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Set down these laws

The laws of ancient Rome were engraved onto Twelve Tables that were displayed in the forum for all to see. Cicero lamented that in his time the old tradition of memorizing them all had fallen into disuse.

The laws of ancient England were recorded on vellum. As are, it seems, the more voluminous laws of the modern United Kingdom. The Cabinet Office lamented that in our time this thousand year old tradition was about to fall into disuse, and offered to keep paying to continue a custom that those soulless modernizers in the House of Lords had wanted to jettison on grounds of cost.

My correspondent ARC writes,

“It would appear that minister for the Cabinet Office Matthew Hancock is indeed a Tory when it comes to thousand-year-old traditions. The claim was that using paper would save £80,000 per annum, but he has prevented the change. Being a staunch Tory myself when it comes to such things, I approve wholeheartedly.

There is, alas, no suggestion in the story that any alternative way of reducing the current annual cost of inscribing new laws was considered.”

This is one situation where it it might be beneficial to increase rather than decrease the cost and inconvenience of government. Calves died to give us these vellum scrolls. We dishonour them with this new-fangled mechanical printing. Let us demand that the originator of each Bill personally inscribe his proposed law onto a vellum scroll in a traditional Insular Minuscule hand. And why stop there? Let us follow the earlier and even wiser example set by the assembly of one of the Greek colonies in Italy, Locris, where according to Demosthenes it was decreed

that a man who shall propose to make any new law shall do it with a rope about his neck, which he shall be strangled in, if he do not carry his point: which has been such a guard and defence to the laws, that there has been but one new one made in more than two hundred years.

24 comments to Set down these laws

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    Hanging is too good for those varmints! The Middle-Eastern custom of community stone-throwing should be revived. This would bring the whole family together, and make for interesting TV viewing. Especially if we insist on small stones, so it will take longer!

  • Jon Ravin

    There was a science fiction story perhaps 50 years ago where the Mayor of a town had to wear an explosive necklace that could be triggered by any PO’d citizen. Didn’t know that Demosthenes beat the author out by about 2000 years…

  • thefrollickingmole

    I dont suppose reducing costs by occasionally asking “is this law needed” or “if we shut down this place for 4 years would things get any worse”?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, thanks for the link to the minuscule hand. As it happens, just before I read your posting I had been looking at this ‘n’ that on UT, and one thing led to another as so often happens, and I landed on a video on pre-Roman Britain, when what to my wondering eyes did appear but a reading of Beowulf in Old English. There, the video presents the old script to be ogled (I can’t honestly say “read” by such ignoramuses as YrsTrly) while the gentleman makes these very weird vocal noises.

    Probably spoken Elvish sounds much more couth.

    If anyone’s interested, go to UT-dot-com, then paste:

    /watch?v=_K13GJkGvDw&spfreload=10

    As for the link to Zaleucus, I see by the Great Foot that even three millenia ago they gun-free — er, sword-free — zones. I guess humans was always humans.

  • Alex

    Actually there’s a very good reason to continue using vellum. Traditional iron gall ink on vellum is chemically stable and stays legible for hundreds of years with only normal levels of care. Documents produced using modern inks fade quickly. Even archival grade paper and ink is only rated for 200 years, perhaps 500 years in perfect archival conditions (no exposure to strong light, minimal use, stored in a climate controlled environment).

    We should want the laws and state documents such as parliament records to be as stable as possible so that they can be studied by future generations. Those that fail to study history &c.

    Naturally I agree with the main point – there should be far fewer laws.

  • Alex

    Sorry for double post but I wanted to reply to Julie’s comment:

    …when what to my wondering eyes did appear but a reading of Beowulf in Old English.

    I have studied Beowulf in OE for years, fascinated by the familiarity to modern English and yet the strikingly Germanic form. Perhaps one of the most easily intelligible parts for modern audiences occurs around 43 seconds into the recording you referred to – “þæt wæs gōd cyning” or in modern spelling “that was good kinging”.

  • AngryTory

    Naturally I agree with the main point – there should be far fewer laws.

    There should be a constitution. Twelve stone tablets if you need that many. There is no need for a “Parliament” and no need for any more laws after that.

  • Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.

    The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.
    Tacitus – Annals, Book III, 27

  • Julie near Chicago

    JG: Smart fella, that Tacitus.

    AT: In our case, the laws (statutes) are supposed to be controlled by the Constitution. (I know you know this. I’m just sayin’.) And I think that even if the C. were on twelve stone tablets — even extra-heavy-duty ones — the Three Branches among them would be able to muster the muscle to smash it to dust.

    Alex: I’ve been planning to learn OE myself for years. I even have a textbook or two, and Seamus Haney’s translation of Beowulf, and a different one with the OE on the facing page. Anyway, thank you for the notice. I will be listening to the whole thing, in stages. :>)

  • Mr Ed

    The wondrous Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the RNLI, which provides a free public good throughout the British Isles, (UK, RoI, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands), has a use for vellum, one of its highest honours is the Thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum for an act of courage.

    Seems a far better use for vellum that writing down miserable laws. How many beasts were slaughtered to write down this statute?

  • Runcie Balspune

    I can testify to the indelibility of ink on vellum. As a young man I studied calligraphy under a master of the Painter-Stainers Guild, in the 1970s I did a piece on vellum using traditional ink, paint, gesso and raised gold. My mother still has this document on her wall and it looks like it was done yesterday even after exposure to sunlight and humidity for 40 years.

  • The claim was that using paper would save £80,000 per annum

    Jesus wept. That’s not even a rounding error of a rounding error in the grand scheme of government expenditure.

  • Watchman

    Considering what happened for the next 1,800 years or so (have you ever tried to read Scottish Secretary Hand?) insular miniscule is a lovely hand to read, although the open a’s might cause confusion…

    I suspect that an expensive and tricky way of recording law makes sense – it makes rewriting more difficult. A pulp science fiction writer that I enjoy, Jack Campbell (actually John Henry is his real name), had a nice idea in relation to a mercantilist society with a tendency to change records that people would only actually value the account of ‘hard copy’. If your hard copy is in fact particularly difficult to produce and therefore amend, it becomes more valuable still.

  • Paul Marks

    Romans used to memorise the 12 tables – and Americans used to memorise the Constitution (some still do – the Republican Ted Cruz did in his school days, as Cicero says a good Republican should).

    To be fair Roman Law in the time of Cicero was mostly the case law of the Praetors – and the reasonings of the jurisconsults who adviced them.

    When Rome was a small place non Roman traders (and so on) said they did not understand the 12 tables (and that they were unfair), so the Praetors (the judges) decided disputes in line with natural justice (and Cicero was all in favour of natural law – which could be, contra David Hume, found by human reason over centuries after the manner of the Common Law).

    Cato the Elder had tried to use legislation to achieve all sorts of things – and had failed.

    Legislation (“law” made by politicians) tends to be bad – Bruno Leoni (Freedom and the Law) was correct, if their is no victim there is no crime (or civil tort either) and hence the law has no place. Attempting to “pass laws” to achieve “social goals” is madness – utter folly.

    The Victorian Maitland (who confuses the evil ravings of Thomas Hobbes with the tradition of the Common Law – which like confusing fire and water) was wrong in thinking that Parliament had never produced an unjust or irrational statutes – there have been hundreds of them. As for his guide for law “the good of the people” – such a vague guide of jurisprudence is useless (indeed an excuse for harm). British Victorian legal thought is essentially worthless – it is Positivist in its legal philosophy and utilitarian in its general philosophy (more Julius Caesar than Cicero – indeed Cicero went out of the fashion in the 19th century). An Old Whig (such as Chief Justice Sir John Holt or Edmund Burke) would not have been home in elite legal philosophy circles in Victorian Britain – although ordinary people were still essentially natural law Old Whigs till the First World War.

    But good law depends on good judges – who respect the principles of natural justice (private property based natural law).

    Cicero understood how easy it was for wicked men (Populari) to corrupt the courts – to turn the defender of property into the enemy of property.

    So how the judges are selected (or elected) is of the first importance.

    Are they people of sound PRINCIPLES?

    This must be the question.

  • […] blogger Natalie Solent has suggested a way to radically slow the proliferatino of new […]

  • Fraser Orr

    @Alex
    > Actually there’s a very good reason to continue using vellum. Traditional iron gall ink on vellum is chemically stable and stays legible for hundreds of years with only normal levels of care.

    You know I am thinking that the opposite is a good idea. Write the laws in ink that fades after ten years, so that laws only last that long. They they’d have to re-up the laws every decade or so. This provides two clear benefits, it’d clean out the cobwebs of the laws and keep the bastards in Westminster and Washington to busy to do much more damage.

  • Jordan

    Let us demand that the originator of each Bill personally inscribe his proposed law onto a vellum scroll

    Natalie, I would prefer if cows didn’t go extinct.

  • Eric

    Memorize the law, eh? I would be extremely impressed if someone managed to memorize all 356 volumes of the US legal code.

  • AngryTory

    Have it tattooed onto his own skin, then flay him alive, tan the hide, and then preserve **that** as the law if you must.

  • Richard Thomas

    I have a better idea.

    Let us have it that when our makers of laws wish to propose a law, said law be first tattooed onto the skin of their back.

    Should that legislation pass a vote to become the law of the land, henceforth that skin be flayed from the back of the minister and entered into the archive.

    That ought to slow the buggers down.

    I’m no monster though. The font may be as small as they like as long as it’s legible to the naked eye.

  • Richard Thomas

    Angrytory: I had not read your post when I wrote mine. I guess it must likely be a good idea 🙂

  • Alex

    @Fraser Orr:

    You know I am thinking that the opposite is a good idea. Write the laws in ink that fades after ten years, so that laws only last that long. They they’d have to re-up the laws every decade or so. This provides two clear benefits, it’d clean out the cobwebs of the laws and keep the bastards in Westminster and Washington to busy to do much more damage.

    I think your post is (mostly) in jest but the same thought has occurred to me in the past. There are two problems: the physical volumes are essentially just an archive copy. Firstly there would in all likelihood be no re-recording of the law. Secondly how could it be ascertained that the working copy (at legislation.gov.uk) hasn’t been tampered with (ignoring crypto solutions for the purposes of this discussion)? In effect in such a world the law would be uncertain. A perfect environment for the enemies of civil society.

    It is ultimately about the purpose of the copy on physical media. To my mind it needs to be durable, difficult to tamper with and practical to store – a reliable archive of the law. Other people have different ideas, which is fine, but on this point I suppose I am relatively conservative insofar as I think those that are arguing for a change should demonstrate why it would be superior. Cost is a minor factor as Tim Newman points out above.

    A truly modern solution would be to micro-etch the laws on an analogue archival disk (viewable under microscope). A cryptographic hash calculated from the text used for the etching would serve as a digital seal, it could be widely distributed and then used to determine that any subsequent working copies are true copies. It’d still be relatively expensive but would not require the use of vellum and the manufacturing of analogue archival disks has yet to be brought to scale so the cost has the potential to decrease sharply over time while being an archive grade copy durable for tens of thousands of years.

  • Alex

    That is a digital storage format, I think (but very good indeed, I was aware of the predecessor to that but not the latest announcement which was apparently 2 days ago).

    I was actually thinking of the nickel-titanium disks used for micro-etching the Rosetta disk. I feel this is better in some ways (13,000 pages of text on a physical 3 inch medium) and accessible with very ordinary microscopes.