New on the shelves: Pocket edition of the Institutes

Michael Widener

One of my favorite recent acquisitions is a tiny pocket edition of Justinian’s Institutes, printed in 1510 by Jean Petit. It measures only 3.375 inches tall (9.5 centimetres). Our copy is bound in gilt tooled vellum over pasteboards, with much of the gold gilt rubbed off. The flyleaf bears an early owner’s inscription: “Ad usum Innocensi de Rosso”, and there are handwritten marginal notes throughout.

The Institutes is perhaps the most long-lived student textbook in history, used by students of Roman law for well over a millenium. It was originally promulgated as the authorized textbook of Roman law by the emperor Justinian in 533 A.D., and was still being used by law students in the 18th century.

To fit the Institutes in a pocket format, the publisher of the 1510 edition stripped away the medieval gloss that usually surrounded Justinian’s text. The full title, Institutio[n]es imperiales : sine [qui]bus legum humanarum sacrorum[que] canonum amator mancus est, could be roughly translated as “The Imperial Institutes, a book no law student should be without.”

At the foot of the title page are three maxims. “Cum bonis ambula” (“Keep company with good people”) is from Cato.  “Mors peccatorum pessima” (“The death of sinners is hard”) is from Psalms 34:21. “Sic utere tuo ut alieno non egeas” means something along the lines of “Do not steal.” These maxims also appeared on the title pages of other books printed in Paris in the early 16th century. Were they intended for the student’s moral edification, or perhaps to discourage book thieves? [Thanks to Susan Karpuk, the Law Library’s head cataloger, for help with the Latin translations.]

This is a very rare little book. The only other copy I could locate is at the Austrian National Library.

It is also, possibly, the earliest pocket edition of the Institutes. If someone can cite an earlier example, please let me know.

Rare Book Librarian

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