Sized for pocket carry, this 17th-century French arbitration treatise — including instructional illustrations — was bound with manuals for treating illnesses and injuries. The handmade compilation suggests that dual roles in medicine and law were common in the countryside, far from formal courts or medical care.

Images courtesy of Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Nation & World

Old Harvard, old France, old crime

6 min read

Exhibit spanning centuries of law combines detailed scholarship with a touch of scandal

The Harvard Law School Library is a launching point for well-trained modern lawyers, but it is also a time machine. Scholars or the merely curious are free to climb into the library’s Historical and Special Collections, which house tens of thousands of rare books, images, and manuscripts. These HOLLIS-hastened time travelers can examine how law has been taught and studied and compiled.

Legal history holdings at Harvard go back 10 centuries. The oldest document in the collections, a canon law manuscript from 1150, includes some impressive doodles. That may prove that legal studies, even in a monastery a millennium ago, were not always a dour pursuit.

The latest exhibit drawn from the collections is “Spanning the Centuries,” open in Langdell Hall’s Caspersen Room through Aug. 22 and curated by collections manager Karen S. Beck. Two glass cases contain items from 1579 to 1868, most of them added during the three years she has been on the job. “It gives a taste of the breadth and depth of our collections and what we’re adding,” said Beck.

There are three books bound together into a sammelband by a 17th-century German student studying to be a notary, an adjunct of formal legal training. (Sammelbände, or self-bound composite volumes, were common starting in the 15th century. They provide insight into what students and middlebrow readers thought was important, and related.)

“We like to collect things that are unique and have scholarly impact,” said Beck, who is also a rare books curator. “And where you can see something of the owner — the maker.” Sammelbände are often strikingly intimate just because of their size, she added — ready to pocket, like the student notary’s of three centuries ago.

“Spanning” also offers views of a self-help sammelband from rural 17th-century France that bound together works on medical and legal advice, showing that informal practices of both flourished outside city centers. Detailed illustrations, said Beck, were valuable prompts for illiterate audiences.

One 17th-century French manuscript, inked by a law student in a spidery hand, transcribes commentaries by jurist and legal writer Edmond Merille (1579-1647). In the margins, in darker ink, a teacher seems to have added his own thoughts.

“You get a sense of what the study of law was like,” said Beck.

Nearby is a page from a coutume for the City of Lille in 1579. Coutumes — “customary laws” — were first written down in the 13th century. They documented regional French laws and practices and later became an important source for modern French law. Coutumes were fiercely local, once inspiring Voltaire to write that a man traveling through France had to change laws as often as he did horses.

An 1856 student journal on display (but not yet digitized) offers views from both inside and outside the classroom at Harvard Law School. John Marshall Vanmeter (1836-1925), who graduated in 1857, wrote about playing the violin, watching ice harvesting at Fresh Pond, and — on one occasion — walking along Washington Street hoping “to see a pretty girl’s face.”

Individually, the documents do not shed much light on how law was taught and studied. But when taken together a fuller picture emerges, said Beck. “Each of these pieces gives you a little bit. It’s like a layer of paint.”

Those layers sometimes reveal intersections of law and religion. “Spanning” includes a manuscript of an unpublished compilation of prayers for prisoners by lawyer, priest, and author John Disney (1677-1730). It shows his readings for those awaiting trial, for those convicted, for those awaiting execution, and for those, he wrote, “such as seem to be hardened and impenitent.”

The pious Disney eases the transition from artifacts about the study of law to those that seem to celebrate its more dramatic — even lurid and seamy — side. Items in the second case were drawn from the collection’s archive of crime broadsides and related documents. The viewer can peer into legal sensations of the 18th and 19th century, including two pages from a 1785 pamphlet about a London adultery trial.

Meanwhile, illustrations strike a penny-dreadful tone. Look for the title page from an anonymous 1839 account of Elizabeth Brownrigg, a London midwife executed for torturing and starving a young apprentice. Or look for a page from a copiously illustrated 1863 life story of George W. Symonds. Among the crimes attributed to the Portsmouth, N.H., native were arson, forgery, rape, and murder. “He was a really bad egg, and quite multifaceted,” said Beck. “He was a versatile evil guy.”

But the timeless lure of the lurid is not all, she added, since “historians could take a number of angles” with such material. There are trial transcripts in the collections, as well as insights into crime and its relationship to poverty, women, and marriage. Add to that an overlay of redemption, sin, and punishment, Beck said of the holdings. “Theologians can get in there too.”