The idea that our rights are rooted in history is hugely attractive in anxious times. Liberty is the natural and enduring state of humanity, according to our hopeful modern interpretation of Magna Carta. Everything else is a momentary aberration.

We live in a world, and in a country, where the concepts of freedom and fairness are in constant flux, where rights are overridden by a compromised sense of security. So the celebration of an 800-year-old document handwritten in Latin supplies a comforting idea of continuity when terror threatens to disorient our values. The great English charter of 1215 agreed between King John and his rebellious barons, which is the star of a new exhibition at the British Library in London and will be fêted across Canada starting in June, remains a powerful symbol of justice triumphing over tyranny centuries after the ancient aristocratic grievances and grudges that prompted it have lost their resonance and even their relevance.

Magna Carta was very much a creation of its times and particular king-versus-nobles environment. Naturally, we cherry-pick the bits and pieces that appeal to us now, that developed significance over the centuries as lawmakers looking for documentary support in ongoing battles against arbitrary authority harkened back to age-worthy ideas from Magna Carta’s very different world.

For the promoters of the charter’s Canadian tour, Magna Carta’s protection of the barons’ forest property from arrogant royal depredation serves as a legislative forerunner for the environmental concerns of the 21st century. In the 13th century, it may have been more a legal quarrel over hunter’s rights and property lines and whose privilege trumps whose. But limits and checks have to start somewhere.

Or maybe you want to prove that women’s rights are not some belated obsession of modernity but actually have a legal lineage that binds them with a sense of permanence and inevitability. In that case, look to Magna Carta’s protection of formerly defenceless aristocratic widows – the king could no longer seize their inheritance or marry them off to whomever he chose. To backers of Magna Carta, this is feminism in incubation, an express statement that a (noble) woman is more than a chattel.

Most of Magna Carta is as outmoded as the Latin it is written in. It is completely understandable that the 800th-anniversary celebrations gloss over clauses that spell out the repayment of debts owed to Jewish moneylenders or the forced obligations of towns to build bridges over rivers or the standardization of measures of ale and widths of dyed cloth. In the same way that the Bible often veers wildly off-track from biblical principles of universal love, and Greek writers’ idealization of democracy exists side-by-side with disturbing demagogic reality, Magna Carta is not entirely a high-minded statement of fine principles. Sometimes, it is just a self-interested legal document that attempts to settle a bunch of long-simmering quarrels between one very powerful man and a few almost-as-powerful men.

And yet over Magna Carta’s eight centuries of quiescence and reappearance, its very existence has been enough to support the basic human need underlying rights-based tugs-of-war. In the late 16th century, Francis Bacon proclaimed that the freedoms enunciated in Magna Carta formed the basis of the English trial-by-jury system. In the 17th century, English lawmakers fought against the desperately monarchical Charles I (who claimed to rule according to divine right) by claiming, wrongly, that Magna Carta had recovered and enshrined enduring English values of liberty that predated the Norman invasion of 1066. These same legalists wrote the hopeful charters of the new colonies in America, where abstract principles freed from autocratic contamination had a better chance of becoming reality.

Perceived as a statement of ideals that could be used to create a new world, the influence of Magna Carta was extended to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But nowhere was its legacy more powerful than in the United States Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law” can be traced to the most enduring clause of the 1215 document, approved by a reluctant King John, with its emphasis on a new and expansive kind of justice.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Should it matter to us now that only a few men were considered free in 1215, that most people saw little benefit in the deal worked out between a king and his barons? Or that the anniversary we are about to celebrate is a convenient delusion: The 800-year-old agreement fell apart almost as soon as King John applied his royal seal to the document, the battles resumed and it took another 10 years before a much leaner version of Magna Carta worked its way into statute law.

No. After 800 years, a statement of principle is good enough: Don’t let the bullies push you around.

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Feb. 02 2015, 9:04 PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Feb. 03 2015, 11:07 AM EST