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


Do-it-yourself indexing. In the first decades of printing, most books were published without tables of contents or indexes; a serious drawback for legal research. The early owner of this canon law commentary did what many others did: supply his own table of contents.

Élie Regnier. Casus longi sexti et clementinarum. Strassburg: Georg Husner, 1496.

A visual index. At first glance the drawing of the man sticking out his tongue may seem funny, but it illustrates a statute requiring that blasphemers have their tongues cut off. The coins at the lower right depict the heavy fines for insulting or disobeying one's parents. The anonymous annotator drew several other images, among them a woman pulling her hair out (a prohibition against excessive mourning), and a castle (a requirement that fortifications be licensed by the king). Is there a pattern in the laws he chose to illustrate?

Castile (Kingdom). Ordenanzas reales. [Salamanca, 1500].

Indexing by hand(s). For centuries one of the most common means of marking significant passages in text was the pointing hand, or manicule. The most elegant manicules in our collection are found in a 1476 edition of Justinian's Institutes, with their graceful elongated digits and fancy cuffs. At one spot the annotator used a long-beaked bird. At the end of the book he filled three blank pages with elaborate diagrams that organize and analyze the principles of Roman law.

Institutiones Justiniani. Basel: Michael Wenssler, 1476.

Readers’ marks are better at providing examples (and still better at providing counterexamples) than general rules; but if we cast our net widely they can reveal both large-scale patterns of use and extraordinary encounters of individuals and their books.
        William Sherman, Used Books (2008)