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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!

* 2350 BC: Urukagina's Code.
* 2050 BC: Ur-Nammu's Code.
* 1850 BC: The Earliest Known Legal Decision.
* 1700 BC: Hammurabi's Code.
* 1300 BC: The Ten Commandments.
* 1280 BC: The Laws of Manu.
* 621 BC: Draco's Law.
* 600 BC: Lycergus' Law.
* 550 BC: Solon's Laws.
* 536 BC: The Book of Punishments.
* 450 BC: The Twelve Tables.
* 350 BC: The Chinese Code of Li k'vei.
* 339 BC: The Trial of Socrates.
* 529: Justinian's Code.
* 604: The Seventeen Article Constitution of Japan.
* 653: T'ang Code.
* 700: Fingerprinting Is Invented.
* 1100: First Law School.
* 1215: Magna Carta.
* 1306: The Trial of Scotsman William Wallace.
* 1535: The Trial of Sir Thomas More.
* 1689: The English Bill of Rights.
* 1692: The Salem Witch Trials.
* 1740: South Carolina Slave Code.
* 1765: Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.
* 1776: The American Declaration of Independence.
* 1787: The Constitution of the United States of America.
* 1788: Through the Operation of Penal Law, A Country Is Formed.
* 1791: The American Bill of Rights.
* 1803: Marbury versus Madison.
* 1804: Napoleonic Code.
* 1864: The Geneva Convention.
* 1865: The Thirteenth Amendment.
* 1945-46: The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.
* 1948: 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 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. 

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 people. 

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 Museum Archives.

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 natural law. 

1776: The American Declaration of Independence

"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 world. 

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 USA. 

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.
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