Voyages of Discovery

In this weeks’ blog post we are pleased to welcome our newest member of staff, Juliette Lichman. When not working on new orders, she has been preparing old ones to go into our Open Books Repository Juliette has been discovering how easy it is to get drawn in to the complex and fascinating histories of the books…

The university’s cherished Laing collection is an invaluable resource of important historical documents, and is a frequent subject on this blog. The fact that there are still so many unknown works and exciting discoveries to be made within the collection is astounding. I was lucky enough to experience this first-hand several weeks ago, during an afternoon of working through a deeply buried folder of book scans. I came across a Laing collection document that had incorrect and missing metadata. It appeared to be an unassuming manuscript (date unknown) with handwriting that was ornately scribed but difficult to decipher, though certainly English.

From the title page “Leges Navales Oleronicae – The Sea Lawes of Oleron” it was clear that it was collection of sea laws, and not a biographical account as originally stated in the metadata entries. After some further investigation I discovered it to be a handbook on medieval maritime laws known as Rôles d’Oléron/Rolls of Oléron, which were the first formal statement of maritime/admiralty law in northwestern Europe. In particular, these laws outlined regulations for the wine trade from Brittany and Normandy to England, Scotland and Flanders.

To confirm that it was the same text I found a formatted copy online, and began to spot several similarities in the text within Article I.

It was a fascinating discovery; these medieval sea laws were from a crucial point in history of trade and exploration. The Rolls of Oléron were promulgated by Eleanor of Aquitaine towards the end of the twelfth century, after being granted vice regal powers upon her return to England.  These laws were based upon the ancient Lex Rhodia/Rhodian Sea Law (circa 900-800 BC) governing Mediterranean commerce. They were aptly named after the French island Oléron, the site of the maritime court associated with the Guild of the Atlantic – the most powerful seamen’s guild of the time. After they were brought to England they were translated, and notably, King Henry VIII published them as “The judgment of the sea, of Masters, of Mariners, and Merchants, and all their doings”. The Rolls of Oléron and other sea laws that began to stem from them during this time were distributed widely in later years via printed format by Estienne Cleirac (1583-1657), and were later included in the Black Book of Admiralty.

There seemed to be a large time gap between the first two sources, and it’s clear that it was a translated manuscript but placing a context and date would be difficult. I came across two detailed and well researched papers on the subject, written by Edda Frankot from the University of Aberdeen. She details the arrival and usage of the Rolls of Oléron in England and Scotland.

Interestingly, there was another manuscript scanned at the same time as the Rolls of Oléron – “The Laws and Acts of Parliament of Scotland No.22 ‘The Lawis and custumys of schippis’ “. As Frankot states in her paper, there are nine known existing copies of Scottish translations, the earliest being from the fourteenth century as part of the Bute Manuscript, titled “Of lawis of scyppis [Of laws of  ships]”. In a detailed list Frankot makes no mention of this particular volume, so it may be one that is not affiliated with the existing National Library of Scotland records, and as yet unknown.

The research was leading me deeper than expected, so I decided to inspect the original document to try and discern an author and context.
The book’s beautifully bound spine gave no clues – only a gilded ‘Sea Laws’ was present, and there was no frontispiece or title page. However, it became clear that this was a compendium of sea laws, chronologically starting with “The Roman Sea Lawes Translated from the Corpus Juris” (529-534) and “The Rhodian Lawes and Customes of the Sea” (800), followed by the “The Sea Lawes of Oleron” (1160), and the “Laws of Wisbuy” (1300-1350). The original author goes on to include various other sea laws, and continues in the same fashion throughout most of the book. The next entry is dated to 1663 and in a different hand. The page states “The Juristiction of the Admiralty of England Asserted by Sr. Edward Coke’s Articuli Admiralitatis, in XXII Chapter of this jurisdiction of courts. By Richard Zouch doctor of the civil laws and late judge of the high court of admiralty.” Subsequent entries are of a similar nature and date to 1686, 1689 etc. and all seem to have a connection with being in official use, including one entry from the Tower of London.

Even though the there was no clear date or author for the Rolls of Oléron, the research helped to narrow down a possible date and context. My educated guess is that the laws were copied and translated by a person working directly in a court of law, to use as reference material when dealing with admiralty or maritime cases. English translations of the Rolls of Oléron were common in the 1500s, however not many manuscripts survive, making this quite an interesting discovery. In the 1600s the printed volumes spread, so I would guess it would be from the late 1500s or early 1600s. Furthermore, there are differences in each manuscript, especially in the addition of articles. This particular copy of the Rolls of Oléron has 47 articles which may help to establish a clearer date with further research. This small book seems to have travelled to different locations throughout England within its life, and would have certainly been a valuable resource to its owners.

Juliette Lichman, Project Digitisation Assistant

The multipage pdf of Leges Navales Oleronicae can be found here

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *