March 18, 2015
In ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,’ a Document Resonates
The New York Times, 16th March 2015
by Mark Scott.
LONDON — When King John of England and a group of rebellious barons gathered in a marshy field just outside London in 1215, creating a foundation of modern democracy was not on their minds.
Yet Magna Carta — the document that the king and the country’s noblemen eventually agreed to — has gone well beyond its original goal of protecting the barons’ privileges from royal power. It has become a global symbol of an individual’s rights against despotic rule.
Written in dense Latin on sheepskin parchment, it evolved from a peace treaty for England’s warring nobility to an inspiration for the passage of the United States Bill of Rights and other historic events. That progression is the focus of “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” a six-month exhibition that opened last week at the British Library in London.
Drawing from the British Library’s extensive collection of medieval and contemporary artifacts, the exhibition includes two of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215. There are also several high-profile pieces from abroad, like Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence — the display being only the second time that the New York Public Library has lent it to an institution outside the United States.
The show is part of a yearlong series of events across Britain to celebrate Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, as well as to call attention to the document’s significance in Britain, where many people are unaware of its role in establishing the universal principle that no one, not even a king, is above the law.
While that mattered to the American founding fathers drawing up the Declaration of Independence, Britain, with its unwritten constitution, has often taken for granted values that Magna Carta pioneered, like the right to a fair trial and no taxation without representation.
“Most people don’t have a clue what Magna Carta even says,” said Claire Breay, lead curator of medieval and earlier manuscripts at the British Library. “But it’s become a rallying cry for people who are fighting against tyrannical rule. It’s a symbol for the common man.”
The exhibition covers the medieval manuscript’s role in both the American and French revolutions and chronicles its growth in significance over the centuries. With items ranging from the two Magna Carta manuscripts (one of which was badly damaged in a fire in the 18th century) to a copy of a 1963 speech in which Nelson Mandela invoked Magna Carta when criticizing South Africa’s apartheid government, the show explores how various generations have harnessed the document.
The exhibition also shows how Magna Carta gradually became ingrained in the public consciousness. For example, it includes 19th-century teapots and other trinkets once sold on street corners, depicting British politicians, like the radical John Wilkes, holding Magna Carta as a symbol for a quest for greater voting rights.
Almost a third of the exhibition is devoted to explaining Magna Carta’s roots in medieval England. For example, several intricately painted Anglo-Saxon parchments depict life in the era of King John. And there is a decree written in now barely legible Latin from Pope Innocent III annulling Magna Carta around 10 weeks after it was agreed to in the summer of 1215. (A revised version was reissued a year later.)
Drawing on original documents like the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Virginia Declaration of Rights of June 12, 1776, the show courses through history. Again and again, it highlights moments when Magna Carta went beyond its medieval English roots to galvanize people from America to India to demand greater control over their everyday lives.
“Magna Carta speaks to what lies at the heart of our values,” said Philip Buckler, the dean of Lincoln Cathedral in the north of England, which is home to one of the four original copies of Magna Carta. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his inaugural speech of 1941: “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the Middle Ages.
“It was written in Magna Carta.”