Nothing so Lovely as a Tree

The books featured in this third top on our gallery tour—the case “Diagramming the Law”—all use images to overcome the limits of language for conveying complex legal and conceptual analysis.

We think they can point us to insights about the way law works in the world, and how it’s historically worked through images—especially images in books.

For centuries, the most common illustration in law books was a visual metaphor drawn from the natural world: the tree. As a graphic device—a chart—used in legal textbooks and treatises, trees of consanguinity and affinity helped readers grasp the legal significance of kinship for marriage and inheritance. The very first image in a printed law book, in 1473, was a tree of consanguinity.

We could have filled the entire Grolier Club exhibition hall with images, images, and more images—of trees … oh, man, could we ever (no, seriously, we could have).

Looking at them arrayed together across the big wooden tables of the Yale Law Library rare book gave new force to the idea—developed by the post-structuralist theorists Deleuze and Guatarri—that the western cultural and intellectual tradition is characterized by “arborescent thought.”

A “tree grows in our minds”? Our thinking is structured by this metaphor?

You’d better believe it—perhaps especially within the common law tradition, where the organic comparison fits so well.

By depicting legal relationships in spatial terms, trees represent those relationships more efficiently than is possible through language alone. They thus stand beside their text neither as allegories of the spirit of the whole, as we saw in our first case, nor as illustrations of a specific part, as in case two, but rather as concise charts of an extended structure of analysis.

The metaphor of the tree long persisted as a beguiling way to depict kinship and its legal consequences.

Yet the success of the tree also gave bud to new ways to crisply display legal and conceptual relationships, and those are represented throughout the case, too. On the very right-hand side, you can spy the colorful Atlas of German Law, which substantially advanced the tradition in contemporary Germany. We were happy to have its author, Eric Hilgendorf, speak at a recent symposium about the exhibit.

This post begins with an image from the seminal, first work of English jurist William Blackstone, which concerns a question of legacy admission to All Souls College, Oxford. In the words of legal historian S.F.C. Milsom, Blackstone’s creative use of graphic aids enabled him “to compress into a single chapter the mass of detailed rules which would in every possible case identify who a man’s heir was.”

The image above is an innovative descendant of hundreds of years of tradition in legal publishing.

Image

William Blackstone, An essay on collateral consanguinity. London: W. Owen … and R. Clements, in Oxford, 1750.

Mark S. Weiner & Mike Widener

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For the next stop on our tour, click here.

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