A Law Dictionary, or, The Interpreter of Words and Terms

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by John Cowell

Cowell's Interpreter

Title page from Cowell's Interpreter, George Wythe Collection, Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary.

Author John Cowell
Translator {{{trans}}}
Published In the Savoy: Printed by E. and R. Nutt, and R. Gosling (assigns of E. Sayer, Esq.) for J. Walthoe, [etc.], 1727.
Date 1727
Edition {{{edition}}}
Language English
Volumes {{{set}}} volume set
Pages 488 p.
Desc. Folio (33 cm.)
Location Shelf K-5
  [[Shelf {{{shelf2}}}]]

Cowell's more famous and controversial publication, The Interpreter (1607), was a law dictionary which provided definitions of English legal terms, while also giving similar terms from the civil law. The controversy arose from Cowell's definition of a few terms that reflected a theory of royal absolutism, which was at the time often associated with the civil law. Cowell defined a king as having absolute power above the law, with parliament serving the monarchy. The book caused an uproar in the parliament of 1610, which was marked by a general fear of royal absolutism. MPs complained that Cowell had drawn his arguments from the imperial laws of the Roman emperors and that his book ‘was to take away the power and authority of the parliament’ (Foster, 1966, 1.18). It also angered common lawyers, who objected to Cowell's defence of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical and admiralty courts. Sir Edward Coke, chief justice of the common pleas, who called Cowell ‘Dr Cowheel’, also resented his derogatory comments regarding Sir Thomas Littleton, whose work on tenures served as Coke's main authority for the first volume of his Institutes. The protests caused James I to summon Cowell before him in the privy council and suppress the book by proclamation, claiming that it was ‘in some points very derogatory to the supreme power of this crowne; in other cases mistaking the true state of the parliament of this kingdome … and speaking unreverently of the common law of England’ (J. F. Larkin and P. L. Hughes, eds., Stuart Royal Proclamations, 1973, 1.244). Although James was privately sympathetic to Cowell and agreed with most of his political ideas, he used his prerogative power to diffuse some of the fury in the Commons and to prevent any further discussion of the book. The Interpreter continued to cause controversy in the parliament of 1621. Despite its suppression, the book proved to have considerable utility and was reprinted eleven times during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Cowell was disgraced by the royal condemnation of his work and retired from public life, resigning as professor of civil law on 25 May 1611. [1]
First page of text.

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Quoted by George Wythe in his second argument for the plaintiff in Bolling v. Bolling:

Assets enter mains is when a man indebted makes executors, and leaves them sufficient to pay his debts and legacies, or some commodity or profit is come to them in right of their testator this is called asses in their hands. Cow. interp. Assets[2]

The Brown Bibliography[3] lists the 1672 edition, Nomothetes: The Interpreter, based on Thomas Jefferson's copy at the Library of Congress. Dean's Memo[4] includes the 1727 edition in the section devoted to books "representative of [Wythe's] time." Comparison of the two editions to the quotation in Bolling v. Bolling suggests that the 1727 edition may be correct as it includes the phrase "his debts and legacies" while the 1672 edition does not. The Wolf Law Library followed Dean's suggestion and purchased a copy of the 1727 edition.

Definition of "assets enter mayns".

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

Bound in modern quarter calf with gilt rule compartments on spine and gilt label on red morocco leather.

Images of the library's copy of this book are available on Flickr. View the record for this book in William & Mary's online catalog.

See also


  1. Brian P. Levack, ‘Cowell, John (1554–1611)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 5 June 2013
  2. George Wythe, "Second Argument for Plaintiff," reprinted in Bernard Schwartz, Barbara Wilcie Kern, R. B. Bernstein, eds., Thomas Jefferson and Bolling v. Bolling: Law and the Legal Profession in Pres-Revolutionary America (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library; New York: New York University School of Law, 1997), 311-312.
  3. Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433.
  4. Memorandum from Barbara C. Dean, Colonial Williamsburg Found., to Mrs. Stiverson, Colonial Williamsburg Found. (June 16, 1975), 14 (on file at Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary).