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Magna Carta.

In June 1991 avid viewers mere treated to a one-hour television promotion of the latest Robin Hood movie. An early segment of that commercial showed a black-gowned academic passing slowly in front of ivy-covered walls while he explained the thirteenth-century evidence for a historical Robin Hood. Thus was the public at large introduced to Professor Sir James Holt, F.B.A., Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at Cambridge, author of the best single book on the legendary forest outlaw.

Holt also wrote the best book on the Great Charter of 1215, and has now produced a second edition of Magna Carta. It, too, is a stellar performance, combining impeccable and far-reaching scholarship with a graceful style not many medievalists can match.

The 292 pages of the first (1965) edition have now grown to 405, and to the original nine appendices another five have been added. The references and bibliography have been updated, and the index is more comprehensive. While the thematic approach of the first edition remains, it has been well supplemented by a new chapter dealing with "Justice and Jurisdiction" (pp. 123-87). All in all, and despite its considerable increase in price ($10.00 U.S. in 1965 has become $79.95 U.S. today), this second edition of Magna Carta should find a revered place on library shelves.

Why is there a demand for a second edition of a book dealing with something as abstruse as a 777-year old document? For one thing, there is a perennial fascination with Magna Carta itself. Time was when schoolrooms in what used to be known as English-speaking Canada proudly displayed a coloured reproduction of the document, alongside a photograph of the reigning monarch of that day, either George V or George VI. That is all gone now. Yet the fascination with Magna Carta lingers, as witness the thousands who came to see the Lincoln Cathedral copy (one of only four surviving originals) on its two trips to Canada in 1984 and 1990. The men, women, and schoolchildren who peered at a small dimly-lit and well-guarded piece of vellum covered with Latin words (often in an abbreviated script) may have felt outright disappointment - unless, that is, the resident academics explained the enduring significance of the document. If they did, their surest guide would have been Holt's Magna Carta.

The story of Magna Carta should, homever, interest Canadians at a much deeper level. For me in the twentieth century are embarked on yet another constitutional pilgrimage, in a society bent on assuring equal rights for all. Now the "all" of 1215 did not, of course, include nine-tenths of the population: it was restricted to "free men." Nevertheless Magna Carta had within it the seeds of later liberties.

Holt is particularly good at setting Magna Carta in the continental context of the later twelfth century. The drive for "liberties" was not, after all, seen only in Angevin England. The same process was at work in Italy (1183), in Leon (1188), in Aragon (1205), in the German Empire (1220), and in Hungary (1222). What King John did in 1215 had been done before and would be done again in other domains of thirteenth-century Europe, as Holt amply demonstrates in chapter two, "Government and Society in the Twelfth Century" (pp. 23-49).

But why did the crisis occur in John's reign? Partly because, as Holt so well puts it, "the liberties of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were no infection spreading from one country to another; they were part of the very atmosphere" (p. 81). Magna Carta was not just a reaction to John's obsession with taxes to fund his continental imperialism. It occurred because the Angevins, Henry II, and Richard I (father and brother of John) had pressed their wealthy little land too hard at the very time when medieval society was becoming more prone to question authority. Thus "the origins of the rebellion of 1215 mere much older than John's reign and lay much deeper than the shallows of his character" (p. 36). In fact, as Holt later goes on to say, the great Charter "pulled together the work of the twelfth century" (p. 296).

Gone, then is the "bad King John" explanation. Gone, too, is the earlier debunking that saw Magna Carta as little more than a reactionary document which attempted to enshrine the privileges of a narrow feudal class. Some of Holt's best pages show that Magna Carta "assumed legal parity among all free men to an exceptional degree. This automatic acceptance of a cohesive society had important results. The documents of 1215 assumed that the liberties at issue were to be held by a community, not by a series of individuals of this or that status, but by the realm" (p. 278).

It is true that Magna Carta was also inadequate, obscure, and ambiguous. But this had the advantageous (if unforeseen) result of allowing each side in the dispute to claim that it had been given the authority to speak for the realm. Both monarch and subject could, therefore, claim to be supporting the supremacy of law over any individual.

If King John had been less devious and vindictive, or if a committed section of the English baronage had been less determined, there perhaps would not have been any Magna Carta. Perhaps also the English monarchy would have gone the way of the French - though of course Holt is too careful a historian to entertain such a speculation.

What did happen is that, far from assuring peace, Magna Carta provoked war, a war which John lost. His failure ensured Magna Carta's place in our history as the brightest thread running through the rich fabric of British constitutionalism. No one who seeks to discover how and why that thread was first spun or to account for its tensile strength should overlook Holt's masterly book.
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Author:Trueman, John H.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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