On Monday morning last I found myself putting off getting ready for work by drinking a huge mug of tea, listening to Pink Floyd’s `Interstellar Overdrive’ and reading a translation of Magna Carta. What, apart from the fact that it may well be that I could take things more seriously sometimes,1 does this mean for you? Well, it means that I’ve finished zipping through Magna Carta: Through the Ages by Ralph V. Turner, which I got as a conference freebie, er, a couple of years ago now.2 (Yes, yes, I know, I don’t get invited to those sorts of conferences now either.) And since the first answer to my recent request for blog-reader feedback basically said, “I like Spain and reviews”, and also because I thought the book was an interesting example of a certain kind of history, I thought I’d spare it a few words.
The student who wants an in-depth study of the reign of King John and the actual issue of Magna Carta will still need to look elsewhere. Turner covers this, in better than adequate detail and with attention to the big arguments about it, but it’s not where his interests really lie and the chapters of the book where he covers this are the least referenced and shortest. He has after all done it elsewhere as well. This time Turner isn’t really setting out to be a historian of the thirteenth century, and his subtitle implies as much. There are points where he appears to be being a historian of historians but really this is a work of legal history. So the meat really starts once he gets away from 1215 and into what it is that this ‘great charter’ has meant to people and for what it has been used. Although, I must say that the part of Chapter 3 where he makes it clear what clauses were kept in what version of the charter, and what was dropped as soon as it could be, is really useful and arguably better than the treatment in some of the more accepted works. If all you wanted to know was what Magna Carta said, in its various versions, this would be the best place to find out.
His study of Henry III and Edward I is quite tight, and I found it a nice reacquaintance with some kings I’d last studied when I was still at school. It leaves me with an impression that Turner may not himself be at the cutting edge in this period, but he gives the reader the context of the main arguments about the interpretation of each reign in a very clear way. Students will have no difficulty getting through this, I’d say. The run from Edward II through Henry V to the American Revolution and the Victorians are a bit sketchier. Turner seems to argue that they can be so because really, Magna Carta only becomes part of current arguments at a few points in these centuries, where he studies it closely. All the same one of the interesting aspects of the sources he uses is that when the common people are allowed a voice, the charter keeps coming up, and I’d have liked a bit more exploration of this popular idea that Magna Carta held ‘our liberties’, rather than just the outcomes of occasional lawyers or politicians trying to prove something with that argument.
The last two chapters are the most legalistic. One handles Great Britain, where Turner argues that due to subsequent legislation making it outdated, and due to Britain’s prolonged managing without a written Constitution and then adopting the European Convention on Human Rights (which became law in the UK in 1998, as US readers may not realise—indeed, as UK ones may not…), Magna Carta has become an irrelevant if famous piece of history, now mainly studied to show what King John was doing that got his barons so annoyed. The other handles the USA, and argues for a far greater involvement of US law with the Charter, and that Magna Carta is to a much greater degree fundamental to US law’s concepts of liberty and the rights of the individual, however anachronistic a view of its provisions that may in fact be. I don’t know how far I’m convinced by this now, given that he plots a more or less parallel erosion of the rights and liberties that each country has in its own way guaranteed, by a now-over-mighty executive which has succeeded in persuading its populace, not for the first time, to accept such restrictions. (He interestingly points out those champions of liberty, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill abrogating civil rights in similar ways, but then of course the countries were actually under arms and in danger of invasion.)
In this way Turner’s colours are revealed. Although he praises Maitland’s treatment of Magna Carta for its attempt at objectivity, quoting his dictum, “If history is to do its liberating work, it must be as true to fact as it can possibly make itself; and true to fact it will not be if it begins to think what lessons it can teach”, it is clear that Turner does not see his own rôle as a mere commentator. The final paragraphs of the book (save the translation of the 1215 Charter in an appendix, useful to refer to but more useful if it was mentioned that it was there anywhere in the body text), set the parting tone:
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Magna Carta’s great message of limits on government’s pursuit of individuals is again unheeded by a power-hungry executive, just as in thirteenth-century and seventeenth-century England, and in the thirteen colonies in the late eighteenth century. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, fears of war, internal subversion and terrorist attack threaten to tip the balance of power within the country, enabling the executive power to place itself beyond the law’s reach. An American president, following unmindfully in the footsteps of King John and Charles I, takes advantage of the people’s fears in the face of the threats of terrorist attacks to invade their privacy and curtail their liberties, detaining persons indefinitely without specific charges and denying them their right of habeas corpus. Today, at least a few journalists and jurists still stand ready to challenge individuals’ subjection to arbitrary state power in the name of a war on terrorism, and the Great Charter still affords them a rallying point.
Indeed, and at least one historian stands with them it seems. Not that I have a problem with the ethics, but it does recast one’s understanding of the purpose of the book, and defies that very same dictum of Maitland that Turner quotes with seeming approval. I think that this is a good and useful book, but it being willingly bent to serve an ideology does make me think twice before saying so. I don’t know if others would react the same way, but in my guts it seems that history and politics would prefer not to touch each other, however strongly I feel about them both.
1. I mean, why not the original Latin? Why not Wish You Were Here? Why such frivolity Jarrett? You’ll never get a permanent post with this outlook you know, etc. etc.
2. Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta: through the ages (Harlow: Pearson 2003).