Go to the U of M home page


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Our Magna Cartas: Early Printed Editions

At the center of our new exhibit, "Magna Carta, 800 Years: Rights and the Rule of Law," stands the Riesenfeld Center's collection of early printed editions of Magna Carta. The Law Library owns a remarkable fourteen editions of the "Great Charter" printed before 1600, and eight are in the exhibit. These include a copy of Magna Carta owned by important English abolitionist Granville Sharp, and a copy printed by Elizabeth Pickering, the first woman to print books in England.  

The boke of Magna Carta with diuers other statutes...
London: Robert Redman, 1534.
Magna Carta was among the first law books printed in England, though it was not the first. That distinction goes to the Abbreviamentum statutorum, printed by Machlinia and Lettou around 1481. Several other English law books saw print before Magna Carta, but the "Great Charter," as fundamental English statutory law, did not remain in manuscript long into the 16th century. It was first printed in 1508 by Richard Pynson, while the Library’s collection begins with the second, Pynson's edition of 1514. Pynson was prolific: he had relocated to London from Rouen, and enjoyed a period of preeminence as a printer of English law, eventually producing 139 editions. The Magna Carta collection at the Library likewise includes editions by the printers Petyt and Berthelet, as well as copies by noted printers Robert Redman (husband of Elizabeth Pickering) and John Rastell. Both of the latter competed with Pynson as leading English law printers of the earlier 16th century before the emergence of Richard Tottell. All of our early editions of Magna Carta are printed in small formats, for use by students and practitioners as ready reference to valid law.

The Library's Magna Carta collection was assembled by Arthur C. Pulling, the noted law librarian after whom the rare books collection is named. Between 1912 and his departure in the early 1940s, Pulling acquired the core of the current rare collection, with a particular focus on English and early American law. He followed several bibliographies in his rare book collecting - notably Joseph Beale's Bibliography of Early English Law Books (1926) - and sent extensive "want" lists to booksellers near and far. His well-used and annotated copy of Beale, showing the acquisition of what may amount to half the titles listed, is still on our shelves. Without question, the scope of Pulling's acquisitions was impressive and historically important, and it made Minnesota's rare law collection one of the nation's strongest.

Pulling's meticulous work resulted in a series of Magna Cartas that are unique, and that shed light on the early history of the document as printed text. First published in Latin, Magna Carta was translated into English by the interesting George Ferrers in the 1530s and printed in English several times before 1550, including Elizabeth Pickering's edition of 1540-41, and the beautiful black-and-red 1539 edition, also in the collection. A number of our copies bear early and multiple ownership marks and annotations; some have what could be called 'scratch writing,' and even designs. In one, the royal English coat of arms is incompletely traced on blank leaves, while another shows a wolf-like creature drawn on the rear cover. All of these may bear witness to the books' frequent use by students and frequent change of hands after first reaching the market. Although the students who first owned them are long gone, the volumes are fascinating and hold research possibilities for students today.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

Magna Carta. London: Richard Pynson, 1514.  Tracing the watermark.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.