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Our Anglo-American Legal Heritage - Spring 2003

daniel r. coquillette rare book room - boston college law library

The Boston College Law Library is pleased to exhibit a selection of books from our permanent collection that rarely get a chance to be displayed. It is one of a growing series of rotating exhibits that will highlight special books and other rarely seen materials from our collection.

To create this exhibition, we selected men and women who have made significant and lasting contributions to the law, and whose works are well represented in our rare book collection: Emperor Justinian I, Saint Thomas More, Edward Coke, William Blackstone, James Kent, Joseph Story, Lemuel Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thurgood Marshall and, last but not least, Erle Stanley Gardner. Also displayed here are rarely seen Congressional documents that illuminate the lives of the early American politicians James Madison and John Marshall.

The exhibition is arranged in rough chronological order, beginning with Emperor Justinian and concluding with Erle Stanley Gardner. This exhibit was curated by Karen Beck, John Nann, Susan Sullivan and Jonathan Thomas. It will be on view through June 2003.

Justinian Text

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Justinian Cover

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Codex Domini Justiniani. Nuremberg, 1475.

Justinian I, Emperor of the eastern Roman Empire, gathered the law of centuries past into a format that would enable his subjects to learn, understand, and apply the law in a uniform manner. In so doing, he gave the law a form and function that continues to this day. His Code gathered into one place the opinions of the great Roman jurists, and collected legislation passed as far back as Hadrian in the second century A.D.

Significant as the Code was in its own time, it continued to make its mark in the ensuing centuries. In the late eleventh century, the discovery of two manuscripts of the complete text of Justinian's Code revolutionized the study of law in the western Europe. Comprehensive and systematic Roman civil law became a model to western Europeans struggling to create their own legal systems. The view that law should have a philosophical system and basis is drawn from Justinian's Code. Indeed, Justinian's was the most widely used code of law until the Emperor Napoleon commissioned the Napoleonic Code in 1804.

Until the invention of the printing press, copies of Justinian's Code were made by hand. While the Code played an important role in the development of the law before the printing press, once it was set and printed its wider distribution enabled it to take the important place that it still holds. Shown here is one of several editions of Justinian's Code owned by the Boston College Law Library. This special example was printed in the early days of the printing press.

Basel Utopia Kelmscott Utopia Cover

Kelmscott Utopia Text


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Utopia. 3rd ed. Basel: 1518. Illustrated from designs by Hans Holbein.

Utopia. Printed by William Morris, Kelmscott Press, 1893.

A deeply religious man who at one point seriously considered entering the priesthood, Thomas More decided to make his mark in the lay world by practicing law. His great oratorical skill, his reputation for justice, and his success in representing the guild companies brought him to the attention of the newly crowned Henry VIII. More became Henry's secretary in 1518 and was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1529, the first non-cleric to hold that post. He became speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. More's diverse legal accomplishments made him the most famous and powerful private citizen in England; as such, King Henry eagerly sought More's agreement that the King was the supreme head of the Church of England. More's refusal caused Henry to declare him a traitor and led to his eventual beheading.

In 1516 More published his masterpiece, Utopia. The work is placed in a mythical location called Utopia where all citizens participate with full equality in activities related to food, clothing, housing, education, philosophy, government, war and religion. The book was seen as a indictment of the economic and social conditions prevailing in Europe, particularly in England. It came to be interpreted as the inspiration for a variety of political and social movements including communism, British imperialism, and the reform of Christianity.

The Boston College Law Library owns several versions of Utopia and is pleased to exhibit two very special editions here. The sixteenth-century third edition contains illustrations taken from designs by Hans Holbein. The nineteenth-century volume was printed at the famous Kelmscott Press in London by the noted artist and printer William Morris.

JOSEPH STORY, 1779-1845.

A Selection of Pleadings in Civil Actions. Boston: Published by Barnard B. Macanulty, Printed by Manning & Loring, 1805.

Story Cover

Story Text

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Throughout his legal career, Joseph Story strove to create a body of uniquely American law through his work as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court, as a law professor at Harvard, and as the author of numerous treatises on American law. It is as an author that most people recognize his name today. He wrote treatises on Bailments, the Constitution, Conflict of Laws, Equity Jurisprudence, Pleading, Agency, Partnership, and Bills of Exchange.

The Boston College Law Library is fortunate to own two copies of Pleadings in Civil Actions. The leather-bound volume passed through several hands during the first decade of the nineteenth century. John Cotton appears to have purchased the book in 1810, and then sold it to Elijah Knight in 1812. By 1850, the book was in the hands of George Silsbee Hale of 39 Court Street in Boston. The second copy is opened to a section that reveals Story's copious annotations and citations to authority in the margins.


Perry Mason Cover

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The Case of the Curious Bride. New York: Pocket Books, 1967. [Originally published by William Morrow & Co. in 1934.]

Starting in 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner forever changed the American public's perception of the law when he introduced the world to the defense attorney Perry Mason. With over 150 novels and 300 million copies in print, Gardner was the bestselling American author of his time. The Perry Mason character also appeared in American households five days a week on radio during the 1940s and 1950s, and was featured on one of the most successful television shows in history. The television program ran from 1957 to 1966 and continues in syndication.

Gardner's Perry Mason stories were nothing if not formulaic. An innocent person was accused of a horrible murder. The defense attorneys and prosecutors were ethical, but because of limitations in criminal procedure, the innocent person would almost be convicted of the crime, until Perry saved the day. Gardner's stories of the innocent defendant at the mercy of an unresponsive criminal justice system had a tremendous effect on the public's perception of the system. His stories helped provide the societal support for judicial efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to afford more protection to those accused of a crime.