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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

§ 9. The Year Books and their Value

In this same provincial French were composed the next series of works in legal literature which demand mention, namely, the Year Books. English common law—in striking contrast to Roman law—has been developed by cases adjudged. Each unreversed judicial decision forms a precedent to be followed in all subsequent cases of a similar kind. Hence, the necessity for law reports; and the strange thing is that their provision has always been left to private enterprise. We have a more or less complete series of reports from 1292 to the present day.

Those of the period from 1292 to 1534 are known as the Year Books. These Year Books rank with the Old English Chronicle and the Domesday Book among England’s unique historical treasures. “They should be our glory,” say Pollock and Maitland, “for no other country has anything like them.” The same writers are, however, compelled to add that “they are our disgrace, for no other country would have so neglected them.” Beginning as mere students’ note books, they rapidly developed into regular reports of the proceedings in court. Though their arguments are sometimes inconclusive, they are full of human interest, giving, as they do, the ipsissima verba of the old-world lawsuits. Humour and passion often manifest themselves beneath the formalities of procedure, as when John de Mowbray, in a burst of irritation, tells the bishop of Chester to “go to the great devil.” It is difficult to say whether the Year Books are more valuable to the lawyer, the historian, or the philologer. To the lawyer, they reveal the material out of which, on the foundation of writs, the structure of common law was raised—that common law by which the lives of both Britons and Americans are conditioned to this very day. To the historian, they supply first-hand sources for the social life of the later middle ages. To the philologer, they furnish rich mines of information (as yet little worked) concerning a remarkable and originally uncorrupted French dialect. As the number of the Year Books increased, it became convenient to make classified abridgments of their leading cases. The first of these was made, about 1470, by Nicholas Statham, baron of the exchequer under Edward IV.