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Definition: law from Philip's Encyclopedia

System of rules governing human society, enforced by punishments specified by society itself. The major systems of law are common law, Roman law, and equity.


Summary Article: law
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

rules of conduct of any organized society, however simple or small, that are enforced by threat of punishment if they are violated. Modern law has a wide sweep and regulates many branches of conduct.

Development of Early Law

Law does not develop systematically until a state with a centralized police authority has appeared. For this development a written language is not required, but necessarily the earliest known legal codes are those of literate societies. Examples of early law systems are to be found in the code of Hammurabi (Babylonia), the Laws of Manu (India), and the Mosaic code (Palestine). These codes show what would seem to be the universal tendency of the religious and ethical system of a society to produce a legal order to enforce its ethical and social mandates. In classical antiquity the first codes of law are those attributed to Solon and to Lycurgus.

Roman Law and Its Influence

The first law code in Roman history was the Law of the Twelve Tables, the prelude to the development of Roman law, a highly elaborate system that has had immeasurable influence on the growth of Western law. It was summarized in the Corpus Juris Civilis in the time of Justinian. Roman law developed the distinction between public law (in which the state is concerned directly, e.g., treason and taxation) and private law (concerned with disputes between persons, e.g., over contracts).

The breakup of the Roman Empire under the pressure of the Germanic invasions brought the disruption of the Roman legal administration. Temporarily the codes of Germanic laws eclipsed Roman law in Western Europe. In the simpler Germanic codes the main distinctive element was the use of composition for crimes, but most of the Germanic codes showed at least some Roman influence.

Roman law, together with the Bible, was the basis of canon law, the legal system of the Roman Catholic Church, while Muslim law was derived from the Qur'an and the traditional sayings of Muhammad, and later Hebrew law was based on the Talmud. Feudal law also showed the effects of Roman law, although in theory it was based not upon any concept of the state but on personal relations (see feudalism).

The revival of trade in the commercial revolution, and in the Renaissance brought new developments in maritime law. The study of Roman law itself was also revived, notably at the Univ. of Bologna. It became the basis of most Continental law, as exemplified in the French Code Napoléon, the archetype of codes that govern the jurisdiction of civil law.

Anglo-American Law

In England after the Norman Conquest the feudal law was ultimately replaced by the law of the royal courts, such as the king's bench. The royal courts developed common law, i.e., judicial legislation as opposed to the law of the formally enacted statute. Common law adhered excessively to precedent, and equity, exercised by the king's chancery, appeared, with its reliance upon the dictates of conscience rather than upon precedent.

The two systems became bitter rivals. In the early 17th cent. Francis Bacon championed equity, while such eminent jurists as Edward Coke upheld the common law. In the 18th cent. English jurisprudence stressed natural law (the theory that law must incorporate the natural rights of humans), and the highly influential work of Sir William Blackstone exemplifies the theory.

The work of Blackstone was the most important influence in U.S. law (except for Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, where Continental civil law prevailed). Among those who helped to develop the American concept of law were James Kent and Joseph Story; in constitutional law the most important figure was John Marshall. In the United States the distinctive feature is the coexistence of federal and state law, for the U.S. Constitution limits the sphere in which federal law is supreme.

Bibliography
  • See Hart, H. L. A., The Concept of Law (1961).
  • R. A. Wormser, The Story of the Law and the Men Who Made It (rev. ed. 1962).
  • R. David, Major Legal Systems in the World Today (tr. 1968).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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