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


Les tenures du monsieur Littleton, 1583

Sir Thomas Littleton. Les tenures du monsieur Littleton. London: Richard Tottel, 1583.

Books are the lawyer's tools and the law student's laboratory, and nothing illustrates this better than the marks that they leave in their books. These marks evoke and document the lived experience of the law. They are a reminder that law is above all a human endeavor.

The volumes selected for this exhibition offer not only human interest, but also significant research potential and insights into the roles of legal literature. They capture the voices of readers, including those who refuse to give the author the final word. They illustrate the work of legal scholarship, including examples from almost two centuries of legal education in the Yale Law School. Some are unique primary sources of case law, legal history, or biography. They provide fodder for historians of the book, but also point to a perplexing future for such research as books move into digital formats.

All of these volumes straddle the fluid boundary between manuscript and printed book, and the connections (or disconnections) between text and reader. They represent a small fraction of the annotated books in the Yale Law Library's rare book collection. They demonstrate the value of collecting these artifacts, and constitute the Law Library's invitation to explore them further.

This exhibition went on display March 2, 2020, in the Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Precedents so scrawl’d and blurr’d
I scarce could read one single word,
Nor in my books of Common Place
One feature of the Law could trace,
Save BUZZARD’S nose and visage thin,
And HAWK’S deficiency of Chin,
Which I while lolling at my ease
Was wont to draw instead of Pleas;

        -- John Anstey, The Pleader’s Guide (London, 1796)



Curated by Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian, with contributions from Ryan Martins, Rare Book Fellow. Support provided by the Charles J. Tanenbaum Fund, Yale Law School.