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Casus Breves – Acquisition of 15th Century Legal Reference

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Through the generosity of Julie Chrystyn Opperman and in honor of her husband, Dwight D. Opperman, the Law Library recently acquired two volumes of an extraordinarily rare 1478 edition of the Casus breves of Johannes de Turnhout (c. 1446–1492).

Full page, Casus breves.
Library of Congress Photo/ Abby Brack

This new acquisition had its first public viewing yesterday at the Law Library’s 15th Wickersham Award Ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Law Library of Congress.  This year’s Wickersham Award honors John Paul Stevens, retired Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Bound as one item, the Casus breves is a reference work compiled by de Turnhout and other scholars from the University of Louvain in Belgium.  It presents civil law commentaries by various fourteenth century legal authorities.  The Casus breves was created for the practicing jurist of the time; it is now of value to legal scholars studying the development of Western legal systems.

The actual printing of these volumes was by the Te Nazareth Gheprint.  This was the first press in Brussels, founded and operated by the Brotherhood of the Common Life.  This lay order had originally supported itself through the copying of manuscripts.  Early printers strived to make their publications appear to be handwritten.  There are several pages in the Casus breves for which the last line was somehow omitted by the printer.  These printing errors were corrected by hand.  I must say the printers did a great job of replicating handwritten script.

Handwritten addition to printed work. Detail from Library of Congress Photo/ Abby Brack

Acquiring this item for the Law Library began with an email sent to our rare book curator.  A colleague at another institution shared that this title was available through a book dealer and that there are only thirteen copies of this 1478 edition.  Adding to the rarity of this item is the fact that it is one of only thirty-seven titles that were printed in Brussels during the incunable period to 1501.  Of these imprints, the Library of Congress is recorded as having nineteen.

Within a week of being received in the Law Library, the book was sent to the Conservation Division for the creation of a deluxe box to protect it and to a rare book cataloger for the creation of bibliographic records.  It is now in the collection and available to scholars.

Rare book service is available on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Access to rare materials is by appointment and we welcome your inquiries.  For further information, contact Dr. Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Law Curator, at [email protected].

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