A Census of 16th-Century Legal Imprints


While it has long been recognised that the Printing Revolution of the 15th century had profound effects on the production and dissemination of knowledge in Europe, our information about the vast book production of European publishing houses remains unsatisfactory. Only the incunable period up to the year 1500 could be said to be adequately described, since all editions, and indeed the vast majority of individual copies, have now been identified and logged in a single online databank, the ISTC (Incunable Short Title Catalogue).

In the last decades various projects have begun to document the printing production of Europe in the succeeding century. These projects have proceeded along national lines – thus VD16 (Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des XVI. Jahrhunderts) records books printed in Germany now in German libraries; EDIT16 (Edizioni italiane del XVI secolo - Censimento nazionale) books printed in Italy now in Italian libraries; and the STCN (Short Title Catalogue of the Netherlands) books printed in the Netherlands now in Dutch libraries. From the point of view of the legal historian, however, these projects present a decidedly anachronistic aspect. In the 16th century, legal literature knew no such boundaries as those constituted by the modern nation state. The ius commune was a law common to all of continental western Europe, written in a single European language, Latin. What were effectively extra-territorial printing centres, such as Venice, Lyon, Frankfurt, Antwerp and Geneva, permitted the distribution of legal scholarship throughout Europe and ensured that jurisprudence remained a supra-national, European enterprise. Hence a national approach to 16th-century printing history not only detaches legal literature from its international context, but is even in danger of failing in its primary endeavour: it has been estimated, for example, that as many as a quarter of 16th-century editions printed in Italy are no longer to be found in the peninsula. Moreover, the current holdings of libraries, once they are accumulated, often still reflect the pattern of dissemination of a work in the 16th century. After European culture began to fracture in the wake of the Reformation, it is precisely the presence of German or Dutch law books in Spanish and Italian libraries, the selection of authors permitted by the Inquisition, and the evidence of censorship and expurgation of individual copies which is of fundamental interest to the historian.

It is these considerations which lie behind the project Census of 16th-Century Legal Imprints. The Census sets out to provide a bibliography of the juristic production of the printing presses of continental Europe from 1501 to 1600. Its objective is the creation of a databank in which surviving copies of legal editions are recorded in a union catalogue of libraries. By systematically registering the entire holdings of law books, wherever printed, held by a wide selection of libraries, the Census seeks to identify and chronicle some 20,000 editions of legal editions published in the 16th century. The aim is not only to establish a definitive list of the editions of famous jurists, but at the same time to uncover the works of many hundreds of lesser jurists whose very names have long since been forgotten.

At the same time the Census aims to achieve descriptions of a high bibliographical standard, in particular by offering citations to an extensive range of catalogues, repertories and standard works of reference, including the more recent national projects mentioned above. The individual editions are described according to the internationally recognised cataloguing principles established by Anglo-American bibliography. This description encompasses author, title, imprint, colophon, format, pagination, the signature collation and a list of copies with their library locations and shelf-marks. In addition, a special technique known as the profile has been developed to reliably distinguish between edition and issue. This is a codification of the established bibliographical practice of comparing signature positions in parallel gatherings, and enables the researcher to determine if another copy stems from a different setting of type, and thus potentially offers a different text.

Within the project, particular attention has been given to the post-incunable period. This has been determined to run from 1501 to 1525, the last year witnessing the final legal production of a series of hitherto prolific legal printing centres in northern Italy: Venice, Milan, Pavia, Siena, Trino in Monferrato. Venice, once the great metropolis of European legal printing, could now muster only a symbolic presence in the field, while the other Italian publishing centres succumbed entirely to war, pestilence and political turmoil. The post-incunable editions produced by these printing centres have hitherto escaped the attention which, since the early 19th century, has been so lavishly devoted to the period up to 1500. The law books are now extremely rare, often surviving in a mere handful of copies, or even indeed in a solitary witness. Many of them are to be found not in Italy, but in the great historic German research libraries of Freiburg, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Halle, Leipzig, Erfurt, Rostock, Berlin and Munich – or indeed in the precious collections of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. These rare and precious pearls of early legal printing have thus succeeded in eluding the best efforts of both EDIT16 and VD16. In the Census these editions have been described according to the incunable method of bibliographcial description, the contours of which are much more suitable than those applied to the later 16th century. Direct inspection of individual copies has proved especially important in this area.

Another particular feature of the Census is the access it provides to a submerged continent of legal works hitherto languishing in the obscurity of 16th-century legal collections. These great multi-volume folio sets, themselves monuments of 16th-century printing, assembled many hundreds of works by a great variety of medieval and contemporary jurists, both famous and obscure. These collections are:

I.  The great multi-volume collections of Tractatus:

  1. Lugduni, 1535  (10 vols.)
  2. Lugduni, 1544  (12 vols.)
  3. Venetiis, 1548-1550  (18 vols.)
  4. Lugduni, 1549  (17 vols.)
  5. Venetiis, 1584  (25 vols.)

II.  The great multi-volume collections of Repetitiones (including two early 17th-century editions which have been included):

  1. Venetiis, 1525-33  (8 vols.)
  2. Lugduni, 1553  (8 vols.)
  3. Venetiis, 1587  (6 vols.)
  4. Venetiis, 1608  (8 vols.)
  5. Coloniae Agrippinae, 1618  (6 vols.)

III.  Individual volumes of Tractatus and Repetitiones.

Over 300 individual volumes containing the works of more than one author – normally dispersed inconveniently throughout a catalogue under the headings of title, editor, first named author, etc. – have been identified and brought together in a single repertory.

The above volumes have all been directly inspected, accorded a more detailed bibliographical description identifying edition and issue, as explained above, and their contents comprehensively recorded and distributed under their individual authors in the Census.

It is intended to make the results of the project available online in Open Access in 2021.

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