Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne

The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne
Piaktus Books 2004

Seemingly marketed as one of those trivia books that people pick up as presents when they haven't really got a clue what else to buy, I wasn't really expecting much of useful insight to come from this tome written by the man famous for his Sex Lives of Hollywood Goddesses!

However, on closer inspection he has also written a biography of Alexander the Great, so perhaps it isn't too surprising that the book is in fact a rich source of fascinating material - much of which sheds light on the legal conditions facing many of our ancestors... a tenuous connection maybe, but nevertheless a worthy expenditure of £5 if you are stuck looking for something to while away a long journey!

There's an interesting section on the various Courts that exist or pretend to exist across the land, and a summary of legal quirks from Feudal times, but it's when Cawthorne starts on those laws that would have affected the bulk of the population that it gets really interesting!

Whilst most people will be aware of the Puritan crackdown on anything that might carry the tainted whiff of enjoyment about it - and Cawthorne here mentions a legal quirk that questions whether Laws passed during the Commonwealth actually have any legal standing as they were pretended not to have been made after the Restoration - but were never specifically unmade either - there have been plenty of other laws enacted to curtail folks' fun... Though where the Act passed by James I that said young women were not to be seen in public unless their breasts were exposed to the nipple as a symbol of their virginity stands is anyone's guess, whilst an Ordinance in Montrose bans any animals - wild or domestic - from copulating in any public place within the city limits - the owner being liable for £15 fine and upto 25 days in gaol!

Food has often been the subject of strict regulation, and our ancestors must have faced a legal minefield at times, such as during Edward III's time when it became illegal to have more than two courses at a meal - with special provisions preventing people claiming that soup was instead a sauce! This monarch also had the time to ban anyone other than Royalty and Church folks from wearing fur - an Act that would be welcomed today, but which must have posed problems for the 'law abiding' poacher...

The section on 'Peculiar Punishments' has to be one of the most enlightening if not horrifying parts of the book as the occurrence of branding and mutilation seems to have been such a regular thing that many of our forebears must have had family members so affected, whilst visits to the stocks may have been a frequent experience for the homeless poor after Henry VII's time. Henry VIII on the other hand managed to have over 70,000 people executed during his reign - over 5 a day. Given the population at that time we could all find an ancestor or two that met their end this way if we can get the sources to go back far enough.

In short, this amusing book provides a lot of information in a very readable way, and presents a story of the tribulations our ancestors could have faced on a regular basis. It is always easy to assume that a relation in our tree who dies young had some disease or was killed fighting, but I wonder just how many of them met their end thanks to a legal system that could be impossible to stay clean of, and for which the penalties of failing to do so could be very harsh indeed!

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