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New Acquisition: A 14th-Century Manuscript of Registrum Brevium

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Last month on this blog, I highlighted a 15th-century manuscript that the Law Library recently acquired that contained work on the laws of war for knights in the Middle Ages. In this post, I would like to announce the acquisition of another new addition to the Law Library’s growing collection of medieval manuscripts, a 14th-century manuscript of Registrum Brevium, a copy of the register of writs that were used to initiate litigation in medieval England.

A writ was a document written in the name of the king that conveyed instructions to the king’s agents to perform some particular action that he willed. Generally, in the Middle Ages, it came in the form of a letter written on a strip of parchment that was sealed with the edge of the great seal. (Baker, p. 64.) Writs were a main instrument to communicate the king’s will in matters of government. Their use also evolved from an extrajudicial executive way to resolve disputes, into a tool to direct judges in royal courts to hear legal disputes. (van Caenegam, p. [v].)

Image of the manuscript copy of Registrum Brevium that the Law Library recently acquired.
The Law Library recently acquired this copy of Registrum Brevium, a collection of original writs for initiating litigation in the royal courts of the Middle Ages. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Over the course of the 12th century, a system of writs was developed that enabled people from all over England to get a hearing for their grievances before judges in the king’s courts. Plaintiffs were able to purchase a writ, which was produced by secretaries from the king’s court – there was an officina brevium, or “workshop of writs,” that produced writs for this purpose. The writ stated the facts of the case and a carefully worded formula outlining a specific action. The writ was then sent to the king’s judges instructing them to hear the case. This method of accessing justice grew in popularity over the next century, eventually supplanting the older systems of eyres, county courts, and feudal courts that were the mainstays of English law since the Norman conquest. In that time, the national scope of these operations and the strict formulaic contents of the writs became the basis of the medieval common law, a body of law that was common to the king’s courts throughout England.

The number of writs that were available for use in the royal courts grew – especially during the 13th and 14th centuries – as new actions were added to the roster of possible suits that one could bring. (Holdsworth, ii, pp. 432-433.) A brief list of writs fills a handful of pages in the twelfth book of the work typically called Glanvill, or Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni angliae, which was written approximately in the year 1189. (Holdsworth, ii, p. 152 and n. 7.) A longer list of writs appears in the earliest known Register of Writs, which was compiled in 1227; that list is nine pages long and contains 56 entries. Later manuscripts show many additions and variations. By 1531, when the Registrum Brevium was first printed, the writs filled 700 pages. (Haas, p. xii.) To keep abreast of the actions that were available to people who sought the king’s justice, it was necessary to keep a copy of a list of writs and directions for their use. This was a necessity for private persons and ecclesiastical bodies as much as for judges and, of course, the clerks who produced the writs. One solution to this need was to produce or own a manuscript of Registrum Brevium, the Register of Writs.

Page opening of Registrum Brevium
Registrum Brevium. England (probably London), early 14th century. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

The Registrum Brevium is an enumeration of the original writs that were available in the English Chancery. (De Haas, p. 11.) It typically begins with breve de recto, “the writ of right,” and includes a number of writs dealing with property rights. In its final form, this was followed by a series of writs for actions touching ecclesiastical concerns. Additional groups of writs related to waste, personal liberty and pecuniary obligations to the state, criminal or quasi-criminal liability, land tenure obligations, dower, and others. (Holdsworth, ii. pp. 547-550.) It appears that there was no official copy of the register that served as the model for all others. Instead, each individual master, or cursitor, of a writ shop kept a copy that he annotated. (Holdsworth, ii. p. 438.) It is probably better, therefore, to translate Registrum Brevium as “a Register of Writs.” (Winfield, p. 298.)

The extant manuscripts show enormous variation. They differ in many things, including which and how many writs they list, as well as the order in which the writs are recorded. In addition to the writs, manuscripts include regulae, or explanatory notes for the use and application of the writ; these differ from manuscript to manuscript. In some later manuscripts, lengthy instructions appear in Law French that seem to reflect the directions trained clerks gave to their subordinates in issuing the writs. The writs themselves are always written in Latin. But manuscripts show linguistic variation; generally, the later manuscripts contain more and more Law French. (De Haas, p. xvii.) Many manuscripts, even early ones, include judicial writs in addition to original writs. These may be said to have been writs issued by the justice of the royal court in the course of a trial that has already been initiated, rather than by the clerks of the officina brevium. (Winfield p. 301.) Manuscripts from a later period often contain many administrative documents that have no relationship to initiating litigation. (De Haas, p. xx).

There are more than 250 manuscripts of Registrum Brevium still in existence. A partial census of the manuscripts that are in British and American libraries can be found in De Haas, Early Registers of Writs, Appendix A, pp. xxiii-xxvii. The Library of Congress owns four manuscript copies of Registrum Brevium (three of these are at the Law Library) in addition to the item it recently acquired.

The Law Library’s recent acquisition contains 167 folios. It opens with the Writ of Right and contains 60 chapter headings, concluding with De salvo conducto, a writ of safe conduct. It was once in the collection of Alfred J. Horwood (1821-1881), a barrister of the Middle Temple, an important historian of English law who edited the year books of Edward I and Edward III for the Rolls Series.

Authors of a number of medieval works – the Old Natura Brevium, the Novae Narrationes, and Articuli ad Novas Narrationes among them – testified to the centrality of the Registrum Brevium to the practice of law. Registrum Brevium was first printed by William Rastell in 1531. The Law Library owns this variant from that same year, as well as editions from 1553, 1595, 1634, and 1687. Thomas Jefferson’s copy of this last edition is on display with Jefferson’s collection in the Southwest Pavillion, on the Second Floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building.

Secondary Sources:

Baker, John H. (John Hamilton), author. An introduction to English legal history. Fifth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Caenegem, R. C. van. Royal writs in England from the Conquest to Glanvill; studies in the early history of the common law. London, B. Quaritch, 1959.

Holdsworth, William Searle. A history of English law, by W. S. Holdsworth. London, Methuen & co., 1903-

Maitland, Frederic William. “The History of the Register of Original Writs,” in The collected papers of Frederic William Maitland, Downing professor of the laws of England, edited by H.A.L. Fisher. Cambridge, University Press, 1911. Vol. 2, pp. 110-173.

De Haas, Elsa. “An Early Thirteenth-Century Register of Writs,” The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1947), pp. 196-226.

De Haas, Elsa. Early registers of writs; edited [and translated] for the Selden Society by Elsa de Haas and G. D. G. Hall. London, Quaritch, 1970.

Winfield, Percy Henry. The chief sources of English legal history, by Percy H. Winfield. Cambridge, Harvard university press, 1925.

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