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June 2015 Item of the Month

Taking the red pen to Magna Carta

Our current exhibition, Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt, features the only surviving 1216 issue of the Great Charter, on loan from Durham Cathedral. So here I highlight a few of the (apparently) smaller changes made to the charter between its original issue by King John in 1215, and the re-issue of 1216.

The story behind the 1216 issue can be summarised thus. Negotiations between King John and the barons broke down within weeks of the Great Charter’s agreement on 15th June 1215, and by mid-July John was writing to the pope to ask for the charter to be annulled. This Pope Innocent III duly did, and England was again convulsed by civil war from the autumn of 1215. The charter was now an irrelevance, overtaken by political breakdown and war. But only a year into the war, King John caught dysentery, and died on 18th October 1216. Less than a month later, the new King Henry III’s supporters hurriedly re-issued Magna Carta on 12th November, in an attempt to win over some of the rebel barons and cement the status of the new king against rival claims. And so began the transition of the charter from an historical footnote to the Great Charter of Liberties that has inspired lawyers and democrats ever since, from Edward Coke’s struggles with the Stuart kings to the Occupy movement of 2012, and from Australia to the USA.

A close comparison of the text of the 1215 and 1216 issues reveals a problem with that story. The 1216 re-issue is far from identical to the charter agreed at Runnymede in 1215. Nor does it merely omit those sections of the 1215 charter which aimed to reverse alleged abuses by King John, nor merely consign disputed sections into a “to come back to later” holding clause (though it does both). The legal revisions are detailed and extensive, hardly the result of a hurried re-drafting during October and November 1216. They suggest that the drafters of the 1216 text had been working on the details since 1215.
Another set of revisions tells a similar, or even more compelling story. 41 of the clauses from the 1215 charter are substantially repeated in 1216, with no (or only isolated) changes to the sense of the text. A closer reading of these 41 clauses reveals that they are not simply copied from the 1215 issue, but undergo extensive grammatical or stylistic revisions. These revisions are largely ignored in the published editions. But by studying linguistic changes in the clauses where no legal change was deemed necessary, we can better understand the extent of the revision of 1216. The number and detail of revisions to grammar and style support the suggestion that the Magna Carta text was being re-worked after June 1215.

The linguistic revisions within the 41 ‘unchanged’ clauses can be analysed as follows:

type of revision number of clauses number of revisions
grammar 7 7
spelling 5 6
style 19 27
whole clause unchanged 19 n/a

With apologies for those who think that Latin should remain confined to the signage at Wallsend Metro station, let us look at a few of those revisions in more detail.

  • A few are definite corrections or improvements. Clause 9 of the 1215 charter puts limits on royal distraint for debt and survives essentially unchanged in 1216 (as c.9) and 1225 (as c.8). One part protects a debtor’s sureties from distraint (nec plegii ipsius debitoris distringantur…), as long as (quamdiu) the chief debtor is able to pay it off. In 1215, the quamdiu clause uses an indicative verb (sufficit): this becomes the subjunctive sufficiat in 1216 (matching the distringantur of the main clause).
Image of the quamdiu clause in c.9.  Images from 1216 issue of Magna Carta on this page reproduced with permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.
The quamdiu clause in c.9. Images from 1216 issue of Magna Carta on this page reproduced with permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.
  • Other revisions in the same clause were probably considered stylistic improvements, though I shall leave it to others to judge whether they would still be deemed such by the standards of Classical Latin. So the opening Nec nos nec ballivi nostri seisiemus becomes Nos vero vel ballivi nostri non saisiemus in 1216 (the spelling change for ‘seize’ is repeated in c.39 and c.56). The final part of clause 9 allows sureties who have had to pay off a debt to hold the debtor’s lands and rents, unless the chief debtor shows that he has discharged his debt to the sureties therein (nisi capitalis debitor monstraverit se esse quietum inde versus eosdem plegios). The 1216 charter leaves the wording of this final clause unchanged, but alters the order to read … se inde esse quietum versus eosdem plegios.
Image of part of c.12. Another change in word order is in c.12 (about holding the court of common pleas in a fixed place), where the aliquo loco certo of 1215 has become aliquo certo loco.  Probably a clerk thought that the adjective must always come befo
Another change in word order is in c.12 (about holding the court of common pleas in a fixed place), where the aliquo loco certo of 1215 has become aliquo certo loco. Probably a clerk thought that the adjective must always come before the noun. The revisers of the 1225 issue reverted to
the previous word order.
  • One at least of the 1216 revisions demonstrates a better understanding of classical usage. The famous clause 39 (‘no free man shall be taken or imprisoned … except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’) includes ‘or be exiled’ in the list of prohibitions (aut exuletur). But a well-educated clerk appears to have spotted that using the verb exulare to mean ‘to send into exile’ (transitive) is a post-Classical usage: Classical Latin uses the verb to mean ‘to go into exile’ (intransitive). So the text of the 1216 charter has been corrected to read capiatur vel imprisonetur aut dissaisiatur aut utlagetur aut exulet aut aliquo modo destruatur.
Image of part of c.32. The ban on what would now be called 'extraordinary rendition' is in c.32 of the 1216 charter, and demonstrates a more classical usage of the verb 'to exile'.  The tildes over the other verbs in this extract ('dispossessed or outlawe
The ban on what would now be called 'extraordinary rendition' is in c.32 of the 1216 charter, and demonstrates a more classical usage of the verb 'to exile'. The tildes over the other verbs in this extract ('dispossessed or outlawed ... or ... ruined') are a standard abbreviation mark for -ur to indicate the passive voice in Latin. That the clerk has not merely omitted a tilde over exulet in error is confirmed by the 1225 and later texts, which retain exulet in place of the 1215 exuletur.

Looking through the full list of grammatical and stylistic revisions, they are sufficient to suggest extensive and careful re-working of the text even within those parts of the 1215 charter which were deemed acceptable by the loyalists around Henry III. As well as suggesting that people had been working on the text well before John’s death in October 1216, this must mean that they believed that the Runnymede charter would have continuing value. While they might not have predicted the value which we would place on Magna Carta 800 years later, the clerks and royal officials of 1215/16 knew that they were dealing with something that would outlive the current crisis, and were prepared to spend considerable time perfecting the wording of their charter, perhaps even after it had been officially annulled by Pope Innocent III.

This brief analysis of course raises many more questions than it answers. Along with the probably unanswerable question (who wielded that red pen), top of my list would be to establish whether the revisions of 1215/16 reflect new learning. For instance, does the intransitive usage of exulare or do the several revisions to word order reflect rules within the major grammars and wordlists that were written at the end of the 12th century?

Drafts and ‘second editions’ of medieval charters rarely exist, so the repeated re-issues of Magna Carta offer a unique opportunity to study changes in both legal and linguistic understanding during the 13th century. And Durham Cathedral (as owner of the only 1216 issue) and archivists everywhere can take comfort that there are still lessons to be learnt from close scrutiny of even the most famous texts in our care.

Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt is an exhibition which explores the charter as part of a long history of the contested identity of the citizen, stretching from the Wars of the Roses to the Great Reform Act and from the Suffragettes to the Occupy Movement. Alongside the 1216 charter, on loan from the collections of Durham Cathedral, are being shown objects from Durham University’s collections and loans from other regional and national museums and libraries, including several from the collections of Ushaw College. Full details of the June to August exhibition and the programme of accompanying activities and events are provided via the link below.

For a referenced version of this article with full list of revisions click here.

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