law (1973)

The 424 entries in Printing and the Mind of Man (PMM) include nine law books:

  1. Justinian’s Institutes (1468), PMM 4
  2. Littleton’s Tenures (1482), PMM 23
  3. Bracton’s De legibus & consuetudinibus Angliae (1569), PMM 89
  4. Grotius’ De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625), PMM 125
  5. Coke on Littleton (1628), PMM 126
  6. Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Loix (1748), PMM 197
  7. Beccaria’s Dei Delitti e delle Pene (1764), PMM 209
  8. Blackstone’s Commentaries (1765-69), PMM 212
  9. The Federalist (1788), PMM 234

The most wide ranging and comprehensive list I’ve seen is The Formation and Transmission of Western Legal Culture: 150 Books that Made the Law in the Age of Printing (Serge Dauchy et al. eds., 2016).

I find all of these lists interesting, useful (for teaching and for collection development), and unavoidably debatable. Their capacity for provoking debate is in fact one of their virtues. My primary objection to all these law lists is that they exclude tools such as law dictionaries and abridgments, practical literature such as form books, and legislative works such as the Code Napoleon, all of which have had enormous influence on the law, the law’s practitioners, and the law’s subjects. In addition, none of them venture outside the confines of western civilization.

In devising a new list, issues would include:

  • Chronological limits.
  • Geographic boundaries.
  • Size. (I’m partial to 100).
  • What constitutes a “book”? Does Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution qualify?
  • What constitutes a “law book”?
  • Do we include codes or other legislative works?
  • Do we include tools such as law dictionaries, abridgments, form books, or practice guides?
  • What constitutes “great” or “influential”?

Finally, there is the question of who does the selection. I’m in favor of a mixed group of librarians, historians, collectors, and practitioners. If the discussion doesn’t produce a bibliography or an exhibition, it would at least be fun.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Signature of Seth Staples on an early Connecticut law book
November 27, 2018

In this Thanksgiving season, one recent gift the Lillian Goldman Law Library is thankful for is a pair of books that were part of the Yale Law School’s original library. Sold by the law school as duplicates 145 years ago, they returned last year as a gift from the estate of John Edwin Ecklund (Yale ‘38, Yale Law ‘41) via his widow, Constance Ecklund.

The two volumes are intimately tied to the history and growth of the Yale Law School and its law library.

Acts and laws of His Majesty's English colony of Connecticut in New-England in America, 1750

Acts and Laws of His Majesty’s English Colony of Connecticut in New-England in America (New-London: Timothy Green, 1750) bears the bold signature of Seth P. Staples (1776-1861), the first instructor in the private law school that evolved into the Yale Law School. On the flyleaf Staples wrote “Bought at the Auction Room”.

Acts and laws of the state of Connecticut, 1784

Acts and Laws of the State of Connecticut, in America (New-London: Timothy Green, 1784) is inscribed on the title page by Samuel J. Hitchcock (1786-1845), Staples’ law partner and the school’s proprietor (along with David Daggett) after Staples departed for New York City in 1824. The title page also bears the crossed-out signature of the book’s first owner, Samuel Bishop (1723?-1803), who served as mayor of New Haven, chief judge of the county probate court, justice of the peace, town clerk, and Collector of the Port of New Haven.

These collections of Connecticut statutes would have been indispensable resources for Staples and Hitchcock in their law practice, for their students, and for the members of the New Haven bar who used their library. The library was the primary reason the school survived after the death of Hitchcock in 1845, when members of the bar convinced Yale to take over the school and helped raise the funds to purchase the library.

In 1869 the Yale Law School was again threatened with closure, due to the death of Professor Henry Dutton. Once again the New Haven bar was instrumental in the school’s survival, and for the same reason: access to the school’s law library. It was decided that the third floor of the new County Court House would be reserved for the Yale Law School and its library. The library began moving into its new quarters in January 1873. It was at this moment – January 30, 1873, to be exact – that these two books left the library. They bear identical inscriptions on their front pastedowns: “Yale Law School Library / Duplicate and sold to Johnson T. Platt / January 30, 1873 / Simeon E. Baldwin / Treas. Law Department”.

Yale Law School Library / Duplicate and sold to Johnson T. Platt / January 30, 1873 / Simeon E. Baldwin / Treas. Law Department

Simeon E. Baldwin (1840-1927) and Johnson T. Platt (1844-1890) were two of the three young New Haven attorneys (William C. Robinson was the third) enlisted as faculty in the rejuvenated Yale Law School. Baldwin remained on the faculty for a half century, during which he also served as chief justice and governor of Connecticut, and as president of the American Bar Association, which he helped found. Platt was a popular professor until his untimely death at the age of 47.

These two books contain the earliest evidence I have seen of weeding the collection. It wasn’t until years later that the library’s original collection became cherished as “the oldest extant mementos of the early history of the Yale Law School,” as Law Librarian Frederick Hicks wrote in 1935. It was Hicks who gathered the remnants to form the Founders Collection, now one of the crown jewels of our Rare Book Collection. By that time the original collection of 2,260 volumes had dwindled to only 386. Today, thanks to discoveries and the Ecklund gift, the Founders Collection stands at 430 volumes. As Hicks observed, “If henceforth we treat them with reverence, the contrast with their former experiences will be great. They bear the scars of use and misuse, and reflect the lean years through which the law library itself more than once has passed.”

For the early history of the Founders Collection, there is no better source than Frederick C. Hicks, Yale Law School: The Founders and the Founders’ Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), which is also available online. For the school’s 1873 move to the New Haven County Court House, see Frederick C. Hicks, Yale Law School: 1869-1894 Including the County Court House Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937). Both works also have thorough biographical sketches of the principal actors.

The Lillian Goldman is grateful to John Edwin Ecklund for acquiring these volumes and to his estate for sending them home.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

Johannes Buno, Memoriale institutionum juris, 1672
November 15, 2018

A selection of works which use various visual devices (charts, illustrations, diagrams…) to present information in interesting ways


Giovanni d’Andrea. Lecture super arboribus consanguineitatis et affinitatis. Vienna: Hieronymus Vietor and Johann Singriener, 1513.

These diagrams are visual hypotheticals, presenting the student with tough legal issues involving blood relationships. Despite its relatively small size, the wide margins left enough space for a student to attempt a solution of his own.

Giovanni d’Andrea. Super arboribus consanguinitatis et affinitatis. Manuscript, Austria, 15th century.

This 15th century manuscript contains a number of related works, includes these hand-drawn and colored copies of Giovanni D’Andrea’s trees of consanguinity and affinity. Tree diagrams were a popular way to convey information about family relations in a compact, easy-to-understand way. These diagrams illustrate in just two pages what would otherwise take many pages of text to explain. They continued to be used in the era of printing - a print version of the tree on the left was the first image to appear in a printed law book.


Ely Warner. “A system of law in, a series of lectures, delivered, ore tenus at Litchfield (Conn.) from June 1808 to September 1809.” Volume 1 of 3.

This is a student’s notebook from a lecture at the first law school in the United States, Litchfield Law school, which opened its doors in 1773. On the left is the end of a chronological chart of different case reporters, allowing the student to quickly and easily locate a case. On the right, the notes begin with a section on municipal law.


Johannes Buno. Memoriale institutionum juris. Ratzburg: Nicolaus Nissen, 1672.

This confusing chart is actually designed to make it easier for students to memorize the Institutes of Justinian. It reduces the mass of information presented in the Institutes to a series of allegorical engravings keyed to passages in the text, to aid in memorization. Can you work out the meaning behind any of the images?

Giles Jacob. Tables to the Law. London: Printed by E. and R. Nutt and R. Gossling …, 1736.

This table, part of a series printed by Giles Jacob, outlines the definitions and punishments for a host of common crimes against God, the king, and the public. The large format allows it to present a variety of information in a way that is accessible and easy to display.



–Ryan R. Martins, Rare Book Fellow

“Learning the Law: The Book in Early Legal Education” is on display October 1 to December 14, 2018, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, located on Level L2 of the Yale Law School (127 Wall Street, New Haven CT). The exhibition is open to the general public 10am-6pm daily, and open to Yale affiliates until 10pm.

A full catalogue of the exhibit can be found here.

Notes on Imperatoris Iustiniani Institutionum libri IV, 1642
November 15, 2018
A selection student notebooks and marginalia



Imperatoris Iustiniani Institutionum libri IV. Amsterdam: Joan & Cornelis Blaeu, 1642.

This copy of Justinian’s Institutes combines a number of interesting design elements. The original text of the Institutes – in the center of the small printed page –  is surrounded by later printed commentary, or gloss. This left no room for marginal notes, which this volume’s owner rectified by interleaving the printed volume with blank pages to allow for his extensive annotations.


Sir Samson Eure. Doctrina placitandi, ou L’art & science de bon pleading. London: Printed by the assigns of R. and E. Atkins Esquires, for Robert Pawlet …, 1677. Interleaved with notes by Samuel Kekewich (1783).

The creation of commonplace books was once a popular method of legal study. It consisted of entering notes on case law, statutes, and lectures in notebooks under alphabetically arranged topics. The printed book here, a treatise on pleading, is organized like a commonplace book. At least a century after it was printed, its owner, Samuel Kekewich, converted it into a commonplace book by interleaving it with blank pages, giving him the space to add material of his own.


~Ryan R. Martins, Rare Book Fellow

“Learning the Law: The Book in Early Legal Education” is on display October 1 to December 14, 2018, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, located on Level L2 of the Yale Law School (127 Wall Street, New Haven CT). The exhibition is open to the general public 10am-6pm daily, and open to Yale affiliates until 10pm.

A full catalogue of the exhibit can be found here.



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