How learning about the Magna Carta in high school changed my life
I couldn’t help noticing the headlines in the news lately about the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, that historical document from 1215 in England. As I write, apparently there is a celebration being held on the River Thames, even. And I just found a Web site devoted entirely to this 800th anniversary.
The Magna Carta has not been on my mind for over thirty years since I first learned about it in a social studies class in the ninth grade high school in the early 1980s. But when I think about it, the surprising truth is that learning about the Magna Carta was a turning point in my life as a new teenager (age twelve or thirteen), and the lessons I learned have informed me throughout my life.
What is the Magna Carta associated with?
The Magna Carta in popular imagination is associated with “liberty”, with “the people” rising up in revolt against arbitrary monarchy and making King John sign a document guaranteeing basic rights, such as the right to a fair trail and no taxation without representation; and “equality”, putting the king himself under the scope of law.
The Magna Carta is thought of as an inspiration for subsequent milestones in history such as the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The truth as I learned it
I took a required “social studies” class in the ninth grade in high school. It was one of the most interesting and life-changing classes I ever took. I remember more from that class than probably any other in all of high school. I loved the class because it was a small honors class, didn’t follow a standard textbook, the teacher had us engage in discussions, and we did many interesting activities such as watch films and play games and do simulations. She used a kind of “Socratic method” to direct us and get us thinking and offering our opinions with reasons. This was the one of the first (and few) times in school in which I felt I was being treated as an independent adult-to-be, not as a child.
This is what I learned in ninth grade social studies class from the coverage of the Magna Carta:
- King John was just one of a line of random kings in history who gained their power from accident of birth rather than anything else.
- Our teacher made fun of an artist’s fictional depiction of King John’s “signing” the Magna Carta, arguing that since King John was illiterate, he could not have signed it, and usual practice was to press his seal on documents. (Amusingly, there is still online discussion of this detail decades after my class.)
- The whole Magna Carta thing came out of a civil war. It wasn’t like one side was really right and the king was particularly evil as far as kings went back in the day.
- A bunch of landed nobility colluded to protect their collective interests. Basically, they tried to form the first “union” against royal interests.
- This document did not have anything to do with “the people” as such (who in those days lived in abject misery whether under the nobility or the king). The Magna Carta was not for the “little people”. Its clauses were specific about whom they applied to, i.e., “free men”.
- The Magna Carta was the product of a power struggle among those who already had power. It was about power and money. A bunch of rent-seeking nobility didn’t like that the king was arbitrarily cutting in on them.
- The Magna Carta was originally a flop: civil war continued, King John ignored its rules. But it proved useful later symbolically when conditions changed, proved to be something to rally around and reinterpret for a new age.
No untarnished heroes
The biggest question that arose in discussion was, should we be cynical about the Magna Carta because of what it was originally for, as opposed to what it later became to stand for or how it inspired more far-reaching change? I think we can ask that of anything, especially, for those of us in the United States, of our own perception of our Founding Fathers and the nature of the American Revolution, which all occurred five hundred years after the Magna Carta.
I learned from the study of history (which I enjoyed so much I took two non-required world history courses in the tenth grade before the required American history sequence in the eleventh grade) that there are no easy answers, and that it is important to be skeptical of mythologizing the past. I have remembered these lessons long after not thinking about the Magna Carta again after that class in the ninth grade.
The noblemen who came up with the Magna Carta may have been thinking only of themselves, but might have unwittingly paved the way for others. Intention is one thing, but the final result is another thing. (And history shows that there never is a final result either.)
Some interesting resources on the Magna Carta
I did not touch upon the religion aspect of the power struggles in the medieval era (such as King John’s fights with the Pope; three hundred years after King John, the whole Church of England finally split off from Catholicism when King Henry VIII wanted to annul a marriage but the Pope wouldn’t let him), but here is a Catholic encyclopedia article about the Magna Carta.
Here’s an article about a Magna Carta skeptic, a British judge who calls it an insignificant, “turgid document”.
You can search online for a whole lot more commentary, given the hugeness of this 800th anniversary.
Here’s that fictional depiction
"A Chronicle of England - Page 226 - John Signs the Great Charter" by James William Edmund Doyle - Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) "John" in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, pp. p. 226 Retrieved on 12 November 2010.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Today, all around us we see fights that are supposedly about principle but are really power struggles. Instead of landed nobility, we have powerful lobbying groups, multinational corporations, you name it. When any of these interests collude to win a battle over some other one, they might not be in the game for you and me, but for themselves. The purported idea of “democracy” is in fact under siege today on many fronts. In future blog posts, I will begin exploring what some of these are; they mostly involve technology-based power.
(Update of 2015-06-14)
In the local paper, I just read this really interesting article by University of Pittsburgh law professor Bernard Hibbits on the opportunistic use of the Magna Carta by Americans throughout history.
(Update of 2015-06-16)
A random news article about the celebrations feature nothing but photos or descriptions of an Archbishop, the Queen, various Dukes, a Prince, a Princess, a Lord, a Prime Minister who inherited much wealth (a lot hidden in tax shelters), and had no photos of “regular people”, or quotes from them asking what they thought of the lavish occasion.
Yeah, same old, same old, 800 years later.
Learning about the Magna Carta as a twelve-year-old was an important part of my growing up in life. I learned that people are human and selfish and have different motivations, but sometimes can work toward agreements at least among themselves as equals, and some other party as well. But I also learned the lesson that there are always those who are left out at the bargaining table, and that the nobility are always looking out for themselves.
When did you learn about the Magna Carta in school? Did you learn it in the same gritty way that I did, or in a more romanticized way? Are there things you learned in history classes in school that changed your life, changed what you believe and how you act (as a voter or activist)?comments powered by Disqus