"Send Us . . . What Other Lawe Books You Shall Thinke Fitt": Books That Shaped the Law in Virginia, 1600-1860

By Billings, Warren M. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Send Us . . . What Other Lawe Books You Shall Thinke Fitt": Books That Shaped the Law in Virginia, 1600-1860


Billings, Warren M., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Historians of the book have greatly enlarged awareness of early American print culture. They have said much about readers and owners, printers and booksellers, type founders and paper makers, and the intricacies of the global book trade. Nevertheless, their preoccupation with literary genres has led them to ignore law books whose historical influence in Virginia, say, was only slightly less than that of John Foxes Book of Martyrs, the King James Version of the Bible, or the Book of Common Prayer.1 The omission is misplaced, given that generations of Virginians routinely found inspiration in all manner of law books. Dipping into that trove reveals ways that law books gave figure and embellishment to Virginia's legal order from the founding of Jamestown to the eve of the Civil War.2

Centuries before the age of bits and bytes, books were the principal means of categorizing and locating English law, although access to medieval law books was limited. There were not that many of them, they were costly, and they were also cast chiefly in Latin or law French. (The latter was a bastard variant of Norman French that arose in England after 1066 to become the written language of judicial proceedings, pleadings, and other legal papers.) Consequently, unless one commanded one or both languages, law books were unintelligible to all but the most erudite reader.3

The making of English law books changed forever after William Caxton introduced Britons to moveable type and printing presses late in the fifteenth century. Written increasingly in the vernacular tongue thereafter, law books comprised an ever-widening circle of subjects as Caxton's imitators hustled to satisfy a burgeoning demand that went hand in hand with the rise of the early modern world. The numbers grew to the point where hundreds of titles circulated in 1600. There would be many hundreds more by I860.4

Seventeenth-century Virginians who launched the journey of English law to America shared a salient trait that led them repeatedly to this great storehouse. They were amateurs and attorneys but seldom, if ever, lawyers. The distinction between "lawyer" and "attorney" may strike a modern reader as strange, given that the two are regarded synonymously nowadays. Four hundred years ago they conveyed separate meanings, the content of which frequently eludes modern legal historians. In seventeenth-century usage an attorney was anyone who represented the legal interests of someone else. A lawyer, by contrast, possessed formal legal education that he undertook at one of the Inns of Court in London or at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge before being admitted to practice in the central courts at Westminster. Probably no more than a dozen lawyers immigrated to Virginia before 1700, largely because the pickings were few and because of colonial hostility to them.5

A lack of formal professional schooling, however, did not equate with legal illiteracy. No English man or woman, however humble or grand, was ignorant of the rules that bound them into society with one another, and in those laws they recognized cultural markers that distinguished their kingdom from foreign ones. Whether of genteel station or commercial backgrounds, they garnered a self-taught comprehension through experience with and reading about that extraordinarily complex, numbingly arcane mix of judicial decisions, parliamentary statutes, customary rules, and ancient habits that they identified collectively as "the common law of England" and that became a lively part of the cultural baggage that shipped to Virginia.6

Books, experience, and memory worked in concert once colonists started bending their knowledge to a Chesapeake setting, especially after the Virginia Company of London introduced a healthy measure of self-rule that provided for local jurisdictions and a general assembly. That effort prompted Councillor of State George Thorpe to beseech company treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys "to send us the newe booke of the abrigement of Statutes and Stamfords please of the Crowne and mr west presidents and what other Lawe books you shall thinke fitt. …

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