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Happy Magna Carta Day!

fishing weir

The big guy turns 800 today.

The Magna Carta was something of a fetish object in 17th C English law. It was believed to be a fragment or recreation of a sort of ancient Saxon Bill of Rights lost after the Conquest (probably no). As such, it was subject to centuries of scholarly interpretation, hairsplitting and the accretion of penumbra.

The Founding Fathers gave it a shout out. It still has juju for modern American righties.

Not so much lefties. It’s the fashion in the academy today to disparage the Magna Carta as a gentleman’s agreement between a small clique of the superwealthy — the King and his Barons — that was rescinded within days.

Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

A lot of the clauses do specifically outline the relationship between Barons and King, but there was plenty in there about the common man. Like clause 20:

For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

Or 35, the beginning of standardized weights and measures:

There shall be standard measures of wine, ale, and corn (the London quarter), throughout the kingdom. There shall also be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and haberject [cloth of mixed color, worn by monks], namely two ells [about two yards] within the selvedges [the bound edges of a piece of cloth]. Weights are to be standardised similarly.

Indeed, clauses 36 to 42 really do form the bones of our modern concepts of justice and liberty. Or fairness and freedom, since ‘justice’ and ‘liberty’ have been tainted by association with fuddy-duddy Tea Party types.

Also, there was stuff to do with managing common resources. Like, it abolished freshwater weirs (fish traps; see picture). Not only were they impacting fish stocks, they were making navigation impossible. So the rivers could become the superhighways until superhighways. And it forbade – I love this phrase – “all evil customs relating to forests and warrens.” That is, the killing or mutilation of poachers out of hand.

And, yes, it was rescinded within a month, but it was revived again and again. Every time a subsequent king wanted to squeeze a little more in taxes out of his people, he had to gin up a new edition of the Charter to appease them first. Which is why, in addition to the four left of the original batch, there are so many later versions.

The original wasn’t broken up into clauses, by the way. That was done by later commentators. The original is a big sloppy run-on Latin mess, but the translation is a pretty short and easy read.

Go on. What’re the odds some day some SJW smartass will bet you never read it?

June 15, 2015 — 8:13 pm
Comments: 11