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  • Writer's pictureJulie Chamberlin

Bracton Lawbooks at the British Library

My trip to the British Library in London in 2017.

In summer 2017, I had the opportunity to present at the Biennial London Chaucer Conference on the theme of “Chaucer and the Law.” I scored an AirBnB that was between University College London, the Regent’s Park, and the British Library: my own personal triangle of heaven. Since the conference only lasted two full days, I had plans to visit the BL during my 7-day stay and look at some medieval lawbooks and also (maybe) keep up my marathon training by running in the park…maybe.

Aware of the rigmarole of getting in to see the rare books at the BL, I came prepared with a printed letter of introduction and two forms of identification. You would think I was over-prepared but…My first full day in the city, I rousted myself for a jet-lagged run in the park (touting my nerdy water bottle backpack) and then prepared to walk a little over a mile to the library.

Naturally, upon arriving, I realized I had left one of my IDs in my running backpack at the flat. With precious little time to actually work at the library and blisters already worn into my heels, I set about looking up an alternative proof of identity to satisfy the BL that I was the graduate student interested in medieval law and animals described in my letter of introduction. Finally armed with my passport, letter, and a car insurance bill, I got in line to be interviewed and get my reader’s card. Whew!

The fruits of all of this were getting to see:

1) a “very singular” (in the words of the Anastatic Drawing Society of 1860) depiction of a medieval “world turned upside down” scene in Egerton MS 3041, which recreated by hand since I was not allowed to photograph this particular manuscript. In addition to this image, this manuscript contains marginal drawings of monkeys, a knight standing on a devil, and a boar beneath men exchanging a document.

2) Henry de Bracton’s De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (thirteenth century lawbook) in several different manuscripts. Bracton is important to my research because he wrote about the role criminal intent should play in the laws of England and sets out to define the legal “person” in his writing. While the marginalia for these lawbooks was not nearly as interesting and quirky as the Egerton MS, there were a few odd fish and trippy swirls added to one of the manuscripts. See bellow–couldn’t you just become lost in that P?

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