Preserving Our Oldest Book

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The 1505 edition of William Lyndwood’s Provinciale is the oldest book in the Law Library. It was in major need of repair and now has been restored and rebound.

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.

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.

The Law Library’s edition was much in need of restoration and repair. The covering leather was completely abraded at the corners, and the book-board was also significantly abraded. There were many scuffs, breaks in the grain layer, and discolorations. The first three leaves of the text, including the marbled paper fly-leaf, were detached from the text-block. There were major breaks in the sewing.



The binder created a new binding in a style appropriate to France around 1505. The marbled papers that were not part of the original binding were removed, and the new endpapers were antiqued to bring them into greater harmony with the entire object.

Because the previous headband at the tail (the only one there) was no longer structurally relevant and not original, it was removed. As a replacement, integral headbands which were sewn with linen thread were added and their cores laced into the new boards.

In the manner of early 1500s French bindings, there is a panel design where the central panel is divided into a number of thin vertical strips within which are tools impressed running the length of it. This was a period of transition—either wooden boards or book-board would be appropriate—but we chose wooden-boards due to their weight and feel and the importance of this book.  

The broken text block was repaired and resewn so the pages are properly supported. A custom box, lined with ultrasuede to protect the leather from abrasion, now houses the book.