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magna carta

[This blog is based on a lecture delivered at the University of Lincoln, Feb. 11 2015]

Anglicana ecclesia libera sit….

‘The English church shall be free.’ The first chapter of Magna Carta is one of the most familiar, if only because it is the first, and routinely cited as such. It is also one of the least discussed – barely mentioned, for instance, in Holt’s standard commentary. The ‘liberty’, or liberties that it promised were, to put it mildly, ephemeral, eroded from the outset when the first, the freedom of cathedral chapters to choose their bishops, and religious houses their superiors, was dropped in the reissue of 1216. Beyond that, Magna Carta is invariably seen as a document of English history, but of all its chapters the first is the least English. Indeed, it is not English at all, except to the rather important extent that England was part of the twelfth-century transformation of Europe, and hence in turn of the wider Eurasian transformation in which the modern world was born. The aspirations and conflicts from which Ch. 1 arose take us to the very heart of that world and how it had come into being.  It had nothing to do with religion, of course – nothing to do with what people believed, or how they worshipped. This is not the freedom for which Milton called and the pilgrim fathers set sail for the New World. It is the freedom demanded by Amazon, or Boots,  not to pay more than they cared to of the king’s taxes nor in a certain sphere (defined by themselves) to obey his laws.

Europe’s most familiar legacies of the twelfth century – a landscape organised around, and dominated by, cathedrals and parish churches, an imagination by crusading knights and romantic lovers – are matched or surpassed by magnificent mosques and proliferating madraseh throughout the Islamic world, by massive and intricately decorated temple complexes across South and Southeast Asia, by the exquisite porcelain and painting of China’s Song dynasty, Ferdowsi’s Shahanamah from Persia and The Tale of Genji from Japan. This is not coincidence. These were the outward signs of how in the two hundred years or so before Magna Carta the great cultural divisions of Eurasia, the world civilizations as we call them, took root and crystallised as the building blocks of modern world history. Within them regional powers consolidated in turn into enduring political units, so that by 1215 the political geography not only of Europe but of many other regions has a familiarity to the modern eye that it had not had in 1000.

Crucially, cultural frontiers had been sharpened and defined within as well as between the macro-regions, as in Christendom between Latin and Greek, and in Sunni Islam between its four great legal traditions. A reinvigorated Brahminism became prominent in South Asia and what is now called neo-Confucianism in China. Each region was now dominated culturally, and in varying degrees governmentally, by a learned elite which drew its authority from its role as custodian and interpreter of a body of texts held to have been inherited from antiquity, or late antiquity, and, again in varying degrees, of ritual and other social practices associated with them.

In Latin Europe the ascendancy of the newly formed clerical elite was proclaimed and defined, in the year of Magna Carta, by the Fourth Lateran Council, which laid down the structure of the church, the discipline of its clergy and the pattern of faith and worship of the laity for the rest of the middle ages, and for Catholics until the twentieth century. That structure rested on the Church’s secure possession of about one third of Europe’s land and revenues, the result of innumerable local agreements over the past two centuries to ‘restore’ land that had once belonged (or allegedly belonged) to churches. Whether they followed mighty clashes between Popes and Emperors or equally bitter and often bloody local quarrels the terms were always the same: in return for secure possession monks and cathedral canons agreed to live as celibates, and not to share out the land among themselves, but hold it in common.

In this way Europe acquired a dual structure of property ownership, by blood and the sword on the one hand,  ordination and office on the other, whose unravelling is now regarded by historians and economists as an essential condition for the replacement of the ancien regime by what we know as the modern state – an unravelling through the Henrician reformation in the sixteenth century, the French revolution in the eighteenth, the Spanish civil war in the twentieth, even more prolonged, more bitter and bloodier than the struggles in which it was born. In the twelfth century the division crucially diluted the consolidation of regional power and wealth under the control and direction of magnate families which was now taking place throughout the Eurasian landmass with a solidity and durability that would shape the future of every region.

Latin Europe was not the only part of the world where this consolidation was resisted in the name of ‘reform’ and of the effectiveness of wider, overarching priestly or imperial authority: the development of the famous examination system in China was part of a remarkably similar struggle, and there were others.  But only in Latin Europe was the resistance effective enough to create a real alternative to the power of the family, both in ‘the church’ and in the shaping of royal power that in turn became the nation state. In one of its many aspects, and one of the most fundamental, Magna Carta was an attempt to contain that alternative within a frame of custom and law. The barons were not alone in Europe in seeking to do so, and their success was insufficient to restore the autonomy of their counterparts in other world civilisations. Nevertheless, it was enough to set England on a distinctive path – more so than it might have been if Chapter 1 had been more effective.

Image Source: wikicommons

R. I. Moore is Professor Emeritus at Newcastle University and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His most recent publication is ‘Medieval Christianity in a world Historical Perspective’ in John H Arnold (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, (Oxford, 2014).

Tags : Church and stateglobal historyMagna Cartapolitical historyreligious history
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