Elizabethan Club co-sponsored exhibition opens at Law School

Works by Edward Coke (top) and Sir Francis Bacon (bottom) are on display at the Law Library.
Works by Edward Coke (top) and Sir Francis Bacon (bottom) are on display at the Law Library. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

A justification for Mary, Queen of Scots’ right to the throne, debates over the persecution of Catholics and a play fit for a king can now all be found in one place on the Yale campus.

To celebrate its centennial anniversary, the Elizabethan Club — a literary society on campus — is co-sponsoring “Life and Law in Early Modern England,” an exhibition on 16th and 17th century English law in the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Room of the Lillian Goldman Law Library. The books in the exhibition track trends in English law that continue to the present day, said Michael Widener, the Yale Law School’s rare books librarian.

“I wanted to choose books that reflected some of the really interesting legal debates that were going on in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries,” said Justin Zaremby ’03 GRD ’07 LAW ’10, the co-chair of the Lizzie’s Centenary Committee.

Zaremby said he selected the items on display from the collections of the Lizzie and Law Library and then prepared the exhibit’s presentation by researching the books. Zaremby said he also allowed the texts that he found within the collections to shape the ideas behind the final exhibition.

Widener said the exhibit seeks to display the relationship between law and society during the time of Queen Elizabeth, James I and Charles I.

He added that a number of reasons made the period an especially interesting one for the study of law. First, there was debate over who would succeed the childless Queen Elizabeth to the English throne. The exhibit includes a treatise by Edmund Plowden, which gives legal justification for Mary, Queen of Scots, to claim the throne. Although Queen Elizabeth beheaded Queen Mary before her own death, Mary’s sons, James and Charles, ultimately took power, Widener said.

Zaremby said many of the legal issues explored during this time — such as property rights, legal education and executive power — are issues that law students still “wrestle with” today. For example, Shelley’s Case — a significant law regarding property rights featured in the exhibit — is still read by the majority of law students today, Widener said.

He added that the period also brought together law and drama, an area of expertise for the Lizzie. The exhibit features “The Masque of the Inner Temple and Grayes Inne,” by Francis Beaumont, a play which was performed for King James I and Queen Anne. The Inns of Court, a law education center called the “third University of England,” would commission masques from famous English playwrights, thereby playing an important role in the development of English drama, Widener said.

“There’s no question that various dramatic productions were an important way for people to learn more about the law,” Zaremby said.

Widener noted this time was also a cornerstone of the development of English law because it traced the evolution of language use within the legal system. While legal works had been previously written in Latin or Law French, Widener said, lawyers began to write in English, making law more accessible to the public.

One English language book, which Widener acquired himself for the Law School’s collection, is Sir Edward Coke’s “Coke on Littleton.” This printed book is “crammed full of annotations,” Widener said, predominantly by Samuel Butler, a law scholar who wrote a best-seller satirizing 17th century Puritans. Coke also wrote a 13-volume series of case reports that were so influential they need not carry his name, Widener added — if cited as “reports” one could assume they were Coke’s.

“[Coke] had so much influence on the legal profession,” Widener said. “He just kind of vomits it out.”

Other works include a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes about the king’s right to control the church of Scotland, which Widener said played a key role in the creation of the King James Bible, a political book by Lord Burghley dealing with the rights of Catholics within the British Empire and a set of maxims of common law by Francis Bacon.

On Feb. 24, Cornell Law Professor Josh Chafetz LAW ’07 will give a lecture, titled “‘In the Time of a Woman, Which Sex Was Not Capable of Mature Deliberation’: Late-Tudor Parliamentary Relations and Their Early-Stuart Discontents.” The talk will be delivered in connection with the exhibit at the Law School.

“Life and Law in Early Modern England” is open to the public through May.

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