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Friday, October 28, 2016

Our Year Books, and the Case of Thorns (1466)

Year Book, Michaelmas term, 6 Edward 4 (London, Tottle: 1557)
The English Year Books, the earliest English law reports, are a rich repository of English decisions dating back to the reigns of medieval kings.  The practice of reporting itself seems to have originated informally among students of the law; the early reporters are unknown and their reports circulated in manuscript before the advent of printing.  The Year Books stretch back to the 13th century and extend to 1535, and were printed and reprinted often in the 16th century.  The earliest title in our rare books collection is in fact an abridgement of case reports known as Statham's Abridgement (1490), and our collection of Year Books is one of the strongest outside of England.

In September, I showed several copies of our Year Books featuring the Case of Thorns (1466) in Professor David Weissbrodt's Torts class.  The class begins with an analysis of this English classic, with its early theory of civil liability.  In the case, a man who cuts branches from a bush on his own property and goes to retrieve the waste from his neighbor's property (where it had fallen), is found liable for trespass.

Our rare books collection includes three printings of the Case of Thorns from before 1600.  The first two are Year Books from Richard Tottell's press, dating to 1557; the third, also by Tottell, from 1572.  Tottell was the most prolific printer of law books in 16th-century England, and a founding member of the Stationer's Company, who held a royal patent to publish law books from 1553 until his death in 1593.

Our first two copies of the Case of Thorns contain an interesting misprint of a key part of the case.  Instead of text that should read "ipso invito" (the thing [done] against his will), our 1557 editions have "ipso muto" (the thing having been changed).  The case depends on the fact that the thorns fell on the plaintiff's property "against or without [the defendant's] will."  In one of our editions an early student or lawyer even crossed out "ipso muto" and wrote in "ipso invito" (pictured below).  By 1572, Tottell and his workshop had corrected the error.  It may have annoyed practitioners, but was a good test for law students.    

Reading the text even in the early modern period took training - the Year Books were written in Latin or Law French and were highly abbreviated.  The dense Gothic script in which they were printed did not help matters much.  Below is the beginning of the Case of Thorns, with an approximation of the marks used to abbreviate the (already difficult) Law French.  It is a good thing that students who still wrestle with the Case of Thorns today do so in more readable form.           

Un home port br̃ de tñs quar̃ vi et armis clam̃ fr̃ et c. Et herbam suam pedibus conculcando consumpsit supp̃ le tñs en v. ac̃r et le def, dit quaunte a veñ et c.: et le trñs en les v. ac̃r de rien coup̃ et quant a le tñs en le v. ac̃r ac̃c̃ ne doit le pÌ aver̃ q̃r il dit q̃ il m̃ ad un ac̃r de terre sur quell un hay de thornes est…

First page of the Case of Thorns, with "ipso muto" struck out and "ipso invito" written above

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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