Last week I spotted somewhere on the web an announcement about the digitization of a particularly lavishly illuminated medieval manuscript with a legal text, the Decretales Gregorii IX, the major collection of papal decretals issued in 1234 by command of pope Gregory IX. The manuscript from the fourteenth century which prompted me to write this post is commonly called the Smithfield Decretals (Royal 10 E IV). At the British Library in London the digitization of manuscripts is a project on a vast scale, first of all in view of its rich and manifold collections concerning many themes, periods and countries. A blog dedicated to news on digitized medieval manuscripts at the BL helps you to stay informed about the progress of digitization for manuscripts from a particular period. The BL even advertises a smart phone application for the Royal manuscripts, but this app will no longer be supported.
In this post I will look at legal manuscripts digitized by the British Library. Even if the absolute number of relevant manuscripts is really small, an overview of them might be useful. The variety of periods and legal systems merits attention. To redress the balance I will take into account here also illuminated manuscripts with legal texts for which the BL has digitized at least a number of pages or illustrations. A comparison of the search functions of both catalogues is included, too. At the end of this post it might perhaps be possible to conclude which legal text could be scheduled as a new addition to the eBook Treasures of the British Library.
Searching for digitized legal texts at the BL
Some people will like to know as quickly as possible about the things that make a search interface more effectively or hamper its working. For once I agree in starting with a negative remark: the detailed view with the description – and most often a detailed bibliography – of a digitized manuscript at the BL seemed at first to lack a permanent web address. When you save the URL of this view – without noticing the tiny notice “Show link URL” – and you try to reopen it in a new tab or window you cannot access it anymore. A redirection notice appears, and you have to enter your search again. Thus the link I provided in the first paragraph to the Smithfield Decretals is not the link to the detailed view, but to the first page of the digitized manuscript Royal 10 E IV itself. I will give below the correct links to the full descriptions. In the manuscript view you will find a summary of the content placed at the top of the screen. You can search for manuscripts either using a quick search with two fields, keywords and manuscript numbers, or using the advanced search interface with search fields for keywords, manuscript number, title, author/scribe, provenance and acquisition, and bibliography.
A long search for digitized manuscripts with legal texts yielded as a result a rather short list with only some twenty manuscripts. For each manuscript I give the call number, a summary view of the contents, its date and a link to the full description:
- Add. (Additional) 12395: Undang-undang Melaka, laws in Malay; 18th century-beginning 19th century – full description
- Add. 12397: Risalat hukum kanuni, Malay code of laws; 1821 – full description
- Add. 15315: Collection of canons (Νόμιμον): Patriarch Nicephorus I, Chronographia brevis ; John Nesteutes IV, Patriarch of Constantinople, Nomocanonon, Πηδάλιον; 16th century – full description
- Add. 17474: several collections of ecumenical and Eastern Orthodox canons; 1600 – full description
- Add. 18425: Canon law works by Patriarch Nikephoros, Niketas of Herakleia, Demetrios Chomatenos and John Zonaras; 17th century – full description
- Add. 22746: Canons of ecclesiastical councils, with commentaries of John Zonaras and Theodoros Balsamon; Epistle of Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, to Pope Adrian I; 13th century – full description
- Add. 89231: Liber de Hyda or Liber Abbatiae, chronicle-cartulary of Hyde Abbey; mid 15th century – full description
- Arundel 516: Synopsis Basilicorum; several Novellae; 13th century – full description
- Arundel 533: several commentaries by Theodoros Balsamon; second half 14th century – full description
- Cotton Tiberius B VIII: Coronation book of king Charles V of France, with supplementary materials (f. 35-80; 1365-1380, with illuminations); Pontificale (12th century) – full description
- Cotton Vespasian A VIII: Charters of English kings; around 966 and around 1200 - full description
- Egerton 2802: Cartulaire de Quimperlé; 1100-1755 (mainly medieval) – full description
- Harley 55: Laws of king Edgar and Cnut; a medical treatise; early 11th century – full description
- Harley 79: Statuta Angliae (13th century) and other texts – full description
- Harley 1498: Quadripartite indenture for king Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster; 1504 – full description; illuminations
- Harley 5675: Collection of ecclesiastical laws compiled by Theodoros Balsamon, several Justinian Novellae and other texts on Byzantine law; 13th century – full description
- Harley 6310: Konstantinos Harmenopoulos, Epitome of ecclesiastical canons; 16th century; bound with Johann Georg Atzenhover, De actionibus mixtis (Sedan 1595) – full description
- Or. 16214: Sejarah Melayu, Malay laws; between 1832 and 1842 – full description
- Papyrus 131: The Aristotelian Constitution of Athens (Athenaion Politeia), and other texts; 78-100 – full description
- Royal 10 E IV: Smithfield Decretals (Decretales Gregorii IX with the glossa ordinaria); 14th century – full description; iconography and images in catalogue of illuminated manuscripts
- Sloane 2393: Undan-undang, laws in Malay; written before 1753 – full description
The papyrus with the complete text of the Athenian Constitution is the subject of a recent post at the BL’s manuscripts blog. What strikes me most while searching for these manuscripts is the lack of concise categories added to the description of a manuscript. Of course I realize the difficulty in adding systematic descriptors when dealing with composite manuscripts and convolutes. The sheer number of manuscripts in the British Library has as one of its consequences that some manuscript descriptions can be rather outdated, but newer descriptions are often very detailed.
Some legal texts surfaced really by chance. I looked for the exchequer when I found Harley 1498, an agreement concerning the royal burial chapel at Westminster. This indenture is not a chirograph, a charter split into two or more parts, but a book with indentures. A second part of it is kept at the National Archives, E 33/1. The coronation book of the French king Charles V (Cotton Tiberius B VIII) can serve as a reminder that a coronation is a ritual with legal elements in it. The texts of French coronation ordines have been edited anew by Richard A. Jackson (ed.) , Ordines Coronationis Franciae: Texts and Ordines for the Coronation of Frankish and French Kings and Queens in the Middle Ages (2 vols., Philadelphia, 2001).
After repeated searches with a substantial number of very different search terms with a clear meaning for legal history I still have not found more than this tiny sample from the immensely varied and large manuscript collections of the British Library. I hesitate to include here a fragment of farming memoranda of Ely Abbey from the first quarter of the eleventh century (Add. 61735). The New Minster Liber Vitae from Winchester (Stowe 944) does contain the text of some charters and the will of King Ælfred, but these legal texts are not the core of this manuscript.
For some manuscripts guidance can be found online in repertories, and sometimes even at a specialised blog. Greek manuscripts clearly get special attention in London. The Zonaras blog for the history of Eastern Christian canon law is a very useful guide to this field, and I am happy to point to it for more information about authors such as John Zonaras and Theodoros Balsamon. Manuscripts with text concerning Byzantine law are the subject of two German repertories which are available online at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. You can download PDF’s of both the Repertorium der Handschriften des byzantinischen Rechts, Teil I: Die Handschriften des weltlichen Rechts (Nr. 1-327), Ludwig Burgmann, Marie-Theres Fögen, Andreas Schminck and Dieter Simon (eds.) (Frankfurt am Main, 1995), and the Repertorium der Handschriften des byzantinischen Rechts, Teil II: Die Handschriften des kirchlichen Rechts I (Nr. 328-427), Andreas Schminck and Dorotei Getov (eds.) (Frankfurt am Main 2011). Both books were published in the series Forschungen zum Byzantinischen Rechts; more PDF’s of some publications in this series can be found at a special subdomain of the website of the Frankfurt institute. English legal manuscripts are being catalogued by the untiring efforts of Sir John Hamilton Baker. He did this also for the Taussig collection with many English manuscripts now at the Lillian Goldman Law Library of Yale University [John H. Baker and Anthony Taussig (eds.), A catalogue of the legal manuscripts of Anthony Taussig (London 2007)].
Light on illuminated legal manuscripts
The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library does quickly dispel any misgiving about the percentage of legal texts among the various manuscript collections. Let’s not overdo things here, and first go to the origin of this post, manuscripts with decretals or commentaries on papal decretals. Here, too, you can choose between a quick general search and an advanced search mode.
A search for illuminated manuscripts with decretals yields 35 records. For each manuscript you can go to a page with thumbnail images and summary descriptions of the illuminations. Often you will find more detailed images, too. Thus choosing a scene using this overview from the bas-de-page illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals is even easier than using the complete digital version of this manuscript. The illustrations in the lower margins present often consecutive scenes and tales. In August 2012 Alixe Bovey (University of Kent) contributed a very interesting post on the decorations of this manuscript to the BL’s manuscripts blog, ‘Finishing the Smithfield Decretals’. Some books have only penwork flourishes at the beginning of chapters. Among these illuminated manuscripts with decretals I would like to single out Harley 2349, a manuscript written between 1340 and 1450 with papal decretals and statutes of England. The manuscript Royal 10 C IV with the Abbreviatio Decreti Gratiani by Omnibonus, written between 1198 and 1202 has penwork initials and some additional drawings in the margins. Omnibonus’s name made me remember the Omne Bonum, the illustrated encyclopedia by James le Palmer, a clerk of the Exchequer (four volumes, Royal 6 E VI and 6 E VII, written around 1360-1375).
As for other legal texts in illuminated manuscripts you will have to pick your choice from a wide variety of manuscripts, from books with only one decorated initial to manuscripts with lavish almost full-page illustrations in historiated initials. Let one example suffice, the Statuta Angliae. This text and other statutes can be found in nearly sixty illuminated manuscripts. Hargrave 274 (written around 1488) contains the Nova Statuta and is probably the most elaborately illustrated example. Harley 947 (first half fourteenth century) with both the Statuta Angliae and the text of the Magna Carta deserves mentioning for its picture of a lawyer speaking to an assembly.
The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is truly a treasure trove, even if the manuscripts of the Cotton collection have not yet been included. When searching for an image with some relevance for legal history you find yourself here with a mer à boire. Legal iconography will not come back empty-handed from searches at this website or in the Online Gallery of the British Library. It is surely possible to include the BL in a comparison of online image resources of major research libraries, something that might be really interesting. In particular the use of taxonomies such as Iconclass might come into view when comparing different databases. A comparison with a portal such as Manuscripts Online: Written Culture from 1000 to 1500 would be equally valuable. In this post, however, I wanted to give due attention to the world’s second largest library and its manuscript holdings. I invite you to use its resources for yourself and to choose a manuscript that deserves digitization, or even inclusion among the showcases. The British Library has much more to offer, and I am sure this library will be present again in future posts.
A very substantial number of digitized manuscripts with legal texts held in the British Library is accessible online thanks to the recent edition project Early English Laws which aims at creating new editions of English laws issued before 1215. Among the 81 manuscripts selected within this project nearly forty are at the British Library. However, here only these pages are shown which contain relevant legal texts. Hopefully it will be possible to include them in their entirety as a part of the BL’s Digitized Manuscripts program.