DEVELOPMENT OF LAW
Law develops as society evolves. Historically, the simplest societies were tribal. The members of the tribe were bonded together initially by kinship and worship of the same gods. Even in the absence of courts and legislature there was law—a blend of custom, morality, religion, and magic. The visible authority was the ruler, or chief; the ultimate authorities were believed to be the gods whose will was revealed in the forces of nature and in the revelations of the tribal head or the priests. Wrongs against the tribe, such as sacrilege or breach of tribal custom, were met with group sanctions including ridicule and hostility, and, the tribe members thought, with the wrath of the gods. The gods were appeased in ritualistic ceremonies ending perhaps in sacrifice or expulsion of the wrongdoer. Wrongs against individuals, such as murder, theft, adultery, or failure to repay a debt, were avenged by the family of the victim, often in actions against the family of the wrongdoer. Revenge of this kind was based on tribal custom, a major component of early law.
Tribal society gradually evolved into territorial confederations. Governmental structures emerged, and modern law began to take shape. The most significant historical example is Roman law, which influenced most of the legal systems of the world. In the 8th century bc the law of Rome was still largely a blend of custom and interpretation by magistrates of the will of the gods. The magistrates later lost their legitimacy because of gross discrimination against the lower (plebeian) class. The threat of revolution led to one of the most significant developments in the history of law: the Twelve Tables of Rome, which were engraved on bronze tablets in the 5th century bc. They were largely a declaration of existing customs concerning such matters as property, payment of debts, and appropriate compensation or other remedies for damage to people. The Twelve Tables serve as a historical basis for the widespread modern belief that fairness in law demands that it be in written form. These tables and their Roman successors, including the Justinian Code, led to civil law codes that provide the main source of law in much of modern Europe, South America, and elsewhere.
The common law systems of England, and later of the United States, developed in a different manner. Before the Norman Conquest (1066), England was a loose confederation of societies, the laws of which were largely tribal and local. The Anglo-Norman rulers created a system of centralized courts that operated under a single set of laws that superseded the rules laid down by earlier societies. This legal system, known as the common law of England, began with common customs, but over time it involved the courts in lawmaking that was responsive to changes in society.
Modern legislatures and administrative agencies produce a much greater quantity of formal law, but the judiciary remains very important because of the continued vitality of the common law approach even in matters of constitutional and statutory interpretations. Increasingly in civil law countries, the subtleties of judicial interpretation and the weight of judicial precedents are recognized as involving the courts in significant aspects of lawmaking.