Liberty Matters

Opinion and Truth

One issue raised by our various essays is the question of how the academic investigation of the past stands in relation to the political and popular use of the past.  Whereas one would like the latter to be informed by the former, it does seem to me that these are distinct activities and that historians must not expect to adjudicate in the public realm with the same absolute authority they have in the schools.  As Hume understood, politics is a question more of opinion than of truth.  It is of course a matter of interest when opinion and what currently seems to be truth are sharply at variance.  Nevertheless, opinion is not a dog to be brought to heel by a sharp tug on its historical lead.
These questions of theory are of absorbing interest to us academics (and perhaps to us alone).  I want therefore to float a more substantive suggestion about the legacy of Magna Carta.  Last Thursday I went to Hereford for the post-election party of the local MP, who is a friend of mine.  Polling day happened to coincide with the traditional Hereford Mayfair, and as I walked round the city it seemed to me that different kinds of good-humored festivity – the political and the recreational - had been brought together.  The following morning I went into the cathedral and saw its engrossment of the 1217 issue of Magna Carta (provocatively enough, displayed alongside the glorious and outlandish medieval Mappa Mundi – a vivid reminder, if one were needed, that the world of the authors of the Magna Carta was not our world).[46]  As I left, I wondered to what extent that unassuming-looking document, rather smaller than a sheet of A3 paper and now shorn of its seal, had contributed to the civilized and orderly political culture I had witnessed the previous day.  As Magna Carta was interpreted over the centuries to offer reassurances to the English concerning the possibility of redress against official action, did it eventually help to shape the largely tolerant politics of 19th- and 20th-century England? 
[A photograph of the Mappa Mundi (Map of the World) held by Hereford Cathedral.]
[A detail showing the british Iseles from of the Mappa Mundi (Map of the World) held by Hereford Cathedral.]