University gets 15th century legal manuscript

Lily Langerud

>In a partnership with the Newberry Library in Chicago, the University purchased partial ownership of a 15th century legal manuscript.

The manuscript, written primarily in Latin, details the laws of Brno, now a Czech Republic city. Susan Noakes, director of the Center for Medieval Studies, said the manuscript will provide insight into everyday life during the 1400s. Noakes said the University’s medieval manuscript collection held only religious works until this point and the legal manuscript would be a new opportunity for research. “We always have an interest in acquiring medieval manuscripts that have not been studied because they provide opportunity for graduate students and faculty to do research,” she said. The manuscript, purchased from a dealer in Paris for $18,000 – one third of which came from the University – will be transcribed, edited and then translated over a period of at least five years, Noakes said. She added that manuscripts like this have not been studied yet because in the past, scholars viewed the Middle Ages as a dark time, or were only interested in royalty and armies. “It was not written by a king, and it was not associated with a famous battle, but it tells a lot of details about how everyday life was conducted in that part of the Czech Republic,” she said. Mary Louise Fellows, an Everett Fraser Professor of Law, said the manuscript can offer insight into the role of legal institutions have in modern society. “Since today’s law is based on yesterday’s law, knowing the derivation of the law through the Middle Ages can be very important,” she said. Fellows recently finished her dissertation involving a 10th century will. While the manuscript had already been translated, Fellows wrote a reinterpretation. “These documents have their own story and then there’s always a story behind them, so I think they never stop being challenging and mysterious,” she said. Tim Johnson, Curator of Special Collections and Rare Books at Andersen library, where the manuscript is housed, said the manuscript offered a distinctive opportunity for researchers. “This one is fairly unique, it has not been published, no one has really studied the texts closely,” he said. “It’s really a fertile territory for scholars to dive into this manuscript.” As part of the agreement with the Newberry Library, the manuscript will spend four months each year at the University and eight months in Chicago. Paul Saenger, Curator of Rare Books at the Newberry Library, said the joint-ownership program, started in 1995, brings more original source material to the Midwest. Currently six institutions participate in the program. Saenger said that while the books are delicate, handling isn’t the real issue. “The problem is not that they’re used too intensely but they aren’t used enough,” he said.