My Blog List

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Principle of the Commons: Was the Magna Carta the beginning of liberty or it's end?

Magna Carta as "Where Modern European Civilization went wrong?"

My friend shared a post in Facebook on the Magna Carta in which Fred Harrison maintains that "If we want to discover where modern European Civilization went wrong, one of the places to start to look for the clues is this field" in Runnymede. And surprisingly he maintains that:

"The liberties of the individual began to be eroded with Magna Carta. Far from celebrating it as a sacred document that protected people’s natural rights, the 1215 deal in Runnymede between king and aristocracy took the first fatal step in a centuries-long process of de-socialising the nation’s rental revenue, necessitating the imposition of taxes that damage the health and welfare of the nation." []

Now I agree with Fred Harrison in the overall theme of his argument that it was the conversion of feudal rights and obligations to absolute property rights that undermined the wealth and comfort of the common people of England. But I disagree that it started with the Magna Carta. I think he's pointing to the wrong culprit, and that on the contrary the Magna Carta was even more important to the Future of human rights than is commonly acknowledged and the reason is that the King was also forced to uphold the rights of commoners, something that other Kings and nobility in Europe successfully denied. Had the aristocracy lost their battles with the King, then the King would have had the level of power and wealth he needed to enforce absolutist monarchy similar to what happened in France where there was no Magna Carta. Had the King lost completely to the Aristocracy the tyranny would have been local as happened in Poland.

When the magna carta was granted the Normans had just finished almost 100 years of trying to stamp out Liberty for commoners (sometimes more successfully than others).

In his Youtube exposition he claims that the:

"ugly truth" of the Magna Carta is "terrible to behold" and that the "Magna Carta was the beginning of the end of the liberties of people born on the British Isles!" [Youtube]

When I heard that my jaw almost fell to the floor. On the contrary, in the context of it's times, it was huge progress for all involved. Without the Magna Carta, the Kings of England would have had an easier time asserting an absolute monarchy. And when the transition to a modern country occurred 300 years later the common folks of England would have had more trouble maintaining their rights than they had anyway.

The balance between the nobility and the King was important. The King provided an appellate outlet for local tyranny from nobles. The King in turn needed at least some check on his powers and the Magna Carta was that. It also was a reassertion of pre Norman Conquest Germanic beliefs over the Christo-Fascist notions brought in from France and the Frankish Empire. "Divine Right of Kings" made royalty totally subservient to the Crown. Magna Carta asserted that at least some of the people had rights too.

TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below - [Magna Carta]

If anything the Magna Carta was an acknowledgment that at least some people had rights. As my friend Robert Burns notes right off the bat the Magna Carta:

"did not de-socialize anything. It was understood that the nobility, the peers, were rulers over the commoners. They did not engage in the same deception today where the capitalist/rentier ignoble rulers pretend to be mere ‘private’ commoners (de-socializing the rents)." [¬if_t=group_comment_reply]

Rights to the Commons

Yes, the nobility and the King cut a deal that mostly ignored the concerns of the Peasantry. But not of all the peasantry. The thin middle class of English commoners was represented. Yeomen, who usually owed more than a few acres and farmed their own land in return for being England's famed and feared "longbowmen" were present at the table and their voice is heard indirectly along with other commoners. I like to think that the echoes of "Robin Hood are present in the treaty in the Magna Carta, in this passage:

"(47) All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly." - []

Yes the Magna Carta was imposed on King John and guaranteed the rights of nobles. But at least some of the better educated and armed lower classes were there too, and they forced their issue on King John as well. That includes the small farmers known as Yeomen who also were the backbone of the British Army with their archers. The magna Carta is where most Robin Hood stories are set for a reason.

Common Rights

In feudal times feudal obligations were law. They were governed by common law and the only real threat to common law was the various crowns, all of whom sought to establish absolute arbitrary rule. Where the nobility won too much power the crown became so weak it couldn't even defend the country -- as happened to Poland. But in England the feudal rights were affirmed without totally Défenestreing the crown. As Robert Burns notes:

"So Magna Carta instead decentralized the feudal State power. In contrast, the anointing of ignobles centralizes and de-socializes ruling power (Citigroup, for example, rules the entire World and calls its rule merely its own ‘private interest’ and none of our business)." [¬if_t=group_comment_reply]

But what documents like the Magna Carta did were to distribute powers and obligations and attempt to establish basic principles of rule of law. The principles may even have been conscious of the principles behind what they were doing, because much of what became common law is based on traditional principles. And you see these affirmed in passage after passage in the Charter. For example:

"(57) In cases where a Welshman was deprived or dispossessed of anything, without the lawful judgment of his equals, by our father King Henry or our brother King Richard, and it remains in our hands or is held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for the period commonly allowed to Crusaders, unless a lawsuit had been begun, or an enquiry had been made at our order, before we took the Cross as a Crusader. But on our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once do full justice according to the laws of Wales and the said regions." -[Magna Carta]

Rule of Law:

The Magna Carta imposed principles of rule of law for commoners:

"(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood." [Magna Carta]

The principle of "trial by one's peers, was originally a principle of nobility, but it's still a principle of fairness:

"(21) Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence." [Magna Carta]

And also for the Church:

"(22) A fine imposed upon the lay property of a clerk in holy orders shall be assessed upon the same principles, without reference to the value of his ecclesiastical benefice." [Magna Carta]

So was the Magna Carta the "End of Liberty" or a victory in a long war?

So On the contrary the Magna Carta was not the "end of freedom" or "liberty" but a successful skirmish in a long war between conflicting interests. I agree with the theme expressed in the last 5 minutes, but his facts and justifications are poorly argued. The Magna Carta actually reflects the complexity of the struggles for common rights of commoners. At the table at Runnymede commoners weren't even directly represented but as shown in the above passages they were there.

Later in his exposition he claims that the expression "estate" or "land" was eliminated from the American founding documents because they wanted to deny the people a right to land property. But the problem with that argument is that the assertion of an absolute (or alloidal) right to land would have been the basis of the great landlords asserting the right to collect massive rents and evict people who couldn't pay them, not that people have an "equal right" to land. That is precisely the mistake that commoners made during the Enlightenment. It wasn't the Magna Carta that converted feudal rulers rights to simple property, it was the very sleight of hand in parliament of ending 'nobility' without redistributing the property that the nobles controlled that converted those rights to simple property and paved the way for fencing and highland clearances. On the Contrary the Magna Carta saw the Crown forced to concede people's right to access rivers or use the "Kings Forests." An equal right to use of land is asserted in the the passage the "Pursuit of happiness." Fred Harrison gets it exactly backwards.

The Magna Carta as a Battle in a Long war

The fact is that the magna carta was one battle of a long struggle between socially dominant nobles (and clergy), commoners and the Crown in which the sides constantly shifted. Commoners fought the crown and nobles by asserting Feudal obligations on the part of both, and by asserting "common rights". They usually had to fight and be crushed to get even minor concessions. And much of what is in "natural rights" discourse was under-ground and expressed in legend, lore (stories like Robin Hood), limericks ("When Adam spat and Eve Span, who was then the common man" dates back to the Normans). And local rebellion, even when it resulted in mass beheadings was often the only path to assert justice. A little more than 100 years later, Peasants would give their lives fighting the crowns on similar arguments to what Locke would argue 2 centuries after that. Rights are Bottom up. Social Domination is top down. It has to be resisted bottom up.

As I noted in my blog on the Peasant Revolt of 1381, at the beginning of 2014:

"When Adam delved and Eve span,[a] Who was then the gentleman?[3] 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" [] Src: []

Rights come from below. As I noted:

"the Peasants of Wycliff and Watt read the bible and were quietly the equals of anyone. They shared jokes about the wealthy and expressed them in short poems, which were basically the tweets of the day."

And many of the men and women of the time of King John were educated too. It's that quiet assertion of human dignity that continues to this day and that will prevail in the face of bullying, social dominance and the arrogance of the rich and powerful.

Further Reading:¬if_t=group_comment_reply
Peasant Revolt:
John Ball:

No comments:

Post a Comment