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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: September 2019

The ‘Apparitional’ Magna Carta in the Long Fourteenth Century


The showdown between King John of England and his barons, climaxing with the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, was surely one of the most dramatic and weighty events in the course of medieval English history. The document and the circumstances of its ratification continue to be valorized, perhaps with dubious accuracy, as a key moment in the development of Western human rights and liberties. Such judgments, while reinforcing Magna Carta's mythological status, require some serious historical qualification. First and foremost, one must recognize that the final and ‘official’ version of the document – the one that was reconfirmed by English kings on numerous occasions during the Middle Ages and beyond – was actually ratified in 1225, early in the reign of King Henry III. The 1225 Magna Carta was in many ways a changed document, in terms of its length and organization (it contains 37 articles in contrast to the 63 of the 1215 original), as well as some of its language. Even in its 1225 redaction, however, the grievances expressed were of limited applicability. Cursory examination of the text of Magna Carta would lead one to the entirely reasonable conclusion that it reflects the interests of a tiny population of England, namely, the upper echelons of the landed nobility. Certainly, its specific articles in its earliest form pertained almost exclusively to grievances expressed by that class.

Most importantly, serious scholarship has challenged and decisively defeated the once-dominant view that Magna Carta was instantly recognized by thirteenth-and fourteenth-century Englishmen to be a document that embraced constitutional monarchy and limited government. The concentration of recent research concerning the Charter has generally been devoted instead to its technical dimensions as applied in the courts and (after the late thirteenth century) parliament, for example, its many reconfirmations and, more broadly, the shifting significance of the utilization of its various articles during the 1200s and 1300s. Any further conceptual features ascribed it have been now relegated to the revival of interest in it among sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English legal theorists such as Edward Coke and William Blackstone, who found in it common law principles of constitutionalism. Certainly, opportunities existed during the thirteenth century to put Magna Carta to work in normative writings.

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