I am a history geek. I freely admit it. Why else would I work so hard to major in history and walk out of a prestigious liberal arts college with a B.A? Collecting historical trivia is one of my vices. I even worked as assistant curator at a house museum in Oregon for four years. But I’m also a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of things. All eras are fascinating, but there is something about medieval life that sucks me in and engages my imagination like no other.
So, when a copy of the Magna Carta—one of four originals extant—made a grand tour of the United States I made a point to visit it at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Oregon.
As a member of the society I purchased advance tickets to a private viewing for members only the day before it opened to the public. I and a few thousand of my fellow enthusiasts stood in line for hours before the doors opened. I touched the ticket in my pocket like a magic talisman every ten minutes, making sure I hadn’t lost it (I’ve been known to do such things), or had my pocket picked by a desperate grad student.
Eventually a hush rippled through the crowd. The massive double doors opened. This was not a movie or sporting event where the crowd would anxiously surge forward to claim the best seats. These were respectful fans. We proceeded tentatively into the lobby of the new OHS building in downtown Portland. We were ushered, slowly, into orderly lines and allowed to enter the special exhibit hall one by one. More standing in line. Step by step we snaked toward our goal.
I noticed that the lights within the hall were dimmer, the moment I crossed the threshold. Small display cases lined the marked alleyway that had been set out in a maze. We saw garments and tools retrieved from archeological digs and carefully preserved. Grand but faded tapestries behind glass told stories of hunts and battles. Carefully edited texts told the story of the political and economic life in early 13th C. England. The events leading up to the signing of the Great Charter burst free of the shroud of distance and misconception.
With each turn through the maze the lights became dimmer, and our perceptions shrank to the level of a circle of candle light. Without the noise and bustle of modern life, I felt as if I had stepped back in time and I was watching history unfold.
A small sign explained that as we moved inward our eyes gradually adjusted to the lower light levels necessary to preserving the parchment and ink. A special case had been designed to seal the document in the perfect temperature and humidity to mitigate the effects of time.
And then I was there, standing in front of a slanted glass cover, my mouth gaped in awe at the thought of how close I stood to one of the most significant pieces of western European history, culture, and government. As US citizens we are direct inheritors of the innovative concepts laid out in those painfully constructed sentences of Latin.
I forgot to breathe.
Then security urged me to keep moving, give someone else a chance to bask in the wonder of history come to life. I know I wasn’t the only one who stood awestruck to gaze upon this simple document that changed so much during its own time and holds a lasting influence on modern government.
This was nearly thirty years ago, but the moment has stayed with me.
When the time came for me to write an historical fantasy about the events leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta I consulted my brother, Lt. Colonel (retired) James H. Radford, PhD., Professor of Political Science. His response? “Read the bloody thing and form your own opinion.” Yep, he’s a teacher.
As an amateur historian I had to add that the document should be read in the context of the era when it was written. I dragged out my neglected historian credentials and did just that.
And I included a copy in the back of Guardian of the Trust, Merlin’s Descendants #2, now available at the Book View Café along with the other four books in the series: https://www.bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/guardian-of-the-trust/
Then several months ago, a rumor swept across the internet that some ultra-conservative politicians had shouted in public: “The U.S. Constitution isn’t good enough. We need to go back to the Magna Carta.” Our founding fathers were well aware of the Magna Carta and its significance. Many of the concepts of our U.S. Constitution derived from it. But is the Magna Carta better than the Constitution?
My first reaction was… um… Have you even read the Magna Carta? Not the version depicted in the movie rendition of Robin Hood portrayed by Russell Crowe. The real Magna Carta.
I have read it—in translation. My Latin is rudimentary at best.
So I embarked on a series of blogs in which I took the Magna Carta, clause by clause, and threw in a few of my own comments, but mostly made this amazing document fully accessible to readers in modern translation on a public forum. Now I have gathered those rambling blog posts into this book.
Hollywood and revisionist historians have turned the Magna Carta into a declaration of the rights of the common man.
It is in fact little more than an economic peace treaty between King John and his barons, with the Church making the third side of a triangle in the civil war. Please remember that separation of Church and State is a very modern concept, a heinous idea to the medieval mind.
Passages marked with * indicate the clause was removed from later editions, mostly when the Pope declared them invalid. A + indicates the paragraph was edited from the original in later editions. The numbering of the paragraphs is also a later addition.