There was a time (around the seventh century) when, if a neighbour killed your cousin you were legally obliged to seek revenge by killing one of the culprit’s cousins. Of course, your cousin was somebody else’s son. So his father was sent on the hunt for the killer’s son. Maybe your cousin was someone’s husband too. You can see where this is going. And so did the Anglo-Saxons, and after having witnessed entire villages slaughtering one another over said eye-for-eye jurisprudence, they performed a bit of a legal make-over. Next time someone killed your cousin you could take down just one of the killer’s family. And, well, you’d just have to draw straws to decide who got to do the honours.
This was a good lesson. The law necessarily evolves, and certain policies will need reviewing from time to time - we're a generation who learnt that lesson well. We are an age of activism. When we find ourselves confronted with laws or cultural mores that affront our sense of justice or equality, we are incredulous. We make placards. We picket government buildings. We boycott offending institutions. We hold mass demonstrations like this one. We write articles. Sometimes, we effect change. And before the ink has dried on the constitutional paper, someone, somewhere is making a hard-hitting docudrama about those latter dark ages of sexism / racism / agism / [insert other motivating social parasite here]. We drive fathoms between ourselves and the distasteful behaviour of our parents and their parents, and we feel enlightened. News Flash - so did the folks back in the 1600’s. You know, during the actual Enlightenment? Maybe we know better now, but we don’t know ‘best’ and if history is anything to go by then our children’s children will still wonder how we could have been so stupid. But we do what we can, right? More, even. We might have even invented a few brand-new prejudices, just to give us something to protest. That’s how committed we are! It’s just…we appear to have overlooked a few tiny issues in the laws of our predecessors. We’ve been like, super busy. Dealing with all the big issues, you know? We sorted out slavery, defined quite where a woman’s place isn’t, and ironed out the finer points of not rowing our elderly out to sea on a blazing boat. In the meantime, when our backs were turned, a few tiny, not so in-your-face-awful laws crept quietly through the protesting crowds and got nice and cosy in the modern age. They’re still here, on the books and available for exploitation. Here’s a look at ten of the most outdated laws from the past that still form a working part of the legal machine. From the most shockingly to recent to the truly ancient, you may be shocked at these 10 absurd laws you didn't know you were breaking.
10 “Any boy under the age of 10 may not see a naked mannequin.” 2006
Technically this law wasn’t passed in 2006, but it was recorded by a British law firm in that year. The British Law Commission were unable to disprove the existence of the law in their 2013 review. That said it wasn’t proven either, but most estimations place this in fairly recent history, as a knee-jerk reaction to child protection legislation. But there’s method in this madness. We certainly wouldn’t consider it appropriate to expose young children to strange naked bodies of the flesh and blood kind. The obvious response here is that a mannequin isn’t the same thing. But anyone raising this point should take a second look at the 1987 film ‘Mannequin’, starring none other than Kim Cattrall. And we all know the class of cultural icon she evolved into.
9 “A person shall not enter the hull of the Titanic without permission from the Secretary of State.” 2003
This mightn’t be the oldest law here, but it is most definitely outdated. Shouldn’t someone mention to the Judiciary that the Titanic sank? Not to be objectionable, but it’s going to be pretty difficult to post a visa checkpoint down there. In fairness though, the Commission for the Protection of Wrecks who established this law, were just thinking of historical preservation. We all know how terrible a shipwreck looks covered in graffiti. And don’t even start on those squatters. Drags the cost right down too.
8 “It is illegal to breastfeed in public.” 2001 (repealed 2009)
Ok so, technically, this one doesn’t belong here. It was short lived, being repealed in 2009. But it has been included because in this century, just last decade, this was an actual, honest-to-goodness law in a number of US States. Breast-feeding was considered to be indecent exposure. This one was probably written by someone who wasn’t allowed to look at naked mannequins until he was 11.
7 “No person may walk about in public if he or she has the common cold.” Last ratified 1984.
Most of us have read about the Plague, the Black Death, the terrifying disease that wiped out half of Europe in the Middle Ages. High school history books have no more engrossing chapter. Right there, in the middle of political drudgery and one tedious battle after another is the pus-filled, boil-infested, rat-carried plague. It might seem incredible now, but lack of medical know-how meant that this disease was capable of almost destroying humanity. So it’s really no surprise that the ones that survived were desperate to avoid a repeat performance. As a result, infectious, airborne diseases have been the terror of the civilised world. In England, the law was originally quite specific, insisting that cab drivers must ask passengers to declare plague or leprosy. But the law has undergone a few modern remakes and the stipulation now pertains, broadly, to ‘communicable’ diseases. Emigration to the States, and to the United Arab Emirates is still dependent on proving the emigree does not, and has never, suffered from any airborne illness, including TB.
6 “It is illegal to eat Mute Swan unless you're the Queen of Great Britain. The Queen and two livery companies (Vitners and Dryers) own all the Mute Swans in England and only the Queen and her invited diners may actually eat them as can guests of St. John's College Cambridge.” 1981
Swans are beautiful creatures, the graceful emblem of post-adolescent womanhood in the cultural metaphor of the ugly duckling blossoms into the elegant swan. Swans are also carriers of the herpes, the Aspergillosis mould and button ulcers. Amongst other things. So this British law must really have been written with aesthetics in mind. At any rate, it isn’t a law any sensible person is likely to be breaking any time soon. There just isn’t an oven temperature high enough.
5 “The harassing of Bigfoot, Sasquatch or other undiscovered subspecies is a felony punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment.” 1969
No really. This is an actual law, courtesy of Washington State. And it was ratified in Agenda Bill 92-247 in 1991.The logic behind this madcap little number is really rather scientific. Commissioner Conrad Lundy signed off the law on the basis that science had already discovered innumerable phenomena that were previously considered laughable. In the event that Bigfoot ever was located, he wanted to ensure it would be preserved. The law goes on to stipulate that rights to the discovered creature would belong, collectively, to national universities. Mad scientist material, or savvy pre-emptive strike? You decide. Just make sure and bring him in unharmed.
4 “It is illegal to work on a Sunday.” 1962
This law might date back to 1962 but it hasn’t simply slipped under the radar of common sense in the manner of others on this list. No, this largely Christian law was most recently ratified in South Dakota, in 2013. That’s last year. Technically a month ago. The law was first challenged in Jerusalem in 1BC. By Jesus Christ. Something isn’t right here.
3 “It is legal for a male to urinate in public, as long it is on the rear wheel of his motor vehicle and his right hand is on the vehicle.” 1847
Perhaps the most incredible thing about this law is that it reminds us that public urination elsewhere than the rear wheel of one’s vehicle is not legal. Public urination is hardly an extinct scourge. But set aside those plans to scream law infringement this Saturday circa 2am. Let’s focus on the important stuff here. Like why the rear wheel of a vehicle seemed a legally acceptable venue for relieving oneself. Or why it had to be accompanied by an act of car and man PDA. In all probability, these were practical concerns. Situated at the rear of the vehicle, the lewd behaviour was hidden from the sensitive eyes of, let’s assume, a provincial lady-companion happily ensconced in the passenger seat. And the hand? Stabilising. Keeps it all contained. Alas and alack, this law has been appropriated for political purpose in recent years. It has turned up in a number of taxi-driver themed protests. Because of course mass urination is the most effective way to let nasty local government know what you think of them. Time-efficient too - no toilet breaks during those peace talks.
2 “Welsh people can be shot with a bow and arrow inside the Chester city walls and after midnight.” 1403
The Welsh are a fairly inoffensive people. As part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, this little nation demonstrated its dissatisfaction with being colonised by attacking English holiday homes with paint. Not bombs. Paint. So it’s nothing short of baffling that not one but two laws still exist that render the murder of a welshman legal. Both Chester and Heresford, English towns, permit the very specific assassination of Welshmen with longbow and crossbow. Of course, there’e only a very small window when the crime is legal. And it would be fairer to say that the shooting is legal. Resultant murder is a bit of a grey area….
1 “Women are able to retain all property they owned prior to marriage in the case of divorce.” 700 A.D.
This one is presently the property of New York State, and despite its seeming precociousness, it’s a law that has its roots in Medieval law. Before divorce was illegal, and then legal again, it was a Medieval legal right. And back then women were entitled to retain all their own property, claim back any dowry exchanged at marriage, and appropriate half of the husband’s property. No custody battles then either - children were divided equally - no quibbles. Which can only have caused problems for the single child. So NY is following historical precedent with this law, which makes it indisputably right. Obviously. Did someone just say something about double standards? Don’t get us started on repression!
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