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.

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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.


Signet Library Session Papers Index Digitised

The WS Society Session Papers Index 1713-1820 is now online!

Robert Burns, William Adam, Henry Cockburn, Robert Dundas, Henry Raeburn, Lord Kames, George Drummond, Captain John Porteous and James Boswell are just some of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and Edinburgh’s golden age to feature in the 734 indexed volumes of court papers owned by the WS Society.

‘Session Papers’ were used to present cases in the Court of Session. They were an integral part of legal practice until reforms to Court procedure took place in the early nineteenth century. As James Boswell put it: ‘Ours is a court of papers. We are never seriously engaged but when we write’.

Surviving Session Papers are a valuable resource for historians since they capture the issues that concerned the parties involved in legal cases and can sometimes provide details not found elsewhere. They also record changes in legal practice, for example, what books lawyers used for their citations in support of their arguments.

All of life and drama is here – from piracy and slavery to publishing disputes and quarrels over land and nuisance – and now that the WS Society’s unique index to these papers has been placed online, this vast and untapped historical resource is open to researchers and historians anywhere in the world.

Originally compiled by Alexander Mill during the Great War of 1914-1918, the Session Papers Index has existed until now only in the original bound volumes at the Signet Library and at the Register Office in Edinburgh. Mill served the WS Society as a Library Assistant for 65 years between 1870 to 1935. His Index is a remarkable achievement.

With Mill’s four volumes – two name indexes, a subject index, an index to Writers to the Signet in the Papers, and an index to the unique maps and plans contained in the Papers – online, his work is open to the scholars of the world. Each of the digitised volumes includes an introduction to the Session Papers and guidance on how to use Mill’s references.

To see the WS Society Session Papers Index and begin your research, find the 4 volumes at these addresses:

Volume 1: Parties A-K

Volume 2: Parties L-Z

Volume 3: Subjects and Writers to the Signet

Volume 4: Maps, Plans and Diagrams

If you would like to consult the original Index in person or the Session Papers it lists, contact James Hamilton, Research Principal at the WS Society to make an appointment to visit the Signet Library.

Find out more about the Signet Library and the WS Society

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The Universal Short Title Catalogue Database

Professor Andrew Pettegree directs the AHRC-funded project based at St Andrews that makes the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) happen. Researchers on the project have been traveling across Europe to examine books and record them since the 1990s. Originally a project focusing on French printed books, the USTC also came to encompass the Iberian Peninsula and the Low Countries. This book-in-hand cataloguing is combined in the USTC with the national bibliographical projects of the UK, Germany, and Italy. The result is absolutely stunning.

The USTC Database aims to capture all books printed in Europe from the dawn of printing to the end of the sixteenth century. There are plans to extend into the seventeenth century, too.

Explore the USTC

This is good news for legal historians. The USTC will be extremely useful in tracking the publication of law books across boundaries, the development of the ius commune and of humanism, and the development of national legal systems. The collective nature of the USTC makes it much easier to see patterns and trends in context than is possible using national catalogues or even WorldCat.

The USTC Database is also a pleasure to use. the pages are laid out logically and links to related resources are clear. Books in other databases are linked to directly and this makes the USTC the first port of call for preliminary searching.

Users can search for books by almost any way imaginable. Author, title, keyword, translator, editor, short title, printer, place of publication, and year are all options. You can also search by language, format, classification (‘Jurisprudence’ brings up 22,636 choices), and digital copy availability. A search for ‘Justinianus I’ returns 1035 entries ranging in date from 1468 to 1600 and 152 of these are accessible digitally.*

Each entry has an appropriate image for the book being described. For example, at the entry for USTC 509496: Buchanan, George, Rerum Scoticarum historia auctore Georgio Buchanano Scoto (Edinburgh, apud Alexander Arbuthnet, 1582), we find a portrait of Buchanan. Details like this occur throughout the pages – this is obviously a project where attention to detail is paramount.

The only downside, if it can be called that, is that the USTC Database means work for your blogger. When I transcribed the library of Charles Areskine of Alva as part of my PhD submitted in December 2011, I included modern catalogue records for the books listed there along with references to their identification codes in national bibliographical databases. Now that the USTC is here, this catalogue must be regarded as incomplete until the USTC codes can be added to it.

*Figures at date of post.

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Rare Books of Scottish Provenance: Los Angeles County Law Library Sale

On 5 March 2014, Bonham’s in London auctioned some rare books, the property of the Los Angeles Law Library. A number of these had a Scottish association or provenance that illuminates aspects of Scottish Legal History.

The first worth noting, no. 111 in the Catalogue, is a copy of Barnabé Brisson, De verborum quae ad jus pertinent significatione libri XIX apparently once owned by Sir Robert Spottiswoode, and with marginal notes in his hand. Spottiswoode is remembered by Scots lawyers for his own Practicks, published in a printed version by his grandson in 1706; your blogger is lucky enough to own the grandson’s own copy: The Brissonius is an important humanistic work, perhaps reflecting Spottiswoode’s education in France, but certainly indicating the interest of Scots lawyers of his generation.

Next one may notice no. 147, a very early edition of Grotius’ De jure belli ac pacis libri III, that of Amsterdam 1631. There is no need to emphasise the importance of Grotius’ work. But we know that Scots lawyers when studying in the Netherlands, which they often did between around 1680-1740, often took a Collegium Grotianum, that is a class on the law of nature and nations based on Grotius’s book. The volume has an ex libris inscription of 1702 on its title page, marking its purchase in Leiden by William Mure in 1702. He obviously purchased it when a student at the University there, before admission to the Faculty of Advocates in 1707.  It long remained in the library of the Mure of Caldwell family, who produced many lawyers in the eighteenth century. On Grotius, see also

Finally one may note Acts of Assembly. Passed in the Island of Jamaica; from 1770, to 1783, Inclusive (Kingston 1786). It has a Grant family book plate, and an inscription “J. Grant’s May 6 1789”. Further work would be required, but it is tempting to identify this “J. Grant” as the Scotsman John Grant, Chief Justice of Jamaica (1783-1790), but one would need to be able to make a comparison to be sure. But if so, it connects with Scottish colonialism and slave-owning: see

There are other tempting connections: one book has a provenance: Craigie Hall Library, presumably Craigie Hall on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It is a copy of M. Salamoni, Responsa prudentum, paradoxa, Basel 1530 – a plausible work for a Scottish library. There are other suggestively Scottish names.

Richard & Diane Cummins Legal History Research Grant, 2014

George Washington University Law School is pleased to invite applications for the Richard & Diane Cummins Legal History Research Grant for 2014.

The Cummins Grant provides a stipend of $10,000 to support short-term historical research using Special Collections at GW’s Jacob Burns Law Library, which is noted for its continental historical legal collections, especially its French Collection.  Special Collections also is distinguished by its holdings in Roman and canon law, church-state relations, international law, and its many incunabula.

The grant is awarded to one doctoral, LL.M. or S.J.D. candidate; postdoctoral researcher; faculty member; or independent scholar.  The successful candidate may come from a variety of disciplines, including, but not limited to, law, history, religion, philosophy, or bibliography.

The deadline for applications is 15 October 2013.

For information about the Cummins Grant and how to apply, please visit:

For information about Special Collections at the Jacob Burns Law Library, please visit:

Arniston House and its Libraries

Arniston House is the home of the Dundases of Arniston. This family produced some of the most important lawyers of the eighteenth century including judges, two Lord Presidents of the Court of Session and a Chief Baron of the Exchequer. Arniston House has had an interesting architectural history as it evolved from a medieval defensive tower house to an elegant Palladian mansion with Victorian additions.

This Occasional Blogger recently jumped at the chance to visit Arniston House as part of a private tour organised by the Georgian House Education Committee for National Trust for Scotland volunteers based at the Georgian House in Edinburgh. The highlight for me was always going to be being in William Adam’s upper floor library which was created between 1726 and 1732 as Adam built the House for Robert Dundas (1685-1753), later the family’s first Lord President. This remarkable room retains its original book shelves – although their colour has changed from their original white to a light hued wood grain effect – and the terracotta portrait busts bought by another Robert Dundas, the future second Lord President while he was travelling on the Continent in the 1730s. The library and its design were clearly on his mind as he travelled. The travelling Dundases would have bought books abroad. Both Lord Presidents studied law at Utrecht as part of the well-known temporary migration of Scottish legal scholars between the 1680s and 1750s. It is conceivable that father’s books needed a home and that both father and son knew that their family library would grow more over time. The Adam library allowed for a growing collection of books to be assembled and housed.

The Adam library at Arniston is an example of one of the two main types of Scottish country house libraries built in the eighteenth century. Libraries were usually built in pavilions attached to the main block as found at Newhailes near Edinburgh which is earlier in date or in the upper floors of the main body of the house. This later type is descriptively called a ‘skied’ library. Both types of plan allowed the users of the library to be away from the activities and noise of their households while they worked, studied, and welcomed fellow professionals and scholars to their sanctuaries.

The Arniston library features large windows that face north towards Edinburgh, a carved chimneypiece, and elegant plasterwork by Joseph Enzer (who also created the house’s impressive entry hall).

The library shelves hold a fine collection of china and glass now. The books were moved to a new ground floor library in the late 1860s when a later Robert Dundas decided that the skied library was too inconvenient. He converted room off the main entry hall into a library and study complete with a neo-Jacobean fireplace and secret door leading to the east pavilion of the house. Dundas was a bibliophile like his ancestors so, although he did some weeding, most of the collection is intact in its new location. The impressively displayed collection holds legal works, history, and literature.

The rest of the house also contains items of interest to the legal historian including portraits by leading artists such as Raeburn and Ramsay of members of the Dundas legal dynasty.

A visit to Arniston House is highly recommended. See where you can find details about opening times and prices for 2013. Entry is by guided tour at set times or in pre-booked groups only since the house is still very much a family home.

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Law Books: History & Connoisseurship

Registration is now open for the Rare Book School course, 'Law Books: History and Connoisseurship', 13-17 June 2011 at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.

This course will follow the direction set by Morris L. Cohen and David Warrington in their earlier Rare Book School course, Collecting the History of Anglo-American Law, while expanding the scope to include the legal literature of Western Europe and Latin America. It is aimed at individual book collectors who collect in some aspect of the history of the law and for librarians who have custody of historical legal materials. The course will survey printed and manuscript legal materials and introduce its bibliography and curatorship. Topics include the history of the production and distribution of law books; catalogs and reference books; philosophy and techniques of collecting; and acquiring books, manuscripts, and ephemera in the antiquarian book trade.

The objective of the course is to acquaint collectors and librarians with the tools and techniques needed to form focused collections of historical materials in Anglo-American, European, and Latin American law, and to equip historians and legal scholars in the use of such collections. Particular attention will be paid to planning collections in light of intended use and availability of materials and funds. Following introductory lectures on the role of legal materials in the development of the law and on the terminology, physical make-up, and determinants of rarity of legal books and manuscripts, the instructor will cover the bibliography of the field. This analysis will include discussion of the history of the production and distribution of law books, a review of the principal bibliographies and reference books, and demonstrations of how these tools are used. Emphasis will also be given to the sources of acquisitions (used and antiquarian booksellers, book fairs, auctions, gifts). After a survey of the history and present state of the collection of rare legal materials by individuals and institutions, the course will conclude with discussion of strategies and techniques in collection development. The laboratory sessions will give students hands-on experience in using some of the basic bibliographical tools and antiquarian book price guides.

Students will be expected to have a general knowledge of the history of Anglo-American, Western European, and/or Latin American law. In their personal statement, prospective students should describe briefly their knowledge of legal history and bibliography and their (or their institution’s) collecting and/or research interests.

A useful list of preliminary reading is available here.

For more information about the course contact Mike Widener.

For more information about the Rare Books School visit