Most people have heard of the Magna Carta, which celebrates its 8th centenary this year, but few have actually read it. Moreover, although people are aware that it has major significance in the history of human emancipation they are not aware of the context of its invention which is not as liberal a proclamation as we like to think. In fact, as I was informed on Tuesday 24th February at a talk given by Professor Justin Champion, president of the Historical Association, the Magna Carta has a more complex and, at times, suspect definition of liberty.
The list of monarchical concessions was originally outlined in the “Article of the Barons” at Runnymede in 1215 as a peace treaty of sorts between rebelling feudal barons and King John. What is known today as the definitive version of the Magna Carta, was not produced until 1225 however, after substantial revisions by Henry III. Nevertheless, the significance of the original document is not underestimated in its contribution to the kind of liberal thinking that has arguably led to the production of articles such as the Habeas Corpus Act, the American Constitution and even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights!
Considering the tremendous influence the text had on Western culture, it is also interesting to think about what Prof Champion said he noticed when speaking to the public about the text. Most people seemed to have preconceived ideas about it in a similar manner to how the average American would claim knowledge of their government constitution despite never actually reading it (similarly I was reminded of how many Christians make claims about their faith on the basis of a book they have not read). After eight centuries of global influence however, it’s easy to imagine how the full meaning of Magna Carta may have been lost in translation, especially when considering the difficulties of contextualisation in a world that is so different from the world it was created in.
The suspect character of the Magna Carta definition of freedom is rooted in its definition of free men, which only referred to those feudal Barons and Lords of the past with power, prestige and land. Much of the original Magna Carta actually deals with grievances between these men of power and the English Crown; with the peasants of the time being left out. From the context of High Medieval Feudalism to the modern times of Late or Post Modernity, some clauses of the historic text remain relevant and legal. Further than that, it remains a rallying cry and prominent warning for those respectively being dominated and dominating through the arbitrary use of power. The evocative title is so strongly associated with the foundations of democracy it is being considered that a new Magna Carta be created as the constitution of the United Kingdom.
It’s not surprising that surrounding the 800th Anniversary of this unique document will be displayed and commemorated with a special major exhibition at the British Library called: “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy” which will be running from 13th March until 1st September. In addition, a new national initiative is being launched which asks young people to contribute to the possibility of creating a Bill of Rights for the Internet. In the wake of youth political disillusionment in the West, the revelations of human rights’ abuses in the Middle East and widespread controversy about the prevalence of government spying and corporate data mining, perhaps this is one of the last chances for generation Y to have a say in how it wants its online liberties and privacy defined and defended.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally uploaded to TheKnowledge.