Our Oldest Book

Provinciale is the oldest book in the law library.

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The oldest book in our Law Library is the 1505 edition of William Lyndwood’s Provinciale.

Educated at Gonville Hall (now Gonville and Caius College), Cambridge, William Lyndwood (c. 1375-1446) was an English bishop and a scholar of canon law. He has been described by Professor Sir John Baker of Cambridge University as “the best known of all medieval English canonists.” His Provinciale was a commentary on the ecclesiastical decrees enacted in English provincial councils under the Archbishops of Canterbury.

The Provinciale was one of the earliest law books printed in England, first appearing (without a title page) circa 1483. The Provinciale was then reprinted in Paris in 1501 and 1505 and in Antwerp in 1525. Ours is the Paris 1505 edition.

There were also editions containing only the decrees, without the commentary or “gloss.” The earliest of these appeared in England in 1496.

The most commonly used edition of the Provinciale is the Oxford edition of 1679, which we also have in our rare book collection.

The importance of Lyndwood’s Provinciale has been well summarized by Professor Baker:

“The edition of the text of the provincial constitutions was of contemporary value as providing a corpus of English canons…. The gloss, on the other hand, was and is far more valuable as a contribution to universal jurisprudence written from an English point of view. It was not intended as a complete textbook on English canon law, because the provincial legislation was not comprehensive. The English church was part of the universal church and governed by its common law (ius commune). … But the general law of the church allowed for regional legislation, and local custom, so that the church in England could lawfully adopt rules and practices supplementing or (occasionally) diverging from the general law…. Lyndwood’s gloss was the principal guide to these English peculiarities, and was as accepted as an authority throughout Christendom on the learning which accommodated them to the ius commune. … According to Thomas Fuller [a seventeenth-century historian], the book ‘will be valued by the judicious whilst learning and civility have a being.’ But Fuller did not foresee a world in which Latin would no longer be taught in schools.”

From J.H. Baker, Monuments of Endlesse Labours: English Canonists and Their Work 1300-1900  (London: Hambledon Press, 1998), pp. 51-55.