BY JOGCHUM VRIELINK. The ‘weird’ laws of many countries, including Belgium, are much more interesting than their urban myths. Much of what now seems incomprehensible goes back to things that legislators at the time cared deeply about. Rulers have been legislating for centuries and many laws that once made sense, now just seem astoundingly bizarre.
A law provides that you may throw Brussels sprouts at tourists, anywhere in Belgium. Do not, however, insinuate that someone is Swedish, as doing so is illegal. Furthermore, there’s a law specifying that you cannot, under any circumstance, wear a red hat on Antwerp’s main shopping street (de Meir). Finally, Belgian women are proscribed from being taller than 5 feet 6 inches…
Well, not really.
All these ‘laws’ exist only in the gullible imagination of pundits on the interwebs, and (slightly more worrisome) in the media. Many of the laws that are popularly claimed to be ‘dumb’ or ‘bizarre’, have no basis in reality whatsoever(1).
However, the actual ‘weird’ laws of many countries, including Belgium, are much more interesting than these urban myths. Much of what now seems incomprehensible goes back to things that legislators at the time cared deeply about. Rulers have been legislating for centuries and many laws that once made sense, now just seem astoundingly bizarre.
Some such Belgian relics, certifiably real, are the following.
1. The Belgian flag is ‘unconstitutional’
Everyone knows the Belgian flag to be a tricolour of black, yellow and red. Surprisingly though, article 193 of the Belgian Constitution states that “[t]he Belgian Nation adopts red, yellow and black for its colours”.
The colour shuffle can be traced back to the period after the Belgian revolution of 1830. The flag indeed started out being red over yellow over black. Its bands, moreover, were horizontal, rather then the present-day vertical ones. Early on, the bands were rotated 90 degrees, most likely for symbolic reasons, while the order was changed for heraldic(2) reasons some time later.
In doing the latter, however, no one bothered to revise the draft Constitution. Nor was the document ever amended afterwards on this point. And thus the mismatch between the actual flag and its constitutional foundation has endured for almost two centuries by now.
2. Independence be damned: Belgian King can mobilise troops in Congo
Even though Congo achieved independence in 1960, the King of Belgium is still officially authorised, by law, to take all necessary measures to mobilise the military in ‘Belgian-Congo’, as well to ensure the protection of the country’s citizenry in the event of war.
The King may even take such measures proactively, in times of peace. Needless to say, this law has not been invoked much, in the last few decades.
3. No Dutch royals on the throne
Have you ever been so mad… you banished someone for all eternity? That’s basically, on a national scale, what a decree of 24 November 1830 did.
The decree debars members of the House of Orange-Nassau (basically: the Dutch royal family) from any position of power or public authority in Belgium, in perpetuity. In theory it not only excludes members of said House from the throne, but also from access to the public sector and from standing for elections.
The decree is considered to have constitutional status, rendering its abolition quite difficult. It goes back to the period immediately following the rule of the Dutch King William I in what is now Belgium, from 1815 until 1830. Suffice it to say that the Belgian revolutionaries found that William’s rule left some room for improvement…
4. None shall take your last cow (or 12 goats), pig and 24 chickens
The Belgian Judicial Code provides a list of goods and items that may not, in principle, be seized by a bailiff (art. 1408), basically in order to safeguard minimal living conditions and means.
While such a list is useful in itself, several of its elements are outdated (at least for most of us). Most notably, it details that a seizure may not lay claim to “a cow, or 12 sheep or goats” (a tough choice), nor can someone’s last (or only) pig “and 24 poultry animals” be seized. Materials required for keeping and feeding said livestock “for the duration of one month” are also precluded from being seized.
5. Only the elderly, cripples [sic], women and children may gather leftover crop
The Field Code of 1866 is another fascinating source of ‘weird’ law. The Code still includes a provision, for instance, that regulates who is allowed to pick up the remains of the crop that are left on the field after harvesting; a practice known as gleaning or gleaning ears (arenlezen).
The Code reserves this right for the “elderly, cripples [sic], women, and children below 12 years of age” (art. 11). These categories of people may glean from sunrise until sunset but, importantly, they may only do somanually: using a rake “with iron teeth” is penalised.
The provision dates back to 1876, when the agricultural schools and the ‘Supreme Council for Agriculture’ wanted to end the abuse that gleaning gave rise to. They demanded a prohibition of the practice, subject only to the right of individual owners to admit citizens to their grounds if they wished to do so.
In response, the legislator, at the advice of a special commission, attempted to reconcile property rights with the needs of the poor, by henceforth permitting only the most vulnerable in society to glean.
6. Dogs and oxen can be requisitioned to propel army vehicles
Quite a few weird laws have to do with advancing technology. To mention just one: a provision in a code concerning the military, dating back to 1939, regulates “beasts of burden (horses, oxen, dogs, etc.)” that can be requisitioned “for vehicles employed by the army”. Always useful for when your drone runs out of fuel.
7. Wives may peddle their husbands’ commercial goods
Another category has to do with evolved gender roles. Though many such discriminatory laws and provisions have been abrogated, article 10 of the Belgian Code of Commerce still permits (only) “the married woman” to “peddle wares from her husband’s business” without thereby herself being subject to the obligations of merchants.
The provision fails to specify whether wives should actually inform their husbands of these transactions.
8. Legal interpreter’s oath is… mistranslated
Not all ‘weird’ laws are remnants of the way in which earlier societies saw and organised things. Legislators also simply make mistakes, and Belgian legislators are (definitely) no exception to this rule.
A common source of such mistakes in Belgium is the country’s multilingualism. An especially ironic example is provided by the oath that interpreters legally have to take, in certain procedures concerning asylum law. The oath is a veritable jumble of archaic terms, ambiguities and mistranslations from the French version. It reads: “Ik zweer getrouwelijk de gezegden te vertolken welke aan personen die verschillende talen spreken, moeten overgezegd worden”.
An attempt at translating this into English, respectful of its linguistic weirdness in Dutch, could result in something like this: “I swear faithfully to impersonate [sic] the sayings [sic] that must be over-said [sic] to persons speaking several [sic] languages”.
For interpreters, of all people, to be forced to read this oath no doubt amounts to a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
9. ‘GAS’: no singing off-key, no playing, no dream interpretation
Another, sheer inexhaustible, source of weird laws, are the so-called Communal Administrative Sanctions (Gemeentelijke Administratieve Sancties, or GAS for short). These relatively minor fines (max. 250 euro), introduced in 1999, were intended to enable local authorities to tackle petty nuisances that were often left unpunished.
The main problem with these sanctions, for the present purposes, is that many municipalities, in drafting their ‘GAS Code’, simply copy-pasted pre-existing local regulations (politiereglementen). Most provisions in these codes are straightforward, tackling garden-variety nuisances like vandalism, littering and noise pollution.
However, since many of these codes date back to the 19th century, they also contain outdated and redundant provisions. Some of the more bizarre examples of behaviour that can be (and often has been) fined in certain municipalities, include the following:
- In Leuven, where I live, street musicians can be fined for playing off-key (art. 424)(3).
- In Lokeren a provision prohibits any and all forms of “fortune telling, interpretation of dreams, quackery, and all related practices” (art. 127). As the provision requires nothing in the way of intent or financial gain, be sure to avoid interpreting even your own dreams while visiting the city.
- Many GAS Codes also restrict children’s games, which in some circumstances can make sense for safety reasons. In many cases, however, this leads to ridiculous rules like those in the GAS Code of the town of Lede (art. 47). Lede only allows games in public places that are specifically designated to that end. In all other public places games are prohibited, unless you obtain prior written permission by the mayor, and on the additional condition that someone is officially charged with enforcing “prescribed safety precautions”. Moreover, this person in charge must present an insurance policy covering any and all possible damages likely to arise. Finally, applications must be submitted in writing, at least 8 days in advance. Wehey! Let the fun and games commence! (in 8 days, that is, after written permission, obtaining insurance, designating a person charged with safety, etc.).
- Finally, it’s worth mentioning that a number of municipalities use GAS to put the ‘duty’ in ‘civic duty’. In Ieper, for instance, people who fail to tell the municipality that street signs have become illegible, risk incurring a GAS fine (art. 1.3.1, 2o). Likewise, in Arendonk, inhabitants can be fined if they neglect to inform the municipal authorities of the presence of oak processionary caterpillars (processierupsen) and brown-tail caterpillars (bastaardsatijnrupsen) (chapter IX, art. 1, section 2 and art. 4, section 2). Lepidopterists are not exempted from the duty.
10. Unweirding: recently abolished laws
Despite no longer being in force, some of these recently abolished laws merit mention here as well:
- Up to just a few years ago it was prohibited for foreigners residing in Belgium to keep pigeons. That’s right, pigeons. If you, as a foreigner, wished to integrate by joining the leagues of Belgian pigeon enthusiasts (duivenmelkers), you were (officially) enjoined from doing so, except if you were fortunate enough to obtain special clearance from the Minister of Justice himself. The provision was part of a Law of 1923, along with many other strangely detailed rules, and had to do with potential military and intelligence use of pigeons.
- Until 2005 only the government was allowed, pursuant to a decree of 1791, to print posters and notices using white paper and black ink. Private citizens were obliged to use coloured paper. The aim, of course, was to avoid any confusion about the status of particular notices. In the years preceding the decree’s repeal, certain parliamentarians repeatedly tried to amend it, albeit mostly with a view of creating an authentic Dutch translation of the decree, which was still in French only, rather than having both a French and Dutch version. First things first, right?
- The criminal provisions entailing penalty mitigation for wounding or killing someone in a duel were also repealed quite recently. Strikingly, the relevant articles, enacted in 1841, were rather progressive at the time. They were intended to tackle the impunitythat often befell duellers, even if they wounded or killed their rival. A famous case concerned Minister of Justice (!) Félix Chazal who was prosecuted in the wake of a pistol duel in 1865, over a political difference of opinion with MP Jan de Laet (who says present-day political debate is aggressive?)(4).
We conclude our overview with a recent abrogation that meant happy tidings for aficionados of vintage porn. In 2009 a 1936 law was abolished that authorised the government to prohibit the distribution or sale of “lewd foreign publications” by blacklisting them. Over the decades the list(s) had grown to include no fewer than 1.584 titles (with some governments being suspiciously well aware of what to ban). From the 1970s onwards the law fell into disuse. As such, most of the blacklisted publications would now be considered far less ‘obscene’ than what’s on sale at any newsstand, let alone what’s readily available online (let me hasten to add: or so I hear).
Many thanks to Paul Cordy, Jelle Flo, Adriaan Overbeeke, Matthias Storme, Joeri Vananroye and Willem Verrijdt for sharing some of their weird legal knowledge with me.
(1) In other cases there is some basis in reality, but either the implications of the laws in question are wildly exaggerated, or it may not concern actual (statutory) laws but case rulings instead, which are subsequently taken out of their context.
(2) The colours of the Belgian flag find their origins in the coat of arms of the Duchy of Brabant, which depicts a golden lion, with a red tongue and claws on a black field. Heraldically, in ‘transposing’ such coats of arms to a multicoloured flag, it is customary for the background colour to come first (black), followed by the colour of the main object (the golden lion) and, finally, the colour(s) of its details (red tongue and claws).
(3) The provision doesn’t literally provide that playing off-key can give rise to a fine. Instead, it states that the musicians’ performance may not give rise to “a disturbance of the public order or peace”. However, local authorities do interpret this provision to prohibit playing off-key.
(4) Chazal was convicted, but King Leopold II pardoned him afterwards. The politicians were poor shots, by the way: De Laet remained unscathed, while Chazal was only slightly injured.