Thursday, November 6, 2014

Magna Carta at 800

Today, the Library of Congress opened its long-awaited exhibition Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, a 10-week celebration of the foundational charter of liberties which has informed the democratic rule of law in both England and the United States. At the heart of the exhibit is one of only four surviving copies of the 1215 document, on loan from England's Lincoln Cathedral. (As noted in a historical document from the Goodson Law Library's collection, also digitized on HathiTrust, the Lincoln Cathedral previously loaned their copy to the Library of Congress for an exhibition in the late 1930s.)

Today's Washington Post succinctly summarizes the history of this "Great Charter". In an attempt to subdue a rebellion among his feudal barons, King John agreed to the terms of the document, which ensured the rights of land-owning subjects and limited the power of the Crown. Forty-one copies were made and distributed to each baron; the document on display at the Library of Congress is one of the few left from this set. However, King John later voided the charter with the help of Pope Innocent, sparking the First Barons' War. Finally signed into law in 1297, Magna Carta rose to philosophical and scholarly prominence in the 17th century, thanks to Sir Edward Coke's Second Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. And the rest, as they say, is history.

For more information about Magna Carta as its 800th anniversary nears, check out For more information about the Library of Congress exhibit (which runs through January 2015), visit the exhibition website. The American Bar Association is also planning some anniversary events in 2015. To learn more about Magna Carta's history and impact before its 800th birthday celebration, try a subject search of the Duke Libraries catalog for "Magna Carta" or Ask a Librarian.