|The Harvard Law School’s Collection
of Medieval English Statute Books and
Registers of Writs
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The Harvard Law School Library holds a large collection of English medieval manuscript statute books and registers of writs. Numerous medieval manuscripts of both types of collections survive. Their interest lies in the fact that no two of them are alike. Rather, each seems to have been made up to serve the needs and the interests of the person who had them made. Many of them contain matter that does not fit into their general category. Either, for example, may contain brief treatises on pleading; some may contain pieces of Novae Narrationes. The selection of writs or statutes may be standard or quite idiosyncratic. Most of them seem to have been made for practicing lawyers or administrators (though this seems to be less true of the statute books than it is of the registers of writs). Some are quite handsomely laid out and illustrated; some are not.
Modern scholarship has had a tendency to ignore these manuscripts.1 There are a very large number of them. Their texts of standard items are, of course, not so reliable as what may be found the printed Statutes of the Realm (S.R.), in Hall’s edition of Early Registers of Writs, or even in the sixteenth-century printing of ‘the’ Register of Writs. They do, however, provide an interesting insight into what lawyers and administratrors in a given period thought might be useful and into what non-lawyers wanted to preserve and/or display.
1. See, however, Rosemarie McGerr, A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes: The Yale Law School New Statutes of England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), with references; Don C. Skemer, ‘Reading the Law: Statute Books and the Private Transmission of Legal Knowledge in Late Medieval England’, in Learning the Law: Teaching and the Transmission of law in England, 1150-1900, Jonathan A. Bush and Alain Wijffels ed. (London: Hambledon Press, 1999) 113–131.
To make these books useful to scholars, then, what seems to be called for is not an edition of their texts, except in the cases where there is no modern edition of the text (e.g., the De bastardia in HLS MS 24), but, rather, much more comprehensive lists of their contents than is normally available in library or even in manuscript catalogues. The Ames Foundation is undertaking this with the Harvard collection, taking it as a sample, perhaps an unbiased sample, of such books.1
2. We are not, of course, speaking of a random sample that would satisfy a statistician. It is probably, however, an unbiased sample of what was available on the private market from the time of George Dunn in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose entire collection we have, up until the present day.
We have made some progress. We now have digital images of all 58 manuscripts in the HLL collection of such manuscripts. One of them is simply a single sheet of Magna Carta (HLS MS 172). Seventeen of these items are principally registers of writs, including one that is a register of judicial writs. Two of these contain tracts, and one has a single sheet of tracts folded into it. Thirty-eight of these items are principally statute-books, four of which also contain registers of writs, and 32 of which contain items that are not in S.R. A final manuscript (HLS MS 193), though classed as a register of writs, is not a register of writs, at least as that term is normally understood, but a collection of some writs and extracts from treatises, but principally extracts from Year Books, designed to illustrate ‘placita personalia’.
The Ames Foundation has compiled preliminary descriptions of 57 of the manuscripts. We have not yet tackled HLS MS 172. Some of the ‘preliminary’ descriptions are quite preliminary.
When the full description is done the metadata in the margin of the PDS (and to the extent possible in Mirador) will eventually be changed to pick up the descriptions of the items in the manuscripts, and the HOLLIS cataloguing corrected where it is in error. There is, however, some delay before this happens.
We would welcome any help or suggestions. They may be sent by email.
The following pages contain:
(1) A list of all 58 manuscripts with their HOLLIS description, a brief note, and links to where the manuscripts may be found online. This list includes Hall’s dating of the registers of writs, which is sometimes revised in our descriptions.
(2) A list of the 57 preliminary descriptions that the Ames Foundation has prepared, with links to the full description. An introduction to the list explains more fully what we did in the descriptions.
(3) A table that currently lists the 50 tracts or treatises that we have so far found in the collection and also lists the 9 manuscripts that have alphabetical indices of statutes with a description of those indices. We hope to expand this table relatively soon to include all the items in the collection that are not statutes in S.R. or forms of writs, notae, and regulae that are in a register. Ultimately the goal is to summarize the entire contents of the collection.
A table of abbreviations, a bibliography, and search engines are, as they say, ‘under construction’.
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Contact Rosemary Spang with comments.