03.04.16, Breay, Magna Carta

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Clare A. Simmons

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.016


Breay, Claire. Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths. London: The British Library, 2002. Pp. 56. ISBN: 0-7123-4743-7.

Reviewed by:
Clare A. Simmons
The Ohio State University

As a British Library publication, Claire Breay's Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths is aimed at the general reader, but it also reflects recent scholarly thinking about Magna Carta in its historical context. Breay notes in her Introduction that although the document's "meaning has been distorted by the interpretations of succeeding generations, it was undoubtedly the intrinsic adaptability of certain key clauses which allowed Magna Carta to be elevated to the iconic status which it has long enjoyed" (7). Breay is a curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library, where Magna Carta is one of the most popular items on display. Her goal is not to debunk the Magna Carta myth, but rather to return to the history of how the charter came into being. The early chapters, all of them very brief, establish the background by describing King John's relations with other nations, with his feudal dependents, and with the church. Breay then provides an overview of the king's interactions with the barons and of the charter's contents, noting that it "was not a statement of fundamental principles of liberty, but a series of concessions addressing long-standing baronial grievances and condemning arbitrary government" (28). A further chapter gives an interesting description of the four surviving copies, their locations, and the modes of production, while a final chapter describes Magna Carta's afterlife. Appended are a translation of the whole text of Magna Carta in clear modern English and a short but up to date list of suggestions for further reading.

The whole book is attractively illustrated, in most instances with intelligently chosen and well-reproduced color photographs from the British Library's manuscript collection that help to bring King John's world to life. The only problematic aspect of the illustrations is the size and quality of the photographs of actual charters. For example, although the book's central spread reproduces the British Library's better copy of Magna Carta, BL Cotton MS Augustus ii. 106, it is hard to decipher in this form, and scholars should be able to find more legible facsimiles elsewhere. Breay does well in succinctly describing John's abuse of his feudal powers and his troubled relationships with the English barons and the papacy; as such, she creates a generally convincing if uncontroversial picture of the intentions behind Magna Carta and its original interpretation. Obviously, it is hard to reconstruct the intentions of early thirteenth-century people, but Breay's narrative is in general agreement with that of most recent scholarship, notably J. C. Holt's landmark study Magna Carta (1965; revised edition published in 1992).

Her title, however, is Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths, and I found the analysis of the "myths" a little too thin. Breay is at pains to depict Magna Carta as the product of the feudal aristocracy, and she effectively recounts its formulation as simply intended to address baronial grievances. The book does not, however, really account for how this attempt at preserving the privileges of a specific social class became reinterpreted, first in the English-speaking tradition as the historic evidence of social equality and finally as a statement of fundamental human rights. As Breay notes, the Charter's protections against arbitrary arrest have been a mainstay of both British and American law, and the United Nations itself adopted very similar wording when establishing its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (46). Most of the writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries who appealed to the authority of the Great Charter were not claiming that Magna Carta established specific rights, but that it inscribed pre-existing rights in written form. I would have expected a manuscript curator to make somewhat bolder claims for the power of the document: Magna Carta survives, after all, in a few pieces of parchment, yet it has had a huge symbolic meaning for almost eight hundred years. Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the development of the myth will still need to depend on Holt's Magna Carta and his Magna Carta and the Idea of Liberty (1972), or a work not mentioned in Breay's bibliography, Anne Pallister's Magna Carta: The Heritage of Liberty (1972). It is only fair, though, to recognize the introductory goals of Breay's book, and I would recommend it as a useful overview of the subject for the general reader, and as an appealing and economical gift for a thoughtful high-school student or undergraduate interested in learning more about the medieval period or the history of law.

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Author Biography

Clare A. Simmons

The Ohio State University