Visit The Magna Carta Project website for more on Magna Carta and King John.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Behind the Scenes on the Magna Carta Project: Henry Summerson on producing clause-by-clause commentary on Magna Carta 1215

As well as making available a new English translation of Magna Carta 1215, The Magna Carta Project is producing expert commentaries on every clause of the Charter, with versions available for schools, the general public and scholars.  For this blog, Dr Henry Summerson, Research Associate on the Magna Carta Project, describes his role in writing the commentaries. 
I see my role in the Magna Carta Project as that of an all-rounder who has been recruited to support a team of specialists.  The authors of the commentary on a number of chapters pretty well choose themselves – Paul Brand for the ones dealing with legal matters, Louise Wilkinson for those relating to matters like inheritance and marriage, David Carpenter for chapters which link politics and government, and so on.  But that still leaves about half of the chapters which make up the Charter unassigned, some of them concerned with issues which have never received much scholarly attention – Number33, for instance, about fish-traps in the Thames – while others are celebrated ones which have been repeatedly debated from the seventeenth century onwards, like Number 40, in which King John promised that he would not sell, defer or deny justice.  Obscure and famous alike, they make up my responsibility, to be researched and interpreted, for what seems like the first time in some cases, for the umpteenth times in others.
If I’m to have any chance of saying something new about the well-known chapters, or of shedding light on the obscure ones, I’ve got to research them all as fully as possible.  Fortunately practically all the available sources (of which there are surprising, and sometimes alarming, amounts) are in print.  Less fortunately, what are probably the most important ones, the volumes published by the Record Commission in the 1830s and 1840s, which record the day-by-day workings of King John’s government, came out before the invention of the subject index.  They’ve got impressively detailed indexes of people and places, but that is all.  This means that unlike present-day publications of, say, the Selden Society or the Pipe Roll Society, they offer no lists of headings to guide me round their contents, and the only way I can discover what is in them is to read them, all of them, again and again.  To do that for every chapter in turn would be an impossibly time-consuming undertaking, and so I tackle them in batches, dealing with four or five chapters at a time.  This is still a slow business, but it has the advantage of enabling me to keep an eye out for things which I missed in earlier trawls – one of the great advantages of electronic publishing is that it’s easy to correct or amplify texts which have been put up on-line.
So for each batch I start by reading right through the Record Commission editions of the Close Rolls, Patent Rolls, Fine Rolls etc., noting down relevant material as I go, and then – with some relief – I turn to the Pipe Rolls.  These do have subject indexes, admittedly rather rudimentary ones for the years before 1189, but very full ones for later years, and I start by going through these, though I always end up skimming the complete text as well, since even the best subject index can’t be expected to cover every possible issue.  I treat the Curia Regis Rolls, which have impressively detailed indexes, in much the same way, and also relevant Selden Society volumes.  For ecclesiastical affairs I turn principally to the English Episcopal Acta series.  Then there are administrative records like the Book of Fees, and texts like Glanvill and the Dialogue of the Exchequer, the latter reinforced by Thomas Madox’s Antiquities of the Exxhequer – some 250 years old now, in its second edition, but based on a reading of twelfth- and thirteenth-century records so extensive as to make it practically an original source in its own right.  
After that I turn to the narrative sources, the contemporary accounts of the reigns of the Angevin kings by men like Roger of Howden, Gervase of Canterbury and Roger of Wendover.  Of varying reliability, and often wildly prejudiced, the likely biases of these chronicles have always got to be kept in mind, though they also help to give them vitality, and may in any case reflect opinions held by others besides those of the men who wrote them.  Many of these texts are available in the Rolls Series, or have been published by Nelson/Oxford Medieval Texts, but some important chronicles – the History of William Marshal, for instance, or the Histoire des ducs de Normandie – have to be consulted in free-standing editions.  All these works can present problems of interpretation; for help in understanding individual words, and what they signified in the years round 1200 (some commonly-used words could have five or six different meanings), I make continual use of the recently completed Medieval Latin Dictionary. I always leave reading secondary material until last, since I like to form my own impressions of the issues represented by a chapter in Magna Carta before finding out what other historians have made of them.  Every generation has its own point of view – or sometimes several points of view - about the Charter, and some great historians have given expression to it, from Stubbs and Maitland in the late nineteenth century via McKechnie, Jolliffe, Stenton (both of them) and Mitchell, down to Sidney Painter and Sir James Holt in recent times, and indeed beyond, to scholars working today.   I don’t think of myself as engaged in a debate, still less a quarrel, with what eminent scholars of past generations have written about Magna Carta, but I do need to know what their views were, and (if possible) why they held them.  And at a less exalted level, I also need to keep an eye out for what can be very valuable material published in specialist journals (when working on the fish traps, for instance), or by county record societies.  The Royal Historical Society’s on-line bibliography is a great help in tracking down sometimes recondite books and articles.  I’ve got to be selective in the books and articles I consult if I’m ever to write anything myself, but here, as in other respects, I’m helped by the organisation of the Magna Carta project, since everything I write is read by my colleagues, who can draw my attention to anything important I’ve missed.
I’m also helped, in a different way, by my additional responsibility for providing commentaries for general readers and for secondary school pupils.  My principal task involves writing commentaries for an academic readership of scholars like myself and my colleagues, but the project has a wider remit, to put its learning at the disposal of people who want to know about Magna Carta, but not necessarily all about it.  I compose these supplementary commentaries last, basing them on, and constantly referring back to, the longer texts I’ve just composed, and the need to express myself concisely and clearly, without using technical language, makes them a valuable control on these – I’ve often picked up mistakes and inconsistencies, and realised that I’ve been vague just where I need to be precise, while doing this.  And when all that’s done, the commentaries can finally go up on the project website.  I’ve had no feedback yet, but look forward to getting some, even if it does make corrections necessary – it will all help in the task of interpreting Magna Carta, a process that has never ceased and is not likely to.

No comments:

Post a Comment