Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Spectacular Copy of Cowell's Interpreter

Professor Daniel R. Coquillette recently donated to the library a very special copy of John Cowell's famously controversial law dictionary, The Interpreter. This copy is from the 1701 edition. It is a beautiful large folio volume which contains extensive annotations from an early owner, Samuel Burton, who inscribed the book in 1704. On the page shown here, Burton compiled a list of "Words omitted in this Law Dictionary." He also added chronological lists of England's Kings and Queens elsewhere in the volume. It is always wonderful to see how owners used their books and made them their own, and this is a stellar example.

This copy of The Interpreter joins several other editions already in our collection, including the first edition. Published in 1607, the first edition ignited a scandal and was banned by King James in 1610. Very briefly, Cowell got into trouble for several of his definitions, especially "King," "Parliament," "Prerogative," and "Subsidy." Cowell seemed to favor an absolute monarch who was above the common law. This infuriated Chief Justice Edward Coke and Parliament. Though he secretly agreed with Cowell's definitions, James tried to placate Coke and Parliament by suppressing the book. Though banned for a time, not all copies of the first edition were destroyed, and The Interpreter went on to be published in ten editions during the 17th and 18th centuries.

For much more on the controversy surrounding The Interpreter, see Frederick Hicks, Men and Books Famous in the Law (1921).

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