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That "Blunderbuss of Law": Giles Jacob, Abridgment, and Print Culture

From: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture
Volume 37, 2008
pp. 197-215 | 10.1353/sec.0.0022

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Giles Jacob has been recently described as "the most prolific author of self-help legal manuals."1 He is well known as the author of the enormously influential eighteenth-century New Law Dictionary—a text that reached a sizable audience not only in Britain but also in colonial America where it was "the most widely used English law dictionary" and could be found in the libraries of many colonial lawyers, including the most prominent.2 The New Law Dictionary was probably Jacob's most successful work, but it was only one among the many practical legal, political, and literary works he produced in the first few decades of the eighteenth century. Jacob, like some other notable early eighteenth-century compilers of law, published a large number of texts on conveyancing, Chancery practice, local courts and officers, military, commercial, criminal, and constitutional law, as well as his law dictionary.3

Moreover, while legal writing was Jacob's primary occupation and contribution, poetry, satire, and literary biography were also a part of his published work. As the author of The Poetical Register: Or The Lives and Characters of the English Dramatick Poets: With an Account of Their Writings, Jacob is known among literary scholars for his role in a controversy concerning the reputations of John Gay and Alexander Pope.4 Attacked and immortalized in Pope's Dunciad as "the Scourge of Grammar" and the "Blunderbuss of Law," Jacob's reputation as the chief example of the incivility of the eighteenth-century common law has persisted. His work is often regarded by modern scholars of both law and literature as exemplary of an inferior English legal literature copiously produced in the early eighteenth century. This proliferating legal literature has generally been denigrated by modern scholars, who unfavorably compare it with the more "substantive" and "systematic" legal treatises of William Blackstone or Geoffrey Gilbert. Indeed, most scholars have set up a dichotomy between this practical, inductive, descriptive legal literature and a rational, analytic legal literature, and through this contrast the practical legal literature has remained an object of scorn rather than an object of study.5

Neither a Gilbert nor a Blackstone, Giles Jacob is, then, generally ridiculed as a hack. Yet as this essay will argue, Jacob should be understood as exemplary, in a more fundamental sense, of an evolving discourse of English common law. Jacob's law books are representative of the ways in which these early eighteenth-century abridgments, students' books, and legal handbooks effectively met new demands of legal education, contributed to broader traditions of humanist and Enlightenment writing, and took part in a burgeoning eighteenth-century print culture. Works like Jacob's law books developed in close relationship to manuscript commonplace traditions, and these texts must be understood within the context of legal education and the ways in which students and practitioners were taught to confront and master the sources of the law. These practices in education and in print—the ways in which these new printed books organized all this information of the law—must also be seen in the context of Enlightenment encyclopedic traditions. The law book authors, like encyclopedia-makers, were dealing with the problem of knowledge management or "information overload," and in response to this problem the learning of the law was systematized, alphabetized, and organized. As Ann Blair has explained, in the early modern period a "perception of an overabundance of books fueled the production of many more books, often especially large ones, designed to remedy the problem," and the recognition of the usefulness of these compilations and reference books was increasingly widespread.6 If we look at Jacob's law books in these contexts we will no longer see simply what scholars have characterized as the emblematic texts of an inferior literature, often linked to a more general decline of common law in this age of reason, commerce and politeness.7 Instead we will come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between English common law and Enlightenment cultures.

Learning and Commonplace Books

A notable expansion in legal publication began in the mid-seventeenth century, in part a consequence of the disruptions suffered by the Inns of Court, and of the movements toward...



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