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The Rare Book Collection contains over 100,000 printed books, pamphlets, broadsides and other material, with imprints between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.

The collection has developed from the early years of the school, and now includes all of the Library’s pre-1851 holdings and most pre-1877 American imprints. Also in the collection are many Anglo-American legal materials to 1900, international law to 1911, Russian and Soviet law to 1954, and Chinese law to 1960.

The Early Manuscripts Collection contains a wide variety of documents relating to the law, ranging in date from the late thirteenth to twentieth centuries. The collection includes lawyers’ business records, lecture notes, student notebooks, commonplace books, accounts of trials, peerage claims, judges’ opinions, docket books, precedents of pleading, and collections of writs.

Anglo-American Materials

  • Broadside Trials and “Dying Speeches” Collection

    Just as programs are sold at sporting events today, broadsides—styled at the time as “Last Dying Speeches” or “Bloody Murders”—were sold to the audiences that gathered to witness public executions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. The Library’s collection of more than 500 broadsides is one of the largest recorded and the first to be digitized in its entirety. Explore the English Crime and Execution Broadsides collection, which spans the years 1707 to 1891 and includes accounts of executions for such crimes as arson, assault, counterfeiting, horse stealing, murder, rape, robbery, and treason.

    Conservation and digitization of the broadsides was made possible in honor of Harvard Law School alumnus S. Allyn Peck by a generous grant from the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, a charitable endowment for the support of genealogical, local history, and other museum and library collections.

  • Early English Law Collection

    The Harvard Law School Library possesses the largest and most comprehensive single collection of early English law in the world.

    The core of this collection was acquired in 1913, when the Law School purchased at auction the law library of the English collector George Dunn. Although Dunn studied law and was accepted to the bar, he never practiced as a barrister, preferring to spend his time in study and collecting manuscripts and early printed books. At his death in 1912, over half of his library was comprised of books and manuscripts relating to law, mostly English.

    Since 1913 the Law Library has added to the Dunn collection by purchase, exchange, or gift until today the collection contains copies of over ninety per cent of extant English law books printed before 1601. Among the Early English materials are a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript of the Magna Carta cum statutis believed to have been commissioned by Phillipa of Hainault for Edward III on the occasion of their marriage in 1326; a copy of the first edition of the first English law treatise, Littleton’s Tenures (1482); and two copies of the first printed collection of English statutes (1485).

    Henry N. Ess, III bequeathed his collection of English law books printed before 1601 to the Law Library. A member of the Harvard Law School Class of 1944, Mr. Ess was the book review editor for Volume 57 (1943-44) of the Harvard Law Review. His interest in collecting law books was sparked by his work as editor. Over the next half-century, he formed his own collection, purchasing books at auction and from booksellers both in England and the United States. In 1978 Ess gave a talk before the New York City Bar Association entitled The Sixteenth-Century English Lawyer’s Library, basing much of what he wrote upon his own collection. At the time of his death, Ess’s collection of pre-1601 imprints numbered over four hundred titles and was the most important collection of early English law in private hands.

    Thanks to a matching LDI Access Grant, in early 2003 the Library began a three-year project to catalog the pre-1601 early English collection.

  • English Deeds, Manor Rolls, and Chancery Writs

    The English Deeds Collection of the Harvard Law School Library is a rich and diverse body of over 1,000 English legal documents dating from circa 1170 to 1888. This collection brings together in one group three smaller collections. The largest one is made up of some 820 deeds, originally owned by the English antiquarian Frederick Arthur Crisp (1851-1922). This group of documents was sold to A. T. Butler of the Royal College of Arms, and was subsequently purchased by Harvard College Library in 1923. In 1925 it was transferred to the Harvard Law School.

    The second part of the collection is a group of documents known as the Hale Collection. This consists of 132 deeds spanning from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. These documents are part of the records of the Hale family of King’s Walden (Hertfordshire). In addition to their family seat in Hertfordshire, the Hales also possessed property in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire, and London. The collection documents the history of a wealthy land-owning family from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration. Property transactions in the King’s Walden, White Waltham (Berkshire), and Edworth (Bedfordshire) are particularly well represented.

    The third part of the collection is made up of miscellaneous deeds acquired by the Library through purchase or donation.

    In HOLLIS, deeds can be searched by their deed number, various keywords, and by year range. To search by deed number, under search type select “Other call number” and search under deeds and the number of the deed– so for example “deeds 114.”

    Browse the English Deeds collection in HOLLIS.

    To search the Hale collection, in HOLLIS do a “Starts with/Browse” search by “Call Number – Other” for “Deeds hale.” If you know the specific number of a deed you’re interested in, add that number to your search.

    Browse the Hale collection in HOLLIS.

    The Manor Rolls collection consists of 170 parchment rolls of diverse type (court-rolls, account-rolls, and others) from various manors, ranging in date from 1282 to 1770. The largest concentration of these rolls comes from the manor of Moulton in Cheshire. Other manors represented in large number are Odiham Hundred, Hampshire; Herstmonceaux, Sussex; Chartley, Staffordshire; and Onhouse, Suffolk. The rolls are grouped roughly by manor, but this arrangement is not adhered to consistently. A limited number of materials in this collection are not rolls, but single-sheet charters. One item (no. 130) is a map of the manor of Shelly, Suffolk.

    Explore the Manor Rolls collections finding aid.

    The Law Library’s Chancery Writs collection contains writs praecipe issued in Chancery, with other related documents, including some writs capias issued during the reigns of the later Stuart monarchs. These are not the charters issued to and returned by the county sheriffs, but rather the unsealed copies kept in Chancery.

  • Native American Tribal Constitutions, Laws, and Treaties

    The Law Library’s collection of Native American constitutions and laws has copies of more than half of the titles listed in Lester Hargrett’s Bibliography of the constitutions and laws of the American Indians (1947). The collection includes the laws of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Osage, Sac and Fox, and Seneca Nations, as well as the laws of the Indian Territory and the State of Sequoia. Many of the titles are printed in Native American languages. In addition, the collection contains some 45 treaties made between the US Federal government and various tribes, from 1790 onwards.

  • Old Bailey Sessions Papers 1670-1800

    This collection consists of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century periodical reports of the London Assizes, held in the court of the Old Bailey, London’s central prison. The first part of the collection includes scattered issues of the periodical from 1670, 1685-1688, and 1725. The second part, bound in a single volume, contains sessions papers from the period 1714-1729. Many of these papers bear the manuscript notations of purchase prices and dates made by the original collector, Narcissus Luttrell of London. The third part of the collection, in 43 volumes, contains the sessions papers from 1729 through 1800. They are part of a larger set of sessions papers, 234 volumes in all, covering the years 1729-1913, when the serial ceased publication.

    Search the online Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913.

  • Trial Collections

    The Anglo-American Trial Collection contains over 10,000 separate titles. Arranged by defendant, this collection dates from the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, with the bulk of the works printed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While some of this collection consists of published trial transcripts, the majority of it is popular printed accounts of sensational trials for murder, adultery, and other scandalous crimes.

    The Sacco-Vanzetti Trial Collection complements the Library’s collection of Sacco-Vanzetti papers. It is comprised of monographs, pamphlets, magazine articles and broadsides.

    And finally, the Law Library has a collection of mid nineteenth-century California land claims cases, dating from the first few decades of California’s statehood.

  • United States Law

    The Law Library has an extensive collection of US Federal, State and local law, dating from the earliest surviving law from British North America, The capitall lawes of New England (1643). The collection is especially rich in editions of colonial law, early laws from the western states, and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century municipal laws, from New England in particular.

    Among the collection is one of the three surviving copies of the first edition of the Utah State constitution, the Constitution of the state of Deseret (1849), a copy of the first edition of the California constitution (1849), and laws of the kingdom of Hawaii.

Continental European Law

  • French Coutumes

    Medieval customary law was a mixture of Frankish law, Roman law, canon and feudal law, and royal legislation. In France customary law prevailed in the pays de coutume, the regions of central and northern France. In these areas the local parlements acted as independent sovereign judicial bodies, basing their decisions on local customs and privileges.

    Local customs and usages began to be compiled in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and in the fifteenth century some provinces sponsored compilations of their own coutumes. In 1453 Charles VII ordered the codification of all local and provincial customary law. This process was carried on in various forms until the eve of the Revolution, at which time there were 60 provincial coutumes and over 300 local ones. The Harvard Law School Library’s collection of French coutumes contains close to 900 separate editions printed before the Revolution.

  • Grotius Collection

    A child prodigy who could write Latin verse at the age of 9, by his 21st year, Hugo Grotius had already formulated the principles of thought which would find expression years later in his De jure belli et pacis (1625), the most influential legal treatise of his time. Considered the first definitive text on international law, it is also one of the first attempts to formulate society and its institutions on a principle of right as a law of nature, outside of the Church and the Bible.

    Among his other legal works the most notable is his Mare liberum (1609). In this work Grotius maintained that the high seas are free and that no country could lay claim to them. This thesis was attacked by John Selden in Mare clausum (1636). The Law Library has a nearly comprehensive collection of Grotius’s legal writing, including copies of over 80 editions of De jure belli et pacis printed before 1800.

  • Incunabula Collection

    The invention and spread of the new technology of printing texts with movable type in the fifteenth century coincided with the movement in European cities to reform and codify local laws. Very often the first book printed in a city or town was that locality’s laws and ordinances. The Law Library possess a large collection of incunable editions—i.e. books printed before 1501—of law texts, almost 550 titles.

  • Loménie de Brienne Collection

    This collection of French royal administrative acts, covering the period 1212-1796, and printed between ca. 1550-1796, consists of approximately 30,000 pamphlets originally from the library of Etienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Minister of Finance under Louis XVI. These include édits, ordonnances, déclarations, arrêts, réglements, etc. on a wide variety of topics, including: press law, guilds, tariffs, wine and wine-making, weights and measures, food law and legislation, taxation, trade, etc. The bulk of these materials cover the eighteenth century.

    Subject access to these documents is available through the Catalogue général des livres imprimés de la bibliothèque nationale. Actes royaux (Paris : Impr. Nationale, 1910-) and French royal and administrative acts, 1256-1794, a subject guide to the New York Public Library collection of 16,000 pamphlets now on microfilm (New York: the Library, 1978).

  • Olivart Collection

    The Harvard Law School Library’s collection of international law is probably the most comprehensive privately held collection of its kind in the world. The heart of this material is the 14,000 volumes acquired in 1911 from the private library of Ramón de Dalmau, Marqués de Olivart.

    In addition to being a practicing lawyer and law professor, ambassador, and Spain’s Foreign Minister, Olivart was a distinguished scholar and bibliographer of international law. In 1905 he published an enlarged edition of the catalog of his own library, transforming it into a general bibliography of international law, which quickly became the standard for the field.

  • The Roman Republic: Broadsides and Pamphlets, 1848-1849

    This collection of 228 items reflects most of the major developments in the brief-lived Roman Republic (1848-1849). The collection documents the introduction of a semi-republican constitution, the Statuto Fondamentale, by Pius IX in March 1848; notices of growing republican sentiment, Italian nationalism and civil unrest in the spring and summer of 1848; documents from nascent republican institutions in the winter of 1848-1849; the meeting of the Constituent Assembly and the proclamation of the Roman Republic in February 1849; the republican government’s efforts to establish its authority and initiate reforms, particularly in the law; the appointment of the Triumvirate in March 1849; the defense of Rome against French forces, April-June 1849; and the collapse of the republic at the end of June 1849.

    This collection is organized into four groups according to the size and format of the documents: pamphlets; small broadsides; broadsides; and large broadsides. Within each group materials are arranged chronologically.

    This collection has been digitized and is available at

  • Sixteenth-Century Continental European Books

    The Rare Book Collection has over 7,200 titles printed in continental Europe between 1501 and 1601. These include editions of the Corpus Juris Civilis, commentaries and legal treatises, collections of statutes, edicts and regulations, and Roman, civil and canon law.

  • Stolberg Collection

    In 1931 Harvard University acquired a part of the private library of the Princes of Stolberg-Wernigerode. Located in what is today western Saxony-Anhalt, this German principality dates from the twelfth century, maintaining its independence within the Holy Roman Empire until the ascendancy of Napoleon and Prussia. Because of inflation and the financial hardships of the Weimar period, the princes were forced to sell their library of 125,000 volumes in 1930. Harvard acquired section K, the portion comprising the political and legal sciences, and the Law School Library received the bulk of this purchase, some 12,500 volumes in total.

    The golden age of the Stolberg library was during the reign of Christian Ernst (b. 1710-1771). He not only greatly increased its holdings and opened it to the public, but was also its librarian, commissioning the distinctive Stolberg bookplate and personally inscribing the publication date on the spine of each volume bound in white vellum. In 1746 Christian Ernst issued an edict making the collection—by then about 10,000 volumes—a public library.

    In 1744 the author Friedrich Wideburg donated to the Stolberg library a copy of his recently published work, De libertate electorum S.R.I. in eligendis regibus Romanorum commentarius. The Stolberg copy preserves the gracious Latin correspondence between the author and Christian Ernst, who remarks that his favorite works are those by authors who shed greater light on the public law of Germany.

    A fine example of the Stolberg books is Johann Gottfried von Meiren’s Nürnbergliche Friedens-Executions Handlungen und Geschichte. Published in 1736, the work chronicles the proceedings of the recess held at Nuremberg in 1649 which negotiated the execution of the Peace of Westphalia. The Peace itself, signed at Münster and Osnabrück in 1648, brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War and became the fundamental diplomatic document of modern Europe.

Other Notable Holdings

  • Canon Law Collection

    The Law Library holds nearly 225 editions of the Corpus juris canonici and 270 titles on law of the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Corpus Juris Civilis Collection

    Soon after his accession in 518, Emperor Justinian appointed a commission to collect and codify existing Roman law. A second commission, headed by the jurist Tribonian, was appointed in 530 to select matter of permanent value from the works of the jurists, to edit it and to arrange it into 50 books. In 533 this commission produced the Digesta.

    The four books of the Institutiones were also published in 533. They are an introductory textbook of Roman law. In 534 the Commission published the Codex Justiniani, a compilation of material from imperial decisions and enactments. These three works, along with the Novellae, a collection of laws promulgated after the Codex, constitute the Corpus juris civilis, the source of law and judicial reasoning for much of Europe from the twelfth century onwards.

    The Law Library has almost 400 separate printed editions of the Corpus juris civilis and its sections.

  • Foreign Trials Collection

    The Foreign Trial Collection is made up of mostly French and German books. Especially prominent are the sets of Causes célèbres, collections of accounts of internationally notorious trials.

  • Japanese Books and Manuscripts

    In 1927 Dr. J.E. de Becker, the translator of the Japanese codes and an authority on Japanese law, gave the Law Library a substantial collection of printed Japanese legal materials. In the mid-1930s the Library acquired, in part by gift, but largely through purchase, a sizable number of Japanese legal manuscripts and early printed books. While this collection cannot compete with similar Japanese collections, it is considered one of the best collections outside of Japan.

    In the early 1970s the Government of Japan had the Law Library’s collection of Japanese manuscripts and early printed books microfilmed.

  • Pre-Soviet Russian Collection

    Most of the Pre-Soviet Russian Collection at the Law Library was acquired in the 1920s and 30s from two main sources: Israel Pearlstein, a New York dealer specializing in French and Russian rare books, and the Mezhdunarodnaia Kniga, the official Soviet agency for foreign book distribution. Some periodical sets were acquired through barter from the People’s Commissariat for Justice.

    The Russian collections at Harvard owe their origin to Archibald Cary Coolidge (1866-1928), professor of history and the first Director of the University Library. As a history professor, Coolidge introduced the study of Russian and Slavic history at Harvard and helped to build the University’s holdings in these fields at his own personal expense. As University Librarian, Coolidge actively promoted the acquisition of Russian books in all subjects throughout many libraries at Harvard.

    In the late 1980s the Law Library was awarded an NEH book preservation grant to microfilm its nineteenth- and twentieth-century pre-Soviet Russian collection, well over 5,500 separate titles. The microfilmed pre-Soviet Russian collection is fully cataloged in HOLLIS. Researchers are required to consult the film copy of these materials, which is located in the Law Library’s microfilm room.

    The Library’s eighteenth- and seventeenth-century Russian books, however, were—with a few exceptions—not microfilmed. These books are not cataloged in HOLLIS, but may be accessible to researchers. The bulk of this material comprises bound volumes of Ukases, Imperial proclamations and decrees.