Manuscript Monday… on a Thursday: The Magna Carta

Everyone has heard about the Magna Carta, but no one seems to know what it is.

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: Magna Carta means “Great Charter” in Latin. There you go. Now you know.

In the 13th century, a bunch of barons got together and drew up this document, which was a response to the social destruction caused by the war-hungry King John. These barons just weren’t digging the grief that King John was causing, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. Essentially, the Magna Carta comprises a series of promises between the king and the barons, ensuring that the king would govern the people of England in adherence with feudal law. The King was now subject to the law, rather than above it. At first glance, this document seems like an attempt to prevent King John from abusing his power and ultimately making the English people suffer. Really, though – since when did barons care about lowly peasants? No, no, my friends. The Carta was not really about peasants at all; it was about protecting barons’ properties and rights.

Nowadays, Americans especially like the Magna Carta – Jay-Z even named his kind of awful best-selling album after it. The Carta represents everything Americans like to think they stand for: freedom, capitalism, and the pursuit of “the American Dream.”

In 2007, the four original copies of the Magna Carta were displayed together for the first time at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, for one day only. One of these copies has been digitized, and is available to view online at the British Library’s website.

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