Magna Carta, Still Posing a Challenge at 800

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 ● Magna Carta at 800: we are still enjoying the freedoms won

 ● How views have evolved, and split By Elizabeth Papp Kamali (Harvard Gazette)

Amid all the celebrating, the years of planning, of conferences, exhibits, speeches, papers, symposia and encomia extolling Magna Carta, it might seem churlish to take another view. But there are some legal scholars who believe that the charter is actually not such a big deal. Our adulation of it, they say, comes from what we believe it to have been in hindsight — not what it was at the time.

According to this argument, even the notion that Magna Carta established many of Western democracies’ most dearly held rights, like the right to trial by jury and the right not to be imprisoned arbitrarily by the state, is a misreading of history.

“The myth of Magna Carta lies at the whole origin of our perception of who we are as an English-speaking people, freedom-loving people who’ve lived with a degree of liberty and under a rule of law for 800 years,” said Nicholas Vincent, a professor at the University of East Anglia and the author of “Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction.”

“It’s a load of tripe, of course. But it’s a very useful myth.”

For one thing, as Jill Lepore pointed out recently in The New Yorker, the original Magna Carta in fact lived a short life and died an obscure death.

It was not seen at the time as marking a great moment in democratic history. Nobody had a chance to follow any of its provisions. Almost immediately after agreeing to it, King John prevailed on the pope to annul it. (In an instance of, perhaps, poetic justice, John died of dysentery shortly afterward.)





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