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Legal History Research: Abridgments, digests and commentaries

Resources for researching Australian legal history

William Blackstone (1723-1780)

In the 1700s, William Blackstone produced his Commentaries on the Laws of England, in which 'the common law's tortuous complexities were outlined in a manner at once authoritative, clear, elegant and even engaging' (Blackstone, Sir William, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UniMelb access)). Blackstone's work also paved the way for the development of legal treatises which sought to relate the substantive content of law to coherent explanatory principles.
Source: 'Legal Literature in English Common Law' in Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History

'The influence of Blackstone's Commentaries is difficult to exaggerate. Twenty-three successive English and Irish editions had appeared by 1854, together with a plethora of digests and extracts ... There were translations into French, German, Italian and Russian (vol.1 only), while Blackstone's Commentaries continued to represent England's common law throughout the British imperial diaspora for more than a century after their author's death.' (Blackstone, Sir William, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UniMelb access)).

Free version of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England at Yale Law Library.

Commentaries on Blackstone

Blackstone Goes Hollywood

A discussion of Blackstone's Commentaries with Wilfrid Prest of the University of Adelaide and Michael Widener, Rare Book Librarian at Yale Law School. How can Blackstone's life and legacy be understood not in strict chronological terms but rather in terms of plots drawn from standard Hollywood genres?

Abridgments and digests

Most legal literature in the late medieval and early modern periods taught the student how to find and arrange the law, rather than setting out its substance. These included guides to practice and pleadings, including the late-thirteenth-century Brevia placitata (Writs Pleaded) and Anthony Fitzherbert's New Natura Brevium (Nature of Briefs, 1534), and John Lilly's Modern Entries(1723).

From the fifteenth century onward, abridgments of law began to circulate, which digested and organised case law for the student. The Abridgements contained complete statements of the law as it was known at the time, and are arranged by topic, often alphabetically. 

Source: 'Legal Literature in English Common Law' in Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History

Some of the more well known abridgments include those listed below. The HEIN Online Abridgement Collection includes these and many other Abridgements - all available in full text online.

Henry Bracton De Legibus Et Consuetudinibus Angliae (approx 1250) "attempts to describe rationally the whole of English law, a task that was not again undertaken until Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in the eighteenth century. The work is remarkable both for its wealth of detail and for its attempts to make sense out of English law largely in terms of the ius commune, the combination of Roman and canon law that was taught in the universities in Bracton's time." Source: Bracton Online. Available online through HeinOnline (UniMelb access) and through Bracton Online and can be browsed or searched in either English or Latin, or accessed via a "Calendar" (table of contents).

Anthony Fitzherbert La Graunde Abridgement (first edition approx 1514) is a massive digest of 13,845 cases from the year-books arranged under alphabetical headings. Various editions are available through the University catalogue. See also An Introduction to Fitzherbert's Abridgement / F Boersma (1981) (catalogue record) and 'Sir Anthony Fitzherbert' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UniMelb access).

Robert Brooke La Graunde Abridgement (approx 1573) contains "over 20,000 entries digested under a wider range of titles, and had useful marginal notes guiding the reader more readily to the contents. Contemporaries found it easier to use than Fitzherbert, and it is still a valuable reference tool. Although the abridgement was primarily derived from the medieval year-books, Broke added a number of cases from his own observation, some statutes and other sources, and even a few extracts from readings in the inns of court." 'Sir Robert Brooke' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UniMelb access). Various editions are available through the University catalogue.

Edward Coke Institutes of the Laws of England (approx 1628)  is one of the most influential jurisprudential work of the seventeenth century, which contained his commentary on Littleton's Tenures. Coke's jurisprudence is not set out as a continuous argument but is to be found in his isolated observations in his glosses on the medieval text. A browsable and searchable collection of Coke's Institutes and reports from the Leon E. Bloch Law Library, University of Missouri.

Matthew Hale A History and Analysis of the Common Law of England (first edition 1713) is "a comprehensive treatment of its topic, though much of its length is taken up with the story of the law's development. It is notable for a Burkean account of the wisdom of a customary law, and for a temperate defence of the system's continuity across the Norman conquest. The Analysis at its conclusion is a complete taxonomy of matters handled by the common law; it was borrowed by William Blackstone with minimal modification and therefore provides the structure of Blackstone's Commentaries." 'Sir Mathew Hale' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (UniMelb access).

Thomas Wood Institute of the Laws of England (approx 1720) is available through HeinOnline (UniMelb access).

Matthew Bacon A new abridgment of the law (first edition approx 1736) available through the Library and online through HeinOnline (UniMelb access).

Charles Viner A general abridgment of law and equity / Viner's abridgment (approx 1742) is the exhaustive arrangement of legal materials under alphabetical headings, based on the works of his predecessors Robert Brooke and Henry Rolle. It was the most comprehensive attempt to render accessible the legal materials of the period. Available through the University library (catalogue record). Also available online through HeinOnline and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (UniMelb access).

John Comyns Digest of the laws of England (first edition approx 1762) available through the Library and online through HeinOnline (UniMelb access).

William Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) (see column to left).

Other resources

Bibliography of Early English Law Books / Joseph H. Beale (1926). Also available online through HeinOnline (UniMelb access).

Chief Sources of English Legal History / by Percy H. Winfield (1925). Also available online through HeinOnline (UniMelb access).

Dictionaries

Contemporary dictionaries support a wide range of scholarship involving the meaning of a word or phrase, as well as the development of the meanings of works and phrases over time.

Georgetown Law Library's online collection of dictionaries, Digital Dictionaries: 1481 -1916 provides digitized facsimilies of legal dictionaries dating from 1575 to the early years of the 20th century.

Manual of law French / J H Baker is a guide for anyone needing to translate from the original

The Three Languages of English Law in J H Baker, The common law tradition: lawyers, books and the law (Trove record)

UK Legal Treatises

Other sources of legal scholarship can be found in the following databases: