Book Notice

By Sara Butler; posted 17 November 2016.

Thomas Lund, The Creation of the Common Law: The Medieval Year Books Deciphered (Clark, NJ: Talbot Publishing, 2015), vii + 371 pp. $94.89 (USD, hbk), ISBN: 978-1-61619-504-5

England’s Year Books are one of the most under-utilized treasures of the Middle Ages. Because English law was learned primarily through example, late medieval jurists gathered together collections of instructive cases each year to create textbooks for aspiring lawyers. A continuous series of these textbooks exist for the years 1268 to 1535 and their case studies form the earliest examples of legal precedent in English law. The cases themselves are recorded in the format of courtroom dialogues, offering the reader an opportunity to acquaint himself with the sometimes cantankerous personalities of medieval England’s pleaders and justices of the Bench. For enthusiasts of the Paston Family, it is worth noting that John Paston makes frequent appearances in these cases. In recent years, more medievalists have become aware of the Year Books through Seipp’s Abridgement, an online index and paraphrase of Year Book cases, often with pdfs of the vulgate editions in Law French, edited by David Seipp and hosted by Boston University ( Having dabbled with the online index myself, I could not resist purchasing Lund’s book when I saw the title.  The promise to “decipher” the Year Books (when I hadn’t even realized that they needed to be deciphered) lured me in.

For those of you who are well acquainted with the history of English law, you will also understand that the title of his work left me puzzled:  what had the creation of the common law to do with the Year Books?  Lund clarifies what he means by “common law” at the very beginning of his introduction, stating that as a lawyer he uses the term to mean “judge-made law,” as opposed to the doctrines that characterize English law.  As soon as I read this, I should have realized that this book was going to take a much different tack than that to which I am accustomed. Thomas Lund writes as a lawyer: by this I mean, he teaches through example.  He claims to include the “most important cases” from the medieval period (the criteria for “important” would seem to be that they influence modern law).  The cases are printed in a highly accessible paraphrase, which he then breaks down and explains in the simplest of terms, with many explanatory footnotes to put these cases in context of other law decisions and the development of jurisprudence.  In so doing, he does an excellent job of explaining medieval pleading, the development of medieval rules of evidence, competing and complementary jurisdictions (including a lengthy discussion of ecclesiastical matters addressed by secular courts which I am sure many will find fascinating and unexpected!), as well as the rights of minority groups (such as women and serfs).  If you have never used the Year Books, Lund’s book is a good place to start.

Nonetheless, when reading this book, it is hard not to feel like you are in class at law school.  Certainly, the prime audience of the book would seem to be law students with an interest in the origins of common law.  And yet, as Richard Epstein’s preface baldly states, that group of readers would seem to be diminishing every day.  While this book might not have as much appeal to legal historians as I had imagined, one can only hope that it might succeed in its actual mission to draw in those lawyers, or aspirant lawyers, with a burgeoning curiosity about medieval law. Of course, isn’t that what we are trying to do with this blog site, too?