Go to the U of M home page


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Networks and Connections: Digital Projects and British Legal History

Several weeks ago, I attended and presented at the 23rd British Legal History Conference, a biennial meeting held this year at University College London. The University and its Wilkins Building offered a wonderful venue for explorations of British legal history and for this year's conference theme, networks and connections. Amidst a busy program of stimulating papers and discussions, several presentations had connections to a digital project recently undertaken at the Riesenfeld Center. The project will create a digital site for documents relating to an extraordinary woman, Anna Petronella Woodart, an 18th-century Jamaican manumitted from slavery by her father, naturalized as a British citizen, and made heir to his estate in Jamaica and England.        

Holly Brewer, a noted scholar of early American history and the British empire, set out in her plenary lecture a persuasive argument that slavery was part of English common law from an early, formative period, and that the institution was accommodated within common law in various ways. Brewer noted the role of Charles II and his family at the head of the slave trade, suggested its importance to the English economy in the 17th century, and touched on developing slavery laws in the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America. Another paper, by Aaron Graham, focused on legislation in Jamaica from 1664-1839, while Lee Wilson treated slavery in the Atlantic world with a focus on South Carolina. Tim Soriano discussed colonial Sierra Leone - colonized in part by Jamaicans - and a number of other papers touched on colonial legal questions and issues as well.  
Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal
Map Center at the Boston Public Library
Our project is to create a digital site for the documents held in our collection relating to Anna Petronella Woodart, and to contextualize some aspects of her life and the period in which she lived. Although extraordinary and unusual, Anna's life sheds light on broad issues of law, society and economy in colonial Jamaica, and on networks of relations across the Atlantic world, from Kingston to Philadelphia, which were anchored in London. 

One terrific new database developed by University College London has already proven useful in understanding the slave-owning English family of the Fosters, of whom Anna was a member. The database contains the identity of all slave-owners in the British colonies at the time slavery ended and all estates in the British Caribbean colonies to 1833. It is an extremely impressive and very useful collection of relevant material, and represents a remarkable tool for researchers. The database is part of a wider initiative, the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, which opened last September and promises to shed much further light on the role of slavery in the British empire.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections


A Visit Abroad: Middle Temple Library

A view of Middle Temple Library
During the recent British Legal History Conference, I had the good opportunity of a tour at Middle Temple Library, courtesy of Bernadette Keeley, an expert guide and the librarian for the Library's UK and US collections. 

A private library for the barristers of Middle Temple - one of the historic Inns of Court in London - Middle Temple Library also contains a terrific rare books collection, including over 9,000 printed volumes and 300 manuscripts. The nucleus of the rare collection was formed from the library of Robert Ashley (1565–1641), through a bequest in his will. The Library itself was built in 1650 and escaped the Fire of London in 1666. Its early collection is recorded in print in the Bibliotheca Illustris Medii Templi Societis (London, 1700). The extent of the current collection, rare and modern, is cataloged and accessible online.  

Among standout treasures in the rare collection are the first printed English law book, the Abbreviamentum statutorum, printed 1481/82 by Machlinia and Lettou, and a manuscript copy of draft Parliamentary acts from 1652 and 1653. Beyond the rare collection, the historic Middle Temple Hall, dating to 1562, is another treasure, and the hallways leading to it feature famous portraits of Temple members, including William Blackstone.        

Today, head librarian Renae Satterley oversees a busy modern library as well as the rare books collection that provided service to the young barristers educated there centuries ago. One of the Library's recent projects was the digitization of the Treasurer's Receipt Books, from 1800-1922, and the Library has used their archives to connect barristers to the rich history of their society. 
There is currently also an excellent rare books exhibit on display, "Disagreeing Badly: Religious Dispute in Early Modern Europe," curated by Dr. Stefan Bauer and Bethany Hume of the University of York. The exhibition highlights collection items from the "age of confessional polemic," the 16th and 17th centuries, including the first vernacular translation of the Quran. In a surprising (and wonderful) connection to the University of Minnesota, the exhibit text was adapted from a text by University of Minnesota English Professor Nabil Matar.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections