Thursday, April 12, 2007

The laws of King Mangrai as myth or history? (Kirsch)

Thomas Kirsch review of: Wichienkeeo, Aroonrut and Gehan Wijeyewardene, translators and editors. The Laws of King Mangrai (Mangrayathammasart). The Wat Chang
Kham, Nan Manuscript from the Richard Davis collection. Canberra: Department of Anthropology, The Australian National University, 1986, in the Asian Folklore Studies, 1987, vol. 46 / 2 (Note: All back issues of this long-running journal appear to be online now)

This book review has a nice parry to a slightly dyspeptic Michael Vickery:
"In addition, the text might be examined for its historical contribution. In this regard, Wijeyewardene supports the caution urged recently by Vickery on the historical value of such documents. Vickery (1979: 170) sees them as a " confused mixture of fact and fancy due to people who were grossly ignorant of the facts of the past." Be that as it may, Vickery's comment suggests another perspective for these texts. If they are mixtures of fact and fancy, they might usefully be viewed from an anthropological framework: as "myth " rather than as "history." The Mangrai code, grounded in the heroic exploits of the founder King and in Buddhist dharma, evokes a Malinowskian " primeval reality " which provides a sanction and charter for the institutions of a dynamic Lanna Thai social order. Viewed as " myth," the text's facticity is irrelevant both from the perspective of the text producer and contemporary analysts. Thus, viewing this volume, we might profit from O'Connor's (1981: 224) suggestion that " law is a culturally constituted mode of analysis that projects an indigenous theory of society." As such, it must be studied symbolically as well as historically."
I would care to differ on one point though. If the text is viewed as myth, i.e. as intellectual history, there is still the issue of what age or era this intellectual history belonged to. Not to ask this question is to presuppose that Lanna's intellectual history was static and unchanging (continuity dominates all change) a big assumption which needs at least to be pulled apart and investigated in further depth. A recent paper by Grabowsky attempts to tackle this sort of intellectual history, when it enumerates and analyses the causes behind the fall of Chiang Mai to the Burmese (c. 1557) given in contemporaneous interpretations of events:
"Which were the deeper causes of Lan Na’s fall that were responsible for the loss of her independence? How far can these causes be dated back? Even the contemporaries gave no rational explanation in a modern sense. They saw first of all that it was the work of the spirits and demons in taking revenge for severe violation of ritual prescriptions (NT: khüt). But economic and ecological reasons were known as well, even if they were mostly mentioned as atypical incidents. A chronicle summarises the complex causes in eleven points ...Seven out of the eleven ... causes are related to violation of ritual regulations, but Cause 4 and Cause 10 cite the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources of the land as the causal factor. The drying up of the Huai Kaeo and other flowing waters hampered the drinking water supply of the town. Moreover, the unscrupulous cutting down of the trees in the forests (deforestation) in areas further away from Chiang Mai city had upset the ecological equilibrium in the plain of the Ping river and, perhaps, also have led to a reduction in rice production." (Grabowksy, 2004, pages 27-29)
The contents of the Lanna law books seems broadly similar to that of Burmese Dhammathats
"The first two sections relate to Mangrai, his accomplishments and the proclamation of his laws, " not contrary to dharma "..., thereby freeing his citizens from previously oppressive rule. ...Broadly, the initial part of the text... seems to be a circumstantial listing of offenses, varying conditions and appropriate punishments, mostly in the vernacular. The final part has a more didactic quality, consisting of parables illustrating pertinent principles and sprinkled with Pali terms."
Not exactly bedtime reading, the most memorable part of my brief perusal of a version of the Mangrai Dhammasat was a long list of different adulterous situations and the legal remedies for each:
"Issues of marriage, separation, divorce, inheritance and sexual behavior seem to be most numerous. Questions of theft, liability and homicide figure prominently. Civic responsibilities, proper official conduct, the status of slaves, ritual offenses, precedence and hierarchy, counterfeiting, trespass and negligence also occur. Fines appear to be the preferred form of punishment though banishment, mutilation and execution are allowed under proper circumstances."
Might be useful comparatively in the writing of social history as scholar of Burmese law Andrew Huxley suggests, particularly of the family:
"Overall, the code evokes an image of a social order grounded in Buddhist principles, hierarchically organized, but composed of individuals responsible for their actions, whose intentions and circumstances must be considered in determining the King's justice. The code is more one of restitution than of repressive sanctions."

Also check out in the same journal Anthony Walker's review of: Premchit, Sommai Amphay Dore. The Lan Na Twelve-Month Traditions. Chiang Mai: Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, 1992.


Grabowsky, Volker (2004). "The Northern Tai Polity of Lan Na (Babai-Dadian). Between the Late 13th to Mid-16th Centuries: Internal Dynamics and Relations with Her Neighbours, Asia Research Institute Working Paper, National University of Singapore, No. 17, January 2004. [Link]

O'Connor, Richard (1981) "Law as indigenous social theory: A Siamese Thai case," American Ethnologist 8: 223-237.

Vickery (1979) "The Lion Prince and related remarks on northern history," Journal of the Siam Society 67: 123-186.