The printing press had the potential to break the common lawyers’ monopoly of legal knowledge. Early-modern England witnessed debates about the desirability of wider dissemination of legal learning. Previous scholarship has identified the long-term trend to increased printing of the law in English, focusing on ideological debates between lawyers and other key actors. Only selected texts and types of material were made available to the wider public before the 1620s. From the later 1620s a wider range of material which had hitherto existed only in manuscript was printed in English. Knowledge of the common law became more commonly available. This article identifies this crucial moment and explains the change. Rather than the ideological questions which are discussed in the existing literature, more mundane causes are identified for the legal profession’s reduced control over the transmission of legal knowledge: a shift to the use of English by lawyers themselves, and a loss of professional control over manuscripts. The paper therefore demonstrates an important methodological point: understanding and assessing the history of legal printing requires engagement with older methods of transmitting the law.
Ian Williams, Law, Language and the Printing Press in the Reign of Charles I: Explaining the Printing of the Common Law in English, Law and History Review. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0738248019000312. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 9 September 2019.