In an object lesson in how the study of poetry and literature can shed fresh light on not just history, but even politics, researchers at the British Library in London have unearthed fresh contemporary accounts of the genesis and signing of Magna Carta, the founding document of Anglo-Saxon democracy, in a poem in a 13th-century chronicle originally from Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders.
“Today we’re revealing a little-known medieval poem from our collections containing the earliest independent account of what happened at Runnymede between King John and the Barons when the Magna Carta was agreed,” states the British Library press alert.
It was written in the ‘Melrose Chronicle’, a record of events composed by the monks of Melrose Abbey in Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. It begins: “A new state of things begun in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king….” and goes on to describe more of the background to Magna Carta in King John’s misrule, as well as the eventual signing of the document at Runnymede.
The document, according to the British Library, is the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, dating to 1270. The BL website explains:
The 12th-century Melrose was run by the Cistercian monks, an important order of the later middle ages who were influential in England and became more so in the following years. This manuscript, the only surviving ancient copy of the Chronicle, begins with the year 735. Its first section, up to the mid-12th century, was compiled from earlier histories, but from that point it seems to have been written at the monastery and records contemporary events. This makes it an important source of information for the later 12th through 1270, when it terminates suddenly.
The British Library quotes from the poem: “A new state of things begun in England; such a strange affair as had never before been heard; for the body wishes to rule the head, and the people desired to be masters over the king….” Near-contemporary eyewitness accounts are likely to be the actual source for the information in the poem, according to coverage in The Guardian.
The poem, the Chronicle, and Magna Carta itself are being showcased as part of an exhibition, “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” at the British Library, described as “the largest ever Magna Carta exhibition to mark the iconic document’s 800th anniversary,” and due to open in March 2015. Just as one example of Magna Carta’s continued relevance, the British Library will be initiating a program for schools around the same time: “Magna Carta: My Digital Rights,” which “will invite young people to debate questions affecting their digital world, such as privacy, trolling, surveillance and online bullying, bringing these very real arguments over free speech, and liberties, very sharply into the 21st century.”
So here you have poetry illuminating the foundations of modern democracy – an event more than worth celebrating.