Rare Book of the Month: #Throwback

In this regular feature we re-post the rare book of the month articles that were originally published on the Middle Temple website. Below is the rare book which first appeared in December 2016.

The final rare book of the month for 2016 is the 1580 Le liver des assises & plees del corone, printed by Richard Tottell and edited by John Rastell. It was originally published by Rastell himself in 1514 with the title Tabula libri assisaru[m] [et] pl[ac]itorum corone, hence the common name, or uniform title, of ‘Liber Assisarum’ for all subsequent editions. An earlier abridgment appeared circa 1502, printed by Richard Pynson and entitled Tabnla [i.e. Tabula] li. ass[is]a[rum]. This earlier work was, according to the English Short Title Catalogue, “An alphabetical abridgement of selected cases ranging in time from Edward I through Edward IV, in part derived from the manuscript of [the 1514 Tabula libri assisarum] and from [Nicholas Statham’s Abridgment des libres annales, 1490], and sometimes attributed to William Callow.”

John Rastell (born circa 1475, died 1536) was a printer and lawyer. As the admissions records held in the Archive only start in 1501, his admission record does not exist. However, he is referred to in the Minutes of Parliament as an ‘outer barrister’ in 1502, along with Christopher Saint German, the author of Dialogus de fundamentis legum Anglie et de conscientia in 1528. This work is later translated as The dialogues … between a doctor of divinity and a student in the laws of England, also known popularly as Doctor and student. This work of 1554/6, like the 1580 Liber Assisarum, was printed by Richard Tottell. Rastell had a successful legal career for “over twenty years” in addition to starting a printing business around 1509. As per the Dictionary of National Biography, he “concentrated on producing law books” including Fitzherbert’s Abridgement of 1514/6, which was co-printed with Wynken de Worde, one of the earliest printers in England after Caxton. Rastell died in poverty at the Tower of London in 1536, having been committed there by Thomas Cranmer for denying “clerical rights to tithe in 1535”.

The 1580 Liber is a selection of law reports covering year one to fifty of Edward III. It forms part of the series of Year Books, which were the annual reports of cases from the reign of Edward II to Henry VIII and are the law reports of medieval England. As printing was not invented until circa 1450, in Germany, and came to England in 1476, imported by William Caxton from Bruges (or Ghent), the Year Books remain a mix of manuscript and printed reports. Boston University School of Law provides a database which indexes all of the printed reports from the year books, as well as reports printed “only in alphabetical abridgments”: http://www.bu.edu/law/faculty-scholarship/legal-history-the-year-books/.

Liber assisarum

The Middle Temple copy of the ‘Liber assisarum’ was owned by Robert Ashley (1565-1641), the founder of the Library, as evidenced by the extensive marginalia and Liber assisarum_annotationscross-referencing notes. In the image here, we can see how he makes reference from 22 Ass. 93 (i.e. 22 Liber assisarum 93) to 16 Eliz. D fo. 326 b. and 5 Coke fo. 107 (i.e. 16 Elizabeth I Dyer’s King’s Bench Reports, folio 326 and 5 Coke’s Reports, folio 107, although the case begins on folio 106). Turning to these volumes in the Library, we find evidence of Robert Ashley’s marginalia and annotations as well.

Renae Satterley


December 2016