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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Magna Carta and the Historians

Fleta; seu commentarius juris Anglicani
(London, 1647).
One of the notable books in the Riesenfeld Center’s current exhibit, “Magna Carta, 800 Years: Rights and the Rule of Law,” is a medieval treatise on English law known as Fleta. Our copy is of the first printed edition (1647), edited by famous English scholar, historian, lawyer and polymath John Selden (1584-1654). Although not a direct commentary on Magna Carta, Fleta offers insight into English law during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), under whom Magna Carta was enrolled as statutory law in 1297. The treatise borrows from and abridges a slightly earlier treatise on English law, Bracton's De legibus, though Fleta was much less well known. In fact, Selden’s edition was based on a single complete medieval manuscript of Fleta, held today at the British Library.

The few medieval treatises on English law were valuable to historians and constitutionally-minded lawyers in the early modern period, and Fleta was no exception. Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), the great lawyer who championed English common law and its medieval heritage as the enduring source of English liberties, cited Fleta as a venerable authority. Like Bracton’s De legibus, Fleta was taken by Coke and associates as a witness to the antiquity and essential continuity of English laws and courts, and to some of their development. In his Institutes of the Laws of England (1642), Coke invoked Fleta repeatedly to explain and lend support to the guarantees found in Magna Carta. Coke’s interpretation of Magna Carta, in turn, guided the early modern reception of the text and helped resurrect the message of individual rights and limited government that it still carries today.

Like Coke, Selden made use of Fleta in its major surviving manuscript (known as BL, Cotton MS Julius B.viii). Its owner, Robert Cotton (1571-1631), amassed the greatest private collection of medieval manuscripts to his time in England. This included two of the four existing manuscript copies of the 1215 Magna Carta (today also at the British Library). Cotton then made his collection freely available to Selden and other scholars, and there were important political overtones to their antiquarian activity. Figures like Coke and Selden were seen to use Cotton's library to support the rights of Parliament, in opposition to royalist arguments favoring the broad prerogative of the king. Royalist fears were not unfounded, and it was not long after Coke, Selden and others forced Charles I to sign the Petition of Right (1628) - a landmark English constitutional document - that Charles successfully closed, and then confiscated Cotton's library in 1630. Cotton died a year later, upon which the collection was restored to his heirs. Certainly, libraries and their scholars had a key role to play in early modern historical and political debate over English law and government.     

Our copy of Selden's Fleta was once owned by an associate of Selden, antiquarian and MP Sir Roger Twysden (1597-1672). As a law-minded conservative, Twysden was critical of royal prerogative and defended English rights and laws, though he was also fined and imprisoned as a royalist during the Civil War. Twysden's annotations to the text show that he, too, consulted the manuscript, and attempted to correct Selden in a number of places. His emendations do not much change the substance of the passages, but they suggest Twysden's meticulous comparison of manuscript against printed text. It is not a skill as useful in our age of infinite texts, but it was at a time when single text and sacred text were closely linked, and the stakes of historical interpretation were high. 

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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