July 10, 2014


Magna Carta turns 800 : Eight centuries of freedom is a big deal (Hugh Harley 12 July 2014, The Spectator)

In recent decades, much new light has been shed on English society of the 1100s and 1200s. Popular perception has been of a static, essentially feudal society. Consistent with this, many have sought to disparage the Magna Carta as reflecting no more than the greed of the English barons, largely an economic document with just two of its 63 clauses enjoying enduring significance to the evolution of legal rights -- clause 39 ('except by the lawful judgment of his peers') and clause 40 ('to no one will we deny or delay right or justice'). Neither, of course, is a bad start but to see it quite so narrowly misses the broader point.

Taken together, the 63 clauses of the 1215 version reflect a sophisticated and prosperous society, more similar to our own than we generally appreciate. Marriage, taxation and fines, the operation of the fledgling court system and debt collection are all covered. But it also deals with the freedom of international traders, a national system of measures, town creation, bridge building and the enclosure of forests and streams. In trying to understand better the significance of the Magna Carta as we approach 2015, this point about a sophisticated and prosperous society is critical. The fact is that the period leading to the Magna Carta was one of extraordinary change and innovation in England.

Consider the following: invention (the windmill, 1185), urbanisation (57 new towns between 1180 and 1230), education (Oxford 1167, including a school of business from the early 1200s, and Cambridge 1209), energy (the first coal to London, 1228), infrastructure (London Bridge completed in stone, 1208), currency (halfpennies and farthings, 1180), public and private record-keeping (hence continuous price, wage and monetary data from the early 1200s) and international trade (hence London's ascension over Winchester as the primary place of government by the late 1100s). The popular 'feudal' conception may be a good description for Continental Europe, but almost certainly not for England. As one English writer of the day noted, 'no one who wanted to make money need ever die poor'. London and the other rising towns proved magnets for commerce -- there was legal and economic substance in the popular saying 'town air makes you free'. That is the context for the Magna Carta.

Posted by at July 10, 2014 7:15 PM

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