Celebrating common law beyond Magna Carta

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2015 is the year of many celebrations for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. It is silly to try to avoid mentioning it here, but I know my readers expect me to find a different slant on the celebration. The four remaining copies of the 1215 version get ample attention at the British Library. The Lincoln copy was put on show in 2014 at the Library of Congress (Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor). Earlier this year there was much media coverage for the finding of a later copy of Magna Carta at Sandwich, Kent. At first I would have almost believed the news concerned the finding of a fifth copy from 1215, but this was not the case. However, this copy from 1300 combined with a copy of the Forest Charter.

Recently Harvard Law Library decided to digitize its collection of manuscripts and archival records with texts concerning medieval English law. At Et Seq., the library’s blog, there were already two announcements, on March 25 about early English manor rolls by Mary Person, and on April 10 ‘Medieval Manuscripts Online-Magna Carta & More’ by Karen Beck. The riches of the digital collections at Harvard Law Library are certainly no secret, but now it seems they surpass their earlier efforts, this time with support from the Ames Foundation. Person and Beck briefly introduced the new digital collections, but there is a real need to tell more here.

A gateway to medieval resources

Detail of roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16) - image Et Seq.

Detail of a manor roll from Moulton, Cheshire 1518-1521 (Box 2, 16)

Before going quickly to the newly digitized resources it is wise to look at the overview of historical and special collections, the web page on rare books and manuscripts, and finally the overview of digital collections and digital exhibits. This threefold entrance is in some respects confusing, but each approach is in itself valuable. The only snag is remembering where you found a particular collections, exhibit or link! By the way, the overview of digital historical databases deals with subscription databases.

The first series of digitized archival records consists of some 170 medieval rolls, mainly manor rolls and account rolls, most of them stemming from five villages in different English counties (Cheshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Staffordshire and Suffolk). Some items are effectively not rolls, but charters. The time range of the items goes from 1305 to 1770, with therefore not just medieval sources. These rolls will be successively digitized during the coming years. As for now you can read online only items from Moulton in Cheshire, with just one court roll [no. 20, Lenten court, 30 Henry VIII (1539-1540)]. There is an online finding aid (inventory) with descriptions of all items and whenever available links to their digital version. To assess the variety of materials digitized at Harvard Law School you might have a look at an earlier post here about medieval rolls. English manor rolls could be easily found using the Manorial Documents Register of the British National Archives. I find it harder to get an overview of them using the new Discovery portal, but in the end you can find for example other rolls for Moulton Manor.

The series of medieval legal manuscripts at Harvard Law School has been divided into two section, the first with forty registers of statutes dating from the early fourteenth century until 1500, the second for nineteen registers of writs. The oldest register of writs (Registrum brevium with also some tracts) dates from around 1275 (HLS MS 24), the latest one from around 1476 (HLS MS 25). One manuscript contains also yearbooks and tracts (HLS MS 193, around 1350). The volumes with compilations of statutes often contain the text of Magna Carta. The oldest manuscript present at Harvard which includes Magna Carta dates from around 1300 [HLS MS 57, Magna Carta cum Statutis]. You can also search for these manuscripts within the HOLLIS catalogue of Harvard University Library, using the filed “Other call number” and entering “HLS MS XXX”, with XXX for the manuscript number.

HLS MS 172, Sherriff's Magna Carta, around 1327

“Sherriff’s Magna Carta”, around 1327 (?, circa 1298) – Harvard Law School, MS 172

A splendid example of the presence of Magna Carta in Englsh legal life is a socalled sherriff’s Magna Carta said to date from around 1327 (HLS MS 172). However, in the overview of manuscripts it is suggested with due hesitance that it might even date from 1297 or 1298. Such copies were read aloud four times every year.

At the website of the Ames Foundation you can consult an overview of all these registers and manuscripts. The Ames Foundation invites scholars to provide more detailed descriptions of manuscripts, something until now only done for HLS MS 184 which contains the Statuta vetera, writs and some tracts. The description of this manuscript does refer to the overview of manuscripts created by John H. Baker, English legal manuscripts in the United States of America : a descriptive list (2 vol., London 1985-1990; Selden Society; reprint 2 vol., Buffalo, NY, 2010), and earlier in English legal manuscripts, vol. 1: Catalogue of the manuscript year books, readings, and law reports in the library of the Harvard Law School, John H. Baker (ed.) (Zug, 1975). The new description of HLS MS 184 gives you for each item in the manuscript the link to the digitized page. For many items you will find a reference to the numbering in the Statutes of the Realm or additional information about editions. The meta-data of the manuscript are not forgotten either. In my humble opinion this example sets a standard for describing English medieval legal manuscripts. The name of the author of this description should definitely be added.

The overview created by the Ames Foundation makes it very clear that what we encounter here is not just a very regular set of manuscripts. These manuscripts at Harvard will show surprises to those scholars who start with the large labor of dealing in-depth with each of them. The overview points to an unedited tract in HLS MS 24b, a single leaf with a large section of the Tractatus de bastardiae, described in 1997 by Jerome Arkenberg. ‘The Story Behind a Stray Manuscript Leaf’, Harvard Library Bulletin, n.s. 8.4 (1997) 46–54, an article available also online. I am sure this is only an example, and not an exception of a text yet to be edited and studied.

The digitized manuscripts help us to come closer to the actual versions of texts seen by those dealing with legal matters in the late Middle Ages, and this can correct the more synthesized critical editions of texts such as the Statuta vetera et nova. A comparison with the text versions printed in incunabula editions comes also much more feasible, and these early editions, too, can now be found in digital versions, too. The Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (GW) at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) at the British Library increasingly point to digital versions . You can search in these online catalogues for Statuta regnorum and Statuta Angliae or use the GW overview of all editions of statutes.

Magna Carta seen in perspective

In the year of the celebrations around 800 years Magna Carta the newly digitized manuscripts at Harvard show above all Magna Carta did not stand alone. It got a place alongside other statutes of the realm. It would be most interesting to see what place or impact Magna Carta had on actual writs, and for answering this question, too, you can now consult at home on the screen of your computer or tablet the digitized registers of writs kept at the magnificent holdings of Harvard Law School. You will benefit also from the resources and articles brought together at the website of the Magna Carta Research Project. As for medieval canon law and Magna Carta, you could very well start with reading an online essay by Anne Duggan at the website of the project Early English Laws. A look at these earlier laws helps also to discern with more precision the new elements within Magna Carta.

At my own web page about legal history you can find among the information about the history of the common law links to other online resources for this subject which merits continuing attention because of the continuities and changes in the history of Anglo-American law at large. Apart from its printed publications and the priceless online Index to Year Book Reports (David Seipp, Boston College) the Ames Foundation is working with Harvard Law School to create further digital access to resources in the field of the history of the common law and medieval law in a wider sense.

The definitive history of Magna Carta will not be written because every generation will come with different questions and methods to approach the old roads to answers, and no doubt each generation will come up with new perspectives worth considering carefully again and again. Thanks to the staff at Harvard University for make these materials accessible for anyone interesting in legal history! As for Et Seq. you can subscribe to its RSS feeds, simply follow the 852 RARE items of this library blog or follow @hlslib at Twitter. If liberty is a value to treasure and foster you cannot pass by in silence this Icon of Liberty, the telling subtitle of a special website created by the American Bar Association for this year’s Law Day (May 1). Magna Carta 800th will keep you informed about many of this year’s celebrations. Among this year’s online exhibitions are Exploring Magna Carta of Boston College Law Library and The Magna Carta (Great Charter), 1297 of the Parliament House, Canberra.

A postscript

Linking Magna Carta and medieval canon law is not a whim or an isolated idea. On June 16 and 17 a conference will be held at Saint Louis, Missouri on the theme New Constitutions and Constitutional Beginnings: The Fourth Lateran Council and Magna Carta 800 years later. The conference is sponsored by the International Society for Medieval Canon Law (ICMAC). The Fourth Lateran Council is the subject of a congress later this year in Rome, November 24-29, 2015: Concilium Lateranense IV: Commemorating the Octocentenary of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

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