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16th-century roll-decorated binding of H.1.17

Recent restoration of a Queens’ 16th-century law book (shelf mark: H.1.17) has brought to light an intriguing find. Hidden within its covers were 19 leaves from an even older, and incredibly rare edition of the 6th century Roman law text  Corpus Juris Civilis [Body of Civil Law], printed by Jean du Pré in Paris, around 1495 (this was identified by our Old Library cataloguer, Paul Harcourt) Like many (or all?) early printed books there are numerous reaons why this particular volume is unique and of interest in its own right.  Residing for the past 400 years on a bookcase devoted mainly to 16th-century law texts, H.1.17, like several of its near neighbours was bequeathed to Queens’ Library by the noted 16th-century Queens’ fellow,  Thomas Smith (1513-1577). Although Smith attained high political office during the reigns of Edward VI (Secretary of State (1548-49)) and Elizabeth I (Principal Secretary of State (1572)), it is as one of England’s foremost humanist scholars that he is most remembered today.  Moreover it is, in part, through his Queens’ bequest of over 70 Humanist and legal books that we can build a picture of Smith’s scholarly activities, both in terms of the texts that interested him and, through his annotations, how he read them  (see brief details of the Smith bequest from the digitised 17th century Queens’ Library Donors’ Book) .

For the modern scholar Smith’s propensity to annotate, underline and even illustrate his books makes his collection of unique interest, not least because it suggests to us which books he actually read and found most important.   Of the two complete law-related texts that comprise H.1.17 only one is annotated, a text by the Frenchman Joannes  Millaeus, entitled Praxis criminis  persequendi, published in Paris by Simonem Colinaeum in 1541 (this translates as The practice of prosecuting crime).

Smith underlines ‘murder’, ‘adultery’ and ‘Rape’ and draws a small church to highlight reference to places of worship

Illustrated by a series of  13 idealized woodcut illustrations, we can, perhaps, see why and when Smith  acquired this textbook on crime.  In 1540-2 following his Cambridge appointment as Regius Professor of Law (a post for which he was, as yet, unqualified), he had toured Europe to familiarise himself with Humanist legal scholarship. It seems likely that the text could have been picked up during his time in France.

Although to the modern reader gratuitously gruesome, these woodcuts afford a detailed insight into some grim realities of 16th-century life through their vivd depiction of  a series of events:  a street crime, the apprehension of a perpetrator, his ‘interrogation’ (i.e. torture –by water, by the ‘boot’) and final condemnation.  We must remember that the 16th century holds a place in the history of criminology even more bloody and violent than that of the middle ages. An expanding criminal justice system encompassed increasing varieties of punishable offenses  for which spectacular public punishments were meted out as a form of ‘deterrent theatre’.

Interestingly, it was during this era of Renaissance Humanism that Roman precepts of Justinian law were most fully absorbed into the European legal systems Smith was trying to find out about.  It is ironic to discover, therefore, that the boards (or covers) of H.1.17 were manufactured out of 19 recycled leaves stuck together from the classic Roman text Corpus Iuris Civilis.   Only two other copies of this edition and its extensive commentaries are known to exist (in New College Oxford and Nantes).

The style and appearence of the panelled ornamental roll-decorated border of the binding confirms that the volume was bound in the 16th century, and not after the time of Smith’s bequest.  However, the fact that Smith’s annotations and doodles are in many cases cropped in order to bind the volume suggests that it was bound after Smith first aquired, read and wrote on the text.

Leaves from ‘Corpus Iuris Civilis’ found in the binding of H.1.17. Conservators from the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium separated these and bound them together in a new volume

In an era when nothing was wasted it was common for binders to recycle leaves from earlier books by incorporating them into new bindings: Queens’ College Old Library is full of such examples.  Whether Smith, the Humanist and bibliophile, was aware that the binding of his copy of Praxis criminis was made out of such a rare printing of Corpus Iuris Civilis, and whether he would have cared we will never know. The leaves from Corpus Iuris Civilis have now been bound into a separate volume so that modern-day scholars can examine them.

Final leaf from, Jean du Pré’s edition of ‘Corpus Iuris Civilis. Digesta Iustiniani. Digestum novum’, (ca. 1495) showing index and the printer’s device (or trademark)

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