When Material Objects Were Punished by Common Law: The Fascinating History of Deodand

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By Avery Esford

English common law is full of a rich history of obscure and intriguing legal concepts. Perhaps none more so than the concept of deodand, a Latin word roughly meaning ‘a thing forfeited or given to God.’ The concept of deodand originated in England dating back to the 11thcentury and was not abolished until 1846. Deodand legal theory stated that a chattel (personal property) was considered deodand whenever a jury decided that it caused the death of a human. The classic example is if manslaughter had taken place with a knife. If the defendant was not at fault, then the material object that caused the injury would be held responsible. The knife would be forfeited to God. In actuality, the crown would sell the murder weapon for a monetary sum that would be donated to a pious cause.

A more nuanced understanding of deodand only reveals stranger legal concepts. For example, from the 13thcentury onwards there were distinctions that impacted the verdict of the case. If the material object held responsible was static (i.e. a tree) or capable of moving (a wooden cart) different legal reasoning would be applied. Age would also come into account, if an adult was struck and killed by a wooden cart then it would be considered a deodand. However, if a child was struck and killed by the wooden cart, the cart would be spared from deodand. This peculiar English Common Law theory seems beyond reality. A closer examination of the financial benefits reveal why this concept was practiced. Economic motivations embraced deodand’s ability for raising funds for the Crown’s coffers. According to Common Law the funds raised from the sale of the deodand had to be donated to the clergy, however it is unclear how strictly this rule was adhered to by the 17thcentury.

A combination of questionable motivations and a simple lack of cases led to the demise of deodand in Common Law by the 18thcentury. The abolishment of the deodand in 1846 led to the creation of the Fatal Accidents Act that same year introduced by Lord Campbell. Thus closes a strange chapter in English Common Law, one that had a lengthy yet obscure 700-year existence.