The piece of paper upon which all our pieces of paper are based!
And it totally belongs here in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts, in a marvelous exhibit which says it all, “Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty,” which is on the 18th Century floor of the Wing of the Art of the Americas.
And plus, it’s called Magnuh Caaaaahdah, right?
(All images courtesy of Wan Chi Lau)
This piece of parchment (not paper, excuse me) is 800 years old—okay, 799 years old, don’t quibble—and man, it really is a work of art. Of history, of freedom, of penmanship.
It is just so, frickin’, meaningful to all people who believe in equality under the law and in a fair trial by a jury of one’s peers, that it’s…just…utterly…amazing to be able to stand in front of it and look at it.
Even if you can’t read it because it was handwritten in medieval Latin and they used abbreviations and the handwriting is really really small.
Why is it here now? Well, it’s almost the Fourth of July, our national holiday. The day we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, another awesome piece of paper.
Our piece of paper’s ideas come directly from Magna Carta, and was written for the same reason: to outline the rights of the individual against the arbitrary authority of, uh, authority. And this idea, that there is one set of laws that apply equally to everybody, including the king/most powerful person, is the cornerstone of all democratic law everywhere. That is why Magna Carta is so revered, and that is why it’s in Boston.
Think about this: John Adams, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et al, based their ideas about freedom and rights on a piece of paper that was already 500 years old in their time. Talk about “sounding throughout the ages.”
That was then, this is now. Now-er.
Okay, so the world was different back (way back) then. Okay, so the clause about the “return of hostages held by the King” isn’t needed so much now. Nor the one about the abolishment of “evil customs connected with forests.” But the clause that matters, crikey it must’ve packed a wallop back then, because its still meaningful now:
NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised (dispossessed) of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
Basically: you can’t be jailed without an actual, legal, reason (we called it “being charged”); liberty shall not be taken away from anyone without a proper trial; and a trial must be based on actual laws. Also, no one shall have to pay in order to be thus justly tried. In other words, the king (boo bad King John!) couldn’t just chuck you into prison on a whim, and he couldn’t demand that you pay a “fine” in order to be tried and/or freed.
Huh, seven-hunnert-and-ninety-nine years ago, the idea of “you can’t be arrested without being charged with an actual crime” was important, too.
A long time ago, in a field far far away…
So what happened in 1215 that bugged the barons into action? What happened was—and all the Robin Hood movies show this, including the one with Errol Flynn and the one with Kevin Costner (and possibly the one with Russell Crowe but we can’t really talk too much about that one because it pisses us off)—King John was a b*stard.
He loved chucking people in jail. He loved taxing the cr*p out of people. He loved fining them for every…little…thing. And, he was a disaster militarily (he lost a lot—many lots—of the lands that his father Henry II had won). If I were a modernistic historian, I might say he totally s#cked at being king. His motto quite possibly may have been Omnia enim propter vos, nec (All for me and none for you) with the sub-motto of Lambunt (Suck it).
The barons were okay with having a king, just not a s#cky one. 1215 was the year that they got fed up to their gorgets with the inability of John to, uh, king properly. So, Magna Carta was written, and the barons told John that if he didn’t sign it he’d be dumped as king.
Like all good s#cky kings, he caved.
(To be the tiniest bit fair to John, John was the fifth son and was never meant to be king. Also, his father thought he was a nincompoop.)
Whoopdee do, whoopdie dee
After Magna Carta was signed in London by King John, it was copied out so that all the barons and bishops who had gotten on King John’s case could have their own.
“They” think that probably 40 copies were made back in 1215 (one for each shire). Today, there are only four. In the world. And the one that Lincoln Cathedral has loaned to us/the MFA until September is the one that Hugh of Wells, the Bishop of Lincoln in 1215, brought back to Lincoln Cathedral as soon as the ink was dry. In his pocket, like. You can see the folds that had to be made to make it into a pocketable 5×7-ish size.
This, and that, and the other thing
I know what you’re thinking: But why is it at an art museum? Let me tell you about two other things already in this particular museum…
The Liberty Bowl. Yep, the one by Paul Revere. Normally the Bowl rests in a case exactly in front of that nice painting of the man by Singleton Copley but whilst Magna Carta is here it’s in a case exactly in front of it.
Why? Take a good look at the front of the bowl. Take yer tri-focals off, bend down until you are face to face with the bowl, and look at it.
See the inscription “No. 45/Wilkes & Liberty”? See the little flag on the right, the one that Mr. Revere inscribed “Bill of Rights”? See the other little flag, on the left, the one that Mr. Revere inscribed “Magna Charta”? That’s why.
The Portrait of Samuel Adams. Yuh, the one by Singleton Copley. There stands the rebellious brewer, in his best crimson finery, pointing at the Massachusetts Bay Charter, of which he wrote in 1765 (another irritating year for another cr#ppy king) “The Charter is . . . as sacred [to Bostonians] . . . as Magna Carta is to the People of Britain.” Magna Carta protected English people’s rights, the Massachusetts Bay Charter protected the Colony’s people’s right (so back on off it, George). That’s why.
There is also a copy (and not the one from the souvenir shop) of The Declaration of Independence, along with handwritten drafts by Messrs. Jefferson and Adams, on display in the exhibit. The issues that caused the creation of The Declaration of Independence were approximately the same as those which caused the creation of Magna Carta: the willy-nilly-ness of the king, and a damnable, unsupportable, level of taxation. There are laws, both documents say, and even the king must obey them. (And additionally, in our case, if the king wuzn’t going to obey the laws, we wurren’t going to obey the king.)
There are some other pieces in the the exhibit which are fun to discover on your own, but let me say that it seems as if everyone in Massachusetts Bay Colony knew all about Magna Carta and included it in as many documents and illustrations as they could. Just to annoy the folks back home, as it were.
We may think liberty started with “us,” but “we” are just the present segment on the line of thinking that stretches back 800 years.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
July 1, 2014 – September 1, 2014
Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery (Gallery LG26)