Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Magna Carta: More Interesting As Idea than As Artifact

The Copy of the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathdral

One of the original copies of the Magna Carta is kept in the Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England. The parchment document is smaller than you might expect – it’s only about 12-inches wide by 18-inches long. The scribe who copied it had remarkably consistent penmanship, but the only people who can easily decipher it are Latin scholars who enjoy plowing through densely written, medieval text --  there are no paragraphs or indentations and none of the 63 clauses is numbered.

Salisbury’s copy of the Magna Carta is actually a copy of a copy of the document to which King John affixed his seal on June 15, 1215 at Runnymede. That agreement was formally recorded a month later on July 15, 1215. The recorded document itself was then copied and distributed. No one knows exactly how many copies were sent out, but the author of Wikipedia’s Magna Carta entry suggests there were more than 40. Of these, 4 survive (besides the one in Salisbury, two are held by the British Library in London and one is held by the Lincoln Cathedral).

As an idea, however, the Magna Carta definitely had legs. Though King John reneged and ended up in a war with the barons (wars between the feudal barons and the king were not uncommon in England at that time), the principles laid down in the Magna Carta did eventually became the cornerstones of British law and its parliamentary system of governing. For Americans, the most important of the Magna Carta’s  63 clauses  is the right to due process.

Salisbury Cathdral

Note: My observations were made during a trip to Great Britain, Italy and S. France in June and July, 2011. I am posting them after my return to the US.

1 comment:

  1. Re: the penmanship - the thing that always strikes me about the writing apart from the quality is how small it is - maybe the equivalent of a 8 point font?

    The room the Magna Carta is kept in is beautiful in its own right, too.