Reading Magna Carta
Bill Long 1/14/05
Six "Approaches" to the Great Charter
One of the truisms of historical research is that when you read a document from the past, you read it through the lens of a tradition of interpretation--of which you probably are not even aware. The most obvious case of this is when people pick up the Bible and begin to read it. Even the very Bible that you pick up (whether it is, say, the Jerusalem Bible or the New Revised Standard), tells me something about you or at least the people you have listened to in approaching your study of the Bible. In addition, there are Protestant and Catholic traditions of interpretation and, within the latter, especially, dozens of sub traditions.
Thus it should come as little surprise that when we pick up Magna Carta to study we are indebted to traditions of interpretation that will color our approach to it. The purpose of this and the next essay is to describe briefly six of those interpretive traditions, and then comment upon them.
1. The World of Edward III
Though MC was issued in 1215, definitively reissued in 1225 and confirmed as the "1st statute" in the Statutes of the Realm in 1297 under Edward I, it received its first "interpretation" through a series of six statutes enacted during the days of Edward III (1327-1377). I have listed some of these in another essay. Edward exacted considerable sums from his subjects to fight foreign wars (a common theme in English history), and the Parliament then passed several laws from 1331-1368 referring to MC to limit the powers of the King. Thus, MC was recognized two centuries after its issuance as a powerful tool to check monarchs.
2. Coke and the 17th Century
MC semed to decline in importance during the instability of the 15th century and the powerful reign of the Tudors in the 16th century, but it assumed a foundational role in the Five Knights Case (1627) and Petition of Right (1628). Coke's approach to MC was that it contained the "fundamental" liberties of Englishmen, and that the rights sought in 1628 (no arrest without charges; no denial of habeas corpus without certified charges) were in fact present in MC. As MC scholar J.C. Holt says, "The Charter was used as a yardstick of legality against which new measures could be assessed (Magna Carta, 2d ed., 14)." Thus, Coke was not interested in what we would today call dispassionate historical research; he was looking for ancient justification or support for desired results in the present. And, he had no difficulty in expanding he meaning of a clause in MC to fit the need of the present (for example, by extending the meaning of "liberties" in MC to be tantamount to "individual liberty" in the 17th century--an idea that was surely foreign to a 13th century feudal world).
3. The Natural Law Thinkers
Beginning with John Locke at the end of the 17th century and continuing until the French Enlightenment (late 18th century), a tradition of scholarship emphasized not so much the actual historical rootage of a concept as whether or not it comported with the "law of nature." Our most accessible example of this is the "nature and nature's God" phrase in the Declaration of Independence. Thus, scholars like Locke and Hobbes, who are still read rather avidly in political science classes today, quickly dismissed or ignored MC because of their interest in describing the contours of the law of nature. Since natural law was based on right reason (a concept going back to the Stoics in the 3rd cent. B.C.) rather than on historical precedent, MC became insignificant.
4. The Whig View of History
Beginning in the 19th century, however, with the development of the modern discipline of history, new emphasis was placed on "original documents" and the attempt to locate them in their original context. However, as Herbert Butterfield showed in his great essay on this theme in 1931, in Britain a tradition of historiography grew up that sought to justify the present by the past by seeking to find justification for today's action in yesterday's text. This differed from what Coke wanted in that the "Whig Interpreters" would be most concerned with showing the "principles of development" of the law from "simple beginnings" to "complex present." Thus, the Whig Interpretation of History is an evolutionary approach to the past which seeks not simply to "explain" how we got here but to show that everything now is as it should be. This approach to history was also tied to certain "theological historians" of the 19th century, who would argue that God's designs in building His Kingdom on earth were perfectly fulfilled in (Victorian) England.
The next essay will describe two more recent theories and comment upon them.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long