Yale purchased a huge collection of legal manuscripts last year from London barrister Anthony Taussig. Beinecke Library’s website declares these manuscripts “the world’s most extensive private collection ever assembled for the study of the cultural and intellectual history of law in England.”
The most extensive private collection ever assembled for the study of English law! Terrific. Now, what to do with it? Yale’s answer was to mount an exhibition called “The Common Law Epitomiz’d: Anthony Taussig’s Law Books,” which in itself seems entirely appropriate.
On my way to the exhibit, I imagined what I might be in for: a room full of books, panels illuminating the documents’ historical context, maybe interactive features allowing for digital browsing, or perhaps a clever framing device, such as a fictional barrister explaining the manuscripts’ practical uses.
I went to the Law School, walked halfway down a hallway, then into a library, and asked a man behind a desk where the exhibit was. Clearly excited that someone was interested, he pointed to a single glass case behind him. So much for my fantasy exhibit.
It turned out there were two other glass cases. And there were books, and there were small placards with captions. I read the placards, looked at the books, tried not to disturb the nearby law students. After ten minutes, it was over.
To be fair, I do not have much experience with Law Library exhibits. Maybe they’re all like this. And I get it: old English legal documents are inherently unsexy. They don’t bring to mind dazzling multi-sensory displays. But why not try a little flair? Why confine these historic texts to a drab library lounge? Why not have Taussig record an audio track that walks us through his purchases, telling the stories of how he obtained them and how they fit into the larger scheme of English history? If these texts’ fate is ultimately to languish in Beinecke and be accessed only occasionally by specialists, why not celebrate them more publicly now? The New York Times ran a major feature about the acquisition when it took place; clearly, there’s interest.
Complaints aside, it’s worth surveying the impressive highlights on display. The books and manuscripts range in date from the 13th to the 19th century and they include a host of remarkable firsts: the first printed book of English law, the first book on women’s rights in English law and the first justice of the peace manual. Some texts are ornately illustrated or notable for their distinct binding, and all are held open to a specific page. But the captions focus less on the text than on the career of the author.
The trove expands on the university’s already significant collection of Sir William Blackstone papers and features an important early abolitionist pamphlet, among other gems. The collection was assembled over a 35-year period by Taussig, who is a historian as well as a collector, and was paid for using the law school’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.
There are some lessons for the layperson, but this display is really for the legal history and rare book buffs. If that describes you, then rejoice: The exhibit is open for two more months.