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This Day in Legal History -- John Selden

On this day in 1584 noted English jurist and intellectual John Selden was born. In his day-- and for a long time afterward-- Selden was considered by none other than John Milton as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land.” What did John Selden do and why does his name sound vaguely familiar?

Selden, after much education, was called to the bar in 1612. “At bar he enjoyed a high reputation as a giver of opinions, and was called in in cases requiring special learning. But a large legal practice was not the sum of his ambition, nor was contented to be a mere lawyer.” In fact Selden pursued other careers; that of intellectual and as a Member of Parliament. In 1614 he wrote the book Titles of Honor which concerned itself with the history of titles, “. . .the rotes and insignia of appropriate to each, of the ceremonies of investiture, and so on.” He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1621 and served off and on for many years. These were turbulent times; Selden served during the time of the English Civil War and got himself in trouble with the king’s party several times, including his assisting in the drafting of the Petition of Right (which landed him in the Tower) and for writing the book History of Tithes which landed him in trouble with the clergy and for which he was required to recant.

Selden, however, believed most in fairness, and wrote a famous piece that was dedicated to his king. In his Mare Clausum he argued against Grotius famous treatise Mare Liberum. Where Grotius argued for freedom of the seas, Selden argued against it. While Selden is also famous for doing research on Jewish law and custom, he is perhaps best known for his book titled Table Talk. This is an interesting book covering many topics, some in great detail, others in a few sentences.

Now, you may ask, why does the name of this now obscure 17th Century intellectual sound familiar? Selden's name sounds familiar because the Selden Society is named after him. The Selden Society is a “learned society” devoted to “researching the history of everything which is characteristic of our unique English common law and legal system.” The Selden Society was founded in 1887 by Frederic William Maitland a famous English legal historian. The Selden Society publishes original materials that have often never before been printed. They bring together law reports, judges’ records, legal treatises, and compilations of documents never before brought together. Many major libraries are members, but the bulk of the membership consists of individual lawyers and historians who are interested in English legal history. John Selden may be dead, but his name lives on.

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