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Thread: The Laws of Middle Earth

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The Free Peoples of Middle Earth quite clearly had their own legal systems, of which we learn a certain amount, by way of snippets and asides, in The Hobbit and the LOTR. I wonder to what extent their legal systems were influenced by one another, and whether, in the Fourth Age, the laws of Gondor assumed precedence, either by decree (unlikely) or acceptance and assumption (rather more likely). The Shire seems to have been a common law jurisdiction, with quite well developed inheritance law and possibly land law. Their constitutional law looks to have been customary, and fairly minimal. What about their criminal law? Would a rumbustuous Hobbit who fought it out with a Shiriff or the landlord of an inn end up in the stocks on market day, perhaps? The laws of Gondor may well have been the oldest laws of Men, and seem to have comprised constitutional and public law, and possibly military law - other branches of their law may have existed. Also, I get the impression that the source of law in Gondor seems to have been an ancient code rather than common or customary law, as in the Shire. Elvish law has to be the oldest, although we learn very little about it, beyond the fact that it existed. I wonder, did Elvish law in any way influence the laws of Men, particularly the Laws of Gondor? And what about Rohirric and Dwarvish law? Does anyone have any references from JRR's key works that shed any particular light? And, as a role playing exercise (LARP even?) how about Up Before the Beak for Drunk and Disorderly in Hobbiton? Or the inheritance of a title, or an ancient sword, in Gondor or Rohan? Or Treasure Trove in Dwarvish Civil? Or Ultra Vires alleged against a Steward of Osgiliath? Any input from Fifth Age legal eagles very much appreciated!

Eohelm...The only thing i can contribute is that the Professor said the shirrifs were the nearest thing the Shire had to "police"...although they were mainly concerned with managing the Haywains at harvesting appears they had powers of arrest...vis the very amusing scene when the four hobbits were arrested upon their return to the Shire....Although this power may have only evolved following the ascendency of "Sharkey" appears the Shire did have a kind of prison...i.e. the "lock Holes".. I think they were at Michel Delving....?

The Proffesor remarks that the Shire had no "government" as such...The Post of "Mayor" and the "Thain" seem to have been mostly honorary titles...however originally The Shire was part of the Kingdom of Arnor; and as such it is remarked that the hobbits mostly kept to the "old laws"; because they were good & just...presumably the laws of Arnor ?....

Anybody else have  a thought....?

Interesting observation, Alana, on Shire law being a descendant of the Laws of Arnor - which, by the end of the Third Age, would have been very ancient indeed.  Of course, this would pose the question of 'what do we know of the laws of Arnor?'    To the best of my knowledge, the answer to that is 'virtually nothing' unless by looking at their descendant or derivative, the customary law of the Shire - which takes us back to where we began.  

You're quite right, of course, about the normal peacetime functions of the Shiriffs - I think the Professor described them as 'more concerned with the straying of beasts', and, as you say, as 'haywards' - the most rural of rural police.   He does mention reinforcements for such duties as 'beating the bounds', ie border patrols when these were needed,  and of course we know about the transformation the force underwent after the coming of Sharkey - not being allowed to resign, for instance.

As to the power of arrest, it's difficult to decide whether this had existed before Sharkey's time, although we can imagine,  from our own history, that it did; likewise the Lockholes.  While they may have been a Sharkey innovation,  it would be difficult to imagine a rural community without any provision at all for reproving the incorrigibly  badly behaved from time to time - and we know that the populace of the Shire did include some bad characters, although they were likely to have been pretty small beer by Fifth Age standards.

Then, of course, we would need to think about who took judicial decisions.  As you pointed out,  the Professor described the duties of the Mayor as 'mainly presiding at banquets.'   We my imagine there were other minor functions which arose from time to time, such as Frodo's taking on himself the decision to reduce the number and powers of the Shiriffs - which is, in itself, quite a major executive decision.  If a Mayor could do this,  it is quite likely that he could take other decisions, including calling and presiding over meetings of leading citizens of a village, or of the Shire, as and when required, for example if a bridge over a watercourse fell into disrepair and a community effort was needed - or, perhaps,  sentencing a thief or a quarrelsome braggart to a week in the cells.

Has anyone any thoughts about Shire civil law?  We know about the existence of wills, and that there was a requirement for seven witnesses; and also, in The Hobbit, we learn that Bilbo had been Presumed Dead before he returned unexpectedly.   Who proved a will, I wonder?  And what happened if a will was contested?


Any more thoughts from legal eagles or Loremasters?