The First English Legal History
John Selden. Jani Anglorum Facies Altera and England’s Epinomis. In Tracts Written by John Selden of the Inner-Temple, Esquire. London: Printed for Thomas Basset and Richard Chiswell, 1683.
Learning: “Most mens learning is nothing but History duely taken upp. If I quote Tho : Aquinas for some Tenet, & believe it, because the school-men say soe, that’s but History : few men make themselves masters of the things they write or speake.” Table-Talk.
Selden is generally regarded as England’s first legal historian—what his contemporaries had been content to consider history, Selden dismissed as fable. Influenced by the humanist movement spilling over from the Continent, Selden investigated the past to inform his understanding of the present. He consulted contemporary primary sources and read them closely, exemplifying the shift from medieval antiquarianism to a more modern approach to history. Selden himself termed this “synchronism.” Selden’s more rigorous approach is evident in even his earliest writings.
The title page shown here represents a collection of four works by Selden bound as a single volume, a space saving technique common to publishers of the era. While titles bound together occasionally have little in common, two of these are complimentary: Jani Anglorum Facies Altera (The Back-face of the English Janus) and England’s Epinomis, an allusion to a dialogue in the style of Plato. In addition to being among the first works of Selden’s career, they are also notable for being among his first efforts as a historian. Jani Anglorum was published shortly after completion in 1610, yet unaccountably England’s Epinomis was not published until 1681, well after his death. While both discuss early English governance and laws, it is Jani Anglorum that first offered Selden’s vision of the English constitution as a mixed monarchy. For Selden, this meant a state with shared sovereignty between monarch, nobles, clergy, and freemen—a provocative position to the absolutist Stuart kings.