Precedents So Scrawl'd and Blurr'd: Readers' Marks in Law Books


Arguing in the margins. The heated debates over the celebrated case of the Dean of St. Asaph play out in the margins of this volume, where a contemporary assembled seven pamphlets on the case. The dean was charged with seditious libel for merely advocating electoral reform. The annotator argues against Lord Mansfield's decision that juries could not decide whether a publication was libelous. Note how the owner has taken special care to preserve his marginalia from the binder's knife.

An authentic copy of the judgement delivered by the Right Hon. Earl Mansfield, November 16, 1784, in the case of the King against William Davies Shipley, Dean of St. Asaph. London: John Stockdale, 1785.

Finding fault with Blackstone. The person who annotated this book made his opinion of Blackstone clear on the previous page: "The Author is a sensible kind of Man but, for an university Man, a poor grammarian." On these pages he continues to quibble with Blackstone's grammar, and takes issue with the author's denigration of Lord Mansfield's predecessors on the bench: "Do you apprehend [that] our Ancestors were wholly unacquainted with the general Spirit of Laws & principles of universal Jurisprudence etc.? Surely not. Why pay a compliment to Ld. Mansfield at their expense?" Who is this writer, and who is his audience? Clues may have been lost when the volume acquired its modern binding.

William Blackstone. Commentaries on the laws of England. Dublin: John Exshaw [etc.], 1766-1770. Volume 1 of 4.

The people we meet through the pages of books might be people we know intimately, or those we know almost nothing about except that they owned or read this book. But every book is a potential meeting place, an agora, or even a mausoleum.
        Tom Mole, The Secret Life of Books (2019)