MAGNA CARTA - 800 YEARS ON: A SINO-EURO REFLECTION
Richard Cullen, Visiting Professor, Faculty of Law, HKU; Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia
This is an important anniversary year. On June 15, 1215 (AD), the King John of England met with a group of insurgent Barons at Runnymede close to the River Thames and not so far from London, to conclude a detailed peace agreement between himself and his rebel Barons. There they signed the very first version of the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”). Thus, in 2015 we mark the 800th anniversary of that signing.
The Magna Carta is an extraordinary document which makes this an anniversary worthy of attention. This article is focused on the origins of the document, how it was shaped by history -and how it has helped shape history.
I first look back to 1215. Just who was King John, who were these troublesome Barons, why did both sides agree to sign this document – and why has the Magna Carta come to enjoy such respect within any telling of the history of constitutionalism?
I set out some answers to these initial questions directly below. I then consider what certain aspects of creation of the Magna Carta tell us about the state of the political order in Europe 800 years ago – and since. In all of this retelling, I also explore how China’s remarkable history helps shed some important light on the creation of the Magna Carta and its impact over time, to this day.
2.0 THE ORIGINS OF THE MAGNA CARTA
2.1 Historical Setting
King John, known as John Lackland (Norman French, Johan sanz Terre), ruled what has come to be known as the Angevin Empire from 1199 to 1216. That Empire included England, certain Provinces in the West of France (bordering the Atlantic Ocean) and the Eastern half of Ireland. John was an unpopular King both in reality, at the time, and in literature since (King John was the “bad King” who features in the (still very popular) tales of the folklore hero “Robin Hood”, who, with his “Merry Men” became famous by defying the King as they “robbed from the rich to give to the poor”.)
Despite having administrative competence, John was disliked for his spitefulness and cruelty. Worse still, he was notably unsuccessful in his battles in France, which were meant to regain lands lost there earlier. These attempts to recover French parts of the Angevin Empire proved to be as costly as they were fruitless. It was here that a key explanation for the Barons rebellion lies. Much of the financing for the failed battles in France came from extensive taxation of the English Barons. By the Spring of 1215, a core of insurgent Barons, working with Steven Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest leader of the Church in England) had sworn support for the Realm and the Church – but renounced their feudal ties to King John. Moreover, they drew up a written list of demands to protect their principal interests, know, in draft, as “The Articles of the Barons”. At this time, the Rebel Barons also marched on and took control of London, Lincoln and Exeter.
2.2 The Magna Carta Materializes
King John, not long returned from the failures in France, was more weakened than ever before. Ultimately, the King agreed to sign a revised version of Barons Charter, on June 15, 1215, as part of an attempt to secure peace within England. Neither the Barons nor, especially, King John stuck to the terms of the peace agreement – Civil War between the Baronial and Royal factions soon recommenced. Fortunately (for England, at least) King John died, in October 1216, a little over a year after the signing of the Charter thus defusing some of the concerns of the Rebel Barons. The new Boy-King, Henry III, was King John’s son. He came to the throne at age 9 and ruled under the guardianship of a famous Knight of the era, William Marshal, assisted by a Council of Executors appointed by King John on his death bed.
The Charter of 1215 was reissued in 1216 and again, in 1217, with certain modifications, in repeated attempts to secure peace with the still unhappy Barons. It was at this time that it was formerly given the name Magna Carta – the name by which it been famously known ever since. Recurring conflicts, not infrequently violent, between Barons and Kings would remain a feature of English political life over following centuries – but the Magna Carta was also regularly re-proclaimed, often as each new Monarch took the throne. The Magna Carta thus never came close to resolving the embedded political tensions in England but it did work to defuse these tensions repeatedly. Moreover, it came to be respected as perhaps the seminal document in English (subsequently British) constitutional history.
2.3 The Feudal System in Europe
These tensions arose, fundamentally, from the basic structure of the European Feudal System of governance. This system emerged and endured in much the same form across Europe following the final collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire around 476 AD until the Renaissance began, in Italy, in the 14th Century.
Feudalism in Europe was fully established by the 9th Century. Briefly, it was a method of structuring European societies based on intricate relationship principles where the warrior nobility (the Barons, in essence) held (often vast areas of) land from a Feudal Lord (the King, normally) in exchange for provision of service (often military) labour and, in time, certain forms of Feudal taxation. Others, of lower standing held from the Barons, again, mainly in return for provision of certain services etcetera. At the bottom the “food chain” was the vast majority of the population – the farmer peasants (who worked the land in a state of bondage known as serfdom and enjoyed very few freedoms) and, during the early Feudal period, especially, significant numbers of slave-workers.
Feudal Europe was, typically, highly fragmented. Conflict and wars were common. Such conflicts came to be dominated by cavalry, that is, horseback mounted military groups. To sustain the many such Feudal armies required substantial grazing lands for the horses and the troops. A notable feature of this conspicuously decentralized agrarian political-economic system was the lack of any sort of organized, bureaucratic system of governance and the comparatively limited productivity of the relevant agricultural economies.
Amongst other things, the Renaissance, from the 14th century on, generated a massive uplift in the study and understanding of statecraft – the means by which societies can be better organized and sustained - and better protected. As the understanding of effective statecraft developed the emerging stronger States were able to expand and hold territory. In a sense, Europe was simply rediscovering the essence of the operational success of the once vast Roman Imperial System after spending close to a 1,000 years disconnected from this (in effect, European) fundamental macro-political understanding.
Massive increases in the comprehension of the technology of long-distance sea voyaging followed and the “Age of (European) Discovery” (often energized by both economic and Christian-religious ambitions) commenced in the early 15th Century led by the Portuguese then followed by others including the Spanish, the Dutch and the English.
2.4 What the Magna Carta Said
The original Magna Carta had 63 clauses. Only three of those clauses remain as part of English Law today. One defends the liberties and rights of the Church of England and another confirms the liberties and customs of London and certain other towns. The third surviving clause is the most famous. It provides that:
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 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.
In fact, the “free men” who might benefit from this clause in 1215 comprised only a small proportion of the population at that time – the clear majority of the population were unfree peasants, as noted above.
Much of the remainder of the original and early versions of the Magna Carta dealt with the special complaints of the Barons against the King in relation to: the ownership of land; particular fishing systems; the regulation of the judicial system; standardization of weights and measures; and the operation of particular Feudal taxes. Thus, the Magna Carta was plainly a Bill of Rights for Barons, first and foremost, not a Bill of Rights for citizens or people, more generally.
Nevertheless, the basic principles underlying this new Charter were, in certain important cases, very wide in their potential scope. The third clause, set out above, in particular exhibits this latent, elemental, justice-enhancing quality. Herein lies the key explanation for the very special status enjoyed by the Magna Carta to this day: it was the first document ever, in post-Roman Europe, to set down in writing and in solemn form, a statement of certain fundamental governance principles which were binding on the King. King John, of course, set about ignoring what he had agreed to in writing, very soon after he had signed the Magna Carta. But particular principles embodied in the Charter proved to have, almost, a “life of their own” such was the power of the ideas which they embodied. Repeated reissues (with variations) of the Magna Carta helped amplify this impact and the remarkable durability of the Charter. Within the Common Law world, in particular, the Magna Carta is often cast as the primary, indigenous written foundation for what has come to be known as the Rule of Law – not least because the Charter set down the principle that everyone, including the King, was subject to the law.
Thus, during the reign of the Stuart Dynasty (the last “Absolute Monarchs” in England) over much of the 17th century, the Magna Carta was invoked by Sir Edward Coke, the most famous Chief Justice of that era, to argue for (Charter-based) limits on Royal Power, with some effect.
Far more recently, the Magna Carta has provided an important symbolic backdrop to the introduction of the first ever general Bill of Rights in the United Kingdom in the Human Rights Act, 1998. (The Human Rights Act has incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) directly into UK law.)
3.0 A CHINESE REFLECTION
3.1 The Creation of Centralized Bureaucratic Government
What is striking, when one reflects on this European experience of Roman ascent and the fall into what became known as the “Dark Ages”, is how differently the fundamentals of China’s large-scale, agrarian political-economy developed.
Feudalism, as it advanced and was practised in Europe for over 500 years from at least the 9th century, had been, in all material respects, entirely displaced and replaced, with full Bureaucratic Government by the First Emperor, Qin, Shi Huang, after he came to power and established the Qin Dynasty (221 - 210 BC). A level of bureaucratic governance had been established during the preceding Zhou Dynasty (1027 - 256 BC). This lessened the power of the Feudal Lords of that era but there still remained a powerful nobility compensated by grants of Feudal Estates. The Zhou administrative system has been described as “proto-bureaucratic” by the German-American Sinologist, Professor Franz Michael.
As Professor Michael notes, the previous two millennia of early Chinese history established the foundations for the revolutionary transformation of China’s governance systems under the short-lived, draconian, controversial (and ultimately self-destructing) but pivotal, Qin Dynasty (which Dynasty also gave rise to the named, China). Under the Qin, Feudal power was transferred to the now centralized State and the peasants were formally freed from Feudal serfdom. Most significantly, the Qin system of governance based on a trained, professional bureaucracy loyal to the new State-Empire, was firmly established as the crucial replacement for the previous, Feudal-based governance structures.
These revolutionary governance changes were subsequently consolidated under the (notably less harsh and ruthless) Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD).
What is of importance, comparatively, is that in Europe a move towards reliance on centralized bureaucratic governance analogous to that established in China during the Qin Dynasty would not happen for another 1500 years, approximately, until the development of early Capitalist economies began to displace the highly fragmented, old Feudal-Agrarian political-economies.
Let us now consider a further consolidating revolutionary legacy of the Qin Dynasty before returning to our investigation of the Magna Carta.
3.2 Unifying Society
The First Emperor of China is remembered, as Professor Michael notes, as:
[A]n infamous tyrant and oppressor, a destroyer of old cultural values who burned the books, killed the scholars, and afflicted the people with forced labour for his massive public works.
But Qin, Shi Huang is also remembered as a great unifier who changed China politically, socially economically and intellectually in ways which have laid foundations which have endured to the present time. Again, as Professor Michael notes, weights and measures were standardized, roads were built, coinage was systematized at the same time as the old inter-Kingdom customs barriers were abolished and the remaining Feudal estates were broken up with land distributed amongst the peasants. Most importantly of all, the system of writing, using characters, was standardized using the Qin mode of writing these characters.
The new Chinese Empire was thus established by deploying a uniform system of writing which could be applied across the entire Empire. This was particularly significant in China because the system for writing, using separate characters to record all aspects of life (including people, things, concepts and actions) stood largely apart from the differing, spoken languages. Unlike, indeed profoundly unlike, the writing systems which ultimately developed in the ancient Middle East and then in Europe, this Chinese system of writing was, comparatively, hardly linked at all with the spoken word. This was not an alphabet-based writing system where the spoken word is converted to writing by using code-symbols to represent spoken sounds.
In effect, to become literate in China, required the learning of an second, written language involving a notably more arduous and complex learning process than learning to write one’s own spoken word using an alphabet-based writing system. The very great advantage which this highly alternative writing system offers is that it can potentially be read by everyone in the Empire regardless of whatever spoken language they happen to use. This was a commanding political (and socio-economic) benefit which arose from the Qin standardization of the written language. It is benefit which China enjoys to this day.
The intense loathing of the scholar class and the remaining nobility undermined the stability of the new Empire. However, the Qin Empire collapsed, above all, according to Professor Michael, because of the mounting popular-peasant outrage over the cruelty of the new, legalist regulatory system and the intolerable taxes imposed to fund the Qin Emperor’s massive public works programme (including the Great Wall of China).
The replacement Han Dynasty (206 BC – 221 AD) took over the new bureaucratic governance system of the Qin but many of the harsh aspects of Qin governance were modified – or repealed. Most significantly, the Confucian (secular) ethical system, as it applied at both “macro” (governance) and “micro” (social-family) levels was increasingly introduced, which, in turn, provided the Han Empire with a consolidating factor conspicuously absent during the Qin era: deep, influential and highly durable, unifying ideological foundations. The concept of a Scholar-Gentry Bureaucratic Government (chosen by examination – in principle, from all levels within society) managing China, for the Emperor and his vast numbers of largely agrarian subjects, emerged.
The Confucian ideological scheme had originally evolved over 200 years earlier, during the early Warring States period (403-221 BC) as the Zhou Dynasty began its long decline. This system (which was to prove more durable than any other political-social-economic method of State-organization, anywhere) stipulated a moral system to which the Emperor had to adhere if he were to retain the Mandate of Heaven. Moreover it preset a remarkable (especially compared to Europe) hierarchy of social classifications, in descending order of merit: scholars; peasants; craftsmen; merchants; and soldiers.
4.0 LANGUAGE, RELIGION, POLITICS AND THE PRINTING PRESS IN EUROPE
4.1 Language, Religion and the Printing Press
The term Magna Carta is so widely accepted and used that it is easy enough to overlook the fact that this title is - and all the early versions of the Charter were – written in Latin. Latin began as a purely spoken language, associated with the area of modern Italy around Rome, which was established as a village by the 8th Century BC, at least. There is evidence of written Latin by the 6th Century BC and Latin literature in the form of significant books is evident from around 250 BC.
Prior to 509 BC, there was a Roman Kingdom. From then until 27 BC was the period of the (vastly expanded) Roman Republic. The Roman Empire established in 27 BC grew still larger. I was divided into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires around 364 AD with the Western Roman Empire finally collapsing by around 476 AD (see above). (The Byzantine / Eastern Roman Empire finally ended in 1453 when Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman, Islamic-Turks.)
At its height, between the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD, the Roman Empire circled the Mediterranean Sea and extended well beyond (for example to Britain). It covered around 6.5 million square kilometres and had a population of between 50-90 million.
Latin, written and spoken, was the central (and centralizing) language of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The vast influence of Rome ensured that Latin was spread, as the primary language, across the entire Empire (which covered much of modern Europe). In fact, the varieties of spoken Latin which emerged from this Empire building were typically local dialects of Latin – often difficult for non-dialect speakers to follow. The term “Vulgar Latin” arose to distinguish these varieties of spoken Latin from standardized written Latin. (The languages of Southern Europe today, for example, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are the modern versions of these old, Latin dialects.)
When we reflect on these developments with the use of Latin in Europe it is clear that there are some important similarities with the development of spoken and written languages within Imperial China. In both cases, one finds many differing spoken dialects (and sometimes quiet different spoken languages) operating within a framework of a unified (and unifying) standard written language – the language of government and authority.
The alphabet-based system used to write Latin was derived from the alphabet used for writing Ancient Greek and also, the pre-Roman, Etruscan written language – but it took on its own characteristics. The modern Latin Alphabet is comfortably the dominant basic mode used for written languages in the World today including all of North and South America; Western Europe; and Australasia, much of Africa and parts of Asia.
Latin itself, however, is often referred to as a “dead language”. In fact it is still used, in spoken and written forms, for creating scientific and medical terms, for example, and also within the Christian (especially the Catholic) Church. Its regular usage has shrunk immensely, in Europe, compared, even, to the 1600s (when most books and all diplomatic documents were still written in Latin) let alone compared to the time of the Roman Empire.
The reasons why this has happened are both interesting and informing. Before we consider these reasons, we should note that it is now clear why the Magna Carta was written in Latin in 1215. At that time, in England, Latin was the dominant language for writing on virtually all topics – and especially those related to governance and the operation of the Church.
A range of factors help explain the gradual but unstoppable decline of Latin as the binding written language of Europe. Two related factors, in my view, stand out. First the fact that Latin was an alphabet-based language made it vulnerable to displacement. Next, the invention of moveable-type printing in Europe ushered in a new era where the written reproduction of local languages, rather than Latin, became vastly more possible.
Woodblock printing had been invented in China by around 220 AD. Moveable-type printing was then invented during the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD) by Bi Sheng between 1041 and 1048. By 1439, Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz (present day Germany) had built a working, reliable moveable-type printing press sparking a revolution in European printing and literacy – and helping to power, fundamentally, the gathering intellectual revolution in European thinking. By 1455, the “Gutenberg Bible” had been printed (it was a print-version, in Latin, of the standard, 4th Century, Vulgate Bible).
Most importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, Gutenberg’s invention greatly widened the scope for putting into writing, the many different spoken languages of Europe. The Latin alphabet had long offered the means to write down spoken languages, other than Latin, with comparative ease. Now that process could be standardized and mechanized. In this regard, another key turning point was the printing of the “King James Bible” in England in 1611. The Bible had been first translated from Latin into English around 80 years before in 1535. The King James Bible was, however, able to be mass produced. Moreover, it turned out to be very fine translation, overall, so that, as well as making the Bible accessible in written English, it also was able to set down a framework (and benchmarks) for how English should best be written.
4.2 Politics the Printing Press and European Separation
We have seen how, during the Feudal era in Europe, conflict and warfare were common, often arising from disputes between Barons and between Barons and the relevant Feudal King. The political, social, economic and intellectual revolutionary awakening which commenced in Europe with the Renaissance in the 14th Century was the beginning of the end of the Feudal era. It certainly did not foreshadow a beginning of the end of the incessant conflict and warfare of the Feudal period, however. In fact, these fundamental intellectual changes – and especially the massive technological changes which they unleashed – unfortunately laid the foundations for greatly amplified conflict in Europe (and, due to impact of the Age of Discovery, around the globe).
In 1983, Professor Benedict Anderson, from Cornell University in the US, published an influential book entitled “Imagined Communities”. Professor Anderson argued that modern, Nation-State communities, especially, have to be “imagined” in the sense that they cannot be built, like communities of old, based on face-to-face contact. Members of an imagined community hold a view of “their” nation-community in their minds, which then informs their connection to that nation-community in a wide variety of ways, for example (in modern times) supporting their nation in the Olympic Games or, more historically, taking up the collective national view as their own when considering another nation, not their own. This later example will usually apply when conflict and – or war - arises between neighbouring States, for example.
For Professor Anderson “Print Capitalism” has been crucial in creating the modern Nation-State – the paradigm, imagined community. That is, the vast growth of mass communication (and literacy) across Europe prompted by the invention and rapid spread of movable-type printing fostered a rapidly rising sense of belonging to these comparatively new, nation-communities. This impact was greatly amplified by the also swift move towards communicating in print based on the local spoken language – and not the old, dominant, near-universal written language, Latin. Thus, one’s sense of separate identity was now captured, increasingly and powerfully, in writing. A deepening sense of separateness from others – but kinship within – arose within, for example, England, France, Spain, Portugal, the German States and so on. These changes also, according to this analysis, weakened more universalist allegiances through the Christian Church.
Apart from these important insights from Professor Anderson, we have already noted the crucial importance of the development of the printing press in Europe. The means to disseminate ideas and arguments for change, sometimes radical change, had been hugely enhanced. The Protestant Reformation, widely seen as starting in 1517, with the written work of Martin Luther and others, produced a massive schism within the previously unified and overwhelmingly dominant (and seriously corrupt) Roman Catholic Church. The appalling warfare which arose directly from profound ideological splits and conflicts generated by the Reformation surpassed all previous warfare horrors in Europe. A great deal of this conflict was set down in printed writing by the warring parties thus amplifying already deep divisions.
The “Thirty Years War” which ran from 1618 to 1648 is still widely regarded as perhaps the most destructive war, ever, in Europe. Although it finished, inconclusively, as a political war between the (exhausted) continental great powers, it commenced as a most violent religious war between Protestants States and Catholics States, arising out of the Reformation. Ultimately, this war led to the signing of a series of famous treaties often referred to collectively at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This Treaty both ended the terrible Thirty Years War and established to concept of the modern, sovereign, essentially secular, Nation State.
Professor Anderson’s conceptual understanding about Imagined Communities does look to apply especially well at this point. The Treaty of Westphalia signalled the commencement of the modern Nation-State era in Europe. The primary tool (modern printing) to build a sense of belonging, above all, to such a given Nation-State was now available and was put vigorously – and effectively - to work.
The idea was that these Nation States were meant to co-exist with one another rather than fight to resolve and establish the dominance of a single State. There is a powerful argument that it has taken Europe almost 300 years (of further warfare, above all) until 1945 – most notably, the “War to End All Wars” otherwise known as World War 1 (1914 – 1918) followed around 20 years later by the equally horrific World War 2 (1939-1945) - for a very strong consensus to emerge on the wisdom of that co-existence maxim embodied within the Treaty of Westphalia. The creation of the European Union is the principal manifestation of this bloodily-forged agreement.
The steady demise of Latin as the universal written language of Europe, especially after the invention of European moveable-type printing by the mid 15th century, certainly does not, by itself, provide any sort of credible explanation for the terrible delay in getting to 1945 from 1648. That passing of Europe’s dominant (and, to a degree, unifying) written language was, however, a product of its displacement by written versions a wide array of European spoken languages. These relatively new written languages, increasingly, became a primary form for stressing Nation-State identity – and separateness and difference. It is fair to say that these developments did, at the least, help provide fresh means to lay deeper foundations for the continuing and increasingly brutal warfare which Europe was to experience over several centuries after 1648.
5.0 THE MAGNA CARTA REVISITED
The significant basic principles embodied in the Magna Carta have already been noted. In particular, the Charter incorporated protection for certain individual rights, expressed in a general way and it also bound the King, at least on paper, to adhere to the provisions of the Charter. What is also plain from the discussion above is the poor adherence to Charter provisions, especially by King John and later Kings. Yet the statement of clear principles potentially governing the relationship between the State and all citizens endured and was repeatedly discussed over following centuries.
The Treaty of Westphalia is recognized as key turning point in the protection of general citizen rights in Europe. This is because it laid the foundations for toleration of differing religions – not least by supporting toleration between differing Christian churches and sects. This was seen, after the Thirty Years War, as being the best practical, political solution to managing religious-based conflict over the long-term.
After World War 2, the World – and Europe, especially - was faced with trying to understand the unparalleled mass, civilian, sectarian butchery unleashed by Nazi Germany. The Holocaust was a truly horrifying “first” in human history. Six million slaughtered, not on the battlefield, but within highly organized Nazi death camps.
One central product of the experience of World War 2 – and the fundamental desire to avoid carnage on this scale ever again - was the establishment of the United Nations Organization (UN). Relatively soon after the UN was established, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The UDHR gave the World its first ever global expression of basic human rights.
In both of these cases (and others, including the US Bill of Rights (1789) and the Human Rights Act (1998) of the UK) the Magna Carta provided a significant historical point of reference and general guide, given its powerful affirmative reputation sustained over a period of centuries, since 1215. In this way, the Magna Carta provided a remarkably long-lived, positive tradition to which latter day drafters of like Charters could refer.
If one poses the question, has the Magna Carta provided the world with: (a) a primary legal benchmark; or (b) a fundamental political text lesson, I would argue that the discussion above shows that the answer is “yes” and “yes”
I believe that the durability of the Magna Carta, above all as a Charter which has helped shape so much crucial thinking over such a wide range of jurisdictions since, has established its reputation as a seminal contribution on the structuring of State-citizen relations – particularly across the European World.
Perhaps of even more interest, in my view, is how the comparative examination, above, with its focus on the development of certain fundamental aspects of the China’s exceptionally long-lived Imperial System provides a positive answer to the second limb of the question above.
As we can see, many key aspects of the Chinese Imperial System were established remarkably swiftly (building on many centuries of earlier political-economic development) at around the same time as the later Roman Republic was flourishing. The Roman Republic later gave way to the Roman Empire in 27 BC – about midway through the period of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD).
Throughout the period of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, written Latin was virtually the single language of written governance. In China, the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BC) had stipulated a standardized mode of character-based writing, as a key component of its political, social and economic (ruthless) revolution of life in China. In the case of both these contemporaneous Empires, a single written language – the written language of ultimate power, indeed – dominated.
The Western Roman Empire, as it became in the 4th Century, entered a period of steady decline and finally fell at around 476 AD. Western Europe entered a post-Roman-Empire period of some thousand years which has come to be known as the Middle Ages – sometime Dark Ages or Medieval Europe. A notably fragmented system of European Feudalism arose to replace the previous, comparatively unified, Roman political-economic system. Latin, as spoken, had for a very long time had many dialects, numbers of which have since formed the foundations of modern, Southern European languages.
Even after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, however, written Latin remained the primary (and somewhat unifying) language of governance (and religion) across Western Europe until the 17th century. However, the “writing was on the wall” (or perhaps, more aptly, the “printing was on the paper”) we now know, signalled by the European invention and rapid development, by the end of the 14th century, of moveable-type printing. Written Latin was, after all, written using a well tested and widely familiar alphabet-based writing system. It was easy to put this same Latin alphabet to work to produce readily printed, written versions of all the differing spoken languages of Western Europe (both Latin-derived and non-Latin-derived (from Northern Europe)).
By the 18th century, the role of written Latin was fading. By the 19th century it had largely been displaced as the language of governance, literature, communication and business and so on by written versions of the many spoken languages across Western Europe. Latin now remained in regular use only within the Roman Catholic Church and within certain Universities for the most part.
The continuing, unifying centrality of the character-based system of written Chinese was quite unassailable compared to written Latin. Written Latin, indeed, provided the very means for establishing its own demise – the alphabet-based mode of writing in Latin.
Perhaps the most telling measure of the “Fundamental Political Text Lesson” arising from this discussion which has pivoted around the Magna Carta is that European Union currently operates using 24 official languages, of which six are official languages at the national level, with others being official languages at the regional level. There are several semi-official languages, also. EU staff, full-time, part-time and consultants devoted to providing official translation and related services total over 6,000 persons.
Learning to read and write in Chinese is especially demanding. But well over 2,000 years of history have shown that it is “doable”. Thus, China still operates, some 2,200 years after the Qin Dynasty language reforms, relying, overwhelmingly on a single written language. China faces many challenges, indeed, as it modernizes. In dealing with these challenges, however, this 2,000 year plus language policy clearly offers major advantages. This is a further key aspect of the Fundamental Political Text Lesson which we can draw from a judicious study of the development and history of the Magna Carta.
ANDERSEN, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Spread of Nationalism (Verso, London, 1991 (Revised Edition)).
Magna Carta: An Introduction, The British Library.
Medieval Europe, Oxford University Press.
MICHAEL, Franz, China Through the Ages (Westview Press, Boulder, 1986).
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