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.
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.
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 There is no evidence the city ever repealed the law.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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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: