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


A repository of folk wisdom. In the 1660s, Thomas Marsh used the endleaves of a justice of the peace manual to inscribe this gloomy verse:

This is the best world to live [in]
To spend & to lend & to give in
But: to beg or to borrow or gett a mans own
It is the worst world that ever was known

The verse was probably widespread by the time Marsh copied it down. It later appeared in a number of printed collections, including A Collection of Epigrams (1735), The Nut-Cracker (1760), and The Complete London Jester (1765). As late as 1871 the English comedian Thomas Lawrence included it in his personal gagbook, as documented by Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone in The Victorian Clown (2006).

William Sheppard. The whole office of the country justice of peace. London: Printed for W. Lee, D. Pakeman, G. Bedell ..., 1656.

A verse anthology. These poems were copied into a book of legal forms (our library's earliest Mexican imprint). The texts on the left are all known from printed sources. They begin with a four-line epigram about three things that will ruin a man (jabbering, extravagance, and bragging), followed by "Es la mujer," a poem by Juan de Tarsis (1580-1622), and a "pasquín," a form of clandestine protest literature that flourished in South America in the colonial period. This one, from about 1650 in Bolivia, concerns Sinteros, a rich Potosí miner who was stripped of his wealth by corrupt authorities. The poem in the right column, also seemingly a pasquín, awaits decipherment.

Nicolás de Yrolo Calar. Primera parte, de la politica de escripturas. Mexico City: Diego López Davalos, 1605.

When we handle books sensitively, observing them closely so as to learn as much as we can from them, we discover a thousand little mysteries.
        Roger Stoddard, Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained (1985)