The Ames Foundation

De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae
attributed to Henry of Bratton


HLS MS 2 is officially called ‘Bracton, Henry de, -1268, De legibus Angliae, ca. 1390’. (For more on the Bracton, click here.) Whether the manuscript is as late as 1390 is an issue that requires more exploration, but this is clearly not one of the early Bracton manuscripts, as is, for example HLS MS 1. Its interest lies not for those who are attempting to reconstruct the earliest versions of the text, but for those who are interested in later uses of the text. (Woodbine did, however, use it in preparing his edition; it is his manuscript “HA’.) We begin with the catalogue description, much of which needs to be checked, but which contains few obvious errors (other than the attribution of text to Bracton).

“Belonged to Sir Thomas Phillipps (MS 136); his sale, 21 March 1895, at Sotheby (no. 97) to Nichols for Harold Bailie Weaver (d. 1926); his sale, 29 March 1898 at Christie (no. 149) to Ellis for George Dunn; Dunn’s sale at Sotheby (no. 9) on 11 Feb. 1913; bought privately by Harvard Law School.” There is no reason to doubt any of this, despite the fact that firm evidence of all of it is not found in the manuscript. Phillipps stamp appears on the verso the first end paper, together with his manucript number (136) in pen, and a paste-in indicating the ownership of George Dunn. The same page also contains a number of penciled notes, dated in March 1898. These are probably Christie’s notes, and are clearly the source of this sentence in the catalogue description: “Differs in text and arrangement from the printed edition of Tottel in 1569, and has a number of interesting Old English words.” The notes add that the manuscript was unknown to Twiss in his edition for the Rolls Series. The ‘Old English’ words are not as interesting as the Christie’s thought they were. To the extent that they are legible, they can all be found in the vulgate text of Bracton. A further piece of evidence about the provenance can be found in the bookplate on the back pastedown: “From the Library of George Dunn, Gift of the Alumni of the Harvard Law School, Received March 15, 1913.” That is to say, it was part of the large number of manuscripts that the Library bought shortly after the Dunn sale and that formed what is still known as the ‘Dunn Collection,” the basic core of the Library’s collection of legal manuscripts.

“The text is rubricated with numerous ornamental pen-letters in blue and red. Illuminated initials and borders throughout text.” An image can make this clearer:

HLS MS 2, fol. 186r

Whether this work should be called ‘rubrication’ is perhaps not worth asking. What is clear is that an illustrator has throughout provided two levels of headings: an elaborated capital to mark what we might call paragraphs accompanied with quite dramatic flourishes, and paragraph marks inserted in the text to mark sections of each paragraph. (The illustrator was probably looking at the manuscript from which the copy was made as he did this, because there are no guides for the initial capitals.) This type of art-work is found throughout the manuscript. (The example is taken from fol. 186r, very close to the end.) Rubrication in the more technical sense is sparse. There is only one on this page (Breve vicecomiti sicut alias) on the left hand column toward the top. This corresponds to the rubric (and, for the most part, the text that surrounds it) found on p. 4:369 of the Thorne-Woodbine text. The text on this page continues through p. 4:372 of the Thorne-Woodbine edition, which includes six additional rubrics, none of which is found in our manuscript. The sparseness of the rubrication is notable throughout the manuscript. The first page (fol. 1r) has only one, which is, in fact, not a rubric but a piece of text omitted in the basic text: Videndum est quid sit lex. The corresponding pages in Thorne-Woodbine have 10 rubrics (2:19–22).

The image given above may also be used to illustrate some characteristics of the entire manuscript. The parchment was prepared with penciled lines, which mark the header and the borders of two columns, each with 59 lines of text (Woodbine notes that some of them have 63 lines), and a rather large space for a footer. The header is marked with a colored Roman numeral (IIII, here), of which there are only four in the whole manuscript and which seem to correspond to some sort of division of the text into books. The header of the verso has a letter, which could be an ‘L’, the significance of which is unclear, and which appears on every verso throughout the manuscript. There is no medieval foliation. Foliation in pencil with modern Arabic numbers appears in the lower left-hand corner of each recto. It does not include the opening freestanding end pages, and continues, accurately, to fol. 187r, where we find the only medieval indication of what the book is: Explicit liber qui dicitur Bracton. The wording of this may suggest that the person who wrote this, like most modern scholars, doubted that Henry of Bratton wrote the book. On fol. 1ra, where some manuscripts have ego, Henricus de Brattone (see Thorne-Woodbine, p. 2:19), our manuscript reads ego talis H.

Fol. 187v was originally blank. Someone has written on it in a fourteenth- or possibly early fifteenth-century hand what seems to be a recipe for mixing paint or perhaps for making a sauce or perhaps even alchemy. It is hard to read and deserves more attention than we have been able to give it. It mentions sal aromatum and sal commune. Later on we are instructed to mix in auripigmentum, and if that doesn’t work, to mix in more. Unfortunately, there is nothing in this that gives any firm evidence of date or provenance.

“The first folio having a half border of grotesques with an initial miniature of a king.” This may be compared with the first folio of HLS MS 1. Further comment awaits the attention of an art historian.

“Binding of 16c. English calf over wooden boards; stamped on cover (17c.) with panelings of arabesques, and five feathers issuant from a coronet.” This corresponds to what we can see. The dating and provenance seem plausible, but requires the attention of a specialist in bindings.

Throughout the text there are a rather large number of marginal additions. The first is found on fol. 1va (last line) and is typical of most, if not all, of them. The text has just told us that the word ius is sometimes applied to a grant of bonorum possessio (Quandoque pro bonorum possessione). The base text continues: quia est ius proprietatis et ius [fol. 1vb] possessionis sicut feodum. Just after possessione a streamer brings us to text in the lower margin that reads: Quandoque pro potestate, ut cum dicitur iste est sui iuris. Quandoque pro rigore iuris, ut dicitur inter ius et equitatem. Item ponitur pro ipsa arte: nec enim omne ius precipit, immo quoddam permittit. Vel ponitur pro omni iure quod precipit honeste vivere, alterum non ledere, ius suum cuique tribuere. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of what is found in the Thorne-Woodbine text at this point (p. 2:24).

The hand of these marginal additions is roughly contemporary with, but is not the same as, that of the base text. The additions were put in before the illumination of the manuscript was completed, because they are marked in various kinds of colored ink. Because all the ones that we have examined so far seem to come from the vulgate text of Bracton, we should be cautious about drawing the conclusion that the catalogue’s reference to “early marginalia referring to Devonshire cases” tells us anything about the provenance of the manuscript. These could be references to Devonshire cases that were already in the vulgate text. (The presence of the Devonshire cases is also noted by Woodbine, and requires more exploration.)

Obviously, considerably more work needs to be done with this manuscript before we can draw any firm conclusions. Perhaps, however, we know enough to suggest an hypothesis: We have found no support for the catalogue date of c. 1390 other than the handwriting itself. (Such support may exist; we have not read the entire manuscript.) If the date is based on the handwriting alone, it seems a bit late. It could be that late, but it is equally plausible to date the hand in the mid-fourteenth century. The hand bears all the marks of a professional scribe. (Woodbine calls it a ‘charter’ hand.) He probably did not himself omit all the passages that were later added in the margins; he probably was working from an abridged text. Someone got ahold of a more complete manuscript and filled in passages that were found in that manuscript and not in the one that had already been copied. The hand, however, of the marginalia is also quite formal (also, according to Woodbine, a ‘charter’ hand). Whether a professional scribe filled in the text on his own, or whether he was instructed about what to add may be recoverable with more careful study. The end result is still not a complete Bracton text. The omissions that we have found so far, however, are quite minor.

Metadata. Preparing metadata for the Bracton text is a challenge. We have already noticed that the scribe uses very few headings. Until we can prepare proper metadata for Bracton (which will involve transcribing those headings that exist in the manuscript and comparing them to those in Woodbine-Thorne), it may help to know that one page (half a folio) in the manuscript text represents approximately four pages in Woodbine-Thorne and approximately two folios in the printed edition used for the traditional foliation.


sequence label
1 Front cover
2 Inside front cover
3 (no fol., no sig.) Free standing end page (blank)
4 (no fol., no sig.) Free standing end page
5 fol. 1r
6 fol. 1v
7 fol. 2r
8 fol. 2v
9 fol. 3r
10 fol. 3v
11 fol. 4r
12 fol. 4v
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378 fol. 187v
379 Inside back cover, bookplate of George Dunn, Gift of the Alumni of the Harvard Law School, March 15, 1913
380 Back cover


This page last updated 05/06/14. Contact Rosemary Spang with comments.
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