Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Elizabethan Law Library

by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian

      Finals have begun and, after three years of dedicated work, the end is in sight for the class of 2014. This year also marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare.  Granted, the two events don’t have much (or anything) in common, but it got me thinking: good ol’ Bill did write quite a bit about the law and lawyers; i.e. Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, etc., so what would an Elizabethan lawyer’s library look like? Further, can I recreate it out of the library’s Special Collections Department? As it turns out the answers are: kind of small and yes.
     The legal history of England is long and complex. Picking a starting point is almost impossible: should we start with tribal custom, Roman law, Anglo Saxon law, Alfred the Great, or King Cnut? We can’t ignore those early influences and start with William I, nor can we jump to King John and the signing of Magna Carta. Alfred the Great developed a law code, King Cnut’s laws introduced an early form of the grand jury, and William introduced orderly methods to the laws and government of England and separated the secular and ecclesiastic courts.
     In the reign of William’s son Henry I (1100-1135), the law was still primarily Anglo-Saxon and was administered locally by sheriffs. Under Henry II (1154-1189), the system of itinerant judges expanded as did the use of the jury and the petty assizes were established. Criminal procedure was remodeled and the use of grand juries was systematized. “Henry II was far more than an inventor of legal forms or of the machinery of taxation. He was one of the greatest politicians of his time; a man of such wide influence, great estates, and numerous connections that the whole of the foreign relations of England during the middle ages may be traced directly and distinctly to the results of his alliances and his enmities.” (Bishops Stubbs, Constitutional History, 1954, as quoted in Plucknett, p. 19)
     The earliest known treatise on the common law was completed at the end of Henry II reign. Ranulf de Glanville’s Tractatus de Legibus; Consuetudinibus Regni AngliƦ was a major contributor to the development of the common law tradition. While it deals mostly with writs and the modes of civil litigation, it shows the importance of land law and the emphasis on procedure in the medieval legal system. The common law is, of course, based on judicial decisions, on the reasons and principles that made a judge decide the case in a particular way. Plea rolls exist from the time of King Richard, but it was Henry II that began the enrollment of judicial decisions. By 1221, every justice in the Eyre had his own roll. Those rolls did not always make it back to the treasury, however, as some of the justices preferred to keep their rolls on hand. Judges had to be required by law to hand them over in 1335 and again in 1409.
     Ultimately, these rolls became known as the Year Books, the precursors of today’s Reporters. Each volume preserves the memory of the court proceedings and serves as a record of the facts and judgments handed down in each case. The volumes were quite cumbersome as there was no organization to them at all.  Lawyers must have rejoiced, then, when Nicholas Statham wrote the first abridgement of cases – a digest for the Year Books – in 1490. Though it was supplanted by Fitzherbert’s La Graunde Abridgement in 1516, Statham was the first to organize the cases alphabetically by subject.  This facilitated access to case law thus solidifying its importance to common law.
     It is, therefore, not surprising that the Elizabethan lawyer would have several abridgments in his library. A dictionary and Glanville’s Tractatus could also be found on a lawyer’s bookshelf. All in all, a successful lawyer might own as many as thirty books including treatises on land law, criminal law, civil litigation, writs, books of legal maxims, and, of course, Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England. A library of this size would be a considerable investment given that in a good year a lawyer would make the equivalent of £26 and Fitzherbert’s Abridgement originally cost £2.
     On display now in the Library Lobby is The Elizabethan Lawyer’s Library, an exhibit of rare books from the Special Collections Department. All of the materials on display were originally published prior to 1615. These rare items will be on display until August 29, 2014.
Sources cited:
Year books of Edward II, vol. 17. London: Quartich, 1903-
Select pleas of the crown, vol 1., ed. for the Selden Society by F.W. Maitland. London: Quartich, 1888.   
Hogue, Arthur. Origins of the common law. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1966.
Plucknett, Theodore. A concise history of the common law. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956.
Topulos, Katherine. “A common lawyer’s bookshelf recreated: An annotated bibliography of a collection of sixteenth-century English Law Books.” 84 Law Libr. J. 641 1992.