To mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, one of the surviving copies has been touring Canada and is currently on display at Alberta’s Legislature. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a document that not only revolutionized law, but influenced many aspects of human history — from politics and human rights to reading and writing.
This is why the artifact is worth viewing (even if you can’t read Latin).
“Original documents, like original works of art, have a certain power,” says John Considine, a professor in the Department of English & Film Studies who studies the social and cultural history of the English language. Although viewing a reproduction affords the time and solitude to more deeply appreciate an artifact, viewing the original has an undeniable mystique, he says. “You feel as if, by being in the same room with it, you’re experiencing a close connection between the 21st century and the 13th.”
“It’s a Latin document, but most of the people whose lives were affected by it weren’t readers of Latin — most weren’t literate at all.” – John Considine, English & Film Studies
Known as the “Great Charter,” Magna Carta was written in 1215 by a group of rebel nobles unhappy with the reign of King John of England. The charter included a number of important legal principles we take for granted today, including: equal justice at all levels of society, freedom from unlawful detention (habeas corpus) and trial by jury. Copies were distributed among judges and sheriffs until 1279, when an order required a copy to be posted in every cathedral and church for the general population to read.
“One of the things that really interests me about the Magna Carta is that it plays a part in both the story of languages in 13th century England and the story of reading and writing,” says Considine. “It’s a Latin document, but most of the people whose lives were affected by it weren’t readers of Latin — most weren’t literate at all.”
There were likely hundreds of copies in existence by 1300, even though most people relied on others to explain them (much like modern viewers). But the publicly available copies provided proof that the document existed and that its provisions were to be taken seriously. Considine explains that the abundance of copies also signalled a “movement from memory to written record,” as the justice system moved away from proclamations and toward written legal documents.
But while the Magna Carta is foundational to law and modern democracy more generally, the document has been “invoked and recast” many times throughout history for many different reasons. “What happens is that Magna Carta gets re-used for different purposes by different groups,” says English & Film Studies’ Sylvia Brown, who studies the literature, culture, politics and religion of the 17th century.
After the medieval period, for instance, it became important for monarchs and parliament to negotiate their relationship with one another and, in doing so, they frequently invoked the tenets of the Magna Carta. In the 17th century, Magna Carta was used by Parliament to oust Charles I, but also to underwrite even more radical opposition to that same Parliament.
“It’s interesting how the Magna Carta is interpreted in a specific historical moment, often for very specific historical purposes,” says Brown.
The Magna Carta is being displayed as part of a multimedia exhibition titled, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy. It can be viewed at the Borealis Gallery at the Alberta Legislature until Dec. 29, 2015. Edmonton is the last destination on a Canadian tour that began in June 2015.