Friday, 25 July 2008

1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
Magna Carta, clause 39.

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
Magna Carta, clause 40.

The nobility of the ideals expressed in these two clauses has echoed down the ages, elevating Magna Carta, a piece of 13th century English legislation, to iconic status. It is now revered as the well spring of modern justice, particluarly because of its influence on the authors of the US Declaration of Independence. I debated whether to reproduce these quotes here, as this delightful book is about far more than how we view these two particular clauses nearly 800 years after the rebellious barons forced King John into signing Magna Carta. Danziger and Gillingham wear their learning lightly, resulting in an illuminating and enjoyable read that lifts the veil (or should that be pulls back the tapestry?) on life in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Each chapter opens with a quote from Magna Carta, setting the theme for the pages that follow. Themes range from the domestic (castle building and castle life, family life and family strife, education) to warfare (the role of hunting and tournaments in preparing for war, how battles were conducted and the crusades) to the Church (the Lateran Council and Pope Innocent III's conflicts with King John) and England's place in the wider world. King John, that legendary villain, comes across as perhaps the first "English" monarch (as his brother Richard Lionheart/Coeur de Lion and the rest of his ancestors were essentially French), despite his scheming and overbearing style of leadership that provoked the rebellion that led to the signing of the charter. The breadth of themes covered allows the reader to get a firm hold of both the complexities of Plantagenet kingship as well as the ups and downs of everyday life.

I particularly enjoyed the authors' placing of England in the wider world at around the time of Magna Carta. In Asia Minor, the crusades were reaching their bloody climax in the decades on either side of 1215. The Muslim warrior leader Saladin captured Jerusalem, marking a turning point in the struggle for control of the city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims (the struggle that is still being felt today). Meanwhile, in China, Genghis Khan and his armies captured Beijing in 1215 after breaking through the Great Wall of China. In the years that followed, the Mongols moved through Central Asia before terrifying Europe with their speed and ruthless methods. Back in Europe, St Francis of Assisi was founding his mendicant order of monks, revolutionary in its austerity and detachment from worldly wealth. Pope Innocent III, by presiding over the Fourth Lateran Council, gave lasting shape to the subsequent structure of the Catholic Church as well as influencing justice throughout Christendom.

If you think this all sounds a little staid, the style is really quite funny at times, especially when quoting from The Book of the Civilised Man, an etiquette guide by Daniel of Beccles (sample advice: don't scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breeches or chest in public). Daniel seemed to be swimming against the tide in a society where Roland le Pettour (that is Roland the Farter) was rewarded with a country estate for entertaining the Royal Court by "leaping, whistling and farting before the king"!


monix said...

This sounds like a must for the wishlist. Thanks for a compelling review.

stefanie said...

I've had this book sitting on my shelf for quite some time and I keep debating whether or not to read it. Boring? Not boring? But your review has pushed me to the not boring side and now and I will definitely read it. Thanks!

verbivore said...

Oh wow, this sounds wonderful. I'm adding it to my wishlist right away. And I know a history buff who will be getting this for Christmas!

Logophile said...

Hi Monix, it's a lovely read so definitely one for the wishlist!

Stefanie, it sat on my shelf for the same reason - but it's definitely not boring! I've also got 1000, also be Danny Danziger, on my shelf so perhaps I'll read that one of these days...

Verbivore, it's a great read - very accessible. I did a lot of medieval history at university (mostly Irish and Scottish) but there was just so much I didn't know...I kept muttering "why wasn't this out when I was studying??" as it would have made my life a lot easier!!