Sunday, 1 May 2016

[#23] Henry Summerson, ‘The 1215 Magna Carta: Clause 10, Academic Commentary’, The Magna Carta Project, accessed 1 May 2016 and idem, ‘The 1215 Magna Carta: Clause 11, Academic Commentary’, The Magna Carta Project, available online at accessed on 1 May 2016.*

* Nota bene – my comments are based upon  Summerson’s ‘academic’ commentary of the Jewish Chapters but other, more basic, versions are available.

One of the most famous documents in English constitutional history is Magna Carta (1215) – despite the fact that this version lasted for only a few months and it is the 1225 version which was perpetuated throughout the thirteenth-century. For me, the most intriguing chapters of Magna Carta are chapters 10 and 11, or the Jewish Chapters. This is despite the fact that these chapters were absent from the Charter in every subsequent reissue (more on this below) and the fact that the Jews were significant enough to be included in Magna Carta at this point. Looking back at a previous commentary of Magna Carta, I see that the Jewish Chapters were treated as something of a novelty which doesn’t really give much of an insight into the chapters (McKechnie: 1914, pp. 223-231). In contrast, Summerson’s commentary of these chapters ticks every box that I judge a piece of literature on: it’s well researched, well written, clearly argued, is interesting to read and fulfils Cecil Roth’s criteria of Anglo-Jewish history being ‘fun’ (Roth: 1968-1969, p.29). Thus, in order to find any problem with this piece, I’ve had to draw on the fact that I’ve been working on the Jewish chapters on and off for the last year in relation to another commentary which was (and I hope still is) being prepared for publication on these chapters, which is an impressive feat because I don’t usually struggle in the slightest finding holes in any argument.

The bulk of the commentary on both chapters ten and eleven are the same and include a very competent discussion of the Jewish position in medieval England as well as their treatment under King John. This erudite and succinct discussion provides the basis upon which to consider the Jewish chapters of Magna Carta. As far as the commentary specific to Chapters 10 and 11 are concerned I think that Summerson’s placing of this chapter within the context of the Articles of the Barons and the Unkown Charter is significant because it demonstrates the significance of the linguistic differences between the these incarnations of the chapter and thus how wide ranging the chapters agreed upon in 1215 actually were. That being said, I have two major problems with Summerson’s discussion of Chapter 11. First, I think that while his discussion at the Jewish elements is superb, the final sentence of chapter 11 stating that ‘Debts owed to others besides Jews…’ could have benefitted from more focus. Indeed, for me this is a crucial aspect of this chapter which can be used as a partial explanation as to the reasons which motivated these chapters to be included in Magna Carta where they are and who insisted upon their inclusion. Second, Summerson points out that the Jewish chapters were subsequently omitted from subsequent reissues of Magna Carta which, although technically accurate, ignores the fact that the sentiment embodied in these chapters would remain at issue of Christian-Jewish relations throughout the century and can be seen in subsequent Jewish legislation.

            To conclude, having met and chatted with Dr Summerson about these chapters last year at the Magna Carta Project Conference, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that he was the person to produce such epic (in all senses of the word) commentaries on the Jewish chapters of 1215 Magna Carta, or the other chapters for that matter. As a result of Summerson’s incredible grasp of the topic, historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry will not have cause to describe his discussion of the Jewish Chapters as being informed by ‘Anglo-Saxon attitudes’ as was the case with one of the greatest Magna Carta scholars of all time: Sir James Holt (Richmond: 1992, pp. 52-53). Rather, I suspect that this commentary of the Jewish chapters will remain the gold standard in medieval Anglo-Jewish scholarship for decades to come (and short of some remarkable piece of evidence being uncovered, I can’t see how it will easily be superseded).

Work Cited:

McKechnie, William Sharp, Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John with an Historical Introduction (Glasgow, 2nd ed, 1914).

Richmond, Colin, ‘Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry’ in Tony Kushner (ed.), The Jewish Heritage in British History: Englishness and Britishness (London, 1992), pp. 42-59.

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