40 Unusual Laws in History
40 Unusual Laws in History

40 Unusual Laws in History

Tim Flight - November 14, 2019

40 Unusual Laws in History
At least there’s plenty to smile about in Milan, like the magnificent Duomo. The Culture Trip

20. In Milan, it’s been illegal not to smile since the 19th century

A strange and obscure city ordinance from Milan demands everyone in the city smiles. Grumpy looks are punishable by fines, but if you’re at a funeral or visiting a hospital you’re exempt. Why you have to smile is hotly debated. The law dates to the Austrian rule of the city, so perhaps it meant to force people to accept foreign governance. That said, dissidents would presumably be harder to spot. Another theory suggests the Austrians thought a happy-looking city would encourage others to visit, settle in, or trade with Milan. Whatever the law’s origin, though, it’s never enforced today.

40 Unusual Laws in History
The Trinity Test of the atomic bomb, New Mexico, July 1945. The Atlantic

19. Swiss law made it illegal for homes not to have access to nuclear bunkers in 1963

During the Cold War, people around the world lived in utter terror of nuclear weapons. After seeing the devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people worried US-Soviet relations would cause all-out nuclear warfare. Most nations resorted to making public information leaflets to teach people how to survive an attack. Switzerland went one further. In 1963, the Swiss government passed the first measures to make sure every inhabitant had access to a nuclear shelter. These laws are still enshrined in Articles 45 and 46 of the Swiss Federal Law on Civil Protection. Most buildings erected since 1963 have their own bunkers.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Edward III, depicted in a manuscript from Bruges, c.1430 -1440. Wikimedia Commons

18. In 1336, Edward III of England passed a law to stop people getting fat

Obesity isn’t just a modern phenomenon. In 1336, Edward III of England got so sick of his chubby soldiers he passed laws to make them diet. In the law’s words, obesity made people ‘not able to aid themselves nor their liege Lord in time of need’. The law banned people eating more than 2 courses at mealtimes. It also defined soup as a separate course to prevent people calling it a sauce or condiment. Edward also saw overeating as a wider social evil which made people poorer and more sinful. 3 courses could be enjoyed on Feast Days, however.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Ducking, also known as swimming, a witch in an 18th-century woodcut. WordPress

17. Trial by ordeal was pretty common in the medieval period and beyond

Like trial by combat, trial by ordeal relied upon God helping innocent people, and developed c.500 AD. The accused would have to undertake a painful task to prove their innocence. This could be walking a certain distance through open fire or holding a red-hot piece of metal for a while. Charlemagne, the famous king of the Franks, had the accused and accuser hold up a side of a cross each. The first to lower their side lost. You’d have a much better chance if given bread blessed by a priest. So long as you didn’t choke, you were innocent.

40 Unusual Laws in History
An appropriately small bag of potatoes. Thompson and Morgan

16. In Western Australia, it’s still illegal to possess more than 50kg of potatoes

Watch out, potato-lovers of Western Australia. Since 1946, it’s been illegal to own possess more than 50kg of spuds. Like many absurd other laws on this list, the potato stricture does have a reasonable origin. In 1946, Australia was recovering from the ravages of World War II. With food scarce, many sought to profit from selling commodities at inflated prices on the black market. Preventing the stockpiling of potatoes, an important food, the Western Australian government hoped to ameliorate the supply crisis. These days, the law preserves the farmers’ monopoly and ensures prices are in their favour.

40 Unusual Laws in History
William the Conqueror depicted on the Bayeux-Tapestry, Kent, UK, c.1070. H for History

15. If you committed slander under Norman Law, you had to pay damages and stand in a marketplace holding your nose telling everyone you were a liar

During the Norman period of English History (1066-1154), kings were hot on name-calling and slander. The first Norman king, after all, spent his whole life being called ‘William the Bastard’ because his parents weren’t married. Under their law, someone found guilty of slander had to pay a huge fine to the victim. Then they had to stand in a marketplace – the center of a medieval town – and hold their nose. In this ridiculous pose, the convicted would inform all passers-by of their crime. Public humiliation has long been an effective means of preventing crime.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Village stocks in Hungerford, West Berkshire. British Listed Buildings

14. An existing Act of 1405 means any English place without stocks is a hamlet

On the subject of public humiliation, the stocks are a quirky part of English History. First mentioned in 1227, stocks are wooden devices to restrain people in one place. Persistent naggers, liars, drunkards, and petty thieves found themselves locked in stocks, where locals pelted them with rotten fruit or dung. Medieval English law demanded that all parishes running their own affairs possessed their own stocks. An Act of 1405 states that any village without stocks is, in fact, a mere hamlet, with fewer rights. Since this law has never been repealed, there are some very large hamlets in England!

40 Unusual Laws in History
Portrait of Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1497-1543. Wikimedia Commons

13. The City of London banned long beards during Henry VIII’s reign

In the 16th century, the Alderman of the City of London passed a law against ‘persons with great beards’. It’s unclear why, but the rest of the Ordinance also warns people to be suspicious of those wearing ‘outrageous breeches’. Presumably, the City of London experienced problems with bearded hooligans in silly trousers during Henry VIII’s reign. It’s no longer enforceable, which is a relief to London’s many hipsters passing through the Square Mile. Unconfirmed legends persist that Henry himself passed a tax on beards during his reign.

40 Unusual Laws in History
A banquet is prepared on a 4th-century mosaic from Sicily. Wikimedia Commons

12. Laws in Ancient Rome were meant to stop people wasting money on frivolous clothes and banquets

Back in the days when Rome had kings, the government sought to protect the Roman people from frivolity and excess. They placed limits on how much someone could spend on banquets and items of clothing. However, such laws also became a means of social control. Simultaneously, these strictures (known as sumptuary laws) made certain restrictions based on a person’s social status. Togas, for instance, could only be worn by Roman citizens, and purple by royalty. Other clothes and bits of jewelry could only be worn by high-status citizens. You could learn a lot about someone in Ancient Rome from their appearance.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Pilgrims Going to Church, an 1867 painting by George Henry Boughton, shows the austere dress favoured by most Puritans. Wikimedia Commons

11. Massachusetts banned people from wearing fancy clothes in the 17th century

Sumptuary laws like the Roman ones we’ve just learned about have been passed throughout history. They even reached the New World with the Pilgrim Fathers. But where elsewhere rules about dress tried to maintain the rigid social hierarchy, the Puritans had moral motivations. The Puritans preferred modest and practical clothing and raged against the vanity of ‘new and immodest fashions’ from Europe. In 1634, the Plymouth General Court banned lace and silver and gold thread altogether. These laws didn’t last long, however, as the first European settlers got seriously rich, and wanted to look good.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Carnival time in St Mark’s Square, Venice. Points and Travel

10. Prostitutes in Venice had to wear yellow in the 1420s

As an important trading port, medieval Venice provided a home for many prostitutes. Men who’d been at sea for months came to shore hoping to have a good time before their next voyage. In 1360, the Venetian government tried to control prostitution by confining brothels to the Castelletto area near the Rialto market. Still, the trade grew, and the government wanted to capitalize on increased tax revenue. Thus in the 1420s, in order to accommodate more red-light districts, they established further areas, but forced all prostitutes to wear the color yellow to avoid confusion.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Chester, UK. Trip101

9. In the early 15th century, the city of Chester banned Welshmen from being there at night ‘under pain of decapitation’

Between 1400 and 1415, Wales got sick of being bullied and exploited by its noisy neighbour, England, and rebelled. Led by Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh were ultimately unsuccessful after a series of bloody battles for independence. In 1403 the Earl of Chester was so worried he passed a notorious anti-Welsh law. He banished all Welsh sympathizers from Chester, a city near the Welsh border. Worse still, he banned all Welshmen from Chester between sundown and sunrise ‘on pain of decapitation’. There is no evidence the city ever repealed the law. The Earl, by the way, later became King Henry V.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Newmarket is still the home of horse racing today. Club Cavallo Italia

8. It used to be illegal to blow your nose on the street in Newmarket

Newmarket, in Suffolk, UK, is the birthplace of horse racing. The sport dates back to the 12th century in Newmarket, but James I popularised it after building a palace there in 1606. From this time, the sport increased in popularity and became a big business. So big, in fact, the town passed laws to protect the horses. It used to be illegal to blow your nose in the street, lest the valuable racing horses caught your sickness. Further, anyone walking around ‘with a head cold or distemper’ had to pay a hefty fine. Both laws have now been repealed.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Many people simply bricked up their windows to avoid paying the tax. Amusing Planet

7. The Window Tax of 1696 gave us the expression ‘daylight robbery’

In 1696, Parliament first passed the notorious Window Tax. This ingenious scheme charged people tax based on the number of windows on their house. The more windows, the bigger the house, and the wealthier the owner: fair enough? Well, the English did not respond at all positively. The king, William of Orange, was taxing light, for goodness’ sake! In response, many people simply bricked up their windows to avoid paying the tax. Parliament scrapped Window Tax in 1851. The expression, ‘daylight robbery‘, comes from the Window Tax. Rather than robbery in broad daylight, it means the literal theft of daylight.

40 Unusual Laws in History
This ‘witch’ would find herself on the wrong side of the law a few hundred years ago. Good Housekeeping

6. The Witchcraft Act of 1736 made it okay to be a witch, but illegal to pretend to be one

Witchcraft used to be illegal around the world. In England, witchcraft became a criminal (rather than ecclesiastical) offense after the Witchcraft Act of 1604. But when the furore over witches died down, a new age of enlightenment took over. Thus, the 1736 Witchcraft Act took a different stance. This repealed the preceding legislation that punished witchcraft with death. However, it had an interesting caveat. The Act made it illegal for anyone to ‘pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft. In other words, being a witch was fine, but pretending to be one got you a year in prison!

40 Unusual Laws in History
The accused arrives in court… New York Post

5. A 1542 law passed in Scotland made it possible to punish a corpse for treason

With all the topsy-turvy events and power changes in 16th century Scotland, someone was always out for revenge or restitution. It’s no surprise, therefore, that post-mortem punishment for treason got introduced in 1542. During the reigns of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her son James VI, corpses regularly appeared in court. Officials exhumed corpses and often embalmed them for the occasion. The only prohibition stated that prosecution had to take place within 5 years of the traitor’s death. A corpse on trial is one thing, but a skeleton charged with treason is just plain silly.

40 Unusual Laws in History
David Bowie turned down a knighthood in 2003, albeit without the threat of having all his possessions confiscated. Townsquare

4. In 1233, it became illegal to refuse a knighthood in England

You’d think getting a knighthood would be a great honor, but you’d be surprised. Back in the medieval period, being made a knight cost loads of money. You had to buy loads of silly clothes and ceremonial suits of armor and give liberal amounts to the king. Oh, and risk your life in battle. In 1233, tight-fisted Roger of Dudley refused to attend his own knighting ceremony after realising how much it’d cost. Alas for Roger, the last laugh came at his expense, quite literally. Henry III immediately passed a law against refusing knighthoods, and confiscated the ungrateful swine’s lands.

40 Unusual Laws in History
Queen Elizabeth II with two of her corgis, 1970s. The Independent

3. George I passed a law making it illegal for a commoner’s pet to fornicate with a royal animal

During George I’s reign (1714-27), power shifted from monarch to parliament, with Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. This didn’t stop George passing some silly laws, however. Most famously, he didn’t want common animals getting too familiar with his own. ‘The severest penalties will be suffered by any commoner who doth permit his animal to have carnal knowledge of a pet of the Royal house’, roared the legislation. The ‘severest penaltys’, by the way, potentially meant execution. It’s still illegal to let your pets copulate with royal animals, though the UK scrapped the death penalty long ago.

40 Unusual Laws in History
A man dressed as Batman is arrested. NBC Los Angeles

2. Batman wouldn’t have lasted long in 17th century England

During Charles II’s reign, a group of vigilantes found themselves on the wrong side of the law. All apprentice boys, they tried to destroy a brothel in 1663. Unfortunately, they wound up standing trial for high treason, since ‘for men to go about to pull down brothels, with a captain and an ensign… who is safe?’ The Chief Justice convicted them. A few decades later, yet more crusaders against sin tried to burn down a brothel, and got convicted of treason. The judge acknowledged brothels ‘a nuisance’, but said destroying them took ‘the right out of the queen’s hand’.

40 Unusual Laws in History
1869 depiction of a sow and her piglets put on trial at Lavegny. Wikimedia Commons

1. In the middle ages, animals could be tried in courts for criminal offenses

Our final item may well be the stupidest of our weird laws. Across Europe in the middle ages, people sometimes tried animals in court. Small animals, such as mice and insects, got ecclesiastical trials for destroying grain or damaging churches. Such small-fry usually got excommunicated. Larger creatures like pigs and horses faced secular prosecution for injury or murder and usually got a death sentence. One man in France, whose pig killed a young child, got convicted of negligence, but the animal was hanged for murder. Though we treat animals better these days, we thankfully don’t treat them this much like humans!

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

My London News – The Remarkable Reason Why The Queen Owns All Of The Swans In England

National Geographic Channel – Wacky Texas Laws: Guess Which of These 4 Are Real

Library of Congress – Odd Laws of the United Kingdom

Slater Gordon Lawyers – 14 Of The Most Obscure Australian Laws You’ve Never Heard Of

USA Today – Weirdest Laws Passed In Every State

The Connexion France – Women Wearing Trousers Was Illegal In France Until 2013

AEON – Why The Trial By Ordeal Was Actually An Effective Test Of Guilt

JSTOR Daily – When Societies Put Animals on Trial

Medium – 10 Animals That Were Put on Trial

Bartlett, Robert. Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Bratskeir, Kate. “The Craziest Laws That Still Exist In The United States”. The Huffington Post, January 22, 2016.

Cawthorne, Nigel. The Strange Laws of Old England. London: Piatkus, 2004.

Davies, Lizzie. “French Woman Marries Dead Partner”. The Guardian, November 17, 2009.

Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Lauter, Deborah. “Women in Paris Finally Allowed to Wear Trousers”. The Daily Telegraph, February 3, 2013.

Riello, Giorgio, ed. The Right to Dress: Sumptuary Laws in a Global Perspective, c. 1200-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

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