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Historic Legal Rarities Find a New Home at Yale
The National Law Journal
Correction: This story has been modified to reflect that William Blackstone was an influential English lawyer from the 18th century.
Forget what’s new. It’s all about what’s old at Yale Law School—really old.
After five years of talks, the New Haven, Conn., law school has acquired some important historical legal manuscripts and books from England that date as far back as the 13th century.
The manuscripts and books were collected by Anthony Taussig, a London barrister and legal historian who during 35 years amassed one of the most impressive collections of historical materials about English law. Yale is taking just a portion of his library.
“I’ve known Mr. Taussig for a good while and at one point I mentioned that I didn’t know what his long-term plans for the collection were, but that Yale would like to have a chance at it,” said Mike Widener, the law library’s rare book librarian. “Mr. Taussig is a very interesting collector. He has developed a great feel for research value.”
Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library already has an extensive collection of holdings centered on William Blackstone—the English lawyer and law professor from the 18th century who wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769), which strongly influenced the development of the American legal system. The Taussig acquisition will add another 23 Blackstone-related titles to Yale’s holdings.
Altogether, the law library is adding about 200 books from the Taussig collection, 19 of which will be the only copies in North America, and 400 manuscripts.
After learning that the library’s collection had some gaps in early English commercial law and the history of bankruptcy law, the library specifically sought out volumes on those topics, Widener said. The law school also sought out books and manuscripts that highlight efforts to reform the law over time.
One of the most notable of Yale’s new titles is the first book of English law—a 1481 abridgement of statutes. Others are the first English book about women’s legal rights from 1632 and a pamphlet about the 1772 Sommerset case, which outlawed slavery in the British Isles; Yale’s copy is annotated by the man who financed the litigation—abolitionist Granville Sharp.
The manuscripts will reside in the university’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, just across the street from the law library. They include a “pocket-sized” manuscript copy of Magna Carta dating to the 14th century; selected correspondence from and about Blackstone; and 207 letters written to 18th century legal writer William Tidd.
The historical volumes and manuscripts have research value for legal scholars and social historians alike, Widener said. Additionally, “there is a bit of a museum aspect to this. We demonstrate to law students that they are joining a profession with a long, illustrious and important history. The collection offers a physical connection to legal history, and they show us how lawyers have used these resources. They are all marked up [by the lawyers who initially used them].”
Widener declined to reveal the cost of the acquisition. The Beinecke Library financed the purchase of the manuscripts, while most of the books were paid for with a grant from the law school’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund. That foundation was established in 2005 with a $30 million gift from alumnus Oscar Ruebhausen, a former Debevoise & Plimpton partner.
Widener is planning to exhibit the acquisitions and the library has plans to digitize some of the material.