Thursday, December 1, 2016

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty, by Dan Jones

Today I'm looking at another book from Dan Jones, in this case Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty, which was written as part of the celebrations last year over the eight-hundredth anniversary of the issuance of Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215. To historians, though, the excitement over Magna Carta seems largely misplaced. Put within the context of the era, it was an attempt at a negotiated peace between King John and his rebelling barons, a peace which did not last a month before John was repudiating Magna Carta and trying to exert his will over his barons once again. Furthermore Magna Carta is overwhelmingly concerned with the rights of the nobility concerning the king and the limited rights it granted freemen, as Jones points out, would have affected maybe twenty percent of England's entire population in 1215. Jones argues rather eloquently that the Fourth Lateran Council, which condemned trial by ordeal, should be more remembered than Magna Carta. And yet somehow this obscure document has earned an almost sacred status.

The majority of the book focuses on putting Magna Carta within the proper historical context. As Jones is a medieval historian this makes a lot of sense because that's the subject that he's studied the most and has the most expertise talking about. Jones does a very good job of explaining the history of heavy-handed governance and taxation, started by Henry II and Richard I to finance their perpetual wars, which finally came to a head under the less successful and less charismatic John. Jones does spend time going into subjects such as medieval siegecraft which give a fuller understanding of the story, but may not entirely relate to Magna Carta specifically. And since I've already listened to The Plantagenets from the same author, who of course covers Magna Carta in that book as well, a lot of the subject matter was review for me.

Ultimately I did find myself wishing that Jones had spent more time talking about the evolution of Magna Carta in the intervening eight hundred years and why it has developed such a significance. When pointing out that it is mostly a medieval document concerned with issues such as scutage and feudal inheritances, it seems very strange indeed that Magna Carta has such significance today. The last chapter of the book very briefly covers how Magna Carta went from an embarrassment best ignored by the sixteenth century, to a key constitutional argument for opponents of Charles I's attempts at absolute royal authority during the English Civil War. Even as the numerous clauses in Magna Carta became obsolete, principles such as trial by jury, due process of law, and a vague notion of representation in exchange for taxation, became part of English tradition, as well as the traditions of numerous countries settled by English colonists. This is a huge subject which could be its own book, or even multiple books, but I think it would be interesting to listen to or read about.

I think if you've already read The Plantagenets or even seen Monarchy with David Starkey (who actually taught Dan Jones!) then you'll find a lot of the stuff in Magna Carta a review because it talks mostly about John's reign more than anything else. It's still very good writing from Jones who is becoming one of my other favorite English historians and if you want a much shorter book focusing just on this subject matter then this is a good choice. But I still recommend The Plantagenets over this one.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment