Rare Books & Legal History
The Rare Books Collections include early printed works, ranging from the fifteenth century copy of Justinian's Pandectorum, one of the first generation of texts produced with the printing press and known as Incunabula, to late nineteenth century American state reports and codes.
Special Collections houses historical legal texts from Great Britain, Ireland, France, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and other nations; a truly international set of collections of rare law books.
These collections have a particular focus on the legal cultures of the era of British American settlement and the American founding and early Republic. They include imprints and manuscript codices from Tudor and early Stuart Britain, the turbulent 1640s and Cromwellian Commonwealth, Restoration Britain, the Glorious Revolution, Union and Empire, and the American Founding and early Republic periods; as well as major works of political thought and Continental European legal materials.The most significant Rare Books Collection is the Lord Eldon Collection.
The most significant single title from the Rare Books Collections is Sir Edward Coke’s annotated copy of the first imprint, from 1569, of De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae [On the Laws and Customs of England] by Henry de Bracton (ca. 1230-50). Bracton’s text was the first genuine treatise of English law and was written within a few decades of the origins of Magna Carta in 1215. The treatise became known to posterity simply as Bracton and contains the first significant rule of law statement found in English legal literature that the King “himself ought not to be subject to man, but subject to God and to the law, for the law makes the king. Let the king, then, attribute to the law what the law attributes to him, namely dominion and power, for there is no king where the will and not the law has dominion.” Coke underlined this passage for emphasis (shown above) at some point early in his career and would later quote it as Lord Chief Justice of England to King James I in explaining why the king lacked the right to personally decide cases in the English royal courts.
Full text images of Coke’s Bracton and other annotated imprints are available through Digital Georgetown, as well as other collections like the Legal Dictionaries Collection.
Titles from the Rare Books Collections are available for use by the Law Center and Georgetown University communities, as well as by independent researchers and scholars. The Rare Books Collections are part of the Special Collections Department in the Georgetown Law Library. We are located in Room 210 on the second floor of the Edward Bennett Williams Law Library.
Policies for Use
The Rare Books Collections are historical collections; some of the books are fragile and one of a kind. Therefore, researchers must observe rules for accessing and handling materials. Upon entering Special Collections, researchers must sign in. Personal belongings including bags, purses, and coats must be stored away from the materials. Only pencils and laptops are allowed in the research area. Photocopy and digital scanning services are provided subject to limitations based upon the condition of the book(s) requested. A complete list of policies will be provided to all researchers.