The Pritzker Legal Research Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law holds a significant rare book collection specializing in Roman, canon, and customary law. Its more than 8,000 volumes include several incunabula as well as first editions of legal classics. On paper, it’s a point of pride, but in reality, it’s a marvel.
Wandering through the rare book storage room, it’s easy to continually find new and surprising gems. And a gem is exactly what I found one day a couple years ago: a folio book covered in an ugly, modern-day library binding, its only captivating external feature the title stamped in gold capital letters: “GOD’S REVENGE AGAINST MURTHER.”
The title drew me in, and to my surprise, the book proved to be as intriguing as its cover was dull. It contained thirty stories that (allegedly) originated from all over continental Europe; they conveyed the (also allegedly) true tales of dastardly murders and the ways in which divine providence ensured the delivery of justice. If the stories themselves weren’t dramatic enough, each one was preceded by an engraved illustration that depicted the tales in small, unintentionally amusing vignettes. I set this book aside as inspiration for a future exhibit, and this year, my colleague, Tyne Lowe, and I brought it to life.
An Inquisition for Blood: Tales of Murder and Justice in John Reynolds’ The Triumphs of God’s Revenge launched in September 2021 as an online exhibit with a small physical teaser installed in our library. Under ordinary circumstances, the PLRC presents its exhibits in our third-floor gallery, and we originally dreamed of taking full advantage of this space. We discussed perhaps installing floor-to-ceiling panels of the book’s illustrations across the library’s walls and potentially displaying related materials from the collection. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic limited our access to the building, our plans had to change. Designing an immersive digital exhibit soon became our new goal.
While working from home, Tyne (acting as curator) and I met weekly via Zoom to plan and build the exhibit. We aimed to summarize each of the stories (no small task when the book in question is over 500 pages long), contextualize the book in early modern English history, and highlight the aspects that we thought would be most relevant to a community of law students and faculty. We split up the task of reading the book itself, which was a challenge during the quarantine; because we were unable to take home or fully digitize our copy of The Triumphs, we found a digital surrogate (via Internet Archive) to use instead. (Although this copy is an older edition than our library’s copy, Tyne compared many pages of text and determined that they were overwhelmingly similar.)
As we worked our way through The Triumphs and discovered relevant secondary sources, we gleaned countless details about crime, religion, gender dynamics, torture, and capital punishment that were completely ordinary in the author’s time but seemed quite shocking to us today. We enjoyed analyzing the copperplate engravings that we saw throughout the book, noting the narrative details that the illustrations chose to highlight (or ignore) while introducing us to the stories. Our meetings ran over their time allotments as we were fascinated by many more elements of The Triumphs than we could possibly fit into the exhibit itself.
On Thursday, October 28th, Tyne and I will be leading a virtual Zoom tour of the digital exhibit, offering behind-the-scenes details about the process of its development and sharing some aspects of The Triumphs that made it such a fascinating study. For more information, please send me an email at Brittany.Adams@law.northwestern.edu, and to explore the exhibit, please visit sites.northwestern.edu/murther.