Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight about the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the significance of law for the commons. It’s pretty amazing that anyone is still celebrating something that happened eight centuries ago! Besides our memory of this event, I think it is so interesting what we have chosen to remember about this history, and what we have forgotten.
This anniversary is essentially about the signing of peace treaty on the fields of Runnymede, England, in 1215. The treaty settled a bloody civil war between the much-despised King John and his rebellious barons eight centuries ago. What was intended as an armistice was soon regarded as a larger canonical statement about the proper structure of governance. Amidst a lot of archaic language about medieval ways of life, Magna Carta is now seen as a landmark statement about the limited powers of the sovereign, and the rights and liberties of ordinary people.
The King’s acceptance of Magna Carta after a long civil war seems unbelievably distant and almost forgettable. How could it have anything to do with us moderns? I think its durability and resonance have to do with our wariness about concentrated power, especially of the sovereign.
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