Saturday, June 4, 2016
1215: The Year of Magna Carta
Rating: 4 Stars
I really enjoyed Danzinger's book 'The Year 1000', so I had high hopes for this one for a number of reasons. First, I like his writing style. it is conversation without being condescending about academics. Secondly, I was hopeful (and correct) that Eleanor of Aquitaine would play a role in the text. Some historians are dismissive of her, in saying she was not that important. I beg to differ - how else would Richard have been freed from Leopold, how might John have further ruined England had he usurped the throne with Richard locked up? She was badass and I dare anyone to say it to my face that she wasn't. (I mean, it's not like I would punch you if you said it to my face, but be prepared for a verbal tongue-lashing. And a zillion facts for why you are WRONG.) Anyway, also bonus points for references to William Marshal, arguably the greatest knight to ever live. Without he and Eleanor working behind the scenes (and sometimes quite visibly) it can be alarming to think of what other havoc John might have wrecked.
But, on to the book.
I believe that some readers did not read the title fully. I know this happens, as it is something I do all the time. I focus on a word or two in the title and then get all upset when the book is not what I think it is going to be or supposed to be. The book is not about Magna Carta. it is about the year 1215 (and surrounding years, actually), the year this fascinating and incredibly important document was signed. Now, realistically, Magna Carta was not important in the way we think it should have been - John certainly did not take it seriously and almost immediately broke the agreement. It was rewritten and reissued several times, but did not fully function as it was intended, mostly because John was a weasel. I guess it is not entirely his fault, he was the baby of the bunch, called 'Lackland' because he had no inheritance to speak of while his older brothers lived, and was forever in the shadow of Richard. Still, he was a weasel for whatever reason and that comes through in the text.
Unlike Danzinger's previous book I mentioned that was broken up by each month in the year 1000, this one is divided into topics pertaining to the year 1215 and the early part of the century, really. We are introduced (or revisiting, if you are like me and already familiar with the era). The author presents information about life in towns, the countryside, schools, the Church, tournaments and battles, and so on. There is also a chapter devoted entirely to John, then the charter itself 'The Great Charter'. Something I found to be interesting was that at the beginning of each chapter, a quote relating to said topic was pulled directly from Magna Carta. It's a good way to get an understanding and become familiar with the document before actually diving in to the bulk of it.
As always, I am big fan of authors using contemporary resources. This book makes use of many of such documents, besides Magna Carta. There are clerk records, letters, diaries, purchase records, and more. I love this, because I love reading original material in the language of the time. It is not always easy, and sometimes I might have to read it a couple times to understand, but it is worth the time. Then, of course, the author includes the whole of Magna Carta, every single last clause that makes up this world-changing document.
As an aside, I was really happy to see the full text included here. In 2009, my mom and I visited Scotland and (very briefly) England (mostly just to see Wicked on Mom's birthday, the bulk of the trip was Scotland because it was Mom's dream vacation). For the one full day we were in England, I had booked a day trip that included visits to Bath, Stonehenge, and Salisbury Cathedral. But when we arrived for check-in, we were informed Salisbury had been closed for the day and we would not be able to see Magna Carta. I was so bummed. Windsor Castle was substituted, which would have been great - Henry VIII is buried there! Except...Queen Elizabeth II was knighting people that day so many parts of Windsor were also closed. It was some bad luck, but the perfect excuse to go back. And believe me, that trip will definitely happen.
Overall, I highly recommend this little volume. it is a small book, and a short book, but one well worth the read.