Legal Commonplace Book

  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 288
  • Dates of Creation
      End 15th/beginning 16th century
  • Language of Material
      English , French  and Latin
  • Physical Description
      1 volume. 189 folios, foliated 1-36, 36*, 37-188. Dimensions: 222 x 150 mm; ff. 167-178: c.200 x 135 mm. Collation: 112 lacking 1, 2-412, 512 lacking 12 after f. 57, 618 (ff. 58-75), 780 (ff. 76-155), 832 lacking 32, blank, plus two singletons ff. 162, 179 (ff. 156-188). There are full-length strips of parchment between quires and two short strips, each c.70 mm long, in the middle of each quire as strengthening at the points where the sewing holes come. Condition: rodent damage affecting the front cover (severely) and folios 1-4, with some loss of text on folio 1. Medium: paper. Binding: original limp parchment covers: the quire strings are brought out at four places on the spine and knotted together in pairs.

Scope and Content

The volume contains several legal manuscripts in Latin, French and English, written in different hands, including: a formulary of proceedings at a manorial court (ff. 1-23); the first, second and part of the third books of Littleton's tenures in French (ff. 25-57v); and the Natura brevium, which sets forth writs with commentary on their application and properties (ff. 70-155v), similar to the edition published by Robert Redman in 1529. On folio 1 is the date Anno Domini 1479.

Contents: (1) ff. 1-23, quires 1 and 2: Formulary of proceedings at a manorial court (Modus tenendi curiam Baronibus), in Latin and English.

  • (a) ff. 1-14v: 'In primis preceptum factum balliuo per Seneschallum...'. Proceedings of the court presided over by Thomas B., chief steward of the archbishop of Canterbury, at Plumstead (Kent), Monday after St Augustine, 22 Edward IV [1482]. In Latin, except for 'The charge of the Courte' under 21 heads and 'the charge of the lete' under 36 heads.
  • (b) ff. 14v-18v: 'Modus diuersarum naturarum factarum de Copiis Rotularum de terris et tenementis acceptis et habitis secundum Consuetudinem Manerii tent' ad voluntatem domini per virgam qualiter Clericus debet eas in Curia rotularum etc'... (f. 18v) Nunc de leta...'. In Latin.
  • (c) f. 21r: 'Modus qualiter Balliuus vel Bedellus qui seruiet Curiam debet vocare assisam panis et seruicie quando Curia cum visu totaliter finitur...'.
  • (d) ff. 21r-22v: Oaths of the constable and others and the form of granting seisin.
  • (e) ff. 22v-23r: 'Modus faciendum (sic) extract' Cur', in Latin.
  • ff. 23v-24v were left blank: f. 24r-v contains added formulary documents.

(2) [Now missing]: 'A generall rule to teche euery man that is willinge for to lerne to serue a lorde or maystr in anything to his Plesure'. Recorded in the early 20th-century sale catalogue (see below) as item 2, at which time the manuscript had 203 leaves.

(3) ff. 25-57v, quires 3-5: Littleton's tenures, in French. 'Vne lyuer de Exposicion... Tenaunt en fee simple... que lun carne est' (ends imperfectly). Printed very often from (1482): STC 15719-15759. Book 2 begins on f. 34v, book 3 on f. 55v. The last two-thirds of the text, from edn. (1482), cvii verso, line 9, is missing.

(4) ff. 58-155v, quires 6 and 7: Legal pieces, principally (ff. 71-155v) a Natura brevium in French.

  • (a) f. 58... (line 7) 'Ceo vous monstre T. Northall' que...'
  • (b) ff. 58v-68v: Notes in French on statutes of the realm, Quia emptores (1290) (Statutes of the Realm, vol. 1, p. 106), Westminster I (1275), Marlborough (1267), and others.
  • (c) ff. 70-155v: Proc' de natura breuium. . . . (table of writs De debito - De homine replegiando)... (f. 71) Dicitur que il y a breue de droit patent et breue de droit de clos... (f. 151) Expliciunt breuia originalia. Et incipiunt breuia iudicialia ... Explicit. Very much shorter than the Natura brevium printed in (1494) and later (STC 18385-18411). Twenty judicial writs, ff. 151-155v.
  • Folios 62r, 63v-64r, 67v-68r and 69r-v are left blank.

(5) ff. 156-188v, quire 8: Legal notes in French.

  • (a) ff. 156-162v: Legal notes in French headed 'Ml' xiiii H viti', and beginning 'Detinu de box et charters'. 'Explicit quarto decimo h. vi' at the end.
  • (b) ff. 163-188v: Law cases, etc., in French, in various hands: many pieces begin 'home'.
  • ff. 156-88 are now a single quire wrapped in a strip of a 15th/16th-century legal document, but they appear to have been originally four quires in different hands and of rather different dates, which have been put one inside the other (see Ker for details).

Script: A mixture of secretary and gothic anglicana and (items 3 and 5) current legal anglicana, 'sometimes of a very scribbly sort' (Ker). Written space: c.175 x 100 mm. c.30 long lines.

Secundo folio: the boke and sey.

Decoration: None.

Description derived from N.R. Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, vol. III, Lampeter-Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 423-4. By permission of Oxford University Press.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Thomas Littleton [Lyttleton] (b. before 1417, d. 1481), justice and legal writer, had become an established lawyer by the end of the 1440s. He was elected recorder of Coventry in 1449. In 1453 he was created serjeant-at-law, and two years later he was appointed king's serjeant. He wrote the first law book to be printed in England, the treatise universally known as Littleton. A few fifteenth-century manuscripts of this survive, though none can be positively dated before the first printed edition, published shortly after his death in 1481. It proved to be the most successful law book ever written in England, enjoying over ninety editions, some of them (after 1525) translated from the original law French into English.

Source: J.H. Baker, 'Littleton , Sir Thomas (b. before 1417, d. 1481)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Access Information

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library in 1915 from the London bookseller Bernard Quaritch, together with English MS 287, for £10; invoice dated 2 July 1915. Accession no. R39329.

Custodial History

(1) John Wolff. Inscribed 'Liber Johannis Wolff' in a formal calligraphic script on f. 23v, end of 15th century.

(2) John Willoughby. Signed 'Iohn Willoughby' with a flourish on f. 188v, late 16th or first half of 17th century.

(3) Lot no. 447 in an early 20th-century sale: the catalogue entry is enclosed loose inside the front cover.


J.H. (John Hamilton) Baker, 'Littleton , Sir Thomas (b. before 1417, d. 1481)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004):

N.R. (Neil Ripley) Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, vol. III, Lampeter-Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 423-4.

Sir Thomas Littleton, Expliciunt tenores nouelli ([London]: John Lettou and William de Machlinia, [1482]). STC 15719.

Natura breuium newly and moost trewly corrected (London: Robert Redman, 1529).

The statutes of the realm printed by command of his majesty King George the Third (London: 1810-1828).