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Listmakers and the Law in Renaissance Europe

In Custodia Legis has featured a couple of posts on the bibliography of early law books, both here and here.

In this post, I want to look at the beginning of legal bibliography in order to highlight some of the earliest examples of that craft and the people responsible for its creation.

The Law Library of Congress holds a copy of Ziletti's Index librorum omnium iuris... (Venice, 1566)

The Law Library of Congress holds a copy of Ziletti’s Index librorum omnium iuris… (Venice, 1566) [Photo by Donna Sokol]

The invention of the printing press changed the way legal information circulated in Europe. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, printers throughout Europe rounded up the legal literature of the middle ages and early renaissance, publishing in print for the first time works which had been circulating in manuscript since their creation.

By the second decade of the sixteenth century there was a profusion of affordable printed law books on the book market. One could suddenly encounter many texts and authors whose works had not previously been available to a wide market in manuscript. Legal bibliography began as a response to this change.

The first European bibliography of law books was prepared by Giovanni Nevizzano (d. 1540) an Italian jurist, born in the Piedmont town of Asti, and trained in Padua and Turin. Nevizzano published several apparently well received works, including the Sylva nuptialis (Lyon, 1524) and Consilia siue responsa D. Ioannis de Neuizanis (Lyon, 1559). The work that concerns us here is Nevizzano’s Inventarium librorum in utroque iure hactenus impressorum, or “An Inventory of the Books on Civil and Canon Law Printed to Date” which was published in Lyon in 1522. The Inventarium was meant to supply a comprehensive account of the literature of the learned law existing in print at the time of its publication. To give order to the lists of authors and publications that he had amassed, Nevizzano devised a handful of classes or subject headings, and recorded beneath each class heading, the names of authors who produced a work in that class.

To give you a flavor of the classes Nevizzano used, they are:

Textus et Lecture in Iure Civile et Feudis

Textus Extravagantes

Textus et Lecture in Iure Canonico

Doctores in Practica

Singularia et Cautelae




Repetitiones in Iure Civile

Repetitiones in Iure Canonico

Tractatus Diversi

Disputationes Diversi

Consilia Diversa et Extravagantes

Although one scholar has criticized Nevizzano’s classification scheme as having “little to commend it, either in logic or convenience”, it may be worth a second look. The classes hew reasonably closely to the standard formats for book length legal publications in 1522. Nevizzano’s book was expanded and republished by Luis Gomez in Venice in 1525, and by Johann Fichard in Basel in 1539. Both of these men were legal scholars in their own right and they chose to preserve the work’s original organizational structure.

Nevizzano’s Inventarium was adapted later in two subsequent works in the sixteenth century. The first was Giovanni Battista Ziletti’s Index librorum omnium complectens in utroque iure tam pontificio quam caesereo (Venice, 1559), or “Index containing all the books on the two laws, pontifical and imperial.” Ziletti, like Gomez and Fichard, largely retained Nevizzano’s classification scheme, but with some refinements and sub divisions. He expanded the work to about a thousand entries and added useful alphabetically ordered indexes of authors and titles to help navigate its pages. Because of these improvements, the Index librorum omnium is generally given the honor of being called the second bibliography of law books. Ziletti’s book was republished in 1566 in an edition that was apparently prepared to satisfy the requirements of the Index librorum prohibitorum, specifically the Tridentine Index of 1564 which outlawed a number of works that appeared in the 1559 edition.

On this page, one sees an example of the way authors and titles fall under class headings in Ziletti's 1566 Index.

On this page, one sees an example of the way authors and titles fall under class headings in Ziletti’s 1566 Index. [Photo by Donna Sokol]

Nevizzano’s work was also incorporated into Johann Wolfgang Freimann’s (Freymon Von Randeck)(1546-1610) Elenchus omnium auctorum sive scriptorum qui in iure tam civili quam canonico… (Frankfurt, 1574) or “Guidebook of all authors or writers on civil and canon law…” a work that benefited from the cumulative labors of each of the adaptations of the Inventarium that preceded it. Freimann’s Elenchus seems to have been a popular book appearing in at least three editions, 1574, 1579 and 1584.

Another feature of Nevizzano’s work that deserves mention, one that both Ziletti and Freimann retain, is the inclusion of two learned essays that conclude the work: the first entitled, Quaestio an Opportet Habere Plures Libros (Investigation on Whether Having Many Books is Worthwhile), and the second entitled Quamodo Possit Resecari Tanta Librorum Multitudo (How Might One Limit Such a Multitude of Books?). These essays, which provide reflections on book collecting from the point of view of a lawyer’s professional needs, suggest the new horizons that printing opened for Renaissance lawyers. Facing the enormous literature of the profession, Nevizzano counseled his audience to prioritize acquiring the works of the most mature and experienced jurists over the acquisition of others. “Thomas Acquinas said that he preferred to have Chrysostom on the Gospel of Matthew rather than the entire city of Paris.” Nevizzano did not however counsel parsimony. “Si doctor non habet libros necessarios ad artem suam non gaudet privilegio doctoreo”: If a scholar does not have the books necessary to his art, he does not rejoice in a doctor’s privilege.

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