In 1215 at Runnymede, Doo-Dah, Doo-Dah


Magna Carta is now 800 years old, but I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do to celebrate the birthday of a document. The main way academia seems to be calling attention to it is by destroying some of the myths surrounding it. Even when we first learned about it in high school, the teacher was clear about how it was only meant to pertain to the nobility, not common people like Jarvis Cocker. I actually wrote a research paper on the decline in power on the British monarchy that year, and while I obviously mentioned Magna Carta, it played a fairly small role in limiting royal power.

Picture by Jonty Clark
And in college, I learned the additional fact that it was never actually put into practice during King John’s reign, as he had the Pope declare it null and void, then died a year later. It was later revived under subsequent monarchs, but without all of its original provisions. Much of what it actually said was very specific to the time period and has no particular bearing these days, but it remains a powerful symbol of what it wasn’t even designed to guarantee, that of rights for the citizens that the government cannot take away. Parts of the United States Constitution were worded after it, albeit in English instead of Latin. The articles I’ve read are also careful to note the recent proposed but unsuccessful New Hampshire bill that new legislation pertaining to individual liberty to contain a direct quote from Magna Carta (despite the fact that it wasn’t even American), that it was part of a Jay-Z album title, and how Oliver Cromwell allegedly called it “Magna Farta.” Also mentioned are bizarre products designed to commemorate the charter, including a pacifier with the entire document printed on it and a rubber duckie called Magna Quacka. (That sounds like it should be part of the Donald Duck universe. Also, wouldn’t Quackna Carta sound better? Or Magna Canarda? Anatida Carta?)

Perhaps part of its popularity rests on how easy the name “Magna Carta” (it simply means “great charter” in Latin) and the year 1215 are to remember.

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