Timetable of World Legal History

28 Jan

As fragments of primitive animals have been kept for us sealed up in the earth’s rocks, so fragments of primitive institutions have been preserved, embedded in the rocks of surviving law or custom, mixed up with the rubbish of accumulated tradition, crystallized in the organization of still savage tribes, or kept curiously in the museum of fact and rumor swept together by some ancient historian.1

Some form of law, is always the foundation of even primitive institutions. Law, as it were, has travelled a long, long blood-stained path. From acts so barbaric that they defy belief, to a modern world where much if not most of the world population is exempt from the tyrannical Rule of Man system, and benefit from a transparent Rule of Law. This time-table looks at the significant steps in the ongoing evolution of law on our planet.

► See also the Law’s Hall of Fame

On the Origin of Law


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2350 BC: Urukagina’s Code

This code has never been discovered but it is mentioned in other documents as a consolidation of existing “ordinances” or laws laid down by Mesopotamian kings. An administrative reform document was discovered which showed that citizens were allowed to know why certain actions were punished. It was also harsh by modern standards. Thieves and adulteresses were to be stoned to death with stones inscribed with the name of their crime. The code confirmed that the “king was appointed by the gods”.

2050 BC: Ur-Nammu’s Code

The earliest known written legal code of which a copy has been found, albeit a copy in such poor shape that only five articles can be deciphered. Archaeological evidence shows that it was supported by an advanced legal system which included specialized judges, the giving of testimony under oath, the proper form of judicial decisions and the ability of the judges to order that damages be paid to a victim by the guilty party. The Code allowed for the dismissal of corrupt men, protection for the poor and a punishment system where the punishment is proportionate to the crime. Although it is called “Ur-Nammu’s Code, historians generally agree that it was written by his son Shugli.

1850 BC: The Earliest Known Legal Decision

A clay tablet reveals the case, in 1850BC, of the murder of a temple employee by three men. The victim’s wife knew of the murder but remained silent. Eventually, the crime came to light and the men and woman were charged with murder. Nine witnesses testified against the men and woman and asked for the death penalty for all four. But the wife had two witnesses which told the court that she had been abused by her husband, that she was not part of the murder and that she was even worse off after her husband’s death. The men were executed in front of the victim’s house but the woman was spared.

621 BC: Draco’s Law

This Greek citizen was chosen to write a code of law for Athens (Greece). The penalty for many offences was death; so severe, that the word “draconian” comes from his name and has come to mean, in the English language, an unreasonably harsh law. His laws were the first written laws of Greece. These laws introduced the state’s exclusive role in punishing persons accused of crime, instead of relying on private justice. The citizens adored Draco and upon entering an auditorium one day to attend a reception in his honour, the citizens of Athens showered him with their hats and cloaks as was their customary way to show appreciation. By the time they dug him out from under the clothing, he had been smothered to death.

399BC: The Trial of Socrates

Socrates was an Athenian philosopher. Socrates was not religious and preached logic. When Athens lost the Peloponesian Wars, conservative Athenians looked for a scapegoat. Three citizens brought an accusation against the 70-year old popular philosopher for allegedly corrupting the youth and for not believing in the gods. He was tried before a jury of 501 citizens that found him guilty on a vote of 281-220. When asked to speak on the proposed sentence, Socrates mocked the jurors and they replied, 361-140, with a sentence of death. Socrates’ promoted “conscience” and his death increased interest in his life and teachings.

600: The Laws of Aethelbert (England)

The first laws believed to be written down in England were those of the Saxon (German) invader of Kent, King Aethelbert. The Germans tribes had occupied parts of England since the Romans retreated in about 410. Warren Lehman, in a 1985 paper published in the Journal of Legal History wrote:

"The first laws were probably set down between 600 and 615 in the kingdom of Kent on the southeast tip of England towards the end of the long reign of Aethelbert I. The people for whom Aethelbert and his counsellors wrote what he called domas or dooms - we might say judgments - had been tribesmen not long before.

"Law-writing made sense but not necessarily in Roman terms. The borrowed idea of law, I suggest, was radically altered to suit the needs and tastes of the borrowers."

700: Fingerprinting Is Invented

Fingerprinting was in use by this time in China as a means of identifying people.

1692: The Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, USA, a group of young women accused several other women of practising witchcraft or worship of the Devil. The accusations turned into a judicial frenzy and over 300 people were accused of witchcraft, of which 20 were executed including a priest. The extremity of the penalty turned many against the prosecution of witchcraft. There would be no more witchcraft trials in New England.

1787: The Constitution of the United States of America

The 7 articles of the American Constitution were signed in Philadelphia in 1787 and formed the basis of the first republican government in the world. The Constitution defined the institutions of government and the powers of each institution, carefully carving out the duties of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The Constitution also declared that it was paramount to any other law, whether federal or state, and it would override any other inconsistent law. The American Constitution served as a model for the constitutions of many nations upon attaining independence or becoming democracies.

1788: Through the Operation of Penal Law, A Country Is Formed

Sydney was the site of the first British settlement on Australia, which had been designated as a prime location as a British penal colony. For fifty years, Britain sent its worst men, who were quickly chained into work gangs and put to building roads and bridges. By 1821, there were 30,000 British settlers in the British commonwealth, of which 75% were convicts.

1791: The American Bill of Rights

1791 US Bill of Rights postage stampWith the ink barely dry on the Constitution (signed only four years earlier), American statesmen amended their supreme law by declaring the rights of free speech, freedom of the press and of religion, a right to trial by one’s peers (jury), and protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” or unreasonable searches or seizures. The ten amendments of Bill of Rights became known as the First to Tenth Amendment(s) respectively. The Bill of Rights influenced many modern charters or bills of rights around the world.

1803: Marbury versus Madison

In this case (at 5 US 137), the Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of the Constitution and stated unequivocally that it had the power to strike down actions taken by American federal or state legislative bodies which, in its opinion, offended the Constitution.

This has come to be known as the power of “judicial review”.

This case is considered by the legal profession to be the most important milestone in the history of American law since the Constitution.

As of August 2007, the case was available from usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/9.htm.

1945-46: The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial

A special panel of eight judges convened in this German town to try Nazi officers for crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during World War II. The judges came from the USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Twenty-four Nazis were tried and twelve received death penalties (although one defendant, Hermann Göring, committed suicide hours before his execution). This trial was important as it showed that even in times of war, basic moral standards apply in spite of military law principles which oblige a subordinate officer to obey orders. “The true test,” wrote the Tribunal, “is not the existence of the (superior) order but whether moral choice (in executing it) was in fact possible”. The crimes included torture, deportation, persecution and mass extermination.


  • Lehman, Warren W., “The First English Law”, The Journal of Legal History, Volume 6, May 1985, Number 1, Pages 1-32.
  • NOTE 1: Wilson, Woodrow, The State (New York: D. C. Heath & Co., Publishers, 1918), page 1

Published: Friday, October 20, 2006
Last updated: Saturday, May 3, 2014


The LAW’s Hall of Horror

The bloody history of torture in the name of punishment for crime is the greatest stain on the history of justice and law within the human civilization.

The legal history of England, Canada, the United States of America, Australia and, for that matter, virtually all members of the United Nations, is full of examples of awful punishment inflicted on those found guilty of crime.

Today, cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by most modern democracies. Even infliction of the death penalty is done as humanely, painlessly and as quickly as possible. Torture is widely prohibited.

Orthodox Islam

MuhammadThere are, of course, exceptions to this, many inspired by a rigid adherence to some ancient religupoius trext such as the ancient Islamic penal code, based on the teachings of Muhammad (pictured), or its interpretation by some states, including a grossly disproportionate infliction upon women or the poor.

One one-time translation of Iran’s penal code, which seem to disappear from the Internet as fast as they are posted, appears to be as follows (for a conviction of adultery):

Members of the police or prison guards must initially dig the location for execution of the verdict …. and prepare some amount of stones (rocks) of specified sizes… The executing judge will initially inspect the preparations and, upon satisfactory inspection, he will order the execution to proceed.

“The verdict will be executed by the order of the executing judge, unless the charge of fornication of the convict is proved by statements of the witnesses, and witnesses have run away at the time of stoning or, if fornication is proved by confession of the accused, but (s)he can manage to escape from the hole in ground in which (s)he was buried. In these two cases the verdict will not be executed and the execution judge will issue the order to suspend the verdict.”

In Saudi Arabia, circa 2013, executions are still public affairs where spectators get into a frenzy while a sharp blade is brought down onto a convict’s neck. Hand are chopped off thieves and caning is a public and painful sentence. Worse, as this May 21, 2013 treport from Amnesty International:

“Saudi Arabia must halt a “disturbing” rise in death penalty usage that has resulted in at least 47 state killings in the country already this year, Amnesty International urged after six more people were executed today. Five Yemeni men were beheaded and crucified this morning in the city of Jizan, while a Saudi Arabian man was executed in the south-western city of Abha.”

The Now and Then

Of course, one could argue that the implementation of the death penalty in American states such as portrayed in the film Dead Man Walking, and complete with cheering crowds at the prison gates, is not that far off from the scenes in Riyadh. If anything, it shows how dangerously close we still are to our past lives of legal horror.

In the not-so-distant past of those nations which have derived their law from Europe, lurk horrible punishments, neither fiction nor fancy, but inflicted on human beings, the pain, execution and mutilation often the subject of public derision or, worse, cheer.

We are not exaggerating. What follows is not for the faint of heart. We present it not to shock or offend and we apologize if we do; but to educate the world on legal history and to show where we have come from in the hope that we may better be able to understand that the society that we have today is not the result of chance but of hard-fought development, sometimes through revolution, of the law and its punishments. We should never forget from whence we came and the legal changes for which our forefathers, fought and, in some cases, paid for with their lives.

Ironically, it is law such as those constitutional which today stand to protect us from tyranny and despotic government the kind which fosters and promotes inhumane torture as a form of punishment.

If any defence is to be made of the barbaric practices of the law’s past it is that medieval society needed a justice system that inspired fear. “Government cannot exist,” once argued a British Attorney-General in defending the pillory, “unless offences are presented to a court of justice (and) the full measure of punishment is inflicted upon them. Let us preserve the restraint against licentiousness.”

Capital punishment itself is as old as humanity. The Babylons, Hammurabi, decreed the death penalty for crimes as minor as the fraudulent sale of beer. Egyptians were killed as punishment for disclosing sacred burial places.

The Romans inflicted capital punishment by pushing the accused from a high cliff. Crucifixion, such as that inflicted on Jesus Christ, was another popular form of punishment. The idea was to nail the convict to the cross and to let them die slowly, from asphyxiation, shock and heart failure.


crucifixionIn case you wanted to know: "crucifixion suspends the victim by the arms (specifically, the transfixed wrists) with the body weight not only disjointing the limbs and causing intense and extreme agony by the stretching and tearing of ligamentatious and other connective tissues, but mainly from shock, secondary to two etiologies:

  • First, asphyxiation: the chest cavity is over-expanded and the victim, while able to inspire, cannot expire the breath. Second, cardiac tamponade: fluid builds up in the pulmonary loop, increasing back-pressure on the right side of the heart; fluids build up in the pericardial sac, leading to their own complications.
  • A second killer is shock secondary to the pain levels encountered. If the feet are nailed, either a vertical presentation from superior to inferior through the arches of the foot, this pain alone is intense and agonizing, sufficient to cause brief unconsciousness and certainly more than enough to cause neurogenic shock; then when the victim is placed in an upright position and they have to straighten the legs to relieve the suffocation due to suspension by the nailed wrists, this brings the weight of the body on the small surface area supported by the nail, bringing agony to an all time high.

"The ankles were sometimes nailed instead of the arches of the feet; the lower body was turned so the knees pointed to the left, or the right, and were bent at about 90 degrees; generally a single very large nail was driven through the ankles, most commonly anterior to the tendon Achillis, with the same results.

"Victims would commonly sweat blood -- literally -- from the level of pain; as cellular autolysis occurred, exsanguination occurred through the pores of the skin."

The Romans dealt with those guilty of parricide in a unique fashion. There, the convict was sewn up into a leather sack with an animal and thrown out to sea (animal was included so that, in its attempts to escape, the criminal would be torn apart by its claws. For this reason, a dog, cat or chicken was preferred). The penalty for declaring bankruptcy was slavery or being cut to pieces; the option being with the creditor.

Middle Ages

There was no letup during the Middle Ages, where convicts were crushed under heavy stones or burned at the stake. Between the years 1500 and 1550 alone, over 70,000 state executions were carried out in England alone. As late as 1780, the British criminal law contained over 350 offences for which the punishment was death.

pillory1870 marked the end of the last vestige of barbaric punishment in England. At that time, the time-honoured punishment of being drawn and quartered was struck from the law books as the government’s response to treason. Following conviction on the charge of treason, it was ordered that the prisoner be hanged from the neck and then cut down alive. His stomach was cut open and his intestines were pulled out and burned before his eyes, while he was still alive. Then his head was cut off and his body cut into four pieces. It was a custom to stick the heads of the dead on posts as a reminder and deterrent to others that may be inclined towards crime.

On eye-witness wrote, in October 13, 1660, that he:

“… went out to Charing Cross to see Major Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered, which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.”

The English law treated women differently for treason. They were burned alive.

Another English punishment, which prevailed during the reign of Henry VIII, was being boiled alive.

It is difficult to imagine a more barbaric form of “punishment” than abbacinare, which involves the burning of the eyes by red hot iron.

French law was no better. Burning at the stake was common. In carrying out the official court sentence of the assassin of Henri IV, the murderer’s skin was torn off his chest, arms and legs with red hot pincers. The arm with which he had killed the King was burnt off and molten lead was poured onto the wounds. Finally, his body was torn apart by a team of four horses.

The pillory was a device that was used for hundreds of years. With it, a prisoner’s head and limbs were pinned between planks of wood in the middle of the town square. Passers-by were invited to assault the prisoner or to throw things at the prisoner’s head. One lady, in 1732, was convicted of inciting another to poison a man. She was sentenced to two days in the pillory. She barely survived the first day. She was pelted with eggs and other projectiles. On the second day, the guards found it difficult to get her head through the opening and, removing her head-dress, they found she had fashioned a concealed bowl to shield her skull. They removed it but it incited the crowd even more. According to eyewitnesses, she was pelted until her head bled profusely and only then did the crowd subside. She survived.

Conviction of a charge of forgery meant that a person had his ears cut off and his nostrils slit while in the pillory. The pillory was finally abolished in 1837.

The British had a special punishment for those who refused to plead one way or another in the face of a felony charge. Their bodies were pressed by great weights until they either agreed to plead or they died.

The penalty was recognized in the law books of the time and was called peine forte et dure. The prisoner was laid on the floor naked and his hands and feet were tied up and stretched in opposite directions, towards the four corners of the room. A board was laid on his chest. On the board, weights were laid. More weight was added “till he die or answer“. This form of punishment lasted from 1406 to 1772.

The Public Square

Time, that soft but perpetually-moving machine creating space between today and the past, makes these events seem like just curiosities of legal history. But for those that follow this sort of thing, hall of horrors in the name of law and justice reach beyond the local law library and in some places, are matters of the public square.


  • Sources included Legal Lore: Curiosities of Law and Lawyers, William Andrews, Fred B. Rothman & Co., Littleton, Colorado, 1982; retired paramedic, W. K., Chauncey, Ohio and S. Holloway of the UK.
  • Painting of Muhammad of Byzantine origin; and that of the crucifixion is of the painting of the same name at the Louvre by Andrea Mantegna.

Published: Friday, October 20, 2006
Last updated: Sunday, August 4, 2013


1533 – A Trial Ends the Empire of the Incas

Atahualpa was … charged with abiding with un-Roman Catholic law such as incest (the Sapa Inca could only marry their sisters) and adultery which was also expected of the Sapa Inca.

The official translator was an individual known as Felipillo, who disliked Atahualpa, and apparently took many opportunities to twist his answers against him. The small jury was comprised of Pizarro and other Spanish men that reported to him.

Goes Around Comes Around

What should also be mentioned is that the Inca Empire generally, and Atahualpa specifically, were no strangers to injustices. Atahualpa had ordered the drowning of his own brother Huascar. During the civil war he waged with Huascar, which he ultimately won, there are several instances of absolutely horrific massacres of civilian populations, all under Atahualpa’s command.

Atahualpa was succeeded by his nephew Tupac Huallpa, but Huallpa was but a puppet Sapa Inca for the Spaniards

In 1543, a silver mine was found at Potosi that was so rich, that it subsidized the Spanish state for over a century.

When the sudden affluence of the Spanish court manifested itself to the rest of Europe, there appeared all along the coast of South America, ships bearing different European flags



The Aztecs differed little from the Europeans in dishing our barbaric punishments except that they articulated an incremental level of punishments for errant children including forcing the child to inhale the smoke of burning chili.

Torture was used to “facilitate” confessions.

The Aztecs also severely punished public drunkenness except for those who were over 70; they could drink all they wished!

The Aztecs celebrated polygamy and another unique form of marriage, termed conditional marriage, which lasted only until a male child was born. The unconditional marriage lasted until death or divorce, the latter only allowed by the court if reconciliation attempts were fruitless. The father took custody of the son(s), if any, in the event of a separation, the mother, the daughter(s).

Murder was punishable by death regardless of the circumstances unless the family of the dead forgave the perpetrator, in which case the murderer became the permanent slave of the victim’s family.

Theft or possession of stolen goods usually led to a sentence of strangulation.

Adultery was punishable by death, usually stoning. Many a noble was executed for adultery.

Son(s) inherited all, leaving nothing to the wives and daughters although wills were allowed and enforced.

The Aztecs were renowned for human sacrifice. At the consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, by the then-emperor Ahuitzol, Aztec records proudly assert that 84,400 prisoners were sacrificed over the course of four days, with the priests working around the clock,  although some experts suggest that number would of been improbable since it would mean a rate of almost 15 “open heart surgeries” a minute. Small consolation to the captured soldier: to be the subject of human sacrifice was considered an honorable death.

When Spanish soldiers first entered the Aztec capital, the civilization was at its apex. One of the Spaniards, Bernal Diaz, who saw the Aztecs palaces and zoos, later wrote of that moment:

"When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water ... and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. These great towns and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision....

"Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream."

The Mayans believed that their fate was controlled by the gods and that those gods could be appeased by blood-letting. They contrived a series of devices to essentially torture the blood-letter. The Mayans did not just bleed others; they routinely pierced themselves. One practice was to pierce the penis with a thorn and bleed it.

The reach of the Mayans gradually receded into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula



Let’s Kill All The Lawyers

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

These famous words, uttered by a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI (Henry VI lived from 1421-1471), are spoken as a whimsical but deadly true strategy to eliminate impediments to a successful rebellion.

Indeed, even by the 14th Century, lawyers had become important beacons of order in society – a status which soon brought mortal danger.


In June of 1381, the peasants of England revolted in a violent protest against more taxes. When the occasional tax collector was killed, the rich nobles sent in teams of lawyers backed-up by the nobles’ protégés: knights and other medieval warriors. A quick beheading and the roving group of law officers moved onto the next town.

Before long, lawyers and judges – in England and France – became associated with the enforcement of despised and irrepressible taxation.

A 1381 English tax was imposed on anyone over fifteen and was raised to finance a military expedition to Spain. For the English peasants, called “villeins”, this tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A legal system which they saw enforced and championed by lawyers and judges, held them in subject to their land-lords and a comprehensive absence of substantial legal rights.

In an article called The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Kim Milone wrote:

“Life for the revolutionary peasants was structured by feudal ties and obligations. The villein was tied to the soil until he could buy his freedom. He lived in a wattle and daub hut with his family and animals on a floor of mud. Work began at dawn on his few (often separated) strips of land; he was obligated to work on his lord’s land three days a week, tend and shear his sheep, feed his swine, and sow and reap his crops. Even the peasant’s private family life was regulated. Villeins (could) not marry their daughters … without the personal approval of the bailiff. The reeve, a village official ostensibly elected by the people, usually sided with his superiors instead of administering true justice for the peasant.”

The villeins saw the law as their enemy.

John BallAdding fuel to fire, by the time of the Peasant’s Revolt, the hated Statute of Labourers had been in place for 30 years. That 1351 law prevented the peasants from taking advantage of supply and demand in the aftermath of the Black Death, by freezing wages and forcing peasants to accept whatever work their landlord gave them.

The two-tiered medieval justice system is well-exemplified by an event documented in the life of King Sigismund of Hungary who visited Paris in the 1387. He made a courtesy appearance in the gallery of the courts of justice and observed one man lose a case merely because of the stated reason that the defendant was a knight and the plaintiff not. The Hungarian King astonished onlookers and registered his objection to the kangaroo court by interrupting the proceedings and calling the plaintiff to him, whereupon, exercising his royal powers, he knighted the startled Frenchman on the spot.

When the taxation returns were counted in England, the initiative had fallen short so the collectors were sent out again, to again knock on doors to take inventory and collect.

Villages in Essex revolted first.

When judge John Belknap tried to reason with the peasants, he was chased out of Brentwood while, by some reports, two of his officers were killed.

The mob moved Kent, under the haphazard leadership of Wat Tyler – a decorated veteran of the wars against France (especially the historic victory at Poithiers in 1356, when the French King had been made prisoner).

The villeins seized the town of Canterbury and freed their imprisoned ideological leader, the controversial priest John Ball (pictured).

According to one translation of the Latin Historia Anglicana, a history written by Benedictine monk Thomas Walsingham, a contemporary of the period, Ball reportedly preached:

“When Adam dalf, and Eve span, who was thanne a gentilman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.

Ball then urged the peasants to

“… uprooting the tares that are accustomed to destroy the grain; first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in future.”

Moving towards London, the rioters aimed their fury at institutions and those who personify the law, opening prisons, and destroying any place holding judicial records.

As Milone wrote:

“This is significant because these documents registered the rights of the serfs and tenants as well as obligations.”

Some unlucky landlords were found and quickly beheaded.

From Essex to London, eventually numbering 20,000-50,000 (estimates vary), the discontents vented their anger on the homes of lawyers, judges and sheriffs and – if they could find them – the lawyers themselves.

In A Distant Mirror, author Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Every attorney’s house on the line of march reportedly was destroyed.”

In London, the King had no standing militia or police as John Ball and Wat Tyler called upon the mob to “exterminate all great lords, judges and lawyers and gain for all men equal freedom, rank and power.”

On June 13th, a number of lawyers were captured and killed in the Temple (London), the “center of the law with all its deeds and records”, all also destroyed.

When the 14-year old Richard II heard their demands, on June 14, he was asked to eliminate taxes and all “bonds of servile status”.

He agreed to it all, issuing and signing the relevant charters, while nearby but then unknown to the King, further nobles were killed by a stray group of peasants.Death of Wat Tyler

But upon hearing their King agree with them, the larger group of peasants started to disband and drift out of London, returning to their homes.

At a meeting between Tyler and the King, the rebel was killed by the Mayor of London and the son of the chief justice(pictured) after showing insolence to the boy-king (by drinking beer in front of him). Some say that the red knife in the present coat of arms of London represents this deed.

Word of Tyler’s death reached some retreating rebel leaders who regrouped and exacted revenge on the chief justice. The Honourable John Cavendish who was found, lynched and beheaded on June 15.

In the background, Richard II and his councilors secretly amassed troops and in July, he convened a Parliament which promptly cancelled all the King’spromises. The lawyers – what was left of them – had the last laugh as they dusted off what was left of their law books and raised the doctrine of duress. The King’s charters were cancelled on the very valid grounds that they had been made under duress.

The hunt was on for the insurgents, with 2,000 killed in a battle at Norsey Wood, near Billericay in Essex.

John Ball was quickly tried and found guilty of treason. He was hung, drawn and quartered on July 15, 1381 in the presence of Richard II.

Before long, the legal revolt was completely suppressed to the regular tone of the executioner’s bell, and with all peasant gains erased. When one group from Essex later meekly approached him about his promises, Richard II dismissed them with the famous remark: “villeins ye are, villeins ye shall remain”.


Before a year had passed, France, England’s neighbour and with whom it was in the midst of a Hundred Year War, would have its own revolt with lawyers front and center on the Most Wanted list.

It, too, began with a tax – this one on wine and salt – and this too to finance a military expedition (to Italy).

Riots broke out in large towns. In Paris, peasants broke the law by refusing access to tax-collectors who ought to appraise property for the purpose of setting taxes.

The French uprising escalated in Rouen in February of 1382 where some Royal officials and tax collectors were killed in protest. Buildings holding legal records were broken into and all legal documents burned.

Then, the uprising escalated in Paris. Lawyers and notaries were hunted down and official record and legal documents were searched for and destroyed. The Chatelet prison was stormed and prisoners released.

In 1782, France, too, had a young king, Charles VI also 14 at the time. He and his regent opted for negotiation with the rioters but their insincerity discovered when they had tried to issue a void agreement, sealed in red wax and on parchment, instead of the King’s official green seal on silk.

The uprising gained mass appeal and culminated in a battle on November 29, 1382, where the peasants were routed as the nobles used armour to great advantage against the makeshift weaponry of the peasants.

To punish Courtrai (now in Belgium), a town sympathetic to the rebellion and unfortunately close to the battlefield, the cathedral clock was removed and taken to Dijon where it still is, and Courtrai razed. The French army next retook Paris and quelled the rebellion and continued with the repression of the common people.

It would be four hundred years before the descendants of the failed uprising would take the Bastille but the great lawyer hunt was over.

Research and Further Reading

  • Milone, Kim, The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, New Orleans, LA: Loyola University, The Student Historical Journal, Volume 18, 1987.
  • Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 372-383.


1740 | Slave Code of South Carolina

Editorial Introduction: Viewed through the looking glass of contemporary law as reflected in free and democratic societies, the 1740 Slave Code of South Carolina is most certainly an abomination. It is a stain upon British and American legal history - South Carolina was a subject Province (aka colony) of "Her Majesty" in 1740. But then, few if any countries have perfect historical records regards to slavery.

This law reflected the reality that pursuant to property law as then in vogue, negro slaves were the chattel of their owners to do with as they liked; really, except for speech, no different from a pig or a horse. This code of law is striking in its horrific detail which confirms the pathetic status of fellow human beings, the slave.

To some extent, it was a reaction to a slave riot that had occurred in September 9, 1739 near the Stono River (see §56), especially as news had reached South Carolina slaves that the Spanish masters in present-day Florida was not only liberating slaves that could reach their but was also giving them land (see §47). The Governor, William Bull (see his signature after §58) just barely escaped with his life in the accident we came across the 50-some mob of armed slaves. The "white" got together a posse of some 100 strong and in the result, by some accounts, every single slave was shot dead captured and executed. Even those few that escaped were eventually hunted down.

colony of South Carolina circaThe Slave Code was quickly passed and became known as the Negro Act. It remained in full force until 1865. Technically,  it was an amendment to a 1712 slave law but which was mostly ignored.  South Carolina was only one of many  American colonies to confirm the status as chattel of African-American slaves  especially to ban interracial marriages.

South Carolina's Negro Act certainly went a step further.

We have taken the liberty of highlightingcertain parts of the law for the convenience of readers who might be looking for the more egregious sections, recognizing and apologizing for the fact that this is somewhat of a subjective exercise.

In order to properly understand where we have come from as a civilization, which is an essential requirement to better prepare our future and guard against the repetition of past errors, a thorough reading of this document is well worth the time in spite of the great sadness and, for "whites", the humiliation it evokes. We've also reverse-engineered the original to add article numbering at natural breaks in the original text (which was not numbered).

Given the length, the Code is presented in eleven web pages: page 1 (§1-2), page 2 (§3-7), page 3 (§8-12), page 4 (§13-19), page 5 (§20-24), page 6 (§25-28), page 7 (§29-33), page 8 (§34-37), page 9 (§38-43), page 10 (§44-49) and page 11 (§50-58).





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