GW undergraduate students enrolled in the freshman writing course Art in the Age of Shakespeare visited the Law Library on November 15 to see law books printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and to view the exhibition The Duel in History: Laws, “Codes,” and Censure.

As part of a final project, the seventeen students are preparing their Shakespeare Exhibition Proposals – virtual exhibitions using ten rare books and/or artworks from library and museum collections in Washington, D.C.  Students may choose books from the Law Library’s Special Collections to use in their virtual exhibitions.

In the Rare Book Room, the students saw a display of materials representing some of the legal issues which during Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) occupied the minds of lawyers and officials in Elizabethan-Jacobean England: the laws of the forest, legal responses to charges of witchcraft, laws promulgated against dueling, and early practitioner materials.

These rare materials found a ready audience with the students, who asked perceptive questions and quickly began drawing connections between the books and their current work. As student Connor Christopher remarked, “I was able to see a dazzling and unique exhibition depicting the history of duels, which was both beautifully constructed and fascinating to admire.  Not only this, but we were also able to gain insightful knowledge about many topics, ranging from forest law to the history of witchcraft, through examining the library’s collection of rare books…the Malleus Maleficarum, arguably the best known and most thorough treatise on witchcraft, was especially exciting to see as it relates to my own research.”

Student using rare books

GW student Helen Geddes follows up her class session with a closer look at some witchcraft materials.

Witchcraft was high on the list for other students, including Helen Geddes, who explained that this semester she has been researching witchcraft vis-à-vis Shakespeare and Macbeth.  “While at the Jacob Burns Law Library, being able to see books that are so influential to the topic of English witchcraft not only elevated my research, but opened my eyes to the historical context of the topic I have been researching.  Being able to interact with the rare books which are essential in understanding early English witchcraft like the Malleus Maleficarum and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft was an experience and privilege I am so grateful for.”

Books displayed for the class included two editions of the Malleus Maleficarum (an incunable edition printed between 1495 and 1500, and a 1614 edition); a first edition of Manwood’s Lawes of the Forest (1598), James I’s edict against dueling (1614), and a first edition of Coke’s A Booke of Entries (1614).

The Duel in History: Laws, “Codes,” and Censure is on exhibit until January 2020, on the first floor of the Law Library.  Concurrently, in A Legal Miscellanea, “The Duel: A Look Back at a Once-Legal Way of Resolving Disputes” appears at

Post authored by Jennie Meade, Director of Special Collections