Pre-digital lawntilde;: how prior information technologies have shaped access to and the nature of law

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Treatment of Dower in Littleton

Language aside, this early law book specimen has several other features that illuminate the legal information process of its time. There is ample evidence this book was not intended to be an authoritative law document, a source of law. It seems to be, quite simply, an effort to describe, to interpret law in a particular field for a very distinctive audience, the next generation. Littleton's Tenures began as a teacher's book, written, in fact, for Littleton's son who was preparing for a career in law. It was not intended for wide dissemination. Weight as authority came to Littleton's writing only after his death, in consequence of its quality and uniqueness. As for the work's relationship to truly authoritative legal materials, observe this astounding fact: Littleton (the original Littleton) has neither footnotes nor citations.

This is a short book – a book meant to be read from cover to cover – and mastered, that is to say, remembered, not verbatim necessarily, but in its main. This is a book that by 1581, as it was being printed and reprinted, was meant to be used as a personal information resource in a second way – one few if any contemporary law books fulfill. Most 16th century editions of Littleton were, like this one, printed with large margins (many were far larger than these) intended and used for the owner's notes. This 1581 edition of Littleton once had a cover and a table of contents showing its division into three books; it never had an index. It did, however, incorporate a information technology breakthrough that subsequent editions of Littleton have carried forward, unchanged, for over 400 years, a functional feature critical to any law book's use as authority. I am referring here to the printer's inclusion of a system of identifying smaller units of the whole. If you and I, both familiar with Littleton, had sought to bring his text to bear on a discussion of a point of the law of dower in 1560, we would have no means beyond referring to the subject and initial words of the relevant paragraph to identify the passage in our different editions. Richard Tottel, the genius who published this issue of Littleton with section numbers, also commenced consistent pagination of successive editions of law reports – at considerable expense (and despite all sorts of deviations within the page). In addition, Tottel established the practice of numbering the judicial opinions within each term (e.g., H.42.E.3.pl8) in printing the Yearbooks.

Lacking citation and, originally, any means of being cited, written for highly personal use, Littleton's book was not designed to fit into an extensive print system. A person could and for years, it is reported, lawyers did read Littleton from cover to cover as an annual refresher.

At a layer only 50 years or so higher up our boring than Littleton we find this related specimen.

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