Tag Archives: Common law

A portal for the history of the common law

Screenprint online guide to the history of common law, Bodlieian LibrariesSometimes things arrive really unexpectedly. Good introductions and guides to any research field can help you enormously in getting started, gaining an overall view of things and offering openings to wider context. At my own website for legal history, Rechtshistorie, I offer introductions to several legal systems and their history. Recently a couple of online subject guides were launched by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford which deserve attention here. They amount in fact to a portal. I will focus on the guide to the history of common law, but the other guides are worth visiting, too.

Common law in manifold variety

Logo Bodleian Libraries

A first glance at the new subject guide shows first and foremost an almost overwhelming mass of subjects. It is really a choice to present between thirty and forty subjects on separate pages instead of ordering them a bit by putting for example particular periods or royal courts under separate headings. The first row of headings clearly leads you to more general subjects and some specific sources, the Year Books and law reports. It is easy to point to themes and subjects you might want to add or remove here. Forest law makes a surprise appearance, but you might want to add for example the Inns of Court. Some reshuffling is surely possible, perhaps first of all bringing periods at one level or putting the items in alphabetical order. Anyway I have not yet seen any LibGuide with such a high number of subpages.

In my review of this research guide you must forgive me my personal picks among the headings! Local legal officials is a page giving you general guidance to a fair number of these officials, and understandably sheriffs, constables, justices of the peace and coroners receive most attention here, apart from general information about local government. You will find much more about medieval coroners on my own common law web page.

Under Commentary you will find information about the major current standard works about English legal history and you will be sent also to great historians such as Maitland, Holdsworth, Milsom, Vinogradoff and of course Blackstone. The heading Treatises & Authorities brings you to classic writers such as Coke and Hale, and also to older treatises (Bracton, Britton), but also again to Blackstone. The references to online versions are both to licensed editions only accessible at subscribing institutions, and to free accessible versions. If you have access to subscribers-only materials you are lucky indeed. The free versions give sometimes only a translation of a particular source, a thing not always indicated here.

Among the periods to review here I have chosen a classic era, 1066-1216. The overview of regnal years is most useful, and the choice of electronic resources with both laws and treatises is a good one, as is the choice of studies which you should consult. A second era, 1820-1914, clearly stems from the volume in the Oxford History of the Laws of England. Here the attention to reports is indeed welcome, but I did not find a reference to the U.K. Parliamentary Papers (Proquest). A separate page about the history of Parliament would be very useful, but going to Legislative history solves this apparent omission. On the page about Ireland I missed the Dippam portal with the Enhanced British Parliamentary papers on Ireland. By the way, some pages in this guide have an URL with numeral codes, others contain words which are more recognisable to human eyes. The page on Scotland is strong on important studies and less full for online resources.

The online guide for the history of the common law shows its sheer width by containing a page on canon law. It offers a nutshell guide bringing you to introductions by James Brundage and to some well-chosen studies (Richard Helmholz, Anders Winroth and Stephan Kuttner) and (online) resources. English students starting to discover medieval canon law might want to read also the compact book by Dorothy Owen, The medieval canon law : teaching, literature and transmission (Cambridge 1990).

A web of online guides

The Bodleian Libraries have created similar guides to ancient lawRoman law, the legal history of Western Europe and the history of international law. Using the Bodleian’s general overview of more than one hundred online law research guides the list on the starting page of their LibGuides for law and history can be extended to medieval Scandinavian law and Roman law in translation, a subject dear to me. This overview of translations is very useful. I noticed in particular the online version of excerpts from Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Font (eds.), Women’s life in Ancient Greece and Rome. A Sourcebook in Translation (2nd edition, Baltimore 1992), which deserves inclusion at my own Roman law page. On the page on medieval Scandinavian law I expected a reference to The Medieval Nordic Legal Dictionary, a project led by the University of Aberdeen, mentioned here last year. Yet another nutshell guide of the Bodleian Libraries is Witchcraft and the law in Early Modern Europe and the USA: Bad magic by Isabel Holoway. Hannah Chandler contributes an online guide to criminal and judicial statistics, 1800 to present day.

At the end of this quick review our thanks should go to the Bodleian, especially to Elizabeth Wells and Margaret Watson for their courage and librarianship to create five guides covering important fields of legal history. To me it is clear that you can frown at the very number of individual subjects and periods in the guide to the history of common law, but at the same time it invites you also to rethink your assumptions. I remember visiting somewhere an online guide based on LibGuides with many subdivisions which in the end scarcely helped to find the rich resources of the library and university. Personal taste, preferences and concrete research interests will influence your opinions about these guides. However, the most important conclusion is that the Bodleian Libraries and other libraries using LibGuides do not hesitate to face the challenge to give guidance in the virtual world, too, and thus redefine themselves for new service to student and scholars in the age of digital information. With the guides dealing with themes and subjects in legal history the law guides of the Bodleian Libraries set an example to which other institution can aspire. The very presence of LibGuides has already inspired many libraries to create sensible guides to many subjects, and it is good to see legal history among them.

Two laws and one trial

Banner The Amboyna Conspiracy TrialSometimes even a history blog cannot escape from current affairs, but the opposite happens, too: a historical event comes unexpectedly into view and you keep thinking about it. A few weeks ago I encountered the project The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial (Monash University) about a famous trial in 1623 on the island Ambon, part of the Moluccas islands in the southeastern part of the vast Indonesian archipelago, close to Sulawesi, East Timor, New Guinea and Australia, thus explaining the interest of a team at an Australian university led by Adam Clulow. Among the partners for this project launched in 2016 were the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the Dutch Nationaal Archief in The Hague and the India Office Records of the British Library. The website of the project invites the users to ponder the question on which side they stand. In particular the educational aspects of this website merit attention. Here I use both Ambon and Amboina to refer to the island.

Yet another reason to write here about the Dutch East India Company is the upcoming exhibition at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague, De wereld van de VOC [The World of the VOC] that will be on display from February 24, 2017 to January 7, 2018.

A clash of emerging empires

Poster "De wereld van de VOC" - Nationaal \archief, Den Haag

The story of the trial in 1623 is seemingly simple and straightforward. The Dutch authorities on the island Ambon, officials of the Dutch East Indian Company, arrested a Japanese soldier who had behaved suspiciously. Under torture he and fellow Japanese mercenaries confessed to know about a conspiracy of the English to capture the Dutch fortress. In a span of two weeks Englishmen, too, were captured and tortured to gain confessions. Under Dutch criminal law torture was considered one of the legal means in a trial. The Early Modern maxim “Tortura est regina probationum”, torture is the queen of proves, is not mentioned at the project website. On March 9, 1623 twenty prisoners were executed by the Dutch.

The creators of the Amboyna website are quite right in seeing this trial as a focus point of history. The Dutch and the English competed for the most profitable trade in spice. In fact the name of the Moluccas in Dutch – now in Dutch Molukken – was for many years “Specerij-eilanden”, The Spice Islands. A treaty signed in 1616 seemed a rather peaceful start of Dutch relations with the inhabitants of the Moluccan Islands, but in 1621 governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen decided to invade these islands, aiming in particular at Banda, known for its nutmeg, apart from Grenada the only spot on earth where you can find large quantities of this fruit which also produces yet another spice, mace.

Treaty with Banda, 1616

From 1610 to 1619 Ambon was the central location of the Dutch overseas empire in South East Asia. Coen and his troops killed in 1621 thousands inhabitants of Banda and the surroundings islands on the pretext that they had broken the treaty by trading with other nations than the Dutch, be they English, Spanish or Portuguese. This background of ferocious and ruthless violence close to genocide did not predict a peaceful continuation of relations with the indigenous people nor with other European countries. It is indeed the very story that forever divides those applauding the Dutch energy and colonial expansion, and those who condemn the events and the whole period as an unforgivable and inhuman step in mankind’s history. A few years ago one of the episodes of the television series on the Dutch Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age) centered around the 1621 massacre at Banda (the fifth episode, Een wereldonderneming [A world enterprise]. In January 1623 Coen was succeeded as governor of the Dutch Indies by Pieter de Carpentier.

The website of The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial gives you a timeline with for each day the texts of the confessions made by the arrested suspects. Four exhibits give you a chance to deepen your knowledges about the two East India companies and the spice trade, the role of Japanese mercenaries, trials in Dutch and English law and the uses and role of torture, and the publicity about the trial. Adam Clulow wrote about the Japanese soldiers in his article ‘Unjust, cruel and barbarous proceedings : Japanese mercenaries and the Amboyna incident of 1623’. Itinerario 31 (2007) 15-34. More recently he published The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan (New York, 2014), reviewed for example by Martine van Ittersum for the Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden / Low Countries Historical Review 130/4 (2015). Her main criticism is Clulow’s insufficient information about sources in Dutch and Japanese archives. When eventually news of the trial reached Europe, it sparked off a stream of publications. Just browsing the Knuttel, the famous catalogue of Dutch pamphlets shows you a substantial rise in the number of pamphlets issued in 1624 and 1625, but English pamphleteers were even more active. The website features in the “Archive” section only pamphlets in English. You will find in this section some twenty-five sources and a number of paintings and portraits.

Placcaet, Knuttel no. 3548 - image The Memory of the Netherlands

“Placcaet…”, an ordinance against the first pamphlet concerning the Amboina trial – Knuttel no. 3548 – copy Royal Library, The Hague – image: The Memory of the Netherlands

The presentation of sources for The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial should indeed alert you to what you see and read. For many documents a brief analysis of the text and impact is given, but not for all documents. Some items show just one page of a pamphlet or archival record. No pamphlet is presented here in its entirety. For documents in Dutch a partial translation is given, but no transcription. One of the pamphlets, Waerachtich verhael vande tijdinghen gecomen wt de Oost-Indien (…). Aengaende de conspiratie ontdeckt inde eylanden van Amboyna (Knuttel no. 3547), online at the portal The Memory of the Netherlands, originally printed in Gothic script (Knuttel no. 3546) was quickly translated into English as a part of the pamphlet A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East-Indies (London 1624; digital version at The Memory of the Netherlands). In its turn a Dutch translation appeared of this English reaction (Knuttel no. 3549, online version). The Amboyna project site does not mention nor contain the ordinance (plakkaat) of the Dutch General States forbidding in August 1624 the distribution of the first pamphlet because it would harm the relations between the Dutch and English East India companies [Placcaet… (The Hague 1624; Knuttel no. 3548, online version)]. Clearly this act did not work to suppress the news of the events in the East. Anyway thanks to the original contemporary translations it is substantially but not completely possible to rely on them.

The database The Early Modern Pamphlets Online for Dutch pamphlets and the German Flugschriften does still work despite an announcement about it being shut down on January 1, 2017. You can freely use this online catalogue, instead of going to the subscribers-only commercial version. The Hathi Trust Digital Library has digitized the catalogue of pamphlets held at the Dutch Royal Library [W.P.C. Knuttel (ed.), Catalogus van de pamfletten-verzameling berustende in de Koninklijke bibliotheek (9 vol., The Hague 1890-1920)], and you can use the search function of this version to search in its text.

The “citations” for the archival items and documents at the Amboina website are the titles of the items, with sometimes a very much abbreviated indication of the location and archive. For the colorful painting in the Museum Rumah Budaya in Banda Neira no indication is given when it was created. I can imagine this is exactly the question teachers or instructors want their students to solve. The image of the 1616 treaty with Banda above is marked “Contract with Banda, 3 May 1616”. Here, too, you might think it would spoil the things students have to do if I would give here more information about this source. I had expected a list with full references for all items in an appendix to the project, tucked away in the teachers’ corner. The start page of the digital project shows part of an engraving showing the torturers and their victims. In a corner of the image you can find a reference in small print giving the reference to this image from the collections of the Rijksmuseum (object no. RP-P-OB-68.279, cat. no. FMH 2328-7). The engraving was published in 1673, not nearly fifty years earlier.

Header TANAP Archives

However, when you start checking you will find several textual witnesses to this treaty, thus making it seem that the image of this treaty – or any other archival record – was taken at random among the registers and originals held at the Dutch Nationaal Archief. The TANAP portal is a great gateway to search for many aspects of the Dutch East India Company both in Dutch, British, Sri Lankan and Indonesian archives. In the combined inventories you will find at least three items with the 1616 contract. The important point is that these inventories do not provide you with digitized images, hence the usual need for good references for documents and images. I would almost leave it to you to search in the TANAP portal for the events at Ambon, but I feel rather certain one of the registers used is Nationaal Archief, inventory 1.04.2, no. 1080, because “VOC 1080” is often mentioned in the citations. Inventory 1.04.02 at the website of the Nationaal Archief contains more than 4 million scanned pages, but not for this register.

If you want mores images at your screen you can combine the riches of The Memory of the Netherlands with for example the portal Atlas of Mutual Heritage. The TANAP portal has a fine links selection, and the introduction to the history of the VOC by F.S. Gaastra is most substantial and supported by a fine bibliography. For more links you should visit the site of the VOC-Kenniscentrum. An important general source are the reports of the governors of Ambon, edited by G.J. Knaap, Memories van overgave van gouverneurs van Ambon in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw (The Hague 1987), digitized by the Huygens Instituut, and you will no doubt be interested in the digitized resolutions of the Dutch Staten Generaal from 1575-1630.

The educational purpose of the trial website is very clear in the section Your Verdict. Six major questions are fired at you to help you to come to a balanced verdict about the trial. In my view it is one thing to ask these questions, and another thing to create real full access to relevant documents. However judicious the choice of selections, however wise the suggestions for analysis, you will learn from having at your disposal images of the complete documents, transcriptions and translations, with full references to track them again, and this holds true also for paintings and portraits. This lack of exact information mars the quality of this digital collection. The team has in mind to create similar projects around two other conspiracy trials, but now it seems at some turns that some basic information has been left out to create a smooth and convincing selection. Your judgment on these matters will also depend on your preference for a working educational project which stresses the importance of independent thinking and weighing of facts and views, certainly a major and important aim, or a preference to create a showcase for doing real historical research around a historical cause célèbre.

Amidst of all things surroundings this case it is instructive to see the shocked reaction at Batavia (Jakarta), since 1619 the VOC headquarter at Java, of the superiors of Isaacq de Bruijn, the Dutch advocate-fiscal, the senior officer leading the investigation at Ambon. We have to bear in mind that the position of the various members of the VOC united in a number of kamers (chambers) in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other cities, and the Staten Generaal in The Hague was many thousand miles away. The interaction between the two circles, and even between Java and Ambon was not quick to say the least. It reminded me of a famous article by the late Cees Fasseur (1938-2016), ‘Een koloniale paradox. De Nederlandse expansie in de Indonesische archipel in het midden van de negentiende eeuw (1830-1870)’ [A colonial paradox. The Dutch expansion in the Indonesian archipelago in the mid-nineteenth century (1830-1870)], Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 92 (1979) 162-186. It is the model article in a student guide by P. de Buck for writing history papers and master theses, Zoeken en schrijven : handleiding bij het maken van een historisch werkstuk (first edition Haarlem 1982). It seems this configuration of powers and distances can be dated two centuries earlier.

Meanwhile in Holland

Is this only a Utrecht view of things? Let me at least bring you to a diary of someone from Utrecht who could in principle have had first hand knowledge. Aernout van Buchell (Buchelius) (1565-1641) from Utrecht has figured here a few times already. He was not only interested in history, but was also between 1619 and 1621 a member of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company as a delegate of the States of Utrecht. In 2011 Kees Smit made a transcription (PDF) of a manuscript by Van Buchell at the Nationaal Archief [, Aanwinsten Eerste Afdeling, 256 (old 1882 A VI 8 2)]. It contains some drawings, including a map showing Ambon and a drawing of Fort Amboyna (f. 37v-38r). At f. 102v he wrote in May 1624: “Het jacht, dat den 4. januarii 1624 was van de stat Nieu Batavia ofte Jacatra uuyt Java geseilt, is in mayo gearriveert, brengende tijdinge dat drie schepen, wel geladen, veertien dagen ofte drie weecken, als men verhoopten, soude volgen, ende noch drie schepen bijcans toegerust lagen op de custen van Cormandel. Verhaelden meede van eene conspiratio bij eenige Engelsche ende inwoonders op Amboyna, meinende het casteel aldaer te veroveren. Maer waren gemelt, eenige gevangen, sommige gejusticeert, oeck Engelse. Waerover men seyt, dat den coninc van Groot-Britanniën qualic soude tevreden wesen, van sijne oorblasers opgeritzt. Alsofte men de quaetdoenders niet en behoorden te straffen! Ende die mosten in Engelant geremitteert worden.”

Van Buchell starts telling about the yacht arriving from Batavia on January 1624, and six more ships following within a number of weeks. From “Verhaelden” onwards he jotted down notes about the events at Ambon and his opinion, in my translation: “[They] told also about a conspiracy – note the Latin conspiratio, OV – of some Englishmen and inhabitants of Amboina who aimed at capturing the castle. But they were denounced, some captured, some judged, Englishmen too. As to this it was said the king of Great Britain would hardly be pleased, but – more likely – provoked by his advisors. As if these wrongdoers did not need to be punished! Most of them are being pardoned in England”. Alas these are is only notes about this affair, he does not mention it anymore. To me this one note is tantalizing for all the things Van Buchell does not mention, but it is in my view a superficial report showing his first impressions after hearing something about the fateful events at Ambon. He mentions Ambon sixty times in this diary.

Perhaps more telling are lines in an undated Latin poem Van Buchell wrote in his diary (f. 74r): Vidimus, Oceanus salsis quod circuit undis / Incola odoriferos ter ubi capit arbore fructus / Amboynae Batavus leges ubi condidit aequas / Fragrantes interque nuces collesque calentes / Bandanos domuit populos, gentique dolosae / Imposuit frenum Javae, regemque fateri / Compulit, aut victum se aut armis esse minorem (…). A quick translation of my hand: “We see how the Ocean goes around with salt waves where an inhabitant takes thrice a year wonderful smelling fruits from a tree, where the Batave has set equal laws for Amboina, and [where] there are perfumed nuts amidst the hot hills; he rules the peoples of Banda, and he imposed a rein on the treacherous people of Java, and he forced the king to yield, be it as conquered or smaller in arms (…)”. The combination of being sure about the qualities of you own laws and a conviction that peoples on these isles are treacherous, is potentially lethal. It is striking how often Van Buchell writes in this diary about the Protestant missionaries in the Moluccas. There is another VOC diary by Van Buchell yet to be explored [The Hague, Nationaal Archief, inventory, Aanwinsten Eerste Afdeling, no. 255 (old 1882 A VI 8 1)].

Now you might want me to leave out Van Buchell, but in fact it helped me to notice the most obvious gap of the trial website. It is rather strange to bother about the full texts, complete transcriptions and translations of documents, and to accept at face value the statements about the differences in criminal procedure in Dutch law and the common law. Instead of translating Van Buchell writing about an analysis by Hugo Grotius would be most welcome. You can consult his correspondence online at the eLaborate platform of the Huygens Instituut. However, Grotius does mention the Amboyna case in his letters only casually. In 1609 Grotius published Mare Liberum, and in 1625 De iure belli ac pacis. His Inleidinge tot de Hollandsche rechts-geleerdheid appeared only in 1631, but this book deals only with private law. Clulow mentions Grotius and the Amboina case in his 2014 study. In an earlier contribution about Grotius I provided ample information about the first editions, online versions and translations of his works. Simon van Leeuwen’s classic handbook for Roman-Dutch law, Paratitla iuris novissimi dat is een kort begrip van het Rooms-Hollands reght (..) appeared only in 1651.

While pondering the Amboina case and the project website I remembered another Utrecht view of things. My first steps in the fields of legal history were led by Marijke van de Vrugt at Utrecht, the author of a book about De criminele ordonnantie van 1570 (Zutphen 1978), a study about the ordinance for criminal procedure issued by Philips II of Spain. A few years later she contributed to the series Rechtshistorische cahiers the volume Aengaende Criminele Saken [About Criminal Matters] (Deventer 1982) about the history of criminal law, with a chapter about the 1570 ordinance, and also one about Antonius Matthaeus II (1601-1654), a famous law professor at Utrecht, author of De criminibus (first edition 1644). Van de Vrugt provided judiciously chosen relevant text fragments. She discussed in detail ch. 42 of the 1570 Criminal Ordinance and explains its fateful ambiguity due to unclear words about the exceptional use of torture. Matthaeus questioned the eagerness to use torture. Would it not be most natural to provide for both Dutch and common law more precise information when they clearly were crucial for the whole affair? Lack of space and consideration for the stamina of my readers are the practical reasons to leave out here a paragraph about the common law. Clulow mentioned in 2014 the Amboina case to compare it with a later case in Japan, and pointed for good reasons to Grotius. Alas incomplete understanding and investigating the pivotal role of legal matters for the Amboina case mars the trial website.

Some conclusions

Despite my remarks and misgivings about a number of aspect of the Amboyna digital collection I think we should salute it as a welcome addition to the materials available for educational purposes. It makes also a number of documents and images easy available for doing research about the Dutch and British East India companies. At the end of this post I wonder a bit what the input of the India Office Records has been. The absence of records from the British National Archives might cause a frown, too. Adding a full list of references for the documents, archival records and images in this digital collection would redeem a clear gap. The Amboina Conspiracy Trial makes you muse about current ideas about conspiracies and the role of one-sided or full information. It is an example of two laws clashing, Dutch civil law administered by officers of a commercial company granted sovereign powers and the common law. It is chilling to note how this example of quick action led to torture and judicial killings of people where other ways to approach the situation were open.

The Amboina trial website shows many aspects in a colourful way, but it lacks some crucial information about and attention to the very crux of the matters at stake. It would be relatively simple to provide some background about the Dutch law and the common law, instead of just a few sentences. It might seem evident to focus on the trial itself, but you will have to show even in an educational setting more of the background and relevant sources. Only for Isaacq de Bruijn, the infamous Dutch official, things seemed simple. Our world is complicated, and we had better face it. In my recent contribution about presidential libraries I mentioned the replica of the Situation Room. You will need access to all relevant information, time and wisdom to judge a situation correctly and act accordingly.

A postscript

Even this long post did lack at least something very important concerning Dutch law, the collection of ordinances and placards edited by Jacobus Anne van der Chijs, Nederlandsch-Indisch Plakaatboek 1602-1811 (17 vol., Batavia, 1885-1901), also available online completely at Sejarah Nusantara, a portal for seventeeth and eighteenth-century history created by the Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, with both browse and search functions.

An age of lawyers and literature

Flyer The Age of LawyersThe power of words seduces every honest writer to do his or her very best to write in a unique way to convey what you want to say and to add to the expressive qualities of language and literature. Only seldom people succeed in achieving immortal fame and enduring influence on a living language. In this post I want to look at an author who conjured up scenes of unforgettable power using the language of his time in ways unheard of. In fact his works were in some periods considered too rough and therefore edited and censored. Together with the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible the works of William Shakespeare still have immeasurable influence on the English language and culture.

Shakespeare’s works have the power to stir our emotions and imagination. Until today his portraits of English kings and their courts influence our views of English history and royal circles. No doubt this year’s commemoration of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616 will bring a flood of activities and events. A few weeks ahead of the central day there is still a chance to look here in a more sober setting at some of the digital initiatives which try to shed new light on one of the greatest people in world literature. At least one of them, an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., focused on lawyers in Shakespeare’s age, but it comes into better relief surrounded by other projects of The Folger, and by a selection of recently launched online Shakespeare projects and digital projects dealing with Early Modern letters.

Surrounded by lawyers

Even without the Shakespeare connection the exhibition Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain is really interesting. The Folger showed the exhibition from September 4, 2015 until January 4, 2016, but luckily there is an accompanying virtual exhibit. The concept for the exhibition was developed in cooperation with the Georgetown Law Library, a library with early printed legal books in its own digital collection. There are four main sections, Legal LivesThe Great Courts, Law and Communities and The King and the Law. In contrast to usual virtual exhibitions it has not been placed in a clearly defined corner or subdomain of the website, but as a seemingly unconnected item on the Folgerpedia, the website of The Folger for general information. More remarkable is the absence of illustrations. It took me some time before reaching the list of exhibitions at this library’s website. You can only applaud the inclusion of transcriptions of several exhibition items, but they yet have to appear for the fourth section. The very heart of the exhibition is an extended introduction to the materials put on show, to be read side-by-side with the list of items.

The four sections of Age of Lawyers give us a good idea of the world of Elizabethan lawyers. The first section looks at legal education, the Inns of Courts and the various legal professions. The various royal courts are the core of the second section. In the third section legal practice comes into view, its impact on daily life and local communities. The last section shows a great variety of subjects around the central theme of royal power, from major figures such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke to subjects as Magna Charta and the influence of English developments on early American law and politics, with for example attention to Thomas Jefferson. The wealth of materials put on show in this virtual exhibition is impressive, and it is even more interesting to see how many of them come from the holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library. In my opinion this virtual exhibition gives you a very valuable introduction to the legal history of England in the decades around 1600.

Logo Shakespeare Documented

The Folger is one of the institutions contributing to a major virtual exhibition of documents from and about Shakespeare, Shakespeare Documented. Documents, archival records and manuscripts from such institutions the National Archives (Kew), the Bodleian Library, the British Library and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – and from a host of other institutions worldwide – make this exhibition into a real gem. It amounts to a digital collection divided in four main categories: playwright, actor and shareholder; poet, family, legal and property records, and his seventeenth-century afterlife. With 186 of the nearly 500 items the category connecting to legal history is the second largest category of this exhibition. More documents and transcriptions will be added this year. You can search at will using a free text search or preset filters. Shakespeare’s involvement as a shareholder is mostly shown in the conflict about The Globe. It is really not feasible to pick here even among the highlights an absolute must. For me this virtual exhibit is a bridge between only reading Shakespeare’s works or searching your way among the vast literature on him. It also is in a very real sense the connection and life thread between the major projects presented here.

Close to the sources

The Folger Shakespeare Library offers more things online worth exploring. Among its latest projects is Shakespeare’s World, a crowdsourcing project of The Folger, the Zooniverse project for crowdsourcing and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). One of the objectives of this project is finding words that so far have not been included in the OED. People volunteering to cooperate can choose a genre to transcribe. At first the choice between recipes and letters seems a thing to wonder about, but recipes have not been among the resources used by the founders of the OED. Letters can show words less often used, new uses of words, and, perhaps more importantly for the aim of this post, they might show the impact of literary imagination. An apparent drawback is the lack of an overview of senders and recipients.

Private Libraries in Renaissance England (PLRE) is the Folger’s online adaptation of the printed version of this reference work. It is really a database that helps you to execute queries which you will want to check in the original edition. You can get a closer view of books from this period by looking at the section on bindings of The Folger’s LUNA image database.

Logo EMMO - EWaerly Modern Manuscripts Online

Another project is in the development phase. As for now Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) has not yet resulted in a separate website. Since 2014 a lot of workshops and events has been organized. You will find the links section particularly useful, with for example an overview by The Folger of links concerning Early Modern English palaeography and digitized manuscripts.


For my brief introductions to some of The Folger’s own digital projects I use the overview in the Folgerpedia. Personally I would prefer to have this overview on the main website of The Folger, but I suppose we are dealing here with a kind of planetary system around it. The Folger has also prepared a dedicated website for Shakespeare’s works, Folger Digital Texts. For quick reference and easy access this collection is very welcome, even though scholars might want to have a version under PhiloLogic or similar linguistic tools. For this you can turn to Early Modern Print, a project of the Washington University, St. Louis, MO, and the Early English Books Online-Text Creative Partnership. You will find here tools to gain insights into changes in word frequencies, KWIC (Key Words In Context) and a N-gram browser. The very example of KWIC in this project shows results for the word slander, which might inspire legal historians, too, to have a look at it. This overview at The Folger of digital projects and tools, even the subscription-only resources most times only accessible at research libraries, is actually a splendid nutshell guide to the study of Renaissance England. The University of Chicago provides us with a special subdomain to use its Philologic technology on editions and adaptations of Shakespeare.

Lives and letters around Shakespeare

Banner Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

If lawyers played such a large role in Shakespeare’s life you will probably want to know more exactly which lawyers, and more generally which people were closest to Shakespeare. On my journeys around the web I found recently the website Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. The aim of this Anglo-American project is collecting and visualizing data which show you the Early Modern social network. After registration you can download data, and also add new data. Everyone can look at the visualizations or relationships. Bacon (1561-1626) was originally also trained as a lawyer. Even if a similar website could already exist for Shakespeare it becomes quickly clear that you can immensely benefit from using this website when researching Shakespeare’s entourage, especially when you fortify your results with the letters of the project for Shakespeare’s World and the virtual exhibition Shakespeare Documented.

Choosing Bacon is just an example of the many projects dealing with English letters and correspondents. The most generous portal to them is certainly Cultures of Knowledge: Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 (University College London). Perhaps its main offspring, and certainly one closely connected to the theme of this post, is the project Early Modern Letters Online under the aegis of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where you can search directly in letters written in many countries. Some of the resources at Cultures of Knowledge stem from the Lives and Letters project developed and led by the late Lisa Jardine. Among its projects is the edition of the correspondence of Francis Bacon, the main resource behind Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. For those wanting to look at more online projects dealing with letters the overview at Digitizing Correspondence should quench a lot of your thirst, and you might also contemplate the examples of interfaces for these projects. If you add to this wealth the links page at Cultures of Knowledge you can start to investigate for yourself the epistolary culture of Early Modern Europe. Going back to the subject of this post it is the project for the letters of Edmund Spenser which comes close to the sphere of action of William Shakespeare.

Celebrating Shakespeare

How can one avoid the obvious things around Shakespeare and have a fresh look at him? The Folger has created its own list of quatercentenary online projects. When preparing this post I thought about the manifold activities of another American research library, The Newberry in Chicago. Among nearly fifty online educational resources you might have a look at three virtual exhibitions concerning William Shakespeare, Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England, Shakespeare’s Romans: Politics and Ethics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Utopias of the European Renaissance, the last item providing me with a connection to my recent blog post about More’s Utopia.

Instead of going to one of the sections of library websites about their copy of the First Folio, an object for which the label Holy Grail seems almost too simple, it is possible to have a look at digitized First Quartos and to compare various editions. They bring you closer to the times of Shakespeare himself than the posthumous First Folio. However, if you had rather stay with a time-tested resource, there is all reason to visit the section Discover Literature: Shakespeare of the British Library’s website with for example an article by Liza Picard on crime and punishment in Elizabethan England. Andrew Dickson looks at the only existing literary manuscript with Shakespeare’s handwriting, The Booke of Sir Thomas More. The play contains a plea for tolerance towards immigrants, and I cannot help feeling touched by the poignancy of this subject. More was a man for all seasons, and Shakespeare is indeed a writer for all times! The play seems to have been never performed during his life. In the project England’s immigrants 1350-1550: Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages curated by the universities of Sheffield (HRI Online) and York in cooperation with the National Archives at Kew you can find out about 64,000 persons coming to England during two centuries.

Drawing of The Swan. London, by Buchelius

Drawing of The Swan theatre, London, 1596 – Aernout van Buchell, Adversaria – Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132r – image: http://objects.library.uu.nl

The customary Dutch view shown here has in fact figured here in 2013, but without the famous illustration. The image has been used in countless printed publications. Aernout van Buchell (Buchelius) (1565-1646), an antiquarian scholar from Utrecht, copied a drawing around 1596 of The Swan theatre in London (Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132 r). In my earlier post where I wrote about Buchelius you can find the links to more digitized manuscripts of this author.

Of course much more can be said, and has already been said this year. Today I looked briefly at the fine aggregator of Early Modern blogs created by Sharon Howard. If you follow her tag for Shakespeare at Early Modern Commons you will find already dozens of celebratory articles. Hopefully you will appreciate the urgent need to restrict myself here to only a few dozen projects. A search for Shakespeare at Early Modern Resources brings us ten online resources mentioning him. No doubt Sharon Howard will soon add a number of the new Shakespeare projects to Early Modern Resources.

However large and inviting the temptation to end here with one of the countless proverbial words of Shakespeare I had rather invite you to look yourself again and again at this writer whose works breathed life into the English language. His imagination both as a playwright and poet is at many turns so powerful that its glow will last as long people care for the right words which do justice to the humanity living in his works.

A postscript

One of the possible follow-ups to this contribution is looking in more detail at Shakespeare’s plays and the role of law. You can get a taste of this subject by looking at free accessible recent articles in the journals Law and Literature and Law and Humanities.

Celebrating common law beyond Magna Carta

Header Et Seq.

2015 is the year of many celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. It is silly to try to avoid mentioning it here, but I know my readers expect me to find a different slant on the celebration. The four remaining copies of the 1215 version get ample attention at the British Library. The Lincoln copy was put on show in 2014 at the Library of Congress (Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor). Earlier this year there was much media coverage for the finding of a later copy of Magna Carta at Sandwich, Kent. At first I would have almost believed the news concerned the finding of a fifth copy from 1215, but this was not the case. However, this copy from 1300 combined with a copy of the Forest Charter.

Recently Harvard Law Library decided to digitize its collection of manuscripts and archival records with texts concerning medieval English law. At Et Seq., the library’s blog, there were already two announcements, on March 25 about early English manor rolls by Mary Person, and on April 10 ‘Medieval Manuscripts Online-Magna Carta & More’ by Karen Beck. The riches of the digital collections at Harvard Law Library are certainly no secret, but now it seems they surpass their earlier efforts, this time with support from the Ames Foundation. Person and Beck briefly introduced the new digital collections, but there is a real need to tell more here.

A gateway to medieval resources

Detail of roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16) - image Et Seq.

Detail of a manor roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16)

Before going quickly to the newly digitized resources it is wise to look at the overview of historical and special collections, the web page on rare books and manuscripts, and finally the overview of digital collections and digital exhibits. This threefold entrance is in some respects confusing, but each approach is in itself valuable. The only snag is remembering where you found a particular collections, exhibit or link! By the way, the overview of digital historical databases deals with subscription databases.

The first series of digitized archival records consists of some 170 medieval rolls, mainly manor rolls and account rolls, most of them stemming from five villages in different English counties (Cheshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Staffordshire and Suffolk). Some items are effectively not rolls, but charters. The time range of the items goes from 1305 to 1770, with therefore not just medieval sources. These rolls will be successively digitized during the coming years. As for now you can read online only items from Moulton in Cheshire, with just one court roll [no. 20, Lenten court, 30 Henry VIII (1539-1540)]. There is an online finding aid (inventory) with descriptions of all items and whenever available links to their digital version. To assess the variety of materials digitized at Harvard Law School you might have a look at an earlier post here about medieval rolls. English manor rolls could be easily found using the Manorial Documents Register of the British National Archives. I find it harder to get an overview of them using the new Discovery portal, but in the end you can find for example other rolls for Moulton Manor.

The series of medieval legal manuscripts at Harvard Law School has been divided into two section, the first with forty registers of statutes dating from the early fourteenth century until 1500, the second for nineteen registers of writs. The oldest register of writs (Registrum brevium with also some tracts) dates from around 1275 (HLS MS 24), the latest one from around 1476 (HLS MS 25). One manuscript contains also yearbooks and tracts (HLS MS 193, around 1350). The volumes with compilations of statutes often contain the text of Magna Carta. The oldest manuscript present at Harvard which includes Magna Carta dates from around 1300 [HLS MS 57, Magna Carta cum Statutis]. You can also search for these manuscripts within the HOLLIS catalogue of Harvard University Library, using the filed “Other call number” and entering “HLS MS XXX”, with XXX for the manuscript number.

HLS MS 172, Sherriff's Magna Carta, around 1327

“Sherriff’s Magna Carta”, around 1327 (?, circa 1298) – Harvard Law School, MS 172

A splendid example of the presence of Magna Carta in Englsh legal life is a socalled sherriff’s Magna Carta said to date from around 1327 (HLS MS 172). However, in the overview of manuscripts it is suggested with due hesitance that it might even date from 1297 or 1298. Such copies were read aloud four times every year.

At the website of the Ames Foundation you can consult an overview of all these registers and manuscripts. The Ames Foundation invites scholars to provide more detailed descriptions of manuscripts, something until now only done for HLS MS 184 which contains the Statuta vetera, writs and some tracts. The description of this manuscript does refer to the overview of manuscripts created by John H. Baker, English legal manuscripts in the United States of America : a descriptive list (2 vol., London 1985-1990; Selden Society; reprint 2 vol., Buffalo, NY, 2010), and earlier in English legal manuscripts, vol. 1: Catalogue of the manuscript year books, readings, and law reports in the library of the Harvard Law School, John H. Baker (ed.) (Zug, 1975). The new description of HLS MS 184 gives you for each item in the manuscript the link to the digitized page. For many items you will find a reference to the numbering in the Statutes of the Realm or additional information about editions. The meta-data of the manuscript are not forgotten either. In my humble opinion this example sets a standard for describing English medieval legal manuscripts. The name of the author of this description should definitely be added.

The overview created by the Ames Foundation makes it very clear that what we encounter here is not just a very regular set of manuscripts. These manuscripts at Harvard will show surprises to those scholars who start with the large labor of dealing in-depth with each of them. The overview points to an unedited tract in HLS MS 24b, a single leaf with a large section of the Tractatus de bastardiae, described in 1997 by Jerome Arkenberg. ‘The Story Behind a Stray Manuscript Leaf’, Harvard Library Bulletin, n.s. 8.4 (1997) 46–54, an article available also online. I am sure this is only an example, and not an exception of a text yet to be edited and studied.

The digitized manuscripts help us to come closer to the actual versions of texts seen by those dealing with legal matters in the late Middle Ages, and this can correct the more synthesized critical editions of texts such as the Statuta vetera et nova. A comparison with the text versions printed in incunabula editions comes also much more feasible, and these early editions, too, can now be found in digital versions, too. The Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (GW) at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) at the British Library increasingly point to digital versions . You can search in these online catalogues for Statuta regnorum and Statuta Angliae or use the GW overview of all editions of statutes.

Magna Carta seen in perspective

In the year of the celebrations around 800 years Magna Carta the newly digitized manuscripts at Harvard show above all Magna Carta did not stand alone. It got a place alongside other statutes of the realm. It would be most interesting to see what place or impact Magna Carta had on actual writs, and for answering this question, too, you can now consult at home on the screen of your computer or tablet the digitized registers of writs kept at the magnificent holdings of Harvard Law School. You will benefit also from the resources and articles brought together at the website of the Magna Carta Research Project. As for medieval canon law and Magna Carta, you could very well start with reading an online essay by Anne Duggan at the website of the project Early English Laws. A look at these earlier laws helps also to discern with more precision the new elements within Magna Carta.

At my own web page about legal history you can find among the information about the history of the common law links to other online resources for this subject which merits continuing attention because of the continuities and changes in the history of Anglo-American law at large. Apart from its printed publications and the priceless online Index to Year Book Reports (David Seipp, Boston College) the Ames Foundation is working with Harvard Law School to create further digital access to resources in the field of the history of the common law and medieval law in a wider sense.

The definitive history of Magna Carta will not be written because every generation will come with different questions and methods to approach the old roads to answers, and no doubt each generation will come up with new perspectives worth considering carefully again and again. Thanks to the staff at Harvard University for make these materials accessible for anyone interesting in legal history! As for Et Seq. you can subscribe to its RSS feeds, simply follow the 852 RARE items of this library blog or follow @hlslib at Twitter. If liberty is a value to treasure and foster you cannot pass by in silence this Icon of Liberty, the telling subtitle of a special website created by the American Bar Association for this year’s Law Day (May 1). Magna Carta 800th will keep you informed about many of this year’s celebrations. Among this year’s online exhibitions are Exploring Magna Carta of Boston College Law Library and The Magna Carta (Great Charter), 1297 of the Parliament House, Canberra.

A postscript

Linking Magna Carta and medieval canon law is not a whim or an isolated idea. On June 16 and 17 a conference will be held at Saint Louis, Missouri on the theme New Constitutions and Constitutional Beginnings: The Fourth Lateran Council and Magna Carta 800 years later. The conference is sponsored by the International Society for Medieval Canon Law (ICMAC). The Fourth Lateran Council is the subject of a congress later this year in Rome, November 24-29, 2015: Concilium Lateranense IV: Commemorating the Octocentenary of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

Legal history at the World LII

Logo WorldLIINearly five years ago I announced here the aim of spanning in my blog centuries, cultures and continents. I quickly discovered some of the implications of this statement. Not only did I take up the challenge of dealing with aspects of legal history in many periods, regions and cultures, but in many posts I have also pointed to projects and initiatives that succeed in fulfilling this aim to considerable extent. In this post I will look at a project that does not only deal with contemporary law on a vast scale, but also with legal history worldwide.

The World Legal Information Institute (World LII) is not a single monolithic organization, but more a consortium of several participating institutions. Some branches of the World LII are relatively well-known, others merit to get more in the spotlights. Here I will look at some examples of resources most valuable for research in the field of legal history. Even if there are clear gaps, lacunae and omissions in the presentation of these resources at the portal site of the WorldLII or at the website of a particular supporting institution, they deserve al least some attention.

Serving lawyers and historians all around the world

With at present some 1250 databases for more than 120 jurisdictions, and fourteen supporting institutions and branches the World LII is a truly multinational organization. The World LII is a member of the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM), as are most of its partner institutions. One of the earliest institutions launching a website with free legal information is the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, founded in 1992. Initiatives such as the Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), currently in the midst of updating and supported by the Library of Congress, and Globalex (New York University), too, belong to this movement, but they have scarcely created any space for legal history. GLIN does support the World LII.

Generally the guides at GLIN and Globalex succeed certainly in providing adequate basic information about contemporary law. The guide to Scots law and Scottish legal history by Jasmin Morais and the guide to Cambodian history, governance and legal sources by Jennifer Holligan and Tarik Abdulhak at Globalex are notable and fine exceptions. Yemisi Dina’s guide at Globalex for Caribbean law does at least realize the historical background of the region she describes. Hopefully legal historians are also increasingly familiar with research readily accessible at the portal of another member of FALM, the Social Science Research Network / Legal Scholarship Network (SSRN/LSN).

Logo AustLIIThe institutions working together under the aegis of the World LII stand out for their massive presentation of and free access to legal resources, be they constitutions, laws, statutes, case law or law reports. The World LII also provides you with a nice selection of websites of materials pertaining to legal history. This page leads you also to one of the major selections of resources for legal history at the Word LII, that for Australia, which is not completely surprising, because the Australasian Legal Information Institute is at the very heart of the World LII. The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) provide staff and technological support behing the AustLII and World LII. By the way, UTS has an interesting Anti-Slavery portal with an online course about the continuing struggle against slavery, forced labour and trafficking, and a section with contemporary Australian case law.

Connecting contemporary law and legal history

Let’s look a bit deeper into World LII. For this objective I would like to look at the Torres Strait Islands. These islands are situated in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. if you search for the Torres Straits at World LII you get some 22,000 results. When you look at the databases providing materials for these results you will immediately notice that you cannot confine yourself to resources about Australia, from the Commonwealth or even from the Australian state of Queensland directly adjacent to the Torres Strait. The example of the Torres Straits can easily be multiplied. The western part of New Guinea was between 1945 and 1962 governed by the Dutch. Before the Second World War this part was at least within the sphere of Dutch influence in the Indonesian archipelago.

Apart from resources from Australia, Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe the World LII does even include materials concerning the polar regions. You can approach historical resources at World LII by country. At the moment of writing seventeen countries are listed. I would single out the database with colonial cases for China and Japan, a resource developed at the Macquarie Law School, Sydney, even if this is the sole historical resource included at the World LII portal for both countries. The series of cases starts around 1850. Anyway, you can find more links to colonial cases at this webpage of the Macquarie Law School. The set of colonial cases of Constantinople for Turkey at the World LII, too, stems from a project at this law school. These cases from the Supreme Consular Court date between the 1850’s and 1930.

However, the World LII portal brings you more history than included at its history page, although its selection of historical databases for New Zealand is impressive. In particular for historical cases it is possible to find much more, but alas this can be a hit and miss affair. At this point the fourteen branches can be most helpful. Among the fourteen institutions is for instance the LawPhil project for the Philippines. in its section on jurisprudence you can start in the year 1901.

In the vast fields of the common law it is good to know that behind World LII are both the British and Irish LII and the Commonwealth LII. In fact you are bound to use materials at both these portals when dealing with legal history concerning the United Kingdom and countries included within the British Commonwealth. It is again Scotland which provides historical materials, Scottish Court of Session decisions since 1879, and decisions of the High Court of Justiciary since 1914.

The Asian LII leads us for example for Japan to laws since 1896, but the series starts really in 1947. For legal information about the many islands groups of Oceania which have become independent countries, often with the British Commonwealth, the Pacific LII is often the only available starting point, and even the only easily accessible resource center. The often very young legal history of these countries is amply documented by the databases of the Pacific LII. Some islands are severely threatened by rising sea levels, and it is important for them to start working quickly to preserve their legal heritage. In my recent post about the Endangered Archives Projects of the British Library you can read about one of these projects. It is true that it can take some effort to find historical materials, but even so often your efforts will be rewarded as more resources become available.

The pages of the World LII pointing to other legal history resources contained for me at least one pleasant surprises. At the portal of The Napoleon Series you will find not just resources about France and the period around 1800. At a page about government and politics the links range is truly worldwide, featuring both articles and databases from the Balkan to Cambodia. Although you find at that page mostly articles, and even short articles, they certainly help to provoke your own thoughts and questions.

Two directions in legal history

It is easy to moan about or criticize the lack or absence of particular historical materials within the databases of the World LII. Similar initiatives such as GLIN, Globalex, LLRX and Justia, to mention just a few of them, all lack the indispensable databases – or links to them – of the World LII. In fact the organization behind World LII encourages scholars to suggest new resources. Anyway the initiative of the World LII does not completely leave legal history out in the dark. You might even defend the position that it does help creating curiosity about the history of jurisprudence, law and legal institutions by its very scale and offering a number of resources which might be most useful for your research. Its approach definitely starts in the presence. Any research happens in the present, even if scholars devote them solely to history. The World LII helps us not to confine legal historians exclusively to periods already centuries ago. It might be wiser to acknowledge the fact that the present is our starting point, and not to imagine we can look at history from a distant and impartial imaginary point of view, with as its ultimate illusory goal the creation of definitive history.

A second important feature of the World LII and similar institutions is the free online access to materials offered thanks to their efforts. Many online legal materials can only be consulted at subscribing institutions, and they make this possible at sometimes very substantial costs. Historical materials, too, are often only readily available online thanks to commercial initiatives.

Speaking for myself, I would surely enlist the services of the World LII and its partner institutions whenever possible, feasible and wise, because I am convinced one person living in one country, somewhat familiar with the history of one country, region or continent can only see a part of the whole. Nowadays it is a cliché to say that getting to know the unfamiliar is the exclusive way towards truly understanding yourself and your own context, but this comparative starting point does contain more than a bit of truth. Posts at a blog such as this one contain grains of truth, and you are cordially invited to view them as just a stepping stone for more. I hope to return here soon with another post delving deeper into the theme of the scope of historical research for our century.

Legal texts in digitized manuscripts at the British Library

Logo British Library - image http://pressandpolicy.bl.uk/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:

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.

Prisoner seeking sanctuary, bas-de-page scene from the Smithfield Decretals

Prisoner seeking sanctuary – Smithfield Decretals, British Library, ms. Royal 10 E IV, fol. 206 verso – image British Library

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).

A lawyer addressing an assembly

A lawyer addressing an assembly – British Library, ms. Harley 947, fol. 107r – image British Library (size reduced)

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 postscript

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.