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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XIII. Legal Literature

§ 20. Predecessors of Selden’s Table-Talk

To the preceding summary of the progress of English legal literature, through the great days of Bacon and Coke, to those of Hale and Selden, may be added a few words concerning a publication which has served to keep the last of these famous names green in popular remembrance, and which, so far as English books are concerned, stands virtually by itself in the century of its origin. Table-Talk: being the Discourses of John Selden, Esq. Being His Sense of various Matters of Weight and high Consequence; relating especially to Religion and State was first published in 1689, thirty-five years after Selden’s death, and nine years after that of his sometime amanuensis, Richard Milward (afterwards rector of Great Braxted and canon of Windsor). Milward was responsible for the collection and “digestion” of the utterances which compose the little book. Its title and general plan were manifestly taken from what is, perhaps, the most famous of all anthologies of this particular sort—the Tischreden of Martin Luther, otherwise called his Colloquia, which were first edited, in 1566, by John Aurifaber from the remembrance of himself and others. Here, too, the “discourses” are arranged according to subject rather than chronologically, and, as in Milward’s alphabetical disposition, the series of sayings is thus deprived of not a little of its biographical interest and significance. Yet the reporter of Selden’s Table-Talk chooses, as the motto of his collection, the words Distingue tempora! In the latter part of the sixteenth, and during the course of the seventeenth, century, were put forth not a few collections of the sayings or conversations of eminent French scholars, from the redoubtable younger Scaliger down to Gilles Ménage, renowned alike as a not very laborious lexicographer and as a devotee to the pleasures of the great world. In England, on the other hand, the era proper of ana had not yet been reached, although collections of the sayings of kings and magnates had become popular from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, and although great wits and profound scholars of the succeeding generations continued to unbend in occasional converse in coffee-house or common-room, as they had indulged their humour at the Mermaid in the days of Ben Jonson and of Selden himself, or as Jonson had (if the phrase be permitted) let himself go in his harangues—called Conversations—addressed to Drummond at Hawthornden. The golden era of this species was inaugurated by Boswell’s Life of Johnson; but Johnson himself, whose conversations, like Martin Luther’s colloquies, cover a far wider ground and possess a far wider, as well as more intimately human, interest than can be ascribed to Selden’s Table-Talk, pronounced this English collection superior to any of its French rivals.