The Chronscast Talks -- the Law and History

The Judge

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As I hope most members now know, I'm doing some talks relating to the law for the Chrons Official Podcast. As well as legal matters which we need to be aware of when we're writing (eg copyright), I'll also be looking at topics with legal ramifications which we can explore in our stories. Since for many of these I'll be referring to relevant laws in past centuries, it occurred to me a thread here giving very brief summaries and/or links might be of interest to the historically-minded amongst us.

The first of these history-linked talks went out in Episode 2 last week and deals with food and the law: Chronscast Season 1 Episode 2 - Klara And The Sun with Jo Zebedee

Some of the points I touch on:
  • sumptuary laws existed for food as well as clothing – laws regulating excess/expense emerged in medieval Europe eg in 1517 to maintain nuances of rank in England when restrictions were imposed on the number of dishes at a meal
  • there’s a long history of consumer protection (or, rather perhaps, protection of markets and trade) eg the Babylonian death penalty for watering down beer
  • the English legislated with Bread Assizes from the C13th, initially fixing the price of bread, then later also the quality
  • medieval guilds ensured quality control among their members eg the Bakers’ Guild ordained penalties for malpractice such as short weight
  • ale-tasters of the C15th were among the first English food inspectors
  • expensive spices were frequently adulterated and/or counterfeited eg saffron, leading to harsh penalties on the continent, eg offenders buried alive with their fraudulent products
  • the 1724 Adulteration of Tea and Coffee Act started the slow process of true consumer protection in Britain
  • in 1820 Frederick Accum wrote a treatise on the types of adulteration and how to detect them
  • countless Victorian food stuffs were adulterated eg strychnine in rum and beer, leading to deaths, eg in 1858 after humbugs were adulterated with arsenic

Some links which may be of interest:

https://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/articles/pdf/bread_assizes.pdf – transcripts of some medieval documents about bread with commentary and explanation

https://www.jstor.org/stable/26654178?read-now=1&seq=4#page_scan_tab_contents – a paper on the history of the adulteration of food (it’s necessary to register with jstor to see the whole article, but I think it’s free to do so)

The Bakers Company - History – the history of the Worshipful Company of Bakers and its Court of Halimote

Tudor dining: a guide to food and status in the 16th century – a general article about Tudor food

History of Food Law: The 19th Century | Artisan Food Law – the site deals with food law generally, including a time line, but this page gives detail of the horrific adulterants in Victorian Britain

The fight against food adulteration – a science-based article about Accum and later campaigners

Food Fraud History - Alimenti – a brief note on the humbug case and some modern scandals
 

Christine Wheelwright

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I wondered if the harsh Babylonian beer watering penalty was health related (beer perhaps being more sanitary than water from the nearest well, due to the brewing process). But on further research it seems that they were simply trying to prevent cheating. The actual law says:

"If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept grain according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the grain, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water."

I wonder if all tavern keepers were women, or did they think it was ok for men to be cheats?
 

sknox

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Thanks for doing this!

As I'm sure you know, pretty much every trade has its own history. The legal angle is pretty reliable simply because that's a form of documentation that survives. Much tougher to get at things like techniques of needle makers or suchlike. Anyway, you could do a lifetime of podcasts just going one trade at a time. Some, like clothing, would require multiple episodes.
 

The Judge

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The fourth episode of the Chrons Official Podcast went up last week, with another of my talks on topics with legal ramifications which we can explore in our stories. This time around I delved into the history of defamation in England. Chronscast Season 1 Episode 4 - Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser in Swords And Deviltry with Stephen Cox

Some points I touch on:
  • legal remedies for slander have long roots – Roman law allowed for civil actions, and Germanic tribes allowed for monetary penalties eg three shillings for calling a man a “wolf”, and under Alfred the Great a slanderer might have his tongue cut out
  • church courts had jurisdiction over slander where monetary compensation wasn’t sought, with excommunication the ultimate penalty for maliciously imputing a crime, which also covered actions punishable as crimes eg immorality
  • defamation cases were a significant part of litigation in the church courts, mostly resolved with public apologies
  • “scandalum magnatum” (slandering the magnates) – from 1275 a criminal offence to try to suppress criticism of the king and his court at a time of social unrest; later used by nobles in the civil courts as their political power waned
  • Richard II re-enacted the statue against “devisers of false news and of horrible and false lies”
  • scandalous newsheets and satires led the Star Chamber to create the offence of criminal libel in 1606, later confirmed by statute, which later still led to the civil offence of libel separate from slander
  • “riding Skimmington” would be defamatory of a man, ie the imputation of being beaten by his wife, but for women it’s imputations of unchastity which are litigated
  • Wilde -v- Marquess of Queensbury case 1895

The online sources I found were all in the JSTOR online library, which is well worth joining (it's free for a certain number of articles a month):

The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation by Van Vechten Veeder (1904) – a general tour of defamation from Roman times

Canonical Defamation in Medieval England by RH Helmholz (1971) – an examination of ecclesiastical law and how it was applied

Defamation as Political Contest During the Reign of Richard II by Michael Hanrahan (2003) – a detailed look at how defamation was used by opposing parties in London in the turmoil of the 1270s

Defamation of Peers: The Rise and Decline of the Action for Scandalum Magnatum 1497-1773 by John C Lassiter (1978) – a close look at the civil actions brought by the nobility as their military and political power declined
 

sknox

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Being lazy here: Judge, did you run across sources for the Continent? I'm always looking for non-English examples.

I dearly love the phrase slandering the magnates. Very handy tool in times of rebellion, too. Hard to rouse the rabble without slandering a magnate or two!
 

The Judge

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So when they were no longer able/allowed to go and beat people up and burn their houses, they had to go to court instead?
Reaching for their lawyers instead of their horsewhips! (It's an interesting article, but basically the author notes that as the social and economic barriers between the peers and gentry were being eroded, with what the peers considered to be a consequent lack of respect for their standing, it was a -- perhaps subconscious -- way of trying to reinforce social boundaries and regain some of what they'd lost.)

Being lazy here: Judge, did you run across sources for the Continent? I'm always looking for non-English examples.
No, sorry. I picked up the references to Germanic law from the 1904 article by Van Vechten Veeder, which spoke of the "Leges Barbarorum” with some examples, but I can't now recall whether he gave any sources in the footnotes. The only non-English article I looked at was about Scottish law and that was so different in terms and procedure I was soon lost!

I've just done another search of JSTOR for defamation in Germany, though, and amid a welter of articles which didn't seem relevant, there was Prosecuting Injuries in Early Modern Germany which looks intriguing (to a lawyer, anyway!) It looks like they have access to articles by the Central European History Society of the American Historical Association, so there may well be greater pickings there on a range of subjects.

I dearly love the phrase slandering the magnates. Very handy tool in times of rebellion, too. Hard to rouse the rabble without slandering a magnate or two!
Great phrase, isn't it!
 

sknox

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Thanks so much for that reference! I still have library access thanks to my emeritus status. I'll be taking a look at that. Early modern Germany is my bailiwick. I got my MA in medieval but the PhD is in early modern. Rather than try to explain the difference to people, I just say medievalist and then see if it goes anywhere. It rarely does!

So, not to go too far afield, but are you (The Judge ... but anyone else feel free to sing along) familiar with the Vehmic Courts? I'm still trying to figure a way to work that into my world of Altearth.
 

sknox

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I took a brief read of that article. It's interesting and it has a good set of citations for further reading. It's not at all my field, but I'm a sucker for the social history angle on just about any topic, and that's the angle taken by the author.
 

The Judge

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So, not to go too far afield, but are you (The Judge ... but anyone else feel free to sing along) familiar with the Vehmic Courts? .
Never heard of them. The Wikipedia article makes them sound like a cross between the Freemasons and the secret police -- very unsavoury. Definitely something to try and get into a mainly rural setting, with all the potential for wrongful accusations, hasty secret trials, semi-vigilante executions and then revenge-seeking!
 

sknox

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There's a short article by du Boulay, "Law Enforcement in Medieval Germany", that will give the flavor of the thing. The first three pages are introductory, in good scholarly tradition, but the rest is all on the courts. Most of the literature, of course, is in German and isn't anything I've explored. I just remember a "use this" light going off when I first read about this.
 

The Judge

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With the sixth episode of the Chrons Official Podcast which went up last week, I again talked about legal issues which might give extra dimensions to our stories and this time I looked at the law relating to clothing Chroncast Season 1 Episode 6 - House Of Leaves with Ed Wilson

Some of the points I discuss:
  • legislation about clothing has a long history – Roman law stipulated the colour of togas/decoration of tunics for specific ranks
  • sumptuary laws swept across Europe from C13th as a result of the wealthy middle class aspiring to the luxury of the nobles, thereby threatening social stability
  • restrictions were laid down as to types of material, style of dress and decoration which could be worn by different classes eg male servants in Augsberg forbidden to wear silk, velvet headgear, pearls, costly weapons
  • English Acts of Apparel from 1363 to 1574 laid down precise rules even within the nobility to preserve gradations of rank
  • similar rules were seen across the world eg in China where common folk were forbidden to wear silk
  • clothing laws could be used both to reward and to punish behaviour eg the more prisoners an Aztec warrior captured, the more sumptuous the mantle he could wear, but the right to wear expensive cotton could be removed from the nobles
  • outcasts could be required to dress differently eg prostitutes having to wear bells on their shawls or hoods in Florence
  • the 1215 Lateran Council required Jews and Moslems to wear distinctive clothing to ensure they were not mistaken for Christians while legal reforms in 1829 sought to regulate headgear in the Ottoman empire to unify different faiths within one nation
  • 1620 England James I & VI inveighed against women wearing male costume, and in Tudor England cross-dressing was seen as immoral and led to charges in the church courts
  • laws still being made today eg as to the burka in Afghanistan and France, but control/social conformity also still exercised without specific legislation eg if seen to be outraging public decency

I found a wealth (ha!) of sources online, the most helpful being:

Sumptuary Laws by Joan Vos MacDonald – an overview of laws at different times and places, giving helpful links to online sources (including to an invaluable extract of The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe edited by Judith M Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras)

Roman Sumptuary Laws – a basic review of who could wear what

The Sumptuary Laws of Manuscript “Montpelier H119” by Jeffrey S. Widmayer – a JSTOR article with an in-depth analysis of the specific laws 1227-1273 in Montpelier relating to betrothal customs

Tudor Clothes for the Poor – somewhat repetitive but with some interesting detail

Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes – the text of the English 1574 Act of Apparel

Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws by Patricia Anawalt – a JSTOR article which is worth a look simply for the quite wonderful illustrations of Aztec dress!

Chinese Clothing – a general discussion of clothing styles over various dynasties with some illustrations

Gender Trouble and Cross Dressing in Early Modern England by David Cressy – a JSTOR article with an entertaining (and perhaps provocative!) look at the evidence for attitudes to cross-dressing from an historian’s perspective

Clothing Laws, State, and Society in the Ottoman Empire 1720-1829 by Donald Quataert – a JSTOR article which looks closely at the tensions within Ottoman society

In addition I used a book from my own library Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe by Ulinka Rublack which is chock-full of illustrations for anyone wanting very in-depth discussion of clothes as markers of identity
 

sknox

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Deitary law is another good one, though this sometimes is more custom than formal law. But no reason why we can't make it formal in a story. Property law is good. And a criminal code, of course.

At least in fantasy, if law gets mentioned at all, it's almost exclusively criminal, with heavy emphasis on theft and treason. But as The Judge shows, there's so much more!
 

The Judge

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At least in fantasy, if law gets mentioned at all, it's almost exclusively criminal, with heavy emphasis on theft and treason. But as The Judge shows, there's so much more!
Absolutely! And I find it really strange -- the law touches on all aspects of our lives, but it's largely ignored in fiction. Off the top of my head the only books I can think of where the law is shown (other than where lawyers are main characters) are Lindsey Davis's Falco books about Rome, where she brings up things like marital laws, the heavy carts being restricted as to when they can enter the city, even laws requiring prostitutes to be registered. Little touches like that can add so much atmosphere and depth to worldbuilding.
 

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