Watch Your Head

A woman heedlessly dumps a chamber pot from a second-story window. A group of clergy physically block laity from assembling around an altar. A bearded man furtively moves a boundary stone.

Welcome to the second stop on our exhibit tour of “Law’s Picture Books.”

The illustrations in this case—“Depicting the Law”—use figurative images to depict specific legal rules. They show not the symbolic, but the concrete. What knives are prohibited on the streets in seventeenth-century Genoa? Look to the image—there is the law:

In contrast to the images in “Symbolizing the Law,” the images in this case generally don’t appear at the start of books. Instead, they appear directly next to the legal language they illustrate.

They can tell us a lot not only about the history of law, but also about the history of culture and society, because they often include rich details from daily life.

This publishing tradition has ancient roots. It begins with the thirteenth-century Sachsenspiegel, an extraordinary compilation of Germanic customary law that remains unsurpassed in its seamless integration of text and image. And it continues up through the modern era—for instance in the charming Textbook of Aerial Laws that we were delighted to put on display.

Yet there also are major gaps within this history: on the European continent, such images largely disappear in eighteenth-century publishing, and there are almost none in the entire Anglo-American tradition. We don’t know why, and we hope our exhibit will encourage people to look for answers.

What about that heedlessly-dumped chamber pot?

Joost de Damhoudere’s treatise on criminal law stood out from the competition for its lively depictions of specific crimes, shown in a suite of five dozen woodcuts. The illustration that begins this post shows pedestrians fleeing the falling household garbage—or worse—unlawfully thrown onto public streets. The book was one of the most successful books in the entire history of legal literature, appearing in thirty-nine editions in four languages between 1554 and 1660. Twenty-three of these editions were illustrated, making it also one of the most successful illustrated books in any genre.

Scholars know that the illustrations were Damhoudere’s idea—he railed against lazy and expensive illustrators for failing to provide images for some his chapters.

Image

Joost de Damhoudere, La practique et enchiridion des causes criminelles. Louvain: Etienne Wauters & Johan Bathen, 1555. Illustrations by Gerard de Jode. Acquired with the John A. Hoober Fund.

Mark S. Weiner and Mike Widener

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To continue the tour, click here.

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