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NYT: English Gavels Resound in a Trove Headed to Yale

From the New York Times: English Gavels Resound in a Trove Headed to Yale, by JENNIFER SCHUESSLER Published: June 16, 2013

A pocket-size 14th-century handwritten copy of Magna Carta, the first book on the legal rights of women published in England, letters from the 18th-century jurist William Blackstone and papers belonging to a real-life London lawyer praised by Charles Dickens’s fictional yes-man Uriah Heep are among the highlights of a rich trove of rare legal books and manuscripts just acquired by Yale University.

Mr. Taussig’s collection sheds light on how the law was lived.

The collection — around 400 legal manuscripts and 200 printed books assembled by the British barrister Anthony Taussig over more than 35 years — is widely considered the world’s most important private collection of rare material relating to the cultural and intellectual history of English law.

“If Taussig were a library, it would be a better library than almost any of the other law libraries,” said Fred Shapiro, an associate librarian at Yale Law School, whose library acquired the collection in conjunction with the university’s Beinecke Rare Book & and Manuscript Library. Mr. Shapiro declined to say what Yale paid for the collection, which is distinguished partly by its sheer size. Mr. Taussig’s hoard of 400-odd English legal manuscripts — books, records, letters and other materials — is nearly 10 times as large as the Library of Congress’s collection, and larger than the number held by most of the other major libraries in America put together, he said. (Harvard Law School, alas, does have more than 500 English legal manuscripts, Mr. Schapiro admitted.) And the printed books in the collection include some items, like a 1775 work on laws concerning pawnbrokers and usurers, that are not listed in any library in the comprehensive WorldCat database.

Mr. Taussig certainly bagged many trophies, like an edition of the first printed English lawbook of any kind (a 1481 abridgment of statutes) and 18 letters by Blackstone, whose “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” published in America in 1771, are often said to have had more influence on legal institutions in the United States than any book besides the Bible.

But the collection is also notable for the way that some of the humbler manuscript items shed light on the lived experience of the law, at a time when historians are increasingly interested in the on-the-ground dealings of judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens.

“A great deal of what went on never made it into the printed record,” said James Oldham, a specialist in 18th-century English law at Georgetown Law School who has worked with the Taussig collection.

Mr. Taussig, 74, who retired several years ago from a thriving practice in property and tax law, said he got bit by the collecting bug in the 1970s while researching a seemingly dry-as-dust topic: the history of banking forms. Soon he was haunting a bookseller a few flights down from his office in Lincoln’s Inn in London and placing bids at a nearby auction house. In 1981 he bid on the mini handwritten Magna Carta at Sotheby’s.

“It was a fascinating and beautiful object,” he said. “My bid was successful, and I thought, I must pursue this.”

Yale seemed like an ideal home for his holdings, Mr. Taussig said, because of the reputation of its law school, its commitment to keeping the collection intact and his prior acquaintance with Mike Widener, a rare-book specialist at the law library who helped arrange the deal.

But some items are hard to part with, he said, and not just the obvious treasures. He cited a wealth of materials relating to England’s Poor Laws, a system for dealing with the indigent before the advent of the modern welfare state, like a document recording the plight of a woman who was abandoned by her husband during the Napoleonic Wars and sent back to his home parish in Cornwall with their children.

“It’s sort of a traveling passport, recording how she was passed off from constable to constable,” Mr. Taussig said. “It doesn’t have much commercial value. But it tells a human story.”

Other everyday items reveal the way people thought about bankruptcy and other morally charged issues that are still passionately debated today, including the honor — or lack thereof — of lawyers themselves.

In an 1867 letter in the collection, John Coleridge, the queen’s counsel, defended his profession, writing, “It is because any criminal however black has a right to have his case legally defended and legally stated for him that it is the profession of a gentleman.”

Yet in an 1808 letter to William Tidd, a leading attorney and widely read authority on common law (“Oh, what a writer Mr. Tidd is!” the unctuous Uriah Heep exclaims in “David Copperfield”), a lawyer in Bristol sounded a more cynical note.

In the city’s debtor’s courts, he noted, the humblest of litigants “are too poor or too wise to have the attendance of counsel.”

by Nancy Kuhl
June 18, 2013

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