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


A canon law professor's notes? This is easily the most heavily annotated book in our collection. It is a 1648 edition of the Corpus Juris Canonici, which formed the basis for Roman Catholic canon law from the Middle Ages to 1917. At first glance one might take the marginalia as the work of a madman, but Professor Anders Winroth believes they might be a professor of canon law's lecture notes, because they demonstrate a deep knowledge of the law and they extend through the entire book. The margins weren't enough for the professor; the notes fill two-thirds of the blank spaces on the pages, and spill over into hundreds of pasted-in slips. One of the slips is torn from a Louvain dissertation dated 1724.

Corpus iuris canonici. Antwerp: Johannes & Jacobus Meursius, 1648.

A contract law professor's notes. Arthur Corbin had the first edition of his casebook rebound and interleaved into three volumes. He filled its pages with notes, clippings, and printed slip opinions for teaching his Yale Law School classes, and possibly for revisions in the two subsequent editions. Perhaps the diagrams ended up on classroom blackboards. Today the volumes can help to reconstruct the teaching and scholarship of the leading 20th century American authority on contract law.

Arthur L. Corbin. Cases on the law of contracts. St. Paul: West, 1921.

To the careful observer, the book can be excavated like an archaeological dig, revealing layer upon layer of information about its previous owners from the material traces they left behind them.
        Tom Mole, The Secret Life of Books (2019)