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


Children loose in their father's law library. These seemingly juvenile drawings adorn the first edition in English of a classic of English law, Saint German's Doctor and Student. Beyond their human interest, the doodles also reveal clues about the book's history. It apparently spent the early part of its life in a home with children, one of whom knew what a Tudor-era warship looked like. At the front of the book is page full of notes in shorthand.

Christopher Saint German. Dyaloge in Englysshe bytwyxt a doctoure of dyvynyte and a student in the lawes of Englande. London: Robert Wyer, 1530?.

Best dressed doodle. One of the collection's most charming doodles is this image of a stylish early 16th-century lady decked out with ruffled collar and wide hoop skirt. One wonders why the accompanying monogram was scratched out. The image's appearance in this book is particularly apt. It is the first law book printed by a woman, Charlotte Guillard, the widow of the Paris printer Berthold Rembolt. In the following decades Madame Guillard became a respected printer in her own right, praised by authors for her patronage of serious scholarship.

Argumentum Institutionum imperialium. Paris: widow of Berthold Rembolt, 1519.

Portrait of a Yale Law School Founder? We know from other evidence that this set of Cruise's Digest was used as a textbook by the students in Samuel Hitchcock's New Haven law school, which became the Yale Law School after Hitchcock's death in 1845. Someone (presumably a student) drew a portrait on the endsheets of volume 7 of Cruise's Digest. Is it Hitchcock? Compare it to the portrait of Hitchcock that is displayed in a Yale Law School classroom.

William Cruise. A digest of the laws of England, respecting real property. Volume 7. New York: Collins & Hannay, 1827.

Samuel Hitchcock. Oil on canvas, by Jared Bradley Flagg. Yale Law School.

Marking the passage into obsolescence. The ownership inscriptions at the top of the page mark this book's wanderings among various local officials in Connecticut. The pen trials and doodles perhaps mark the slow descent of these early Connecticut session laws into legal oblivion.

Acts and laws, made and passed by the General Assembly of the state of Connecticut. New Haven: Thomas & Samuel Green, 1786.

"Gus the Pole Vaulter" is one of over two dozen doodles in John S. Gilkeson's evidence notebook at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in 1933. The doodles say more about Gilkeson than they do about evidence. The contrast with Gilkeson's real property notebook is telling: that notebook has only two doodles at the front, along with his note, "The great ? is 'Will I get by?' I did." After earning his law degree, Gilkeson (1911-1995) served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and built a career as a respected cattle rancher, businessman, and attorney in Claremore, Oklahoma.

John Shanklin Gilkeson. Law school notebooks of John S. Gilkeson: evidence. Manuscript, University of Oklahoma College of Law, 1933. Gift of Lois S. Montbertrand, Law '85.

John Shanklin Gilkeson. Law school notebooks of John S. Gilkeson: real property. Manuscript, University of Oklahoma College of Law, 1933. Gift of Lois S. Montbertrand, Law '85.

A lifetime of doodling. At age 19, Roger Sherman Baldwin (1793-1863) drew a portly 18th-century man in his commonplace book, around the time he was studying law at the Litchfield Law School. Laid inside one of his notebooks from the Litchfield Law School is a drawing of a politician declaring "Fellow citizens & fellow laborers, you are the bones & sinews of your country."

Roger Sherman Baldwin. Notes and compilations on legal subjects, extracted from the writings of the most eminent English jurists ... / by R.S. Baldwin. Manuscript, circa 1812.

Roger Sherman Baldwin. Notes on law taken from the lectures of the Honble. Tapping Reeve and James Gould [at the Litchfield Law School]. Manuscript, 1812-1813. Volume 1 of 5.

Baldwin went on to become governor of Connecticut, U.S. Senator, and lead counsel for the Amistad captives (played by Matthew McConaughey in the 1997 film). In a little notebook containing his notes on the Amistad case, Baldwin doodled two sailing ships. The Amistad perhaps?

Roger Sherman Baldwin. Notes on the Amistad case. Manuscript, 1840.

Books aren’t just personal possessions; they are also focal points for a number of social rituals.
        Tom Mole, The Secret Life of Books (2019)