Two Views of Runnymede: Magna Carta at the Library of Congress and the British Library

By: Gabriela Femenia 

As has been widely noted, 2015 is the 800th anniversaryLOC Magna Carta of Magna Carta, the revolutionary charter between King John I and his barons often cited as the foundation of basic Anglo-American concepts of protected liberties, rule of law, and good government.  There have been many events planned to commemorate its importance this year, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see two of the best: the traveling Lincoln Cathedral manuscript and related exhibit at the Library of Congress in December, and the magnificent display of multiple manuscripts at the British Library last month.

Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, at the Library of Congress November 2014 – January 2015, was a ten-week exhibit sponsored by the Federalist Society, and therefore strongly focused on tracing the arc between Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. In addition to displays explaining Magna Carta’s history and featuring one of the four surviving original copies, parts of the exhibit specifically connected Magna Carta to our constitutional rights to due process, trial by jury, and habeas corpus.  A very interesting additional section on Magna Carta in popular culture demonstrated how this medieval document of limited impact in its own century has nonetheless managed to resonate deeply and broadly in the popular imagination in more recent times.

BL Magna Carta

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, at the British Library until September 1, 2015, was naturally much larger in scope, as many more manuscripts and objects were available for display within the United Kingdom than could travel to the U.S.  Among the highlights, the exhibit features all four surviving 1215 manuscripts, copies of the 1225 reissue, one of Thomas Jefferson’s two drafts of the Declaration of Independence, and, delightfully, a map of William Penn’s Pennsylvania detailed enough for me to identify approximately where my house is. In addition to the richness of the collection, the exhibit featured wonderfully-executed video and multimedia enhancements to assist the visitor in following Magna Carta’s evolution from its critical reissue under Henry III, through its role in the growth of the common law on both sides of the Atlantic, and down to the modern development of international human rights law.

TempleChurch

Even if you can’t make it to London, much of this additional content is available at the British Library’s website, asare high-quality images of most of the items, making it possible to experience some of the outstanding curation and to glean fun ideas for your FCIL reference and teaching activities.  If this really piques your interest in Magna Carta and its contributions to the development of both the common law and international law, you may even consider signing up for the University of London’s upcoming MOOC, Freedom and Protest:Magna Carta and its Legacies, beginning June 15.

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