From where will we draw our legal impulse?
Friday, August 13, 2010 - 12:06 pm

To the Editor:

Some 1400 years ago, in the Iberian Peninsula, there lived a Germanic tribe, the Visigoths, who had entered Spain and subjected the local Hispanic-Roman population to their rule. The Visigoths had many slaves or slaves or coloni – virtual serfs bound by law to the land they worked.

Slaves and serfs showed a tendency to escape and the extant laws we have of that unfortunate kingdom show how greatly concerned the rulers were with the problem of escaped slaves. Whoever gave hospitality or employed them was subject to heavy fines and public lashings. Inn-keepers had to report any suspected escapee within eight days to the local judge and the police authorities. When identified they were returned to the proper place from whence they had come. There were, of course, many mistaken arrests.

The chronicles tell us that a monk named St. Fructuosus was traveling through the Spanish countryside when some local villagers, seeing him dressed in tatters and barefoot as becomes a monk, set upon him, thinking he was an escaped slave, and beat him mercilessly. The chroniclers say that he was saved only by a miracle. But miracles were few.

By 683 A.D., on the eve of the collapse of the Visigothic state, its royal edicts compelled all subjects to hunt for escaped slaves and if they identified one to assemble in the central square, to compel him, if necessary through torture, to reveal the name of his former owner so he could be returned (or, as we might say, deported). By the end of the 7th century, the entire nation was engaged in hunting out “illegals.”

Slaves had done much of the domestic, agricultural and mining work of the country; slaves served in the Gothic armies which could not do without them. They were needed for their cheap labor yet despised for their social status. When found freely going about their business, these “illegals” were “identified,” hauled before court to prove their legality and punished by being deported back to the place from which they had fled to earn a living.

Well, of course this happened 1400 years ago and not in a highly civilized state of the USA but in Gothic Spain. To the Romans these Germanic tribes were barbarians. Should we consider their barbaric laws superseded by a more humane age? Or will we see the law as the work of wise legislators who have provided us with a model on how to deal with our “illegals?”

Walter Weitzmann, Potsdam