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Big Legal History and the Hundred Year Test

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2016

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The generation of legal historians working in the opening decades of the twenty-first century have an opportunity to use digital technology to bring the sources of legal history to a wider audience of scholars and to facilitate the research of future scholars for many generations to come. I say this because, commencing in 1999, I compiled a searchable database of identifying information about and content of the 22,318 reports in the Year Books, cases decided in England's courts of common law between 1268 and 1535. With the generous support and sponsorship of the Ames Foundation, my database has become an online scholarly resource used frequently by researchers and students of English legal history and other disciplines. This has been the most rewarding experience of my scholarly career. Projects such as the one I undertook, and which I call “big legal history,” can require a number of years to complete, as in my case, or else a team of scholars whose contributions all need to be closely coordinated. Because the compilation of large digital resources does not fit the typical career path of most legal historians, I offer here an account of the origins of my project, some of the choices that I had to make at its outset, the progress that I made, and the rewards that I have received along the way.

Copyright © the American Society for Legal History, Inc. 2016 

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1. Anon., Mich. 21 Hen. 7, pl. 50, fol. 39a (King's Bench, 1499 or 1505) (now 1505.050 in my database).

2. Seipp, David J., “The Concept of Property in the Early Common Law,Law and History Review 12 (1994): 2992 Google Scholar.

3. David J. Seipp, “Crime in the Year Books,” in Law Reporting in Britain: Proceedings of the Eleventh British Legal History Conference, ed. Chantal Stebbings (London: Hambledon Press, 1995), 15–34.

4. Seipp, David J., “The Reception of Canon Law and Civil Law in the Common Law Courts before 1600,Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 13 (1993): 388420 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. Seipp, “Crime in the Year Books,” 16–17.

6. Appendix to the First Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Public Records (1800), 383, quoted in Charles Purton Cooper, An Account of the Most Important Public Records of Great Britain (London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1832), 2:397.

7. Winfield, Percy H., “Law Reform,Law Quarterly Review 44 (1928): 298 Google Scholar.

8. After I began my database, I discovered that someone had indexed the Year Books 400 years ago. In July 2001, I described my project to another former teacher, David Yale of Cambridge University, and he said, “Oh, you're doing another Ashe's Promptuarie.” I had never heard of Ashe's Promptuarie. But indeed, Thomas Ashe of Gray's Inn had published in 1614 a work entitled Promptuarie, ou Repertory Generall de les Annales, et Plusors Auters Livres del Common Ley d' Engleterre in which he gave citations to Year Books, to more recent reports of Edmund Plowden, James Dyer, and Edward Coke, and to treatises, under 759 alphabetical headings and within these headings under 22,527 analytical subheadings. Ashe included citations to Year Book reports that had never been excerpted in an abridgement. His analytical subheadings were a great improvement on previous abridgements. Subheadings would also prove to be popular in Henry Rolle's Abridgement, the last reference work of common law to survey the Year Books, published in 1668. Rolle's Abridgement remained in frequent use by lawyers, but Ashe's Promptuarie did not. It was never reprinted, and Gray's Inn had to support Thomas Ashe as a charity case after its publication. Copies of the work today are very rare. Unlike the abridgements and my database, Ashe's work stopped short of conveying to users the content of the Year Book cases it was indexing. Unlike my database, it did not index the names of parties or geographical place names. Nevertheless, it was a noble effort and deserved to be better known. I am preparing an introduction for a reprinted edition.

9. William Craddock Bolland, The Year Books (Cambridge: University Press, 1921), 45 (perhaps from an unpublished letter of Pollock's).

10. Maitland, Frederic William, “The Materials for English Legal History,Political Science Quarterly 4 (1889): 496 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, quoting a book review by Charles Elton in English Historical Review 4 (1889): 155. By some scholar of Germany or America, or, I might add, by some American with a German surname. Mine is, for some reason, a surname so invariably mispronounced, especially in the British Isles, that I supply a couplet to my introducers: “Every Year Book set in type, indexed by a guy named Seipp.”

11. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Harper, 1998).

12. Seipp, David J., “The Law's Many Bodies and the Manuscript Tradition in English Legal History,Journal of Legal History 25 (2004): 73, 7783 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13. Selden Society, The Humber Ferry Case (London, 1985), no. 3 (“The latest printed text”). See also J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. (London: Butterworths, 2002), 181 n.19, (“It has been the standard text ever since, though it is the least accurate.”). The case is 1348.249ass in my database.

14. I thank Mary Sarah Bilder for drawing this to my attention.

15. Paul A. Brand, ed. Earliest English Law Reports, Selden Society, vols. 111, 112, 122, 123 (London: Selden Society, 1995-2006).

16. The first case that I indexed in my database had an interesting story behind it. “1399.001” reports the trial of an earl for attempting to assassinate Henry IV shortly after he usurped the throne. But the earl in question was never put on trial and was instead beheaded extrajudicially. The Year Book report was denounced in 1907 as a forgery inserted a century after its purported date, “quite the most interesting fraud in the whole legal history of England.” L.W. Vernon Harcourt, His Grace the Steward and Trial of Peers (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907), 399. My own view is that the report was fabricated by lawyers of 1399 as a way to influence how state trials would take place thereafter. David J. Seipp, “When Lawyers Lie: Forging an English Constitution in 1399,” the Oxford Youard Lecture in Legal History for 2015 and, forthcoming, in Texts and Contexts in Legal History: Essays in Honor of Charles Donahue, ed. John Witte, Sara McDougall, and Anna di Robilant (Berkeley: Robbins Collection, 2016).

17. Henry Gillingham's Case, marginal note by Chief Justice George Treby to Davis's Case, Dyer's Reports (1631) 2:188b, English Reports 73:416 n.(10); and Baker, J.H., “ Le Brickbat Que Narrowly Mist, Law Quarterly Review 100 (1984): 544 Google Scholar.

18. Anon., Pasch. 7 Hen. 6, pl. 45, fol. 37b (C.P.) (1429.051) (Sjt. Rolf: “Robin Hode en Barnesdale stode”). My Robin Hood find from 1429 is said to be the first line of a hitherto unknown Robin Hood ballad from which the earliest surviving Robin Hood poem was adapted. Emily Lyle, “‘Robin Hood in Barnesdale Stood’: A New Window on the ‘Gest’ and Its Precursors,” in Child's Children: Ballad Study and Its Legacies, Joseph Harris, and Barbara Hillers, eds. (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2012), 71–86.

19. Prior of Lewes's Case, Hil. 8 Hen. 6, pl. 7, fol. 21b-23a (C.P.) (1430.007) (Sjt. Rolf: “Bawwaw for thy reason”). This barking, singing lawyer also told in court a “fable” about a pope who, having no one else to judge him, ordered his own burning at the stake. Chancellor of Oxford's Case, Hil. 8 Hen. 6, pl. 6, fol. 18b–21b (C.P.) (1430.006) (Sjt. Rolf: Judico me cremari).

20. Palmer's AALT web site, <> also includes a page of “Links” to more such projects, as does Duke University's Legal History Portal.

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