Liberty Matters

How Can This Artifact Exercise Such Power?


David raises a fundamental question about the enduring power of what he elegantly calls “that unassuming-looking document, rather smaller than a sheet of A3 paper and now shorn of its seal.” It has been a constant historical concern, niggling in my encounter with the Magna Carta and its reception, to pose almost the same point. How can an artifact so old and circumstantial exercise such power over subsequent historical communities? In one sense the medieval historians have in one respect established that the powerful constitutional meaning of the charter was in abeyance between the 13th and 16th centuries although it may have been embedded in the routines of provincial justice, especially in concerns related to property. The transformation of significance does seem to be closely associated with the opportunities for dissemination through print culture in the legal handbooks, but then more dramatically in the form of facsimiles in the 18th and 19th centuries. What did it mean to the construction of political identities to be able to review a facsimile of the charter in the privacy of one’s home or club? Without doubt, and this can be seen in contemporary graphic satire too, representations of Magna Carta supporting particular individuals, institutions, or policies became in the 18th century a powerful and very effective means by which popular support for activities might be mobilized. Magna Carta became then a key element of an iconographic vocabulary of constitutional liberties, alongside the liberty cap, the stave of manumission, and the various temples of liberty which provided a public opportunity to defend or attack threats to freedom. How public discourse connected the ancient artifact of 1215 with the emotive authority invoked by contemporary representation is a tough historical question to pose, but nevertheless demands further thought. For the 800th anniversary there will no doubt be much merchandise for sale – reinforcing the”‘brand,” but there has also been a return to usage of images of Magna Carta in political commentary and protest – how this process connects to and draws from its origins is complex, and for the moment underexplored.