Translators of the Louisiana Code (Digest of Orleans) of 1808

In very recent years there has been a renewed interest in the legal history of Louisiana in the Territorial Period and the early years of statehood. There has been a complete rethinking of the sources of the first Louisiana Civil Code, the Digest of the Civil Laws of the Territory of Orleans, with renewed reflection on some related documents, such as the de la Vergne volume, and other source material.

One important product of this developing research is the new book by Professor Vernon Palmer of the Tulane Law School, The Lost Translators of 1808 and the Birth of Civil Law in Louisiana, published by the University of Georgia Press in its Southern Legal History Series, ISBN 9780820358338.

There is not the scope here for a full review of this important and enlightening work. Professor Palmer explores the lives of the translators, which illuminates much of the tensions and culture of the early territorial period, before reflecting on their work in a fascinating account of what they did.

All interested in translation, codification, and early Louisiana should read this handsomely produced monograph.

Blackstone Exhibition

This blog noted the important Blackstone Exhibition at Yale earlier his year. See Your blogger is delighted to report that it will soon be able to be viewed in London, at the Middle Temple Library from September to November, after which it will be on display at the Sir John Salmond Law Library at the University of Adelaide from December 2015 to January 2016, reflecting all the recent important work by Wilf Prest. Given that Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) was a member of Middle Temple (admitted 20 November 1741, called to the Bar 28 November 1746 and made a Bencher on 1 May 1761), this is particularly significant.

The exhibition will feature over 40 items from Yale’s Law Library collection, depicting the origins of the Commentaries, its publishing success and its impact on the common law system and more broadly on English and American society. The items include a volume annotated by one of Blackstone’s students, a legal treatise with Blackstone’s marginalia, the first English editions of the Commentaries, early Irish and American pirated editions, abridgments, teaching aids, student manuscripts, critiques, translations (into French, German, Italian, and Chinese), and a 1963 liquor advertisement.

It was tempting to headline the blog entry “Blackstone comes home”; but he is a lawyer for all the world, as at home in New Haven as in Adelaide or London.


Blackstone and Architecture: “Blackstone’s Commentaries: A Work of Art?” An exhibition talk by Cristina S. Martinez, Ph.D., University of Ottawa. Friday, April 17, 2015, 11:00am-12:00pm, Room 122, Yale Law School, 127 Wall Street, New Haven, CT.

Blackstone famously compared the English law to a Gothic Castle. Though he was writing at the start of the Gothic revival, his approach was rather classical, and, of course, Blackstone wrote about architecture before he wrote about law. It is an interesting thought that he may have used an orderly classically-trained architect’s eye to the task of organizing English law in his Commentaries.

A legal treatise as a work of art? Very few people would confuse the two, yet William Blackstone wrote about architecture before turning to law, and may have brought his orderly artist’s eye to bear in organizing the law in his landmark Commentaries on the Laws of England, an 18th-century bestseller and the most influential book in the history of Anglo-American law.

On Friday 17 April, 2015, the Yale Law Library will host a talk by Dr. Cristina S. Martinez entitled “Blackstone’s Commentaries: A Work of Art?” in conjunction with the exhibition, “250 Years of Blackstone’s Commentaries“, already noted in this Blog. Her talk will be accompanied by Mark Weiner’s video, “Blackstone Goes Hollywood”, which includes interviews with Mike Widener and Wilfrid Prest, co-curators of the exhibition. The talk will take place Friday, April 17, in Room 122 of Yale Law School, 127 Wall Street, at 11am. It is free and open to the public. This Blog urges anyone nearby who can to attend.

The speaker, Dr Martinez, received a PhD in Art History and Law from Birkbeck College, University of London. She is an Adjunct Professor at the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa and a Faculty Member of the International Summer Institute for the Cultural Study of Law at the University of Osnabrück in Germany. She is the author of the forthcoming book Art, Law, and Order: The Legal Life of Artists in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Manchester University Press) and contributed “Blackstone as Draughtsman: Picturing the Law” to the collection edited by Wilfrid Prest, Re-Interpreting Blackstone’s Commentaries (2014).

AS already noted in this Blog, the exhibit “250 Years of Blackstone’s Commentaries” is on display through June 2, 2015, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, located on Level L2 of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School. The exhibition will then travel to London, where it will be on view September through November 2015 at the library of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, and then on to Sir John Salmond Law Library, University of Adelaide, December 2015 to February.

The exhibit can also be viewed in the Rare Book Collection’s Flickr site.  For more information, contact Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian, at (203) 432-4494.

This Blog-entry is adapted from:


Blackstone Exhibition

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) is one of the most important ever writers on law. He is up there with the Gods of Ulpian, Pothier and Savigny. His story is well known, so there is little need to rehearse it. Suffice it to say after education at Charterhouse and Oxford, he was called to the English bar, but spent time as administrator at Oxford before becoming the first Vinerian Professor of the Laws of England and subsequently becoming a judge. He is famous because of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, based on his Vinerian Lectures, the first volume of which appeared in 1765, 250 years ago.

The Yale Law Library, home to the world’s largest collection of Blackstone’s works, is marking the anniversary with an exhibition, “250 Years of Blackstone’s Commentaries.” The exhibition is curated by Wilfrid Prest of Adelaide and Michael Widener, the Rare Book Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, and consists of more than 40 items, all from the Yale Law Library’s collection, depicting the origins of the Commentaries, its remarkable success as a textbook, and its impact on both legal and popular culture. The items include a volume annotated by one of Blackstone’s students, a legal treatise with Blackstone’s own handwritten marginalia, the first English editions of the Commentaries, early Irish and American pirated editions, abridgments, teaching aids, student manuscripts, critiques, translations (into French, German, Italian, and Chinese), and a 1963 liquor advertisement.

The exhibition is on display through June 2, 2015, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, located on Level L2 of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School (127 Wall Street, New Haven, CT). The exhibition will then travel to London, where it will be on view September through November 2015 at the library of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, which was Blackstone’s Inn of Court. From December 2015 to February 2016 it will be at the Sir John Salmond Law Library, University of Adelaide.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Yale Law Library will host a talk on April 17 by Cristina Martinez of Carleton University, who contributed “Blackstone as Draughtsman: Picturing the Law” to the collection edited by Prest, “Re-Interpreting Blackstone’s Commentaries” (2014). Her talk will be accompanied by Mark Weiner’s video, “Blackstone Goes Hollywood,” which includes an interview with Prest.

If Blackstone’s work is the best known work on the Anglo-American common law, the man himself remained in many ways obscure and enigmatic, until the major research programme directed by Wilf Prest at Adelaide started to explore his life, leading to an editions of his letters, a new biography, and several specialised volumes of research. This exhibition is the product of all this work.

Blackstone 250 flyer1


It is interesting to this blogger that one of the most famous portraits of Blackstone shows him in his gown as a Doctor of Civil Law.


Blackstone in Esperanto

This blogger’s interest in the great English jurist, William Blackstone, is probably obvious. But he has recently been informed by his friend Georgia Chadwick of the Louisiana State Library that an American lawyer, called W.E. Baff, who was a keen supporter of Esperanto, at one stage proposed translating Blackstone’s Commentaries into Esperanto. He was a member of the International Society of Esperanto Jurists and its US Vice-President; on this side of the Pond, it is interesting to note that its Scottish Vice-President was William Page of Edinburgh, a Solicitor to the Supreme Court in Edinburgh, and a very active Esperantist. No English Vice-President is listed in 1911.
The gift of the William Auld Collection to the National Library of Scotland means that Edinburgh has one of the most significant Esperanto collections. See (the first verse of Burns’ “Address to the Haggis” rendered into Esperanto is worth reading).
Baff had a colourful life. More may emerge. So watch this space!

Re-Interpreting Blackstone’s Commentaries: A Seminal Text in National and International Contexts. Edited by Wilfrid Prest

Since research for his PhD, this blogger has had a long-term interest in Blackstone. Most readers of the blog will be aware of the wonderful new work on Blackstone being carried out in Adelaide under the leadership of Wilfrid Prest. This has produced a new biography, an edited collection of letters, and two volumes of essays, as well as encouraging all kinds of other work see

This blogger had the privilege of participating in a conference on Blackstone there, where he managed to link his interests in Blackstone, slavery, and Louisiana. The conference proceedings have now been published as a volume, and it is possible for readers of this Blog to get a copy of the volume at a reduced price through the publisher’s website!
Book on white background

Under the title Re-Interpreting Blackstone’s Commentaries, the collection explores the remarkable impact and continuing influence of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, from the work’s original publication in the 1760s down to the present. Contributions by intellectual and legal historians, together with cultural and literary scholars, trace the manner in which this truly seminal text has established its authority well beyond the author’s native shores or his own limited lifespan. A particular value is the perspective from the humanities generally in the volume. Thus, in the first section, ‘Words and Visions’, Kathryn Temple, Simon Stern, Cristina S Martinez and Michael Meehan discuss the Commentaries’ aesthetic and literary qualities as factors contributing to the work’s unique status in Anglo-American legal culture.

The second group of essays is more traditional in approach, if opening up new research. They trace the nature and dimensions of Blackstone’s impact in various jurisdictions outside England, namely Quebec (Michel Morin), Louisiana and the United States more generally (John W Cairns and Stephen M Sheppard), North Carolina (John V Orth) and Australasia (Wilfrid Prest). Finally Horst Dippel, Paul Halliday and Ruth Paley examine aspects of Blackstone’s influential constitutional and political ideas, while Jessie Allen concludes the volume with a personal account of ‘Reading Blackstone in the Twenty-First Century and the Twenty-First Century through Blackstone’.

This volume is a sequel to the well-received collection Blackstone and his Commentaries: Biography, Law, History (Hart Publishing, 2009).

Table of Contents:

Wilfrid Prest is Professor Emeritus in Law and History at the University of Adelaide.

Aug 2014 260pp Hbk 9781849465380 RSP: £50 / €65

To receive the 20% discount through Hart Publishing’s website please write ref: AY3 in the voucher code field and click apply:

Computing Problems and Legal History

Your blogger is no luddite. Computers make life easier. They assist research. There is an astonishing and increasing amount of, for example, rare books and manuscripts accessible on the internet. Just this morning your blogger was using a French 1774 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries found on the internet. But, like most people in the academic world, your blogger often encounters the requirement to use poorly designed computer systems: the design of which has been not to aid the user, but to facilitate something else – if only a spurious claim of modernity by a “manager”. Certainly employers love the idea that employees can be replaced by computers and love computer systems. These in your blogger’s experience usually just involve giving new tasks of “inputting” data to scholars and teachers, since they have rather open contracts which define their duties in very general terms.

Two things, however, have spurred this blog entry. The first is an amusing article in the New York Times about disappearing U.S. Supreme Court References – see (presumably eventually this too will lead nowhere!). Now one such reference in a Supreme Court decision reads thus: Do click on these! Your blogger was alerted to this though the excellent  H-Law and ASLH discussion lists. This is amusing, but a serious problem.

The second was the fact that your blogger, who had been a member of the ASLH since – he believes – 1982 nearly had his membership terminated by the computer system for renewing membership, operated by a well-known University Press.  To put it simply, the renewal system just would not let him renew. To paraphrase Little Britain: computer said no. A number of requests for assistance through the help part of the website proved fruitless, even with the kind assistance of one of the Society’s officers. The first request provided a new password to try, but this still did not let me renew; other requests for help seemed to vanish into the ether. It was only finally sorted out through a phone call to New York, and the assistance of a very helpful living person who was willing to take some responsibility and get it sorted out. It was all very frustrating; and it would have been very easy simply to let my membership lapse. I don’t want to exaggerate the time taken up; but one had to periodically remember to try again and pursue the matter. I now look forward to receiving my missing back issues of the Society’s journal.

Peter B.H. Birks: A Recent Assessment

The recent death of Lord Rodger has caused your blogger to reflect quite a lot on the late Peter Birks, since he and Alan Rodger had been so close and both died so much before their time. It was therefore fascinating, while browsing in the Edinburgh Law Library’s current periodicals section, to come across in the Restitution Law Review (2011) the paper by Professor Gerard McMeel of Bristol reflecting on the intellectual legacy of Peter Birks and considering what type of scholar he had been.

I was initially surprised to see this; it sometimes feels very much as if Peter is still with us. But it is seven years since his death and he now even has an entry in the ODNB by Willam Swadling (which I did not realise until reading Professor McMeel’s article). Perhaps our consciousness of his continuing presence is just a reflection of the power of his charisma and personality and the continuing relevance of his work. Professor McMeel has certainly made a good case for the assessment of Peter’s intellectual legacy, if only because it is already being fought over. As McMeel rightly says, Peter “was the dominant private lawyer of recent time”.

Classification or taxonomy was an abiding interest of Peter’s; so one can imagine his amusement as his successors try to classify him. He would also have applied his formidable intellect to correcting them where he thought them wrong. Though a kind man, he could be quite impatient with wilful stupidity or intellectual idleness. According to McMeel, by both friend and foe, he has been variously labelled as a taxonomist, a positivist, a formalist, a correctivist, an interpretivist, and a pragmatist. No doubt, like us all, he was not always consistent in his approach. But what is fascinating is that so many writers are in a way creating their own Birks and arguing over the intellectual legacy: whether one they wish to agree with or one they wish to reject.

Peter’s death is still recent; the loss is still raw and felt. Grief may still seek ownership and possession of the memory.

I first got to know Peter well when I returned to Edinburgh from teaching at the Queen’s University, Belfast. He then held Edinburgh’s chair of Civil Law. Of my senior colleagues at Edinburgh, he was the only one who offered me anything significant in the way of mentoring of the type I had already experienced at Queen’s from, among others, my excellent Head of Department there, Colin Campbell. Though I was formally in the Department of Scots Law, much of my teaching was in Civil Law. Together with the talented Departmental Secretary, Mrs Lisa White, Peter generated an air of excitement in the Department. One felt that important things were happening, and that good things would be the result. He was enthusiastic; he made one feel the importance of academic life. This meant that Peter was not an easy-going man. He was quite impatient with some of his fellow Professors in the Faculty, whom he saw – rightly or wrongly – as obstructive to progress and development. He was an enthusiastic if not always popular teacher. He really wanted to communicate his ideas. The duller brethren found him difficult; the brighter responded to his keenness, charisma, and indeed handsome looks to be stimulated and excited by ideas and scholarship.

Swadling writes that Peter was “still based in Oxford” during his time in Edinburgh; from the Edinburgh point of view one would not have known. He seemed omnipresent. He created the Edinburgh Roman Law group, still going strong; he created the Edinburgh Legal History Discussion Group, of which one can say the same. Many articles started off in the latter as a brief presentation before friends over a glass of wine. It is obvious, though, that he had a punishing regime of night buses and later an old banger of a car to travel to Oxford for most weekends. In many ways it must have been a tough life for Peter and Jackie, particularly after the birth of their son who was christened in Edinburgh. But one was not aware of this. In Edinburgh Peter had made himself comfortable. He had a delightful small flat overlooking Greyfriars Kirkyard in an old converted building.
Peter loved Roman law. He became famous for his work on English restitution, and indeed when I came back to Edinburgh, he will have been completing the first edition of his masterful work on the topic. It is his work on restitution that McMeel discusses as disputed. But the Birks I knew was the Birks excited by the discovery of the Lex Irnitana and the implications this held for our understanding of the role of the judges and of Roman procedure; the Birks keen on the Lex Aquilia and teasing out the nature and interpretation of texts on damage caused by smoke from a cheese manufactory; the Birks who took students through Cicero’s speeches so they could get a grasp of the immediacy and reality of Roman law; the Birks who understood that Gaius was still an excellent introductory work for novice lawyers; the Birks who wrote for our students a wonderful unpublished essay to help them understand the nature of an obligation.

Of course, some of this links up with his work on English restitution: our students got a lot on Gaius’ and Justinian’s schemes of classification. The problems posed by Gaius’ division of obligations and the nature of the condictio indebiti were expounded to them. We still give our students the clever selection of texts that Peter and Grant McLeod developed for teaching first-year Roman law: texts the juxtaposition of which encourages students to investigate and think for themsleves through the problems of law and history they pose. Peter was interested in what some might think of as by-ways in legal history. Thus I recall a paper at the Legal History Discussion group on Giles Jacob, “blunderbuss of law”; another on William Fulbecke, which led to a reprint of Fulbecke with an introduction by Peter. These minor figures were seen by Peter as encapsulating something significant about learning and classification: they emphasised that law was a rational system, just as much as did Gaius, Justinian, and Blackstone. That they were not great figures in a constructed canon was central to their significance. Peter’s understanding of legal history was undoubtedly influenced by Toby Milsom, who is indeed the most important historiographer of the early medieval common law since Maitland.

Peter was a sociable man. I recall many pleasant dinners in Edinburgh restaurants or after the Roman Law Group. (I also recall a dinner in my then flat in Stockbridge where there was an explosive argument with a colleague!) As I then lived on my own, I often worked late in the evening in Old College, as was often Peter’s practice. If he noticed I was there, and had finished for the night, he would call me down to his office, where we would share a bottle of (usually) red wine with conversation ranging from mere gossip to university politics to scholarly matters.

This brings me back to Professor McMeel’s paper. His main focus – and that of those whom he discusses – is on Peter’s work in restitution. He sees the key to understanding Peter’s oeuvre in that field as lying in his background in Roman law and Milsomian approach to legal history. This seems right. It certainly chimes with my own knowledge of Peter’s interests. I knew Peter best in the period of transition from his early to his middle phase, to adopt McMeel’s divisions of Peter’s work; but this as when he was laying down the foundations.
Peter is undoubtedly much missed. As was natural, I saw him increasingly less as the years passed; but we never became totally out of touch, though our academic interests increasingly diverged. I can still feel the shock when he told me of his illness. Swadling states that Peter had a strong sense of duty; this was true. He was indeed a good and faithful servant.