October 25, 2013
As part of Harvard Law School's Love Your Library Fest on October 9, Historical & Special Collections showcased one of the beautiful manuscript copies of the great English statute, Magna Carta. The HLS Library owns more than 20 manuscript copies of Magna Carta.
First issued in 1215, Magna Carta, or the "Great Charter," was intended to limit King John's power over his subjects and preserve 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.
The handsome manuscript compilation of English statutes displayed during Love Your Library Fest 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, 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.
The Magna Carta manuscript on display at HLS was written on vellum in Law French by an English scribe. The document contains beautiful handwriting and 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—embellish the beginning of Magna Carta.
This article, "852 RARE: A Magnificent Copy of Magna Carta," was published on Oct. 15 on the Harvard Law School libraries blog, Et. Seq. Read more about events and services offered at the library at http://www.law.harvard.edu/library.