British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition is ‘nutritious food for thought’, says medieval history expert

the4survivingmagnacartasThis is an extract from a review of the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition written by Dr John Sabapathy for the Reviews in History website, which is run by the Institute of Historical Research. The lecturer in medieval history at University College London, thinks the exhibition has a great deal for those interested in the medieval matrix of the Charter but, it is by no means an exhibition only for medievalists.

The funniest moment in the British Library’s wonderful Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy exhibition comes towards its end, in a recent cartoon by Stephen Collins (sadly not reproduced in the excellent catalogue, but available here).

We observe, Attenborough-style, a group of adolescents being filmed in a bleak urban playground. Instead of sex, drink, and drugs however, this group’s shameful pastime is their covert addiction to Magna Carta. Sucked into it at school, these ‘Mag-heads’ now gather at dusk to read the charter for the ‘massive rush of British values’ they get from it ­– democracy, tolerance, responsibility, that sort of thing.

It’s a dangerous habit though – one can get too high off the Charter, and the cartoon ends with the camera abruptly cut off as one of the group overdoses and his friends try to stop him ‘magging out’. Would that it were so. The grimness of the contrast with most of Britain’s town centres on a Friday night adds obvious acid to Collins’s humour. If his is the funniest item in the exhibition it is arguably also the most disquieting.

Collins’s cartoon – along with some other contemporary ones – is of especial relevance to the exhibition’s purpose since it is determinedly not simply nor solely an exploration of what happened immediately around and on the 15th of June 1215. The exhibition is as much about Magna Carta’s 800 year reception as its immediate 13th-century matrix.

So the route through the Charter’s history takes visitors through John’s reign, past the Charter’s multiple iterations (1216, 1217, the definitive 1225 version, and Edward I’s 1297 reissue) on to its use in self-defence by Thomas MCotton Claudius D II   F.116ore (and Thomas Cromwell’s irritation at this), along to chapter 39’s deployment in the 1628 Petition of Right, parallelisms in the 1689 Bill of Rights and then over the Atlantic to a range of North American mutations and influences, including the extraordinary loans of Thomas Jefferson’s autograph and underlined copy of the 1776 Declaration of Independence as well as the State of Delaware’s copy of the 1790 United States Bill of Rights.

The story is continued domestically with the Charter’s invocation in 18th- and 19th-century political struggles (press freedom, Chartism), as well as in a colonial context with the 1840 New Zealand Treaty of Waitangi, Ghandi’s use of it in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela’s at his 1964 trial at Rivonia for sabotage. It is only after this that – in an attractive and unmodern act of delayed gratification – the Library’s two copies of the original Charter are finally displayed in the last room.

Now, the exhibition’s narrative goes, one can think about the Charter for what it was, what it became, and what – perhaps – it is. By no means then is this an exhibition only for medievalists. As 800 years of redeployments show, the Charter forced on John at Runnymede has proved nothing if not pliable.

Read the full review on the Reviews in History website. Reviews in History was launched in 1996, and has published more than 1700 reviews and reappraisals of significant work in all fields of historical interest.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (13 March–1 September 2015)

The John Coffin Memorial annual palaeography lecture, ‘Who wrote Magna Carta?, will be delivered by Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia at Senate House, on 13 May 2015 at 6pm. This free lecture, which is organised by the Institute of English Studies, will be followed by a wine reception.

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