Continuing Education... Nicholas Vincent on the Magna Carta

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Nicholas Vincent on the Magna ... Bent Flyvbjerg on Megaprojects...

Did an 800 year old piece of parchment really change the world? That was the central question of this week's episode with Nicholas Vincent.

Now we want to turn the conversation over to you. Use the thought prompts below to carry on the conversation in the Comments. (And we hope you spark some off-line conversation of your own, too!) You never know...your Comment could be featured in an upcoming EconTalk post!
Magna Carta.jpg

1. What are your top three takeaways from this week's episode?

2. Vincent argues that the Magna Carta takes the "precise opposite" position as compared to the U.S. Constitution with respect to the Church and religion. Roberts takes a different approach and argues that the Constitution and the Magna Carta actually take a similar approach. What are their differences and how can they be reconciled?

3. Vincent sees a crucial role for the Church in the physical preservation of the Magna Carta and its influence. What is his argument?

4. Make the case that the Magna Carta had unintended consequences for the barons who urged it upon King John and illustrates the importance of institutions being (in the words of Adam Ferguson) the product of human action but not human design.

5. Why do you think A.A. Milne chose King John to be the subject of this poem for children? What is his message for the adults? How would you describe his portrait of King John?

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Joe writes:

(#2) I think that although Roberts and Vincent seem to have opposing views with regard to the role of the Church in the Magna Carta (MC), their positions are easy to reconcile because each focuses on a different dimension of the relationship between church and state. Vincent notes that the MC and the Constitution say opposite things with regard to the establishment of a state religion - the MC solidifies the church's role in Britain, whereas the Constitution ensures that no religion can ever play a significant role in US politics. In that sense, the two documents are indeed opposites. In contrast, Roberts focuses on the protection of religion from interference by the state, noting that both documents give the church a similar sense of inviolability. In other words, the two men's opinions can be combined into the coherent view that while both documents protect the church from the state, only one protects the state from the church.

Sarah writes:

Nicholas Vincent argues that the Church was crucial in the physical preservation of the Magna Carta and its influence. At the time, the Church was in the unique position where it had not only the motivation but also the means to publish the document. The king lacked motivation to publish the Magna Carta, seeing as it restricted his powers. The barons lacked the means to distribute it widely (and perhaps also the motives, I’m not too clear on that point). On the other hand, the Church has the motivation: the Church helped write the Magna Carta, which guarantees the Church its own laws and ancient liberties. The Church also possesses the means: the Church has pre-existing archives, libraries, and a publicity network that persist until today.

We can argue that the Magna Carta ultimately produced this idea that the English (all of them) are freeborn people, this ancient tradition that the courts about justice and the freedom of the individual. One of its alternative names is Magna Carta Libertatum (“the Great Charter of the Liberties”).

Yet the original creators of the document certainly did not anticipate such a consequence. The original Magna Carta is primarily about the elite nobility and their rights and privileges, not about the common people. According to Vincent, there is but one specific reference to the people, stating that villeins shouldn’t be too heavily taxed, merchants shouldn’t have their merchandise taken away, and free men shouldn’t lose their means of livelihood. The nobility at the time could not have imagined the end of the feudal system and society as they knew it, nor could they have imagined that the extension of liberties to the barons and earls could result in the idea of liberty for all.

Vincent mentions that this reference was actually used at one point in time to justify slavery, in that it allowed the “division of society between free men and merchants and peasants.” Shocking. Verily it appears that institutions may be “the product of human action but not human design.”

Michael Redchanskiy writes:

3) It actually isn't much of an argument as it is fact. The catholic church was a major influence on life and aristocratic policy at the time. The catholic church was one of the main reasons this document was agreed on and then remain relevant. The Charter(Magna Carta) begins with a grant of liberties not to the people of England, not to the barons, not to the earls, not to the peasants, but to the Church. It says that the Church in England is to be free and to have all its ancient liberties intact.This was because the church was crucial in the negotiations to grant this charter but, it's also because the Charter, to begin with, is granted to God. The Charter begins: "We have granted to God that the Church in England is to be free." This is why the church had such a vested interest in the document and helped preserve it and distribute copies of it in 1215. Without the church, the document would of likely been lost in history like many other peace settlements between kings and barons before it. This history shows the church was a a significant factor that helped establish early forms of liberty in what was know as the Magna Carta.

Nathan writes:

First, the bit about widespread monetary inflation Europe in that day was surprising. Usually I associate inflation with more modern periods and fiat currency. I'm not sure how that worked back then, unless the king was minting coins right and left. It's even worse, then, that King John was a total failure as a ruler, since the circumstances were nearly unwinnable to begin with.

Second, I found it shocking that the king in that day was in complete control of the Jewish population in the British realm. Many civilizations have been unkind to the Jews to be sure, but this instance was incredibly intriguing because it spawned the famous stereotype of the Jews as evil money lenders which pervaded the works of Shakespeare and even the era of the Great Depression in Europe. Since the king took all the profit from Jewish enterprise, he purposefully thrust them into that unsavory business with unspeakably high hidden interest rates.

Finally, at the end of the talk, Vincent mentioned that the myth of England as a free-born, liberty-loving people, which came from wide circulation of the Magna Carta, has in a way been more valuable than the document itself. He elaborated by saying that it almost doesn't matter what the document said or what the authors considered "liberty" to mean, so much as that the document spread the perception of this liberty throughout Europe. This "organized hypocrisy" as he called it in effect held the king to the principles of the document better than the document itself.

Paul Schäfer writes:

The german basic law actually has a similliar right to resist, as the one the barons have:

[broken html removed--Econlib Ed.]

John Knight writes:

2- The Magna Carta clearly brings the concept of a seperation of chruch and state into the discussion which at this time would have been quite revolutionary. I would suggest that the founding fathers would have been influenced to some extent from this idea in the document.

4- The fact it would hold the king to rule of law, indirectly holds the baron to the same standard. Barons would have king-like powers over thier lands and eventually would have to be held to the same standards of governance as the king. Not to get back on the separation of church and state, but the idea that kings were kings through divine right, and are required to follow a rule of law, what argument could a baron make that he was not also held to same standard.

Mrs. Duva writes:

The Church was destroyed in England within 250 years of the Magna Carta. I'm curious as to whether Russ and Vincent think the the document helped preserve the church for those 2 centuries, or instead helped lay the foundation for it's destruction.

David Hurwitz writes:

This was a fascinating episode that inspired me to learn more about the background.

In clicking around I did note one possible correction. Professor Roberts said:

“And I suspect it's important that there was not an alternative king hanging around who would make an obvious choice for the barons to promote in a real rebellion, which is part of the reason I suspect this was issued, from what I've read”

Relying on Wikipedia, it seems that they did have a choice for a new king. That was Prince Louis, the heir to the French throne. He was over in England with his army and was
received by the rebel barons and citizens of London and proclaimed (though not crowned) king at St Paul’s cathedral.”

The death of King John in 1216, together with defections and other reverses for the rebels led to the end of the conflict. Also, King John reconciled (made a deal) with Pope Innocent III, which on guess might be related to why Louis was not crowned.

Here’s some other related stuff I found:

"The Assize of Clarendon was an 1166 act of Henry II of England that began the transformation of English law from such systems for deciding the prevailing party in a case, especially felonies, as trial by ordeal or trial by battle or trial by compurgation to an evidentiary model, in which evidence, inspection, and inquiry was made by laymen, knights or ordinary freemen, under oath. This act greatly fostered the methods that would eventually be known in common law countries as trial by jury."

"The Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae (English: Treatise on the laws and customs of the Kingdom of England) is the earliest treatise on English law. Commonly attributed to Ranulf de Glanvill (died 1190) and dated ca. 1188, it was revolutionary in its systematic codification that defined legal process and introduced writs, innovations that have survived to the present day. It is considered a book of authority in English common law."

From Alfred the Great’s 893 code of laws:
"Doom [Judge/judgment/law] very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!"

One more thing. Professor Roberts, you wrote:

“I'm struck by the idea in the American founding document: "All men are created equal." It was obviously not true, in the way it was implemented. But you keep saying that, eventually you are going to have trouble--and they all did, of course. They had a great deal of unease with the existence of slavery.”

There is more to the story about ”All men are created equal” than many are aware of. I have heard people just reply that they didn’t mean slaves. Actually, Jefferson did. At least at the time, unless he knew it would be removed anyway, but put it in for other purposes. In his Autobiography he includes the original draft as he submitted it, and shows what parts were taken out and what parts were added. Taken out was
“…he [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another..."

That passage passed through the committee for writing the Declaration, which included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, but was removed in order to get buy in from the slaveholding states.
Even earlier than that, in Jefferson’s “Summary View of the Rights of British America” (July, 1774) we find: “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies,…”

Our history teachers have a lot of explaining to do…

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