society in Egypt must be sought for in a period which is not
covered by the sources available to us.
Old and Middle Kingdoms (3i88-c. ijoo B.C.)
During the period of the Old Kingdom Egypt was governed
by a strictly absolute monarchy. The king was the sole legis-
lator. The cult of the Ruler raised him to a divine status and
made it a religious obligation to perform his commands. Not
only had he full power over the life and death of his subjects,
but he could also control their labour and their property. But
this 'superior ownership' of the king did not impede the develop-
ment of a system of private law. At any rate not all land was
administered as Crown property, for there were estates which
could be the subject of legal transactions concluded between
private persons. To an even greater extent chattels could be the
subject of private ownership.
A person could validly acquire the ownership in any object
only either by giving some consideration for it or under a
special document, the so-called 'house-document5,1 drawn up by
the former owners and setting out the transfer of ownership.
Thus Egyptian law distinguished between acquisition for a con-
sideration and acquisition by gift, and it checked the mating
of gifts through its insistence upon the necessity for such a
document. This 'hostility to gifts' is a peculiarity which is to
be found later in the Germanic codes and also in the code of
the Akkadian King Hammurabi (1791-1749 B.C.); but so far
as we know it makes its first appearance in the law of Egypt.
Such 'house-documents' were also drawn up in the case of a
sale of valuable objects. The declaration of the former owner
that he was willing to transfer the ownership in the object was
noted on a piece of papyrus, followed by the names of three
witnesses who had heard the declaration. Some high official then
rolled up and fastened the papyrus with a seal, so as to make
1 Imytpr—an accurate translation of this word has not yet been found.