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A cornerstone of the world

Story of the Magna Carta shows far-reaching impact

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

Magna Carta
The Magna Carta has helped shape the Western world.
Great Britain
Danny Danziger

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Forget about the murky miasma of an election year for a minute. Look at the rungs up the document ladder of what we are pleased to call democracy: the Bill of Rights; the Constitution; the Declaration of Independence.

And, going back a few hundred more years, the Magna Carta.

The very name (literally, the "big charter") still evokes awe. Indeed, as Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, the authors of "1215: The Year of the Magna Carta" (Touchstone), remind us, the American Bar Association built a monument on English soil to this "slightly oblong, almost square" document in 1971, 756 years after it was written by the decree of King John of England.

John (a Plantagenet, brother to Richard the Lionheart) reigned over a highly sophisticated (for the time) and rapidly expanding English empire. Thirteenth-century England was growing by leaps and bounds: English armies were subduing the leaders of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, while across the Channel English possessions ran from Normandy to Auvergne.

The English capital of London had already assumed its role as a mercantile hub of the western world, its upper classes onomatopoetically bantering in English (of the Chaucerian variety), French, and Latin.

So was John an enlightened despot, beneficently overseeing a realm of unparalleled tolerance and bonhomie? Nay, said Danziger (a columnist for the London Sunday Times and co-author of "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At the Turn of the First Millennium"). Actually, John was on the losing side of what promised to be a corrosive civil war.

"Magna Carta was an opportunistic document," said Danziger in an e-mail interview. "The barons [the English nobility] had been trying to corner John for some years to put some demands to him. In fact there are 63 clauses in Magna Carta, most of them to do with property rights, wills, fishing rights, all very self-interested, and only likely to benefit the wealthy.

"However," he adds, "within those clauses, there are two that reverberate down the centuries, and have come to represent today a ringing expression of freedom for mankind the world over. These are (to translate from the original Latin into English): 'No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgments of his peers or by the law of the land'; and 'To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.' "

'Extraordinary sentiments'

In this artwork, King John signs the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.

The enduring contribution of this document to our way of life cannot be understated, said Danziger.

"At a time when the king, and most of his subjects, believed his power to be God-given, these were extraordinary sentiments. And the eloquence of those sentences, the nobility and idealism they express, has elevated this piece of legislation to eternal iconic status," Danziger said.

John was not a great soldier, and the heavy taxes he levied to bolster his losing campaigns were increasingly resented by the nobility (as well as his seizure of new lands won in battle). However, despite the discontent in the air in 1215, there was no "just cause," the authors say, to ally the rebellious nobles together.

"It was in this awkward predicament that his opponents took their step into the unknown," the authors write. "They invented a new kind of focus for revolt: a program of reform."

The Magna Carta, as "1215" illustrates, was a sort of pressure valve, a stopgap measure to mollify potential enemies of the crown by instilling a series of checks to royal decree. What began as a pillar of kingly rule evolved into one of the universal rule of law.

'A renaissance of sorts'


"1215" is formatted as a snapshot in time, with the authors going to great lengths to illustrate not just goings-on among the ruling classes, but throughout England and beyond. Thirteenth-century England was a flourishing center of commerce, education, urbanization, and rising standard of living.

"There was a renaissance of sorts in England at this time, although it's not been given top billing like the Italian Renaissance," Danziger said. "Oxford and Cambridge were flourishing ... [more] people were learning to read and write, glasses could be bought to prolong eyesight, roads and bridges were being built, better modes of transport were being engineered, medicine was becoming less a matter of guesswork, more scientific. People realized the world was round (actually, only doltish idiots believed it was flat)."

The book offers a wide-angle glimpse of daily 13th-century life, from popular romances to bathroom habits. And, of course, it describes in detail the drawbacks of living in pre-Parliamentary England. (The legislative body didn't come into existence until the late 13th and early 14th centuries, partly because Edward I -- having blown his treasury on expensive wars and castles -- had to meet with representatives of his subjects so he could convince them to pay higher taxes.)

The style of "1215" follows Danziger's "The Year 1000," a cross-section of English society at the turn of the first millennium. Danziger initiated the project, then searched out an expert on the period with whom to co-author the book. At least, that was the result.

"There's no logic to these history books," he said. " 'The Year 1000' happened because I was so bored hearing about 2000. 'Let's see what life was like exactly 1000 years ago,' was my erudite starting point for that project. My knowledge of affairs at that time was minimal, no, let's be honest, zero! Similarly, with this book, I realized I had only the vaguest idea about Magna Carta, and wanted to understand more."

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