top of page
  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 46 - The Muffled Screams of Thriller from the Mortuary (Ancient Laws Week)

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Tom's Episode notes:

Right, so silly laws are funny. We’ve all heard of some. However, I think it’s well known that many of these silly laws are spurious or of dubious credibility. By that I mean that they’re often urban myths or they’re taken out of context and exaggerated to make them seem very silly.

Nonetheless, I feel like some honourable quick-fire mentions are in order to satiate our audience’s need for stupidity. It’s not an exhaustive list because these things can be easily found online…

Some honourable mentions:

· Since the Dano-Swedish war of 1657-58, it’s been legal for a Dane to club a Swedish person over the head with a stick if they walk across the frozen Oresund Strait between the two countries. This is because during the war, a Swedish army surprised the Danes by marching across the frozen water.

· In Victoria, Australia, you can’t fly a kite that is annoying someone.

· Since 1971 in Minnesota it’s been illegal to chase a greased up pig

· George I of England made it illegal for any common animal to shag any royal animal

· In Western Australia it’s apparently illegal to crush a beer can between your breasts

· Daylight robbery, from the 1669 Window Tax in Britain where you were taxed on how many windows you had in your home

Right, now on to something more meaty (or to satisfy Microsoft Word the grammar Nazi, meatier).

Trials by Ordeal!

· These were very popular during the Middle Ages when people were particularly violent and stupid.

· Essentially someone accused of a crime was put through a horrible ordeal, if they survived the ordeal, it was seen as a miracle of God to save this innocent soul. If they did not survive, they were guilty and God was not interested in intervening.

o Makes sense right?

o Until you realise that God is a cunt who, in the Old Testament, kills all of Job’s family to test his piety in a bet with Satan

o Or Jephthah (Jef tha) who agreed to sacrifice the first thing that met him when he returned home from a military campaign that God had made successful, his daughter.

· Let’s explore some more specific types

Ordeal by fire!

· So, in this situation the accused would walk a certain distance either on something very hot, or holding something very hot. If they get to the end with minimal injuries (or the injuries recover quickly) they are innocent, obviously! Duh!

o Here’s a good one; Girolamo Savonarola, a Florentine Friar, attempted to prove that his slightly bonkers divine messages were real by walking through fire. The central square of Florence was crammed with spectators on the day of the event in 1498. Savonarola was very nervous and couldn’t bring himself to start the trial. Worse, a sudden rainstorm put out all of the fires which the spectators read as a denunciation of the friar by God. Savonarola and a few other friars were then tortured, hung and set on fire. What a night of entertainment for the locals!

§ What shall we do tonight dear? The grandparents are here to look after the kids, Ooooh I’ve heard that there’s a hanging and burning going on. How lovely! We’ll go to that nice Italian place beforehand. How romantic!

o It was quite common for the ordeal to made harder for people with a track-record of crime (or just no one willing to advocate for them).

§ I.e. a heavier rod to carry

§ This is linked to something called Compurgation; the idea that someone can prove themselves innocent by basically getting a certain number of people to write them a reference!

· Yeah he’s alright he is, I’ve never seen him conjure spirits, I mean his burps smell and he doesn’t always brush his teeth, so

Ordeal by water!

· Popular with witch-hunts of the late medieval period.

· If the witch drowns, she is innocent! If she’s a floater, she’s a witch! Burn her at the stake!

· Now this does sound very stupid, but apparently the accused would be tied to a rope and could be pulled out when she was on the verge of drowning. So actually a very sensible and well-thought through method of justice.

o Here’s an Anglo- Saxon example, Ailward was accused by his neighbour, Fulk or theft. Ailward was thrown into a pond bound up. He floated, so his eyes were gouged out and his genitals mutilated

· Hot water ordeals have also been used in history; Anglo Saxons apparently would make the accused dip their hand in hot water to retrieve a stone or ring.

o Again, this could be made harder or easier for people


Ordeal by presence!

· As in being present, not gifts

o Far less barbaric

o Ordeal by presence sounds like Christmas shopping

§ You shall walk through the shopping mall and find your wife a gift. Is she likes it, you are innocent of being a bad husband, if you panic in the underwear shop, start sweating profusely and buy something distinctly uncomfortable with a crotch hole, you are guilty!

· In this situation you would put the accused in close to a corpse (presumably a murdered individual) or ask them to touch the corpse, and if the corpse bled, or did something else odd, you were guilty.

Sam's Episode notes: The ancient lawyers of the middle east really cared about who, or what, you had sex with.

Today I've been a bit lazy and gone for something I actually studied at university because it's really funny and oddly specific, but I did go out and try and look for something new first. There were a few things I looked at in particular before making a decision. I was going to look at unnecessarily harsh penal codes and one that jumped out was the Aztec criminal law system.

The Aztecs had an incredible bureaucracy which included several layers of courts and courts of appeal and even different grades of prisons – from a special prison for death row inmates, to debtors prisons, and prisons for minor crimes which were so awful most people died in there anyway, all the way down to a judge marking out a box on the ground with sticks which you weren't allowed to leave. And the punishments were pretty awful to boot – moving a fence or causing a public disturbance were capital crimes, as was being drunk whilst underage. Death sentences could be carried out by hanging, stoning, drowning, beating, gutting, burning, quartering, and removing the heart.

There was a minimum age for criminal responsibility which was 10. However, parents could take their children to court if they were slightly naughty, and if found guilty the court would order them whipped. If they were really badly behaved and insulted or hit their parents, the courts could and did still have them executed.

So do your homework, kids.

Then I started looking at stupid legal claims and the Sovereign Citizen movement – these are people, usually only found in English speaking countries, who refuse to accept that the Government's laws apply to them. They have two arguments. The first is that the social contract is between the Government and their birth certificate or legal name, not their actual body and person.

The second is that because Governments operate in a deficit, they are in fact bankrupt and so come under admiralty or maritime law which traditionally dealt with trade disputes. The result of this is that they usually go into court for something minor like a traffic ticket and start spouting nautical terms like an absolute moron. And they quite often film themselves and put it on YouTube thinking they've found a clever loophole. They have not. They are always found guilty – in fact there isn't a single recorded case of freedmen or sovereign citizens not having to pay their taxes or fines.

But that's been done to death by other podcasts and YouTube channels. So instead I'm mostly going to be talking about the Code of the Nesilim or the Hittite criminal code today. Now the Hittites were an ancient and – for the time – huge empire in the 17th to the 12th century BC stretching across most of modern Turkey, Syria, and up into Georgia. The country not the state.

Now the first civilisations which were largely centred around the middle east were also the first people to really put pen to paper or chisel to tablet when it came to the law. They pretty quickly worked out that the king couldn't be everywhere all the time, and so by writing these things down you had a foolproof system of making sure that everyone was doing the same thing, being paid equally and getting the same punishments for being naughty – be that getting paid as a shoemaker, learning a trade, murdering your in-laws, divorcing your other half or punching slaves.

Some of these codes are pretty well known – the Code of Hammurabi I think is now taught in schools and was often thought to be the oldest code of law, until an older one was discovered. Most of these civilisations had one and it's pretty prescriptive – if X happens, Y is the punishment. If you punch someone in the face and they lose a tooth, you'll lose your tooth and have to pay a shekel of silver. If someone accuses you of murder, you'll be thrown into the river. If you drown, you're guilty. If you can swim and survive, you're innocent and your accuser is executed for making false claims. Blah blah blah.

By the standards of the time the Hittites were pretty liberal – their laws allowed slaves to own property, marry without consent and set up businesses. They halved the fines for knocking out teeth, which is a recurring theme in these ancient law codes, and also got rid of quite a few capital crimes – dubiously including honour killings.

And because these laws are all very specific, you can very easily tell what was going on at the time that people needed to legislate against. Lots of fighting, murdering, fraud, feuds etc.

And according to the Code of the Nesilim, the Hittites had some very specific problems. Three sets, in fact.

Random acts of brutality

Family dramas

And Beastiality.

Random acts of brutality. Pretty simple really – if you are involved in an argument with someone and you kill them, you owe their house a number of slaves including yourself. The number depends on their social rank. If anyone slay a man or woman in a quarrel, he shall bring this one. He shall also give four persons, either men or women, he shall let them go to his home. If anyone slay a male or female slave in a quarrel, he shall bring this one and give two persons, either men or women, he shall let them go to his home.

There's similar rules for if you just beat someone up – you have to pay their doctor's bills and do their job for them until they recover.

However, poor old tradesmen get a bit of a rough deal.

If anyone slay a merchant of Hatti, he shall give one and a half pounds of silver, he shall let it go to his home. So just a fine for killing the perfume merchant. In fact it was only slightly more than the fine for knocking out one of someone's teeth.

But then it gets a bit silly. Code 98 states: If a free man set a house ablaze, he shall build the house, again. And whatever is inside the house, be it a man, an ox, or a sheep that perishes, nothing of these he need compensate. So whoops, butterfingers. Better rebuild that house but don't worry about the family inside. Just leave them be – it's a nice ornament for the new owners.

And this one's a bit horrible: If anyone cause a free woman to miscarry, if it be the tenth month, he shall give ten half-shekels of silver, if it be the fifth month, he shall give five half-shekels of silver.

So just a fine. Not entirely reasonable. And also a bit of an odd understanding of how pregnancy works if it's in the 10th month. I suspect they had a different idea of how long a month was.

And now we come on to the sticky subject of family dramas. And let me tell you, Tom. The Spanish telenovellas would have a field day with this. Although the storylines in Hittite pornography must have been a little limited.

If a man and a woman come willingly, as men and women, and have intercourse, there shall be no punishment. And if a man have intercourse with his stepmother, there shall be no punishment; except if his father is living, it is a capital crime, the son shall die. Meanwhile a similar law later on states If a man sleep with the wife of his brother, while his brother is living, it is a capital crime, he shall die. If a man have taken a free woman, then have intercourse also with her daughter, it is a capital crime, he shall die. If he have taken her daughter, then have intercourse with her mother or her sister, it is a capital crime, he shall die.

On the other hand...

If a free man pick up female slaves, now one, now another, there is no punishment for intercourse. If brothers sleep with a free woman, together, or one after the other, there is no punishment. If father and son sleep with a female slave or harlot, together, or one after the other, there is no punishment.

So there we go. A classic evening of father son bonding is completely fine. So is divorce, interestingly:

If a free man and a female slave be fond of each other and come together and he take her for his wife and they set up house and get children, and afterward they either become hostile or come to close quarters, and they divide the house between them, the man shall take the children, only one child shall the woman take.

So she gets the least favourtie son or, god forbid, the daughter. Eugh.

They had a somewhat odd attitude to rape as well: 197. If a man rape a woman in the mountain, it is the man's wrong, he shall die. But if he rape her in the house, it is the woman's fault, the woman shall die. If the husband find them and then kill them, there is no punishing the husband.

But here's the really interesting one, Tom. The Hittite's seem to have a real problem with people having sex with animals. Some of this was considered just fine and dandy, some not so much. And there are several laws covering this, so it was clearly not an isolated incident.

187. If a man have intercourse with a cow, it is a capital crime, he shall die. They shall lead him to the king's hall. But the king may kill him, the king may grant him his life. But he shall not approach the king.

So I guess there's a bit of an awkward conversation to be had with the king here.

And then we come to rule 199 – which really is a catch all. And I want you to pay particularly close attention to the last bit to see what gets lumped in with having sex with animals.

199. If anyone have intercourse with a pig or a dog, he shall die. If a man have intercourse with a horse or a mule, there is no punishment. But he shall not approach the king, and shall not become a priest. Well good to see at least some religions have standards. Take this donkey, for it is my wife.

The law continues. And this is really weird... If an ox spring upon a man for intercourse, the ox shall die but the man shall not die. One sheep shall be fetched as a substitute for the man, and they shall kill it. If a pig spring upon a man for intercourse, there is no punishment.

I mean what... How? Firstly, in what situation are you going to let yourself be jumped by a pig. Secondly, poor sheep, and how are you going to get the bull and the sheep to have sex? Thirdly, if you've been jumped by a cow, I suspect you won't need killing, I suspect you're having a pretty bad day already.

And the final part of the law on bestiality states. Bear in mind this is lumped in with shagging donkeys:

If any man have intercourse with a foreign woman and pick up this one, now that one, there is no punishment.

So pigs, horses, mules and foreign women. All animals you are A-OK to have sex with. And there we go, Tom. There's the sometimes quite fair, often very much not fair Nesilim law code. Covering everything from murdering to pig fucking to how much to pay for

bottom of page