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The Timetable of World Legal History
This page is part of the LAW
Museum. If you're interested in Canadian legal history, don't miss
our Canadian Law: A History feature!
BC: Urukagina's Code.
BC: Ur-Nammu's Code.
BC: The Earliest Known Legal Decision.
BC: Hammurabi's Code.
BC: The Ten Commandments.
BC: The Laws of Manu.
BC: Draco's Law.
BC: Lycergus' Law.
BC: Solon's Laws.
BC: The Book of Punishments.
BC: The Twelve Tables.
BC: The Chinese Code of Li k'vei.
BC: The Trial of Socrates.
The Seventeen Article Constitution of Japan.
Fingerprinting Is Invented.
First Law School.
The Trial of Scotsman William Wallace.
The Trial of Sir Thomas More.
The English Bill of Rights.
The Salem Witch Trials.
South Carolina Slave Code.
Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.
The American Declaration of Independence.
The Constitution of the United States of America.
Through the Operation of Penal Law, A Country Is Formed.
The American Bill of Rights.
Marbury versus Madison.
The Geneva Convention.
The Thirteenth Amendment.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
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
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
1700 BC: Hammurabi's Code
This Babylonian king came to power in 1750 BC. Under his rule, a code of
laws was developed and carved on a huge rock column. The expression "an
eye for an eye" has come to symbolize the principle behind Hammurabi's
code. It contains 282 clauses regulating a vast array of obligations, professions
and rights including commerce, slavery, marriage, theft and debts. The
punishments are, by modern standards, barbaric. The punishment for theft
was the cutting off of a finger or a hand. A man's lower lip was cut off
if he kissed a married woman. Defamation was punished by cutting out the
tongue. If a house collapses because the builder did not make it strong
enough, killing the owner, the builder was put to death. If the owner's
son died, then the builder's son was executed.
1300 BC: The Ten Commandments
According to the Bible, it was in approximately 1300 BC that Moses received
a list of ten laws directly from God. These laws were known as the Ten
Commandments and were transcribed as part of the Book of Moses, which later
became part of the Bible. Many of the Ten Commandments continue in the
form of modern laws such as "thou shalt not kill" (modern society severely
punishes the crime of murder), "thou shalt not commit adultery" (modern
society allows a divorce on this grounds) and "thou shalt not steal" (modern
society punishes theft as a crime). The Bible chapter that contains the
Ten Commandments (Exodus) follows the recitation of the Commandments with
a complete set of legal rules, which are based on the "eye for an eye,
tooth for a tooth" legal philosophy of Hammurabi's Code. Click here to
read the actual text of the Ten
Commandments in the WWLIA LAW
Museum Archives section.
1280 BC to 880 BC: The Laws of Manu
It has not yet been possible to pinpoint exactly when India's great Laws
of Manu were written. The Laws were a written compilation of known legal
rules which had been passed on from generation to generation. It formed
the basis of the caste system in India, where people were classified by
their social standing and regulated almost all facets of India's society
from contracts to criminal law. The Laws of Manu used punishment sparingly
and only as a last resort and rarely sadistic. Amputation, though, was
a possible sentence. The members of the higher castes were punished more
severely than those of the lower castes.
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.
600 BC: Lycergus' Law
This King of Sparta (southern Greece) was a renowned lawgiver. His laws
were never written, just transmitted orally and were designed to support
the military vocation of Sparta. It held that women had a duty to have
children and that children born with deformity were killed. Children became
wards of Sparta at the age of seven to prepare them for military duty.
The greatest crime of all was retreat in battle. The Laws of Lycergus controlled
virtually every aspect of the lives of citizens of Sparta.
550 BC: Solon's Laws
Solon was an Athenian statesman and lawmaker. He further refined Draco's
laws and is credited with "democratizing" justice by making the courts
more accessible to citizens.
536 BC: The Book of Punishments
A legal book printed in China which limited the ways to punish someone
where they had been convicted of a serious crime. They included tattooing,
cutting off of the nose, castration, feet amputation and death.
450 BC: The Twelve Tables
Ten Roman men were given wide powers to write the laws that were to govern
Romans. They came up with ten laws to which two were later added. These
laws are considered to form the foundation of all modern public and private
law. They promoted the organization of public prosecution of crimes and
instituted a system whereby injured parties could seek compensation from
their aggressors. More importantly, they protected the lower class (plebes)
from the legal abuses of the ruling class (the patricians) especially in
the enforcement of debts. From that point on, a basic principle of Roman
law is that the law must be written and justice cannot be left in the hands
of judges alone to interpret. It also prohibited inter-class marriages,
seriously punished theft and gave fathers rights of life or death over
his sons. The Twelve Tables also punished the misuse of magic! Written
on wood and bronze tablets, the Twelve Tables survived almost 1000 years
until destroyed by invading gauls in 390.
350 BC (approximately): The Chinese Code of Li k'vei
The first Chinese imperial code of laws dealt with theft, robbery, prison,
arrest and general rules. It served as a model for the T'ang Code.
339BC: The Trial of Socrates
Socrates was an Athenian philosopher. Socrates was not religious and preached
logic. When Athens lost the Peloponnesian 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.
529: Justinian's Code
This Emperor of Byzantine is best remembered for his codification of Roman
Law in a series of books called Corpus Juris Civilis. His collection served
as an important basis for law in contemporary society, and was inspired
by logic-based Greek legal principles. Many legal maxims still in use today
are derived from Justinian's Code. His work inspired the modern concept
and, indeed, the very spelling of "justice". This Roman Code survived as
the many parts of Germany until 1900 and important traces of it can be
found in the law of Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Quebec. Roman law
formed the base of civil law, one of the two main legal systems to govern
modern society in the Western civilization (the other being English common
law). A quote: "The things which are common to all (and not capable of
being owned) are: the air, running water, the sea and the seashores."
604: The Seventeen Article Constitution of Japan
Written by a Japanese prince regent, the Constitution shaped morality and
law in Japan, a country which had just begun to develop and become literate.
Some examples of its paternalistic clauses are: "peace and harmony should
be respected because they are very important for intergroup relations";
"There are very few evil men. If we teach them (the Buddha beliefs), they
may become obedient"; "equality, speediness and integrity should be maintained
in court procedures" and "the basic philosophy in all matters should be
"against privacy" and "toward public benefit". In it, one can observe that
the emphasis of "Oriental law" which seeks to prevent disputes, whereas
the "Western law" seeks to resolve disputes.
653: T'ang Code
The territory which is now China was, since time immemorial, occupied by
feuding kingdoms. It was not until 221 BC that the king of "Ch'in" managed
to defeat the kings of the other 6 kingdoms and unite China. After 400
years of unification, the Empire developed a Code of Law called the T'sang
Code, which listed crimes and their punishment in 501 articles. The Code
revised earlier existing Chinese codes and standardized procedures. For
examples, there were only two ways to perform capital punishment on a convicted
criminal: beheading or hanging.
700: Fingerprinting Is Invented
Fingerprinting was in use by this time in China as a means of identifying
1100: First Law School
In medieval Italy, students of law would hire a teacher to teach them Roman
Law, especially Justinian's Code Corpus Juris.
One teacher, known as Irnerius was particularly popular and students began
to flock to him from all over Europe. He taught in Bologna and the surge
of students meant that he had to hire other teachers to form the world's
first law school. By 1150, his law school had over 10,000 students and
contributed to the revival of the Corpus Juris and the spread of Roman
law throughout Europe!
1215: Magna Carta
At Runneymede, England, on June 15, 1215, King John of England signed the
Magna Carta in which he conceded a number of legal rights to his barons
and to the people. In order to finance his foreign wars, King John had
taxed abusively. His Barons threatened rebellion and coerced the King into
committing to rudimentary judicial guarantees such as the freedom of the
church, fair taxation, controls over imprisonment (habeas corpus) and the
right to all merchants to come and go, freely, except in time of war. The
Magna Carta had 61 clauses the most important of which may have been #39:
"No freeman shall be captured or imprisoned ... except by lawful judgement
of his peers or by the law of the land". It was the first time a king allowed
that even he could be compelled to observe a law or the barons were allowed
to "distrain and distress him in every possible way", just short of a legal
right to rebellion. Once sworn to the document, letters were sent to all
sheriffs ordering them to read the Charter aloud in public. It has been
called the "blueprint of English common law" and was even recently pleaded
in a English case. Click here
to read the entire text of the Magna Carta in the LAW
1306: The Trial of Scotsman William Wallace
Click here to read the full text of "The
Trial of Scotsman William Wallace".
1535: The Trial of Sir Thomas More
Click here to read the full text of "The
Trial of Sir Thomas More".
1689: The English Bill of Rights
This bill was a precursor to the American Bill of Rights, and set out strict
limits on the Royal Family's legal prerogatives such as a prohibition against
arbitrary suspension of Parliament's laws. More importantly, it limited
the right to raise money through taxation to Parliament. Click here to
read the article (including the full text) on "The
1689 Bill of Rights".
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 withcraft or worhip of the Devil.
The accusations turned into a judicial frenzy and over 300 people were
acused of witchcraft, of which 20 were executed including a priest. The
extremity of the penalty turned many against the prosecution of withcraft.
There would be no more witchcraft trials in New England.
1740: South Carolina Slave Code
This infamous legislation regulated the use of slaves and became the model
for slavery in other states, until repealed as an effect of the American
Civil War. "All Negroes, Indians ... and all their offspring ... shall
be and are hereby declared to be and remain forever hereafter slaves; and
shall be deemed ... to be chattels personal in the hands of their owners."
1765: Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England
This British barrister set about writing down the entire English law in
a 4-volume set, in easy-to-read English, thus making the law suddenly accessible
to the common man. His research also made the book a must-read for lawyers
and law students alike. It was re-published many times. Through it, the
English law was readily imported to the British colonies and in fact it
is said that Blackstone's Commentaries was the law in the American colonies
for the first century of American independence. The Commentaries also allows
us to witness the exact state of British law at that time on such things
as the total legal submission of a wife to her husband, as was then considered
"We the people," starts the Declaration of Independence proclaimed on July
4, 1776. The Declaration was a statement to the effect that "all political
connection between (the United Colonies) and the State of Great Britain
is and ought to be dissolved" and that a new state, the United States,
was started. It remains a remarkable legal document in that it is the first
time a government has rebuked the medieval theory that certain people possessed
by right the power to rule others. "All men are created equal,"rings the
declaration, and have "unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments
are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the
governed." (Click here to read the
Declaration of Independence.)
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
With 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
1803: Marbury versus Madison
In this case, 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.
1804: Napoleonic Code
Under the government of Napoleon, France adopted a comprehensive code of
law in 1804 which enshrined many of the victories obtained during the Revolution
such as individual liberty, equality before the law and the lay character
of the state. The Code also incorporated most parts of Roman law. The Code
became a model for civil law systems such as Quebec, California and Louisiana.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Code was the fact that the law
was written (as opposed to judge-made) and in a non-technical style and
thus more accessible to the public. The Code regulated much of private
law matters such as property, wills, contracts, liability and obligations.
Many of its parts are traceable to Roman law. The French Code inspired
similar civil codes in the Canadian Province of Quebec (1865), Germany
(1900) and Switzerland (1907)
1864: The Geneva Convention
This agreement was designed to provide for minimal human rights in time
of war such as the protection of military medical personnel and for the
humane treatment of the wounded. It was later supplemented by a Prisoner
of War Convention. Although frequently ignored in military operations,
this documents remains an important legal document which, for the first
time ever, sets out rudimentary standards of human decency during war.
1865: The Thirteenth Amendment
By this change to the American Constitution, slavery was abolished in the
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.
1948: The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
The GATT was developed by the United Nations and has served as a catalyst
for the lifting of legal barriers against the free movement of goods, services
and people. Now under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, the
implementation of GATT by almost all countries is causing commercial law
interplay between differing legal systems and, in most cases, providing
impetus for those legal systems to move towards similarity and compatibility.
The GATT also shows a new emphasis of the development of law in the world:
from military and basic rights to trade and economic matters.
LAWisdom: "Never go to the law for simple vengeance. Redress,
yes. Vengeance, no." Robertson Davies.
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