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


Thumbs down on a trial account. For centuries, readers have written brief reviews or reactions on endpapers, perhaps for themselves or for posterity, as in this example from the trial of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators:

This is a relation (as the Title Page calls it) and not a Tryal, for no Witnesses are produced in it --- It would have been far more Satisfactory to the Reader; if the Evidence had been inserted in the manner it is [in] the State Tryals; where you have the very Words of the Witnesses, and the Cross-Examinations of them by the Prisoners. But here you have little more than the Inditements, & the Harangues of the Lords Commissioners & the Attorney General.

A true and perfect relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous traitors, Garnet a Jesuite, and his confederats. London: Robert Barker, 1606.

Debating women's suffrage. When Yale law professor Simeon E. Baldwin received books from authors, he would transcribe his acknowledgment on the rear flyleaves. Here he writes to Henry St. George Tucker, praising Tucker's 1916 Storrs Lecture, in which Tucker argued that women's suffrage should be decided by individual states and not by constitutional amendment. Baldwin writes, "I believe that [Woodrow] Wilson's manly course on this question increased his vote." Two years later President Wilson reversed his "manly course" and pushed for ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Henry St. George Tucker. Woman's suffrage by constitutional amendment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916.

People do not need to be famous, or important, for their marginalia to be of interest; the notes of obscure or anonymous former readers can provide equally valuable testimony of the ways in which books were being absorbed or reacted to in the past.
        David Pearson, Books as History (2012)