Book Review: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

Today, the 15th of June 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was first ‘signed’. 3 weeks ago, I visited the British Library which is running an exhibition all about the Magna Carta. Just before I did, though, I thought I ought to try to get clued up a bit about it. My aim wasn’t to become an expert, but just to sketch in a rough form where there was a massive space of ignorance in my knowledge. This VSI by Nicholas Vincent, then, was the book I chose.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I picked this up when I was last at the British Library in February, having been somewhat disappointed by the VSI on the British Constitution.

Here, Vincent was keen to put Magna Carta in its context. That context takes up more than half of the book, so the contents of Magna Carta are somewhat relegated to an appendix. It wouldn’t be too unfair then to say that this is much more about politics of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So if you expect this to a summary of the Magna Carta and a discussion thereof, then you will likely be very disappointed by this work (don’t worry, though, there are plenty of publications available at the moment; I’m sure some of them take this approach). This is likely because Nicholas Vincent’s specialty is medieval history. So rather than foregrounding Magna Carta and filling in the background detail, he spends a lot of time and effort bringing to life the background, seeming to hope that the Magna Carta speaks for itself.

In favour of this last statement, a modern translation of the Magna Carta is provided in an appendix, though it seemed slightly unfair to relegate it to this position. It is only when one is about 2/3rds of the way through this VSI that we get the occasional reference to specific clauses, though there’s no specific instruction to the reader to turn to the appendix, so one might be a bit wrong-footed by this.  Even then, we are not exactly guided through it, but instead we are given a scattergun approach.

As an overview of the politics of north-western Europe in the medieval period, it is a very good work. It’s not a period of history that I could claim any expertise in, nor even much familiarity, so cannot really comment on Vincent’s accuracy or choices of emphasis in his portrayal. As an amateur reader then, I came away with a better appreciation of the circumstances that led to the Magna Carta’s formation, though this wasn’t really a magnification of it. Rather, one could see a developmental stage that led towards it. This was later added to by my visit to the aforementioned exhibition at the British Library which is very well done (apart from the actual copies of the 1215 Magna Carta which I must say were a tads disappointing). There were several videos running in the exhibition, one of which featured Nicholas Vincent talking, so when I listened to him, it rang strongly of this book that I had finished reading the day before.

One thing that is picked up on by both the book and the exhibition is that almost as soon as the Magna Carta came into force in 1215, it was annulled. So we ended up with a slightly farcical situation whereby it went and came again, with there being various versions going about, each differing slightly different from the last. Only Durham Cathedral (I miss seeing it from the dining room window) has a copy of each edition. We get an overview of which sections got dropped from the statute book over the years.

The thing is, the Magna Carta is more often invoked by name than in substance. How relevant is it that clause 33 calls for the complete removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and Medway? Well, a lot less than clause 39: “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.” The book finishes then with an evaluation of the legacy of Magna Carta. It is somewhat brief, and might perhaps have been better written by a legal or constitutional expert, rather than a medieval historian. As a starting point, though, it’s not bad.

You may well hear a lot about Magna Carta at the moment, but a lot of it comes with an assumption of a knowledge and understanding of its background and content. If you think you have a gap in your education around this, then I would certainly recommend this as a very short remedy.

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