While shelving some books today I found a small volume (6 inches high) bound in brown leather with the spine title “Boke of Presidents 1555”. Wondering what the heck a 16th century book about presidents was about, it became clear upon opening it that I had an early English law book about precedents, and I was thrilled. I like books which were generated to assist readers in their every day living, and this guide to the laws governing business practices is a great example of an early self-help book. After a quick check of the Dictionary of National Biography in our reference collection, and a scan of the index of Holdsworth’s magisterial History of English Law in our Edwards Legal Collection, I discovered the following.
The compiler is Thomas Phayer (or Phaer, ca. 1510-1560), a lawyer, physician, and translator who was educated at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn. The book was intended as a guide to legal precedents for “every man to knowe.” In it was “comprehended the very trade of makyng all maner evydence and instrumentes of Practyse.”
According to Holdsworth it “was a comprehensive collection of all manner of documents, including, besides conveyances, bills and answers in Chancery, letters of safe conduct, and letters of testimony. With some eloquence and some truth the author sets forth the need which existed in his own day for such collections”:
“Every person that can wryte and reade and entendeth to have any thynge to do amonge the common weal must of very neede, for his owne advantage, applie his mind somewhat unto this kynd of learning . . . It shewith the makyng of those thynges, whereupon dependeth the welth and lyvynge of men, without which thynges there can no tylte lawfully be claymed, no landes nor houses purchased, no right recovered agaynste false usuerers, no sufficient testimonye of the actes of our ancestours, finally no man can be sure of his owne livelod without helpe of evidence which, as a trusty anker, holdeth the right of every man’s possessions safely and surely agaynst al troubles and stormye tempestes of injuries, not of men only, but of time also the consumer of al.”