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Laws Reflect a Society by Kirsten Anderberg

Laws Reflect a Society

By Kirsten Anderberg ( 2004)

It is amazing how much you can tell about a society from its laws. Laws give us a glimpse into social order from eras and civilizations long past. Some of the oldest known written laws that we've found so far, are in the Code of Lipit-Ishtar. Lipit-Ishtar, was a shepherd and farmer from Nippur, Iraq, who became the ruler of Isin from about 1868 B.C. to 1857 B.C. Four broken stone tablets were discovered in the 1930's, written in the Sumerian language, during the rule of Lipit-Ishtar. One law from that Code was, "If a man rented an ox and injured the flesh at the nose ring, he shall pay one third of its price." Another one of the oldest written legal texts we have discovered, found in 1901 in Syria, is from the Code of Hammurabi, codified around 1792-1750 B.C., under the reign of Babylonian King Hammurabi. One of his laws was, "If an ox when passing through the street gore a man and bring about his death, that case has no penalty." From the Puritanical Blue Laws of 1650 in Connecticut, to the surveillance-obsessed Federal Patriot Act in 2001, historians draw conclusions based on unique legal codes within societies. Centuries from now someone will discover our old law books and make documentaries of how we lived, based upon those laws.

The Code of Lipit-Ishtar gives the following legal instructions, "If a man's wife has not borne him children but a harlot from the public square has born him children, he shall provide grain, oil, and clothing for that harlot; the children which the harlot has borne him shall be his heirs, and as long as his wife lives the harlot shall not live in the house with the wife." The Code of Hammurabi was pretty intense, preaching an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bone for a bone, etc. It also had a very strict rule regarding criminal accusations. Basically, if you accused someone of a crime, and then their conviction did not stick, whether you were a judge or common man, you paid with serious consequences. These laws say that a man charged with sorcery shall go to the "sacred river" and throw himself in. If the river overcomes the man, the accuser goes home scott free. But, if the accused survives the river, then his accuser must be put to death. These laws also included, "If a nun or priestess who is not a resident in a convent open a wineshop or enter a wineshop for a drink, they shall burn that woman." This same society had a law that said if you ran into someone's house during a fire to extinguish it, and then stole some of the valuable things inside during that time, you were to be thrown into said fire. Also of interest is the progression of what is considered bad and worse in these laws. If you stole a sheep, ass, pig or ox, and it belonged to the palace, you paid thirty fold. If you sole it from a common person, you paid 10 fold. If the thief could not pay these fines, he was put to death. Sounds like our current accelerated laws regarding shooting police officers. Apparently a cop's life is more valuable than the rest of our lives, based on the legal readings. The Hammurabi Code also included this oddity; "If a man, after the death of his father, lie in the bosom of his mother, they shall burn both of them."

The Blue Laws in Connecticut during the mid-1600's, were quite telling in their topics. If you were to "inhabit with Indians," you incurred 3 years jail time. Laws also banned any help given, directly or indirectly, to American Indians, as well as all trading with American Indians, "at or about their wigwams, or at their own horses." They had laws outlawing idleness. These laws said "no person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably under pain of punishment." It called those prone to idleness names such as "common coaster, unprofitable fowlers, and tobacco takers." The prescribed legal punishment for "open contempt of God's word and messengers thereof," was to pay 5 pounds to the public treasurer, and to stand 2 hours openly on a stool 4 feet high with a sign afixed to the breast. The sign had to be "written with capital letters, "AN OPEN AND OBSTINATE CONTEMPTER OF GOD'S HOLY ORDINANCES" that others may fear and be ashamed of breaking out into the like wickedness."

The U.S. Patriot Act is heavy on the words terror, Arab, and surveillance. And tracing the laws as they change in American city after city preparing for protests, during Bush's Iraq war, will be a connect the dots history problem in centuries to come. Next week the G8 Summit protests( begin (June 8-10) and the Governor of Georgia has ALREADY declared a state of emergency due to the planned protests, over a week in advance! Repressive measures under the guidance of the Department of Homeland Security are being put in place in Georgia, just like they were in Miami last year. The current G8 Summit has given us governmental plots to ban standing on a public sidewalk with a sign, among other things. In Miami, 2003, in preparation for the FTAA protests, officials tried to ban "parades" with "any length of metal, plastic or hard material," "glass bottles, jars and containers of "any kind,"" "balloons filled with anything other than oxygen, helium or air," and the possession of marbles, golf balls, batteries, as potentials for causing damage as projectiles. The Miami model also tried to make it "unlawful for any person to carry, possess or wear any gas mask or similar device designed to filter all air breathed and that would protect the respiratory tract and face against irritating, noxious or poisonous gases." Miami also wanted it to be a crime to wear or possess a bulletproof vest or any "other improvised body armor." Improvised body armor was defined in Miami as gear "worn for the purpose of enabling the wearer to engage, or attempt to engage, in unlawful activity." So, in essence, the police wanted to outlaw anything that would protect the average citizen from outrageous police brutality and weaponry! Basically, all the things they were accusing protesters of potentially doing in Miami, they were saying the police **were going to do**, and they wanted to ban citizens from protecting themselves! The same thing has been going on in city after city in 2003-2004, you can follow it... NYC is now preparing to propose all kinds of insane anti-free speech and anti-free assembly laws in preparation for the RNC protests in Aug. 2004.

So, if you want to know something about a time, a people, a country, you can look at the law books to see what the law was, and thus what made outlaws, in different eras of history. It is wild to see what paranoias different civilizations have had, how they legislated their gender and race affairs, how they instituted embargoes and manipulated economies through laws, how they addressed the issues of the poor, etc. I would assume you'd miss huge pieces of the puzzle centering on only the laws of a society to understand its daily functioning routines. But it is still an interesting look at who had power at a certain time, as well as when and how they exerted that power, and how they maintained it. Our laws on American books right now are as telling as any.

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Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at

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