New Exhibit: “Precedents So Scrawl’d and Blurr’d: Readers’ Marks in Law Books”

Detail from Justinian's Institutes (Venice, 1476)
March 4, 2020

Books are the lawyer’s tools and the law student’s laboratory, and nothing brings this home better than the marks that they leave in their books. Over 30 such annotated and inscribed books from the Lillian Goldman Law Library are on display in “Precedents So Scrawl’d and Blurr’d: Readers’ Marks in Law Books,” the Spring 2020 exhibition from the library’s Rare Book Collection.

Exhibition curator Mike Widener, the Law Library’s rare book librarian, selected items that offer both research potential and insights into the roles that law books have played in people’s lives. The marks left by readers document the lived experience of the law, and remind us that law is above all a human endeavor.

The exhibition’s title comes from John Anstey’s verse satire of the legal profession, The Pleader’s Guide (1796): “Precedents so scrawl’d and blurr’d / I scarce could read one single word.”

Many of the volumes illustrate the work of lawyers, law students, law professors, and authors throughout the centuries. Doodles suggest the writers taking a break from dreary legal studies. Scraps of poetry can be sources for literary scholars. Readers also used their books to record events, ranging from a drunken outburst in the New Jersey assembly to a famous naval battle of the War of 1812 and the beheading of Henry VIII’s fifth queen.

These books represent a small fraction of the annotated books in the Yale Law Library’s rare book collection. They demonstrate the value of collecting these artifacts, and constitute the Law Library’s invitation to explore them further.

“Precedents So Scrawl’d and Blurr’d” is the latest in a series of exhibitions that examine law books as physical artifacts, and the relationships between their forms and content. It is on display March 2 to June 17, 2020, 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 <>.

A true and perfect relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous traitors (London, 1606)

This book documents the trial of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. An early owner wrote his review on the flyleaf:

This is a relation (as the Title Page calls it) and not a Tryal, for no Witnesses are produced in it — It would have been far more Satisfactory to the Reader; if the Evidence had been inserted in the manner it is [in] the State Tryals; where you have the very Words of the Witnesses, and the Cross-Examinations of them by the Prisoners. But here you have little more than the Inditements, & the Harangues of the Lords Commissioners & the Attorney General.

Dr. Cowel in his Interpreter under the word Heyreloom calls this Speech a Divine Speech.

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