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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Of Geckos and Troubled Assets

Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), Vol. IV, p. 263, described the now abolished royal court of Star Chamber. He offered some possible explanations for why it was called the “Star Chamber”. One of these explanations is that the court was responsible for punishing the crimen stellionatus, in English cozinage (“stella” being Latin for “star”).

Intrigued by the Latin moniker, and having an interest in Roman law, I looked to see if stellionatus existed in Roman times. It did, referring to a specific type of fraud, which I will explain in a moment. But the term has more colour than mere "fraud" would suggest. In Latin, a stellio was a type of gecko whose spots resembled stars. It was the ancient belief that such geckos could shed their tails to escape from predators.

What has all this to do with the crime of stellionatus? Well, stellionatus occurred when a debtor took out multiple loans, using the same property as security for them, without informing creditors of the other outstanding debts against said property. Thus, when the debtor became insolvent, multiple creditors were left holding worthless property, much as one is left holding a gecko's tail while it makes its escape.

In effect, stellionatus literally meant “behaving like a gecko”. It is rare to find modern legal jargon preserving such earthy and colloquial language. The nearest example I can think of off the top of my head is perhaps “racketeering”. If you can think of others, do let me know.

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