Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

  • Monday, December 3, 2018 - 5:15pm to 7:00pm

Class of 1978 Pavilion in the Kislak Center, 6th Floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

We will be welcoming Mitch Fraas for a talk entitled: “Boilerplate: Legal Documents, Printing, and the Persistence of Form in English Law.” Mitch writes:

Every year, people across the world read the phrase “Know all men by these Presents” on deeds, contracts, and decrees. Moreover, these words in this exact formulation have been affixed to paper and parchment millions of times over the past four centuries in places as disparate as Singapore, Sheffield, Seattle, and Sierra Leone. Legal ‘boilerplate’ like this standard preamble has been printed/copied/written in mass quantities since the early modern period.  Prescribed texts and formulas are both vital in the workings of legal systems while at the same time completely forgettable in the minds of most readers. These formulas have persisted over decades and centuries precisely because they are rarely composed on the spot but instead are already present, typed, handwritten, printed, or stamped on all manner of documents and forms. Legal documents and the words they contain have real efficacy; similar to a magical incantation, words in a certain order in a writ might bring one success but getting just a single word out of place might scuttle well-laid plans. Print can help fix these forms and make them stable and trustworthy leading to a broader access to law as well as enabling a larger and ever more complex state bureaucracy. Yet, boilerplate in legal printing can be dangerous and misleading. This presentation explores the rise of print in the everyday functioning of law in the global English legal system, its place in fixing norms and practice across wide swaths of time, and the attempts of lawyers, judges, printers, and others to grapple with the wide-ranging consequences of fixed textual forms.

Mitch Fraas is Curator, Special Collections at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in history from Duke University and earned his bachelor's degree at Boston College. His published work examines law in colonial India, documentary forms, and the history of local legal processes. At Penn he works across the collections but with a special interest in books and manuscripts, 1600-1900 and is also co-editor of the journal Manuscript Studies. He is currently the Principal Investigator on a three-year grant to digitize the Islamic manuscripts held in Philadelphia as well as at Columbia University.

All are welcome! Those who do not hold University of Pennsylvania ID cards should bring another form of photo identification in order to enter the library building.


Sep. 17: Nicholas Herman (Penn): “The Book-Shaped Object in Renaissance Europe”

Sep. 24, 25, 27 - Rosenbach Lectures: Carlo Ginzburg (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa): Fossils, Apes, Humans: A Chapter in the History of Science, Revisited

- Sep. 24: “Paleontology and Connoisseurship”

- Sep. 25: “Gods, Humans, Apes: Art History and Evolution”

- Sep. 27: “Medals and Shells: On Morphology and History, Once Again”

Oct. 1: Whitney Trettien (Penn): “Digital Book History”

Oct. 8: Priyasha Mukhopadhyay (Yale): “Unread: A History of the Book in Colonial South Asia”

Oct. 15: J.M. Duffin (Penn): “Draining the Swamp of Arcane Legal Text: Reclaiming the Geography of Eighteenth Century Philadelphia”

Oct. 22: Katie Chenoweth (Princeton): “Printers’ Devices, or, How French Got Its Accents”

Oct. 29: Sarah Guérin (Penn): “On Ivory, Wax, and Paint: New Insights on Devotional Booklets”

Nov. 5: Margo Natalie Crawford (Penn): “The Textual Production of a Shared Black Edge

Nov. 12: David Norbrook (Oxford): “‘But a copie’: Lucy Hutchinson’s Life in her Texts”

Nov. 19: Samantha Sommers (Ohio State): “Reading in Books”

Nov. 26: Gary Dyer (Cleveland State): “John Hunt's Lord Byron"

Dec. 3: Mitch Fraas (Penn): “Boilerplate: Documentation, Paperwork, and the Persistence of Form across the Early Modern and Modern Worlds”

Dec. 10: Arthur Kiron (Penn): “Hidden in Plain Sight: Christian Readers of Rabbinic Literature in the Colonial Americas”