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


The value of annotations. Marginal notes, underlinings, and those charming pointing hands (called "manicules") show us how students long ago studied and interacted with their books. As a Yale law student explained to me, they have added value for the modern researcher: by showing what early readers considered important, they help the modern researcher to decipher dense, technical legal Latin. A later bookbinder didn't appreciate the value of the marginalia in this copy of Justinian's Institutes (sadly, a common occurrence), and trimmed off large chunks.

Institutiones Imperiales. Paris, 1511.

Institutiones imperiales. Paris: Berthold Rembolt, 1511.

A textbook designed for notetaking. Littleton's Tenures, a treatise on English land law, was the leading textbook for English law students for at least two centuries after its appearance in 1481. Most editions, like this one, were published in a small, handy, and inexpensive format with wide margins for notetaking. Judging from the handwriting, at least three different students used our copy.

Littleton's Tenures. London, 1583.

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

Practice makes perfect. William Hayton acquired this form book soon after its publication. He had the pages interleaved with blank sheets, so that he could practice his engrossing hand and the drafting of legal forms. These were valuable skills for Hayton, who served as Clerk of the Peace and County Treasurer of Buckinghamshire in the 1720s, and went on to become a prominent London attorney.

The young clerk's tutor, enlarged. London, 1717.

John Hawkins. The young clerk's tutor, enlarged. London: Elizabeth Nutt & Robert Gosling, 1717.

Law and literature meet in the margins. This heavily annotated Coke on Littleton is of special interest because one layer of marginalia is by Samuel Butler (1613-1680), author of Hudibras, a verse satire on the Puritans that was one of the most popular works of the time. Butler studied briefly in the Inns of Court before giving up on a legal career. The other annotator is Butler's friend and patron William Longueville (1639-1721), an Inner Temple barrister. The notes by Longueville at the top of this opening, dated "30 July 1688," discuss the legal status of slaves while on English soil.
     A verse inscribed near the front of this volume echoes many students' complaints about Coke on Littleton:

Distinctions that had been at first design'd
To Regulate the errors of the mind
By being too nicely over-strain'd & vext
Have made the Comments harder than the Text

Sir Edward Coke. The first part of the Institutes of the lawes of England. London: assigns of John More, 1633.

Old habits die hard. An anonymous Yale law student used several colored highlighters, in addition to written notes, as study aids in his torts casebook. Imagine trying to do this with an e-book.

James A. Henderson, Jr., Richard N. Pearson, & Douglas A. Kysar. The torts process. New York: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2012.

And while rare marginalia may be as interesting as rare books, what about newer ones? At some point, don’t they start to look too much like our own notes, becoming sources of embarrassment rather than enlightenment? … [I]f we do not leave marks in our books, what kinds of evidence will future historians turn to, a question that is becoming more pressing as we move further into the digital age?
        William Sherman, Used Books (2008)