When HLS students stop by Historical & Special Collections during the Library’s annual Love Your Library Fest, many are delighted at the chance to see one of our beautiful manuscript copies of the great English statute, Magna Carta, up close. This month’s 852 RARE post is for those who want to know a little more about the copy we had on display, and to whet the appetites of those who did not have a chance to see it. The HLS Library is fortunate to own more than twenty manuscript copies of Magna Carta; from time to time we will feature some of these in our blog posts.
First issued in 1215, Magna Carta, or the “Great Charter,” was intended to limit King John’s power over his subjects and preserved the rights of feudal barons. It has been a cornerstone of English and American constitutional law for nearly 800 years, and its influence has been felt throughout the world.
Our handsome manuscript compilation of English statutes dates from about 1335. Typical of such works, the statutes are arranged in chronological order, beginning with Magna Carta. The Charter of the Forest, issued in 1217, appears next. Other statutes include the 1235 Statute of Merton (dealing with dower, enclosure of common lands, legitimacy, and usury), and the Assize of Bread (the earliest English legislation regulating the size, weight and price of bread). Since the laws are arranged chronologically, as shown in the Table of Statutes here, it is possible to determine the date of a manuscript by looking at the date of the last statute – which for this manuscript was 1335.
This manuscript was written on vellum in Law French by an English scribe. Note the beautiful handwriting and the straight, even lines of text! The scribe accomplished this feat by making tiny pinpricks on either side of each leaf as a guide to keep the lines even. The scribe, or more likely an illustrator, drew initial capitals and ornamental grotesques at the beginning of many of the statutes. The largest and most striking – a winged dragon playing a large oboe-like instrument – embellishes the beginning of Magna Carta.