Tag Archives: Magna Carta

Habeas Corpus before Magna Carta

Long-term readers here will know the term ‘protochronism’, which I stole from an anthropologist friend of mine to cover the practice that so many historians have of finding something famously developed in a period or area more famous than one’s own, and then pointing out that one’s own actually did it first or better. I don’t like to pass these chances up when they occur, and back in early 2020 I found one while reading an ancient article about royal-aristocratic relations in tenth- to twelfth-century Navarra. I’ve been saving it up till my blog clock rolled round to 2020 since then. The phenomenon in question here would be the ancient right of habeas corpus, enshrined in English law and explained by that always-useful textbook, 1066 and All That, as follows:1

[This right] “meant it was wrong if people were put in prison except for some reason, and that people who had been mutilated by the King… should always be allowed to keep their bodies.”

A more serious definition can be found on Wikipedia, where else, which at the time of writing explained it as follows:

“Habeas corpus is a recourse in law through which a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment to a court and request that the court order the custodian of the person, usually a prison official, to bring the prisoner to court, to determine whether the detention is lawful.”

Either way, you see where the notion attaches to the Latin; fundamentally, you have the right to your own body, so constraint of it by imprisonment needs to have a justification. This is canonically supposed to go back to the great concession of rights to the baronage of England by King John in 1215 that we know as Magna Carta, which does indeed contain a clause to roughly this effect, although the actual term Habeas corpus took a few more years to arise.2 Since John was a bit of a one for unjustified imprisonment, among the hundred other civil abuses that Magna Carta tries to prohibit, you can see why it was on people’s minds. I don’t suppose the baronage of England meant to establish a fundamental human right so much as keep themselves out of the clink, but there you go. Humans rarely mean to make their history, I figure. But wait! What is this here clause I see before me?

“Et nullo homine in terra de illo Rege, in priso non sedeat, si directo ibi facere non potest, donec tornet ad suam casam.”

I render that roughly as:

“And let no man in the land of that King stay in prison, if his case cannot be dealt with directly, but rather let him return to his home.”

You have to admit, the core idea is the same.3 The context is an odd one, however. The document was apparently put together in Saragossa in 1134, straight after the death of King Alfonso I the Battler of Aragón. Now, I haven’t read everything about Alfonso I I’d like to have, and myabe this is all well-known to his scholars, but he had run his kingdom pretty hard, as this article explains it, cutting in on many a noble privilege by hiring in foreign soldiery and setting them up in newly-conquered lands so that they threatened the influence of the old Aragonese noble families. Also, and highly inconveniently, he left no male heir and tried to will his kingdoms to the Military Orders.4 The collected élites of Aragón, new or old, could all agree that that was a bad idea, so this gathering at Saragossa had a pretty open opportunity to reshape the kingdom as they wanted it, firstly by choosing a successor and then, presumably, by getting him to swear to this document of which the clause above is the fourteenth and final. The document, I should say, claims to be the privileges that the infanzones (basically, gentlemen) and barons of Aragón had had in the time of King Pedro I, Alfonso I’s immediate predecessor. In other words, as depicted here they were claiming to be turning back the clock on Alfonso’s abuses, but there’s no trace that such rights were ever declared in Pedro’s time, so you have to see this more as a sort of Aragonese noble wish-list, to bind a king who had yet to be chosen.5

Archivo Municipal de Zaragoza R3

I was slightly surprised to find that this document does actually exist in what appears to be a contemporary copy, but it does, as Archivo Municipal de Zaragoza, R.3, so here it is

To give themselves some chance of this sticking, the assembled gathering got pretty much every surrounding major figure to come and witness, including the Count of Barcelona (then Ramon Berenguer IV), the Count of Urgell, the Count of Pallars (all in Catalonia) and the Count of Foix (in Provence), plus two Aragonese counts but also, and most impressively, Alfonso I’s step-son, Emperor Alfonso VII of León (as he signs himself).6 I imagine all were fairly happy to see whoever actually succeeded here thus trammelled by his nobility. But still, what the nobles had done included inventing the right to no imprisonment without charge.

Now, it should be said, I don’t think they got to have this concession. In the end, the succession problem was solved by hauling Alfonso’s brother Ramiro out of the monastery where he was, crowning him and marrying him to someone post haste (that being Agnes, daughter of Duke William IX of Aquitaine and herself already widow of Viscount Aimery of Thouars). They then had a daughter, who was betrothed almost forthwith to that same Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona, who thus became ‘Lord of Aragón’, and its active ruler, while Ramiro returned, still as king, to the monastery (and Agnes went to the nunnery of Fontevraud).7 As far as I know, there’s no sign that either Ramiro or Ramon Berenguer accepted these terms as part of their succession. But then, John repudiated Magna Carta within months as well; it was his son Henry III who had to concede it again.8 The idea was out there, though, and if all this shows is that it was also out there in Aragón eighty years before John was forced to concede it, I’m happy with that!

1. Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (London 1930), p. 65.

2. Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta through the Ages (Harlow 2003), 69-73, and see pp. 161, 194-196 and 208-218 on the afterlife of the idea in law.

3. José-Maria Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon (XIe siècle)”, transl. Pierre Bonnassie and Y. Bonnassie in Annales du Midi Vol. 80 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 485–528, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4454, Ap. III.

4. See Elena Lourie, “The Will of Alfonso I, ‘El Batallador,’ King of Aragon and Navarre: A Reassessment” in Speculum Vol. 50 (Cambridge MA 1975), pp. 635–651, DOI: 10.2307/2855471, repr. in Lourie, Crusade and Colonisation: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Aragon, Variorum Collected Studies 317 (Aldershot 1990), chapter III, and for a more recent take on Alfonso I see Clay Stalls, Possessing the Land: Aragon’s Expansion into Islam’s Ebro Frontier under Alfonso the Battler (1104-1134), The Medieval Mediterranean 7 (Leiden 1995).

5. Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon”, p. 520.

6. I glean these details from the text of the document itself, ibid. pp. 518-519.

7. Thomas N. Bisson, The Medieval Crown of Aragon: a short history (Oxford 2000), pp. 14-19.

8. Turner, Magna Carta, pp. 77-100.

Two lots of Anglo-saxon antiquities, a grammatical mummy and a book of Wulfstan’s (plus Anglo-Saxon news)

Of recent weeks I seem to have been visiting other people’s museums a lot. I suppose it is predictable, given my period interests and that I was in the UK, that this would develop an Anglo-Saxon theme, but it does seem to be a good time for Anglo-Saxon studies just now for a range of reasons. I thought I’d post about it all, anyway.

Saxon bronze-gilt great square-headed brooch, MAA 1948.1553

Anglo-Saxon great square-headed brooch,from Linton Heath, Cambs., grave 32; MAA 1948.1553

First of the exhibitions was the archaeological gallery of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. To my great shame I’d never been there before, but I went with T’anta Wawa, despite the which, we didn’t have time to do the anthropological collection. There was quite enough archaeology. A lot of it appears to have been on display for a long time, or at least the cases look seventies vintage. The prehistoric stuff is very comprehensive, but with labels that only a professional could follow, geological terms used in cold blood and so forth. The historic stuff, Roman and Celtic onwards, is much friendlier to the casual enquirer, though I suspect that my workplace have got most of the best Roman and Greek. The particular attraction of the MAA is that a great deal of its collections were actually found locally, so you can look at a Saxon funerary urn or whatever and suddenly realise that it came from just down the road. And their Saxon display is very splendid, because there just were a lot of burials with grave-goods in the general area. So that started me off well for medieval bling. I wish I could show you more, but their catalogue has no pictures in it; the pictures that there are, meanwhile, don’t have any object data, but I’m pretty sure I’ve shown you the only Saxon thing on their highlights page. Plenty to see if you’re there for real, though, and we only did half of it.

Funerary urn from the Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery under Girton College, Cambridge

Funerary urn from the Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery under Girton College, Cambridge

Two days later I was lucky enough, because of the job, to be among a small crowd invited to an opening of a much smaller museum at Girton College in Cambridge. This was the first women’s college in Cambridge, and though it is now co-ed it has a long tradition of fiery female dons and academic interests in the `other half’ of society in a range of different ways. It was built some distance out of town, in what was then fairly rural surroundings (and they still are very leafy) but early work for the foundations quickly revealed that they were not the first to dig holes here and they wound up calling in help to clear out an Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery at high speed in advance of the foundations. (They also found two Roman graves, but despite suggestions in the college publicity that this makes it a continuously-occupied site from Rome to Anglo-Saxons there is a big gap in the finds between second and fifth centuries.) Only what was necessary to build the college was removed, meaning that probably plenty more remains to be unearthed, but what there was was formed into a collection and after a while a room was built to house these and other antiquities, very largely from Egypt but obviously with a fair Anglo-Saxon component. This, the Lawrence Room, has just been revamped and was now being opened up to visitors.

Hermione, Egyptian portrait mummy at Girton College

Hermione, Egyptian portrait mummy at Girton College

However, chief among the antiquities is Hermione, an Egyptian mummy given to the college by William Flinders Petrie. She has her portrait on her wrappings, and X-ray analysis has revealed that within the wrappings, indeed, are the remains a young girl whose face has been reconstructed digitally and looks not dissimilar. But the name is the excitement, and why Petrie gave her to Girton: she is named “Hermionê Grammatikê”, ‘Hermione the literary lady’, which makes her a fairly unusual first-century female scholar, or at least, student. And, though the odds are heavy against, there is apparently a scrap of papyrus in a Leipzig collection, on which is preserved a writing exercise to her teacher by one Hermione, in Greek, of roughly the same date (i. e., to within a century, gods bless radio-carbon). Wouldn’t it be nice to think, and so on… There are also shed-loads of Egyptian shabtis and even a few pieces of fabric, and because it is usually kept in darkness because the room is as much storage as display, they felt that they could have the lights up for the brief time we were viewing the artefacts. I can’t stress how much difference this makes. One could be forgiven for leaving the Fitzwilliam’s fabulous Egyptian display, or many of our others, with the impression that the ancients lived entirely in a dim half-light in which everything appears brown. Those are permanent displays which have to be lit all day, and light damages fabric and pigments like nothing else, so the light has to be kept down. But here the original colours could briefly be allowed to shine, bright coral, lapis lazuli and ochre, and for once it felt like the owners of these objects might have enjoyed them. The curators were very happy to tells us how they’d worked hard on the lighting so that when standing at the cases lights above them made what you were looking at visible without casting everything at the bottom into shadow; this is not a simple thing and it has been done very well.

The Lawrence Room, Girton College

The Lawrence Room, Girton College

The college collections that are kept in the Lawrence Room are currently being fully catalogued so as to go online. I’m told that this will happen midway through next year. The collection is only accessible by appointment with at least 24 hours’ notice, and is primarily intended for teaching and research within the college, but it’s really very nicely done and I hope they can make it more of a thing to visit.

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Then two days after that, again with the redoutable T’anta Wawa and a medievalist friend of hers plus entourage, I finally visited the Treasures of the British Library exhibition. I realise that this is a stupid thing not to have done, but as I don’t live in London my visits to the BL tend to be for pressing needs of books, and there isn’t time to play tourist. I’m glad I finally did though, because the things that are there! They are tremendous and splendid. They start you off gently, with mere autographs of Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen, Mozart and Hadyn (among others), but by the time you’ve been along the Shakespeare case and then made it into the sacred texts, and find you’re looking at the Codex Sinaiticus, which is quite like the oldest surviving text of the Bible, you begin to realise that things have got a bit heavy. And then it just piled on: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Harley Psalter, the Gutenberg Bible, Textus Roffensis, and most especially a manuscript that others will be able to place better than I now can, containing a text of the laws of King Edgar probably glossed by Archbishop Wulfstan I of York, no less. I realise that wasn’t the most special thing there but I felt more of a connection to it because of having occasionally wrestled with Wulfstan’s legacy in the past. And of course there’s one of the BL’s two 1215 copies of Magna Carta, along with the Articles of the Barons, the papal bull repealing the Charter and one of the 1225 copies that got onto the Statute Book, and these have a room to themselves, where a ‘virtual creator’ will tell you all about them. She is cued from a touch-screen display with a list of questions, but it’s not at all clear that that’s what’s going to happen when you touch it, and in the hush of the rest of the exhibition it was actually quite startling. In fact this was a sign of something larger, which is that the people who set this exhibition up don’t seem to have spent much time looking at it. Lights, again. The manuscripts need protecting, but one can hardly see them; one certainly can’t, what is sort of crucial to their purpose, read them in many cases. And what light there is is arranged to shine from behind you, so that if you move close to the case, you block the light out. This probably wouldn’t have struck me without the contrast of the Lawrence Room two days before. More could be done with that, come the next revamp. Anyway, we’d all got a bit full up with marvel and had to take a break before we got to the gorgeously painted Far Eastern stuff, so I imagine I’ll be back, but I shall be fiercely tempted to bring a torch. Meanwhile, ironically, actually the BL’s tremendous virtual exhibitions of its material, like the Lindisfarne Gospel where you can virtually turn the pages, is actually giving you much better access to some of the treasures that they have on physical display.

Cover for BBC History Magazine, May 2009

Cover for BBC History Magazine, May 2009

Wulfstan has to be in there to connect the theme, anyway, but even back at work it’s been clear that Anglo-Saxons are the new black this month, as this cover of the BBC History Magazine for May shows. Two articles, one on Sutton Hoo’s importance now by Alex Burghart, whom I believe has now got a real job and is thus a sad loss to the field, and the other article is a rehashed one by Michael Wood about Athelstan and the unification of Britain (and Brunanburh). And if this prominence of matters Anglo-Saxon weren’t enough I see also that the Naked Philologist, who may or may not be happy to see Wulfstan mentioned, has also returned to the blogosphere. Though she’s temporarily moved later, it seems, and therefore deserves to be celebrated rather in an entry also noting the return to the blogosphere (and Kalamazoo) of Geoffrey Chaucer. But I don’t have one of those coming, so they will both have to be here and some day soon I’ll have something of my own to add, hey?