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The Underselling of Magna Carta

Atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London: 10 years later

Atop St. Paul's Cathedral, London: 10 years later

This article first appeared at CNSNews.

The exhibition on Magna Carta at the British Library in London is certainly worth seeing. The document was sealed on June 15, 1215, which means that (allowing for intervening changes in the calendar) its 800th anniversary arrives on June 25th of this year.

The exhibition includes an array of artifacts, documents, and other items that exemplify Magna Carta’s background, its negotiation and sealing, and how later generations turned it into an international symbol of human freedom. In addition, the British Library website features a plethora of information and commentary on the document.

A lot of people did a lot of good work to make this happen.

There are a few shortcomings, however.

Some of these relatively minor. The organizers selected two American public figures to offer video insights, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Bill Clinton. The selection of Justice Breyer was eminently appropriate, but for the other slot I suspect they could have found someone other than a disbarred ex-politician with no expertise on the subject. Moreover, the two are ideological comrades (Clinton, in fact, appointed Breyer to the Court), so the organizers left themselves is open to the charge of insufficient political balance.

In response to a request for feedback, I wrote to the British Library’s curator, contending that the exhibition’s most serious flaw was its failure to communicate Magna Carta’s relative universality and liberality. Of course, one should not confuse this Medieval charter with a modern statement of democratic freedoms. And to be fair, the exhibition made some effort to show that the document addressed more than a few feudal technicalities. Overall, however, I suspect the exhibition left the typical viewer with the impression that the Charter was almost entirely about helping out the barons, and that its subsequent influence was attributable to how later generations used it.

That impression would be inaccurate. One reason later generations could employ the Charter as a symbol of liberty was that it was not just about helping out the barons.

Chapter 60 of the Charter was a truly extraordinary provision. It imposed an obligation on the barons to grant the same liberties to their own vassals they had just extracted from King John. Chapter 60 should have been front and center, but if it was mentioned at all, that mention was not very conspicuous.

Misleading translation of the instrument’s Latin text also created the impression that the document was less liberal than it was. Several provisions extended rights to every liber homo, which means “free person.” But in the British Library’s exhibit, the phrase is invariably translated “free man.” That, and some of the commentary, may create the impression in viewers that women were excluded from the benefits of those provisions.

The charter also recognized a variety of economic and other rights in women, foreigners, merchants, and even serfs (villani). Many of these provisions foreshadowed rights guaranteed or promoted by the U.S. Constitution, such as the Fifth Amendment’s protection against uncompensated property takings. These provisions received little play.

Moreover, some of the commentary on the British Library website suggests a “politically correct” slant. Here is an example:

Magna Carta contains three provisions for debtor relief. Two of these refer to loans made by Jews, then the ethnic group most identified with money lending. Commentary on the website assails those provisions as “reactionary,” tars the authors of Magna Carta with blame for a pogrom, and claims that through the Charter they attempted “to put an end to” Jewish money lending.

I’m Jewish myself, and I recognize that Medieval Europe could be a pretty miserable place for Jews. But the commentary’s characterization of Magna Carta is simply unfair. The provisions dealing with money lending were relatively moderate terms of debtor relief designed to protect debtors from abusive collection practices and widows and orphans from destitution. They may or may not have been wise, but they were not of the kind that would “put an end to” Jewish money lending. Further, Magna Carta explicitly provided that the same debtor-relief rules it applied to Jewish creditors applied to gentile creditors as well.* The commentary somehow failed to mention that.

It is true that much of the Great Charter’s influence resulted from how future generations employed it as a symbol of freedom. But the document’s authors included some men of vision and generosity. Future generations could make it a symbol of freedom precisely because of that relative generosity. Why Magna Carta was drafted so liberally is not fully understood, but seems to have been partly due to the influence of Stephen Langton, the outstanding biblical scholar then serving as Archbishop of Canterbury; partly due to the influence of liberal ideas then floating in church and intellectual circles; partly the product of enlightened self-interest; and partly the result of the unusually-broad coalition behind the document.

We should not claim for Magna Carta more than its due; but we should not claim for it less, either. With all its faults, it remains for many reasons “The Greatest Constitutional Document of All.”

* * * *
* Chapter 9 applied to debts owed to the king. Chapters 10 and 11 applied to debts owed to Jewish creditors. The sentence stating that the same rules apply to gentile creditors appears only in Chapter 11, but it actually applies to both 10 and 11. (We know this from Magna Carta’s capitalization system; that system, not the arrangement into chapters, is the organization scheme of the original document. The chapter divisions came much later, being attributed to the 18th century legal scholar, William Blackstone.)

Rob Natelson