What medieval historian’s heart did not thrill to yesterday’s news that every primary school in England will be sent a copy of Magna Carta, together with interpretative guides which show English history (indeed apparently global history) over the last 800 years as “a fight for freedom and rights”?  And yet, it is possible, even for medieval historians blinking with delight at seeing their field promoted in schools – for medieval history has long been disgracefully marginalised in the curriculum – to have some reservations.

Let’s be clear about this. Magna Carta is a great and important document, in all kinds of ways (as shown by a post on this very blog, and indeed by the marvellous academic research project and associated exhibition at the British Library). And children ought to learn about it.

Excessive concentration on this one text, though, especially when set in this particular narrative, is redolent of what is known as the Whig view of history, lampooned long ago by the historian Herbert Butterfield. In that view, English (or British, the terms are treated as interchangeable) history is a grand tale of progress culminating in the Rise of Parliament: it’s a narrative which provides a means of judging what was important in the past (anything that helped Parliament to Rise, like Magna Carta) and what wasn’t (anything else).

Yet it wasn’t just wealthy barons who felt oppressed in the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t just kings who were oppressors. So, in the spirit of the recent announcement, and to take advantage of the attention to the Middle Ages it might bring, here are some other edifying texts that could go out to schools in the Magna Carta packs to provide a bit of context for studying “struggles for freedom” in the Middle Ages, together with some suggestions for classroom use in five lessons.[1]

Lesson 1. In 996, the peasants of Normandy rebelled against their lords. In the words of a chronicler (admittedly writing later, but still well before Magna Carta) called William of Jumièges,

“Throughout every part of Normandy, the peasants unanimously formed many assemblies and  decided to live according to their own wishes, such that …they might follow laws of their own. In order to ratify these new decrees, each of the rebellious peasants’ groups chose two envoys who brought the decision for confirmation to an assembly held in the middle of the province”.[2]

Learning outcome: this teaches children that the concept of political representation and election actually pre-dates Magna Carta. (But since the envoys had their feet and hands chopped off by the Norman duke at the assembly, it also teaches them about the need for tact in demanding liberty).

Lesson 2. Another text about the tenth century. The English teacher and monk Aelfric wrote a role-play to teach young students Latin, in which people with different social roles have a dialogue with a monk. Here’s the one about the ploughman:

Monk: “What do you say, ploughman? How do you undertake your work?
Ploughman: “Oh my lord, I work excessively. I go out at day break… there is not a winter so harsh that I dare lurk at home for fear of my master….”
Monk: “Oh! Oh! It is a lot of work.”
Ploughman: “Indeed, it is a lot of work because I am not free”.[3]

Classroom task: create a new version of Aelfric’s text, with updated vocations, and discuss the extent to which political liberty requires progressive economic policies to be meaningful.

Lesson 3. Moving after the Norman Conquest, the school pack could include this extract from a 12th-century saint’s life (Saint Erkenwald), in which a London working man bursts out into criticism of the clergy:

“You clerics have so much time on your hands… You people, honestly, you’re free to keep every day as a holiday, and you get to grow soft with idleness and eat other folks’ food. You can sing without care both day and night, for no necessity compels you to work. Your life should be thought of more as a game or a stage play than a real occupation”.[4]

Teaching suggestion: why not make this text into a classroom game by replacing the word ‘clerics’ with more modern career paths, building in some careers advice to prepare students for the modern globalised “world of work”? (Unfortunately the working man is subsequently struck dead by the saint for his temerity, but that ending can be cut if time doesn’t permit).

Lesson 4. In the fourth lesson, the English primary school children will encounter the Declaration of Arbroath, signed by the Scots nobility in 1320, and sent to continental Europe for approval:

“…as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”[5]

Classroom suggestion: use this text as a springboard to discuss the representation of the SNP and the European Union in the pre-election English media, and whether ‘liberty’ is a distinctively English historical theme.

Lesson 5. A classic to end with: the speech of the radical preacher John Ball, in 1381, in the heat of the Peasants’ Revolt.

“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”[6]

Classroom task: if he were standing for election in May, what policies would John Ball put in his manifesto?

(John, of course, ended up hanged, drawn and quartered, with his head stuck on a spike. Teachers might want to put a more positive spin on this particular struggle for liberty.)

Charles West is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History. You can follow him on Twitter


[1] For more suggestions along similar lines, see the inspiring Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381, originally published in 1973.

[2] Elisabeth van Houts, The Normans in Europe (2000), p. 64.

[3] David Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England (1995), p. 65.

[4] Hugh Thomas, The Secular Clergy in England, 1066-1216 (2014), p.  50.



Tags : LibertyMagna CartaMiddle Ages
Charles West

The author Charles West


  1. So true. As with early forms of democracy, many people do not realise that freedom from oppression was an expensive luxury granted only to the privileged few.

  2. On the subject of Magna Carta, could you also look at Domesday Book and the Oath of Salisbury in a slightly different light – often they are considered to be the very foundations of feudalism in England, but there are also theories that the tenants-in-chief had pressured William (under considerable strain in England from the threat of further Viking invasion) to confirm their land-rights in return for military support i.e. it was a mutually beneficial arrangement which outlined the post-Conquest freedoms and rewards of the ‘barons’ and what was expected in return, and not necessarily an entirely royal imposition. Magna Carta was a restatement of this position after the barons realised the initial deal hadn’t been properly thought through (if only they’d brought in some paid professionals to advise!).

    1. I did think about including Domesday, but thought that might be a bit much for primary school! But yes, I take your point – MC not necessarily a starting point for opposition to tyrants, very much part of an ongoing dialogue. Actually, I also thoguht about including the recall of Aethelraed II, ‘if he would rule more justly than before’.
      Though it wasn’t just the English nobility who wanted their freedom and rights observed (they were just the best at it).

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