Skip to Main Content

Legal research for historians: Great Britain

What is a treatise?

“Treatises” are secondary legal works written by scholars or practitioners that explain the law on a topic. Because in common law systems (such as the U.S. or Britain) the law on a given topic is governed by an amalgamation of prior case law (judicial decisions) and statutes (law passed by a legislature), and therefore often open to interpretation, it can be complicated to pin down a comprehensive set of easily understood and agreed-upon rules on a legal topic. Such a set of explanations of the law is referred to as the “black-letter law.”

Legal treatises, although not primary sources of law themselves, fill this gap by offering a summary and explanation of the “black-letter law.” They also will provide citations to the primary source law (usually cases and statutes) from which their summary is drawn.

For historians, older treatises can offer a window to what lawyers, scholars, and practitioners thought about a legal topic. The print collection at Princeton contains many historic legal treatises.

Treatises before 1800

The treatise of the laws and customs of the realm of England commonly called Glanvill. Edited with introduction, notes, and translation by G.D.G. Hall; with a guide to further reading by M.T. Clanchy. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. [1187-89]
Firestone Library (F) KD600 .G5513 1993

On the laws and customs of England. Translated, with revisions and notes, by Samuel E. Thorne. Cambridge, Published in association with the Selden Society [by] the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968- [13th c.]
Firestone Library (F) KD600 .B7313 1968

Littleton’s Tenures in English. Edited by Eugene Wambaugh. Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman, 1985, [c1903] [first printing, 1481]
Firestone Library (F) KD833 .L5713 1985

Institutes of the Lawes of England. Edward Coke. 4 volumes, published 1628-1644 and reprinted thereafter. Available online in several digital collections. See also

Commentaries on the laws of England. Blackstone, William. Edited and with an introduction by Wayne Morrison. London : Cavendish, 2001. [First published Clarendon Press at Oxford, 1765-1769]
Firestone Library (F) KD660 .B53 2001 and

English legal sources: on microfiche: printed English legal literature up to 1800. Editor: J.H. Baker. Zug, Switzerland: Inter Documentation Co. ; New York, N.Y. : Clearwater Pub. Co., [1981]-
Firestone Microforms Services (Film) MICROFICHE 836
For accompanying guide, see (FilmB) KD530.E534
This collection of 150 titles provides "a selection of the essential common law research tools and reference works, excluding law reports and legislation, relating to the period before 1800." The selection was made by J. H. Baker, a noted scholar of the history of the English legal system, and is arranged by topic e.g. criminal law, contract, or equity. It is worth checking EEBO or ECCO as most (all?) of these works will also be available online.

Treatises after 1800

Making of Modern Law Digital Archive (Legal Treatises 1800-1926)
Digital library of works from the 19th and early 20th centuries on British Commonwealth and American law. Includes treatises, casebooks, local practice manuals, books on legal form, works for lay readers, pamphlets, letters, and speeches.

19th-century legal treatises [microform]. Woodbridge, Conn.: Research Publications, c1984-
Firestone Microforms Services (Film) MICROFICHE 806
For accompanying guide, see (FilmB) KF209.N56 or
Includes both U.S. and British material. We do not have the companion series, Twentieth-Century Legal Treatises. Both series are now reproduced in the digital collection, Making of Modern Law:Treatises.