Words Matter

“The men in our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions well and peacefully, freely and quietly, fully and completely for them and their heirs of us and our heirs in all things and places forever.” Magna Carta, Clause 63

Eight hundred years ago, on the 15th day of June (my son’s birthday, by the way), the barons and churchmen of England met with King John in a meadow known as Runnymeade and together signed the document that has been hailed in the succeeding centuries as the basis for the both the English common law and the Constitution of the United States.

More than one debunker has arisen this year to contest that claim, citing facts that prove that Magna Carta was never really upheld, that it was denounced by the Pope himself, that it lay in ruins within a short time of its very signing.

That its words meant nothing.

I disagree.

Magna Carta didn’t disappear. It lay there, in its several copies, bearing the signatures of all involved, and it rose again from the ashes as a foundation stone of the still-unwritten English constitution. These words would turn out to mean something:

No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm unless [necessities of the monarchy] and for these only a reasonable aid is to be levied. Clause 12

Common pleas shall not follow our court but shall be held in some fixed place. Clause 17

Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take other men’s timber for castles or other work of ours, without the agreement of the owner.
Clause 31

Henceforth no bailiff shall put any one on trial by his own unsupported allegation, without bringing credible witnesses to the charge. Clause 38

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice. Clause 40

, by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, is an easy-reading little book with chapters dedicated to certain clauses of Magna Carta, detailing the cultural history behind each one. The Great Charter itself is reprinted at the end. It’s still 2015, and never too late to remind ourselves of the meaning behind the words that have echoed down the centuries.

There are people today who take pains to point out the hypocrisy of our own Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal” was written at a time when human bondage was a cultural reality, but as the years rolled past, those words were remembered and restated and insisted upon until they actually began to mean something.

When those who would rule put their signatures to documents of good intentions, it matters. Words continue to matter.