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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

26 July 2015

Digital Humanities and the Future

This was a talk I gave at the University of Sussex on 20 November 2013. Parts of it are now out of date (for example, there is now a lot more to say about the REF as far as the intellectual direction of DH in the UK is concerned), but other sections are perhaps useful, so it may be worth sharing by means of this late blogging. The illustration shows the Banksy mural 'No Future Girl Balloon' which appeared on a house in Southampton in 2010 but was painted over shortly afterwards.

Talking about the future is always a rash endeavour. Charles Henry has described how in 1876 an article in the journal Nature envisaged the value of the telephone chiefly as a new form of home entertainment. It was anticipated that Alexander Graham Bell’s invention would ‘at a distance, repeat on one or more pianos the air played by a similar instrument at the point of departure. There is a possibility here...of a curious use of electricity. When we are going to have a dancing party, there will be no need to provide a musician. By paying a subscription to an enterprising individual who will, no doubt, come forward to work this vein, we can have from him a waltz, a quadrille, or a gallop, just as we desire. Simply turn a bell handle, as we do the cock of a water or gas pipe and we shall be supplied with what we want. Perhaps our children may find the thing simple enough’. While this is interesting as an anticipation of streamed music, as a discussion of future of the telephone, it was wide of the mark.

Dreams of the future frequently drive the way technology develops. H.G. Wells’s dream of a ‘World Brain’, described by him in a lecture in 1936, reflected his own intellectual preoccupation with synthesis and the search for grand narratives rather than any technical possibilities. Yet Wells’s interest in whether microfilm could be used to develop such a world brain inspired subsequent researchers to experiment with new technologies as they appeared, and influenced Arthur C Clarke when he proposed in 1962 a world library powered by supercomputers. At the recent Digital Economy conference at Media City in Salford, a BBC speaker showed a video describing a vision of future communications technology enunciated by Captain Peter Eckersley, the first Chief Engineer of the BBC, in 1926. The vision described by Eckersley in 1926 for television and pervasive media eerily prefigured the kind of technologies which are only just now, nearly a century later, appearing in a domestic context. When this video was shown, a member of the audience remarked that in a way the video was a condemnation of the BBC, since it suggested that it had not developed its engineering vision since 1926, and had for nearly  hundred years been relentlessly pursuing the realization of the dreams of its first chief engineer. Regardless of how we view this criticism, the examples of Eckersley’s 1926 vision and of Wells’s dream of a world brain illustrate forcefully how the most important driver in technological development can be the human imagination and dreams of a future state.

For the digital humanities, part of its promise is always the claim that is on the side of the future. The digital native will effortlessly succeed the clumsy digital immigrant, and so technology will pervade all aspects of humanities research. This assumption of the inevitable triumph of digital technology underpins some of the most strident claims made on behalf of digital humanities in recent years. Digital humanities has been claimed as ‘the next big thing’ on the intellectual landscape, the successor to the critical theory which has dominated since the 1950s. In 2009, William Pannapacker wrote, after the MLA Convention, that ‘Among all the contending subfields, the digital humanities seem like the first "next big thing" in a long time, because the implications of digital technology affect every field’. Pannapacker continued: ‘I think we are now realizing that resistance is futile. One convention attendee complained that this MLA seems more like a conference on technology than one on literature’. These assumptions of the inevitable triumph of the digital humanities have fed into a visionary discourse of DH which, stressing its interdisciplinary and collaborative aspirations, sees it as a means of renewing and transforming the academic practice of the arts and humanities. Mark Sampler has famously commented that ‘The digital humanities should not be about the digital at all. It’s all about innovation and disruption. The digital humanities is really an insurgent humanities’. Likewise the Digital Humanities Manifesto declared that: ‘the Digital Humanities revolution promotes a fundamental reshaping of the research and teaching landscape’.

This visionary discourse around DH has been immaculately documented and analysed by Patrik Svensson. The way in which the rhetoric of DH frequently becomes suffused with the ‘technological sublime’ has also been emphasized by Paul Gooding. Melissa Terras and Claire Warwick in a recent article. As Patrik Svensson stresses, much of this rhetoric is not so much a comment on the possibilities of digital technologies but rather using the idea of a digital humanities as a springboard for a debate about the nature of the humanities. Digital humanities has become for some scholars a field in which we can reimagine the humanities, perhaps without reference to the digital at all. Yet there still remains a strong techno-optimistic thread within the digital humanities and an assumption that its time will inevitably come. Patrik Svensson points out how these assumptions echo the theme of the ‘proximate future’ discussed by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell in their remarkable book, Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Dourish and Bell emphasise how governments, corporations and institutions portray the future as a technological utopia which is always just around the corner, and never here.

The commercial and political benefits of this constant claim that we are on the verge of a technological utopia are obvious. A good example of the power of the idea of the proximate future is Singapore, where the government seeks to create ‘a global city, universally recognized as an enviable synthesis of technology, infrastructure, enterprise and manpower [with a] new freedom to connect, innovate, personalize and create’. Dourish and Bell emphasise the disconnect between this digital freedom and restrictions on human rights in Singapore, and suggest that this promise of jam tomorrow helps bolster these restrictions. Rhetoric of the proximate future, in the view of Dourish and Bell, has obscured the fact that the future is already here; technological trends identified and developed in units like the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre twenty or thirty years ago have moved into everyday life and have effected profound transformations on every aspect of our existence. No doubt changes will continue and we will still see many remarkable innovations, but the digital future arrived sometime ago, and it would be better for us to start examining and using more closely what is around us. In talking about digital transformations, we are talking about a process which is current and all around us, not about the future.

I am a child of Harold Wilson’s white heat of technological revolution. I must admit that listening for fifty years to speeches advising me that technology is about to unleash a revolution unprecedented in human history is a little wearing and jangling on  the nerves. In expectation of the coming technological revolution, I was taught in the 1960s a new type of mathematics which required me to learn to use a slide rule and to perform arithmetic with binary numbers. Although I am now a professor of digital humanities, and have had quite a bit to do with computing, I have never since had to perform calculations with binary numbers. However, the fact that somehow the new mathematics left me with a lack of understanding of a number of fundamental mathematical concepts (although I scraped an O level pass) has left me feeling disadvantaged as we start to think about new quantitative techniques in various humanities subjects. I fear that the myth of the proximate future has damaged me. If we see the aim of digital humanities as simply being to promote the use of technology in studying arts and humanities subjects, then I suspect that the claim that we are constantly moving towards a new technological revolution has also been unhelpful. The way in which digital humanities is engaged with promulgating this myth of a proximate utopia is apparent from the way in which the subject constantly reinvents and renames itself: from humanities computing to digital humanities, and now e-science, e-research, web science, digital studies, digital culture.

At one level, in accordance with Alan Liu’s Laws of Cool, it is perhaps necessary and unavoidable for digital humanities to propagate the myth of the proximate future. At another, this vacuous myth-making may do digital humanities a disservice. A colleague in America recently forwarded to me a remark by a history undergraduate writing a long essay on ‘digital history’, who wrote that: ‘The digital humanities, of which digital history is a subset, is scary because there is no definition of what is meant by the term. Real historians fear its lack of cohesion’. I’m not sure that is necessarily an argument for a tight definition of DH, but it does suggest that the rhetoric might obscure the substance, and be off-putting to precisely the audiences we should be seeking to enthuse.

Are we overcomplicating DH? I fear so. Let’s return to our roots. In Britain, a key moment in the development of digital humanities took place on the banks of Loch Lomond in September 1996. A meeting was held at the Buchanan Arms Hotel entitled ‘Defining Humanities Computing’. Attending the meeting were representatives of three leading universities which had been involved in the Computers in Teaching Initiative established in Britain in the early 1990s. Many of the names are familiar still: from King’s, Harold Short, Willard McCarty and Marilyn Deegan; from Glasgow, Christian Kay, Jean Anderson and Ann Gow; from Oxford, Stuart Lee, Mike Popham and Mike Fraser. It’s perhaps the nearest thing to a digital humanities summit meeting that has ever taken place in Britain. Among the questions were debated were:

  • How should we define Humanities Computing theoretically or pragmatically in terms of current practice? 
  • Where does humanities computing fit within institutions of higher education? How will computing integrate into standard humanities courses? 
  • What should research in humanities computing be about? 

These are questions that are still as pressing as they were twenty years ago, and I fear we still lack cogent answers. It is fair to say that the deliberations on the banks of Loch Lomond were even then heated. For some, computing was something which facilitated and supported academic research, and the role of humanities computing specialists was analogous to that of lab technicians.  For others, particularly Willard McCarty, who has been the most persistent and forceful advocate of this view in Britain, it is a field of intellectual endeavour and investigation on a par with more widely recognized academic disciplines such as history, classics or media studies.

In the course of the discussions in Scotland, Willard drafted the following definition of the field as he saw it then:

‘HUMANITIES COMPUTING is an academic field concerned with the application of computing tools to humanities and arts data or their use in the creation of these data. It is methodological in nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It works at the intersection of computing with the other disciplines and focuses both on the pragmatic issues of how computing assists scholarship and teaching in these disciplines, and on the theoretical problems of shift in perspective brought about by computing. It seeks to define the common ground of techniques and approaches to data, and how scholarly processes may be understood and mechanised. It studies the sociology of knowledge as this is affected by computing as well as the fundamental cognitive problem of how we know what we know.'

'Within the institution, humanities computing is manifested in teaching, research, and service. The subject itself is taught, as well as its particular application to another discipline at the invitation of the home department. Practitioners of humanities computing conduct their own research as well as participate by invitation in the projects of others. They take as a basic responsibility collegial service, assisting colleagues in their work and collaborating with them in the training of students.'  

This is a beautifully crafted working definition, which would apply as much to the digital humanities today as to the humanities computing of 1996 (an updated version, supplied by Willard, is available here)  . The clarity of the definition, however, brings to the forefront a number of issues. The simplicity of the insistence that humanities computing is about using technology in humanities scholarship is important. But in 1996, there was still an air of reticence and passivity about this activity. Could computers model and mechanise what scholars did? The focus is on replicating existing scholarly practice in a digital environment. The idea that computers might create new types of scholarship is implicit here, but not actually stated. Likewise, it is assumed that intellectual disciplines are equated to the administrative structures of universities. Disciplines equal departments, it is suggested, and humanities computing only intervenes (in a collegial fashion) at the request of the home department.

Most of those attending the Loch Lomond event were not members of the academic staff of their respective universities. Most worked in information services or in libraries, in what were in those days in Britain called ‘academic related’ posts. Intellectually and in terms of their academic expertise, these pioneers of humanities computing were without doubt the equals of those in full academic posts. Part of the reason for the meeting at Loch Lomond was to try and create a co-ordinated approach to the anomalous position created by the fact that many of those who were pioneering the use of humanities computing were not themselves academics. Curiously, as far as the UK is concerned, the position of scholars and researchers who do not hold formal academic posts has got worse rather than better. The category of ‘academic-related’ post has been abolished, and Britain has misguidedly emulated North America in insisting in a distinction between academics and professional services staff, who often have significantly poorer career conditions than academic staff. Too often in this process, digital humanities work has been regarded as more appropriate to the professional services. We may trace this diminution in the status of digital humanities practitioners to that very reticence which states that we model the practices and requirements of academics. We shouldn’t. We should be challenging the way in which academic research is conducted, and disrupting cosy disciplinary assumptions. Instead of documenting and modelling what historians have done for generations, we need to show how it could be done differently.

In essence, we use computers at present to undertake humanities research more quickly, conveniently and cheaply. This reflects the way in which all those engaged in developing the infrastructure underpinning humanities research have sought to try and replicate in a more mechanized environment existing scholarly practice. Very few scholars have tried to break out of these existing models – one such is with us here this evening, Tim Hitchcock. But one Old Bailey exemplar cannot a revolution make. The way in which our digital landscape replicates the older print scholarship reflects the lack of confidence among practitioners of digital humanities in challenging older structures of scholarship and their unwillingness to build really new structures. It is striking how digital projects are often bound by the very old-fashioned structure of the edition. While I was working at King’s College London, much of the Department of Digital Humanities research was about building for individual scholars digital editions of canonical materials (rarely something unfamiliar) ranging from Ben Jonson and Jane Austen to calendars of historical documents. Even in the major prosopographical datasets produced at King’s – some of the most intriguing and potentially transformational work undertaken within the digital humanities – the data is safely locked away behind a web interface which makes the data almost as intractable as if it was printed.

It is difficult to escape the impression that digital methods have hitherto chiefly been used as a means of trying to restore dying and endangered forms of editorial scholarship. A good illustration of this is the calendar. This was from the nineteenth century a major means of publishing archival records for historians. Printed volumes contained short and thoroughly indexed summaries of historical record series. The vast size of the record series justified the production of summaries – even in the abridged form the printed volumes represented a huge series. For many areas of historical research, the calendar was the essential tool and the first step in primary research. But they wee enormously expensive to produce and printing costs became increasingly prohibitive.  In a desperate attempt to keep the small trickle of calendars flowing, Roy Hunnisett of the Public Record Office produced in 1977 a guide to record publication which gave rules for the preparation of calendars. This is fascinating as a document of late print culture. Hunnisett’s rules are dominated by the need to reduce printing costs and at almost every point are shaped by what was proved to be a doomed method of publishing records.

As a historian whose research has been facilitated by series such as the Calendar of Patent Rolls or the Calendar of Close Rolls, I applaud enthusiastically the digital revival of this movement for giving access to archival records. But the historians who have led these projects have generally found it difficult to re-imagine how a calendar might operate in a digital environment. What we have is what Her Majesty’s Stationery Office were doing in 1910, with the additional facility of some images of the records. This problem is exemplified by the way in which Hunnisett’s rules, formulated for print, are still used as the editorial basis of the online calendars, although many of the compromises Hunnisett was forced to make were intended solely to reduce printing costs, and thus do not apply in a digital environment. So, how might we imagine a calendar in an online environment? The concept of a calendar assumes that summaries are the only way to explore the vast quatities of information in archival record series. If we accept that assumption of extracting and abridging historical records as a reasonable way of proceeding, then we could think about different strategies and structures for summarizing these records. We could start to produce a variety of more summary tables of information in particular records which could then be displayed and linked in different configurations.

Instead of the standard and restricted chronological structure of the calendar, we could establish open data repositories containing tables summarizing different aspects of the records, linked to images to facilitate verification. I have for many years worked on the records of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and it was an interest in editing these that first really drew me in to digital humanities work. I have recently stated to experiment with preparing and sharing data relating to the revolt in this way and I think it has some exciting possibilities. The concept of nanopublications – scholarly statements reduced to their smallest possible component and expressed as RDF triplets – might be relevant here, with archival resources being represented by vast linked groups of nanopublications. But this poses many challenges – I would regard my work on the Peasants Revolt as my most important scholarly work.  I think I have now reached the stage where I would be happy for it to become a large number of digital tables which I share with whoever is interested – losing in the process a lot of the traditional sense of authorship, ownership and acknowledgement – but it’s taken me a long time to reach that stage, and for many younger scholars this poses profound challenges in terms of careers and academic profile.

The online calendar stands as an indictment of our timorous approach to existing scholarship in developing the digital humanities. I think it will be clear that, while I enthusiastically subscribe to the view that arts and humanities scholarship should deeply engage with the new technological possibilities and facilities which are all around us, I don’t take the view that the triumph of digital humanities is inevitable. In my most dystopian moments, I fear that the kind of creative engagement humanities scholars have had in recent years with digital technology will in future become more difficult as the digital world becomes increasingly commercialized and locked down. In the UK, it’s worth looking at the awful thing, the Research Excellence Framework (probably the most striking example of academic newspeak I have yet encountered – even worse than examples from Soviet bloc universities in the Stalinist era). The REF defines the status of particular types of academic activity in the UK as strongly as the tenure process in North America. Unlike the tenure process, research assessment in the UK has always gone out of its way to accommodate interdisciplinary research and new forms of electronic communication. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, digital humanities formed part of the panel dealing with Library and Information Management, and DH units did very well. King’s College London, although only its first time in the exercise in this subject, came joint top of the unit of assessment, and in Glasgow the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute was the leading Scottish institution. In order to reduce the breathtaking and grotesque costs of the REF, it was decided to create larger panels this time, so library and information science has been joined with cultural and media studies to form one large panel. Although the rubric for this panel mentions DH, there is no recognized DH specialist on the panel, although organisations like ADHO made nominations. The rules of the exercise have been changed to exclude many research staff as well as working librarians, archivists and information specialists. In some cases, joint DH-Cultural Studies submissions have been necessary. Of course, we don’t know yet what outcome of the REF will be (true in November 2013, but of course we now have the results, and I have offered some preliminary reflections on them here), but I think we can already say that, if REF defines the research landscape in the UK, digital humanities does not figure very prominently on it.

Many of the issues about the future of the digital humanities can be traced back to concerns evident in Willard’s definition from Loch Lomond. The Loch Lomond meeting was very much of its time, in the assumption that a small group of enthusiasts from just three universities could shape approaches as to how digital technology would be integrated into arts and humanities provision of British higher education. The 1990s was characterized by a kind of gold rush, in which individuals and groups felt that they could annex parts of the digital future. A couple of medievalists might hope to shape the digital future of medieval studies by establishing a portal; others sought to control future editorial practice by developing appropriate guidelines. This was analogue thinking par excellence but this mentality of seeking to become recognized as the ‘Mr Digits’ of certain aspects of scholarly activity is still I think evident. And this is true of the digital humanities. Bodies like the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations make digital technologies seem safe, familiar, comfortable and (above all) controllable. Much of our literature (such as Melissa Terras’s remarkable and compelling keynote at DH 2010) assumes that, in the arts and humanities, the digital equates to the formally constituted bodies in ADHO. This is clearly wrong, and dangerous. One only needs look to HASTAC, which has been far more successful than ADHO in attracting young and digitally committed faculty across a variety of disciplines and interests to see the danger in clinging to the structures of forty years ago. But it goes much, much further. As humanities computing pursued research funding, and sought to model itself on scientific research institutes, it forgot about pedagogy.  As a result the Association of Learning Technologists sprang up, which is just as large and active as ADHO, but there appears little contact between them. Likewise, other areas, such as museums and archives, have pursued their own digital paths, with only patchy contact with DH. As a community DH is singularly ill prepared to deal with the digital becoming mainstream. Having spent many years predicting that everyone will absorb digital techniques, we are very uncertain what to do when that actually happens, and we become very small cogs in a huge machine. The growth of areas of academic study like digital culture, web science and digital studies illustrate the issues – these are the digital achieving recognition from mainstream academia, and those in the DH community aren’t sure how to accommodate this, no matter how wide we make the tent.

This leads to the argument which was my starting point in thinking about this talk, namely that the digital humanities are inherently time-limited and must inevitably disappear.  This assumes that, once the tools developed by DH have passed into common use, DH will have done its job, and ceases to have a purpose. Once the humanities become digital, there is no further use for the digital humanities.  This argument has recently been clearly expressed by Peter Webster of the British Library in a post on ‘Where Should the Digital Humanities Live?’ Peter wrote: ‘The end game for a Faculty of DH should be that the use of the tools becomes so integrated within Classics, French and Theology that it can be disbanded, having done its job. DH isn’t a discipline; it’s a cluster of new techniques that give rise to new questions; but they are still questions of History, or Philosophy, or Classics; and it is in those spaces that the integration needs eventually to take place’. At one level, this might be an argument that DH should then be more primarily critical, but I think it ignores the extent to which our engagement with digital technology is a continuum. John Naughton has noted how the humanities is the only area which refers to ‘the digital’ in this way. At one level, it reflects an assumption that ‘the digital’ is in some way alien; at another, it assumes that ‘the digital’ represents a series of techniques which came to maturity with the appearance of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s (it is that has led David Berry and others to suggest that we can talk of the ‘post-Digital’). I think it is an oversimplification however to see that apotheosis of the 1990s as a single transformational moment which we are in the process of coming to terms with. They were part of a continuum of transformation which in my view reaches back to the Industrial Revolution. We know how to make digital editions of classical texts, but how can the new technologies of making help us study the classical period? What use is the internet of things to classicists (a lot, I would say). What about born digital data – something which could be fitted into Willard’s Loch Lomond definition, but wasn’t apparently at the forefront of thinking at that time. In short, it is clear that there are many new technologies and new science coming along which will also offer manifold opportunities and challenges to the humanities.  The role of the digital humanities is not to continue to crank up the digital photocopier, but rather to explore these innovations and consider how they enable us to engage with the subject areas of the humanities in fresh ways. In order to achieve this – and ensure their own future – digital humanities practitioners need to take more of an intellectual lead in creating projects.

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13 June 2015

The Origin and Context of the Salisbury Magna Carta


Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) and 
Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow)


This short article, to be expanded for journal publication later this year, presents a discussion of all four surviving versions of the 1215 Magna Carta. It argues that the Salisbury Magna Carta (S) was written not by a centralised administration, but, rather, by a Salisbury scribe working in and for the institution. By analysing the hands in other certain Salisbury (or Old Sarum) manuscripts and documents, particularly The Register of St Osmund (c. 1220), we suggest that similarities between hands in that book and the hand of show such distinctive shared characteristics as to intimate the Salisbury origin of the Magna Carta. This calls into question scholarly understanding of the methods of dissemination of major administrative texts in the High Middle Ages.

The 1215 Engrossments of Magna Carta

Among the highlights of the 800th anniversary celebrations of King John’s grant of Magna Carta was an event at the British Library from 2-4 February 2015 at which the four surviving 1215 engrossments of Magna Carta were brought together for the first time since 1215 (and perhaps the first time ever). This facilitated a detailed comparison of the documents as part of the major Magna Carta project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and directed by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia and Professor David Carpenter of King’s College, London. The photographs of this ‘unification event’ illustrate how each of the 1215 engrossments differ in size and shape. One of the benefits of the ‘unification event’ is that good quality digital images of each of the 1215 engrossments have been placed in the public domain on the British Library website, facilitating closer study. They remind us how each engrossment has its own distinctive features.  

BL, Cotton Charter xiii.31a (Cii)

London, British Library, Cotton Charter xiii.31a (Ci), which Professor Carpenter has recently shown was in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral in the 1290s, is the only engrossment with a Great Seal of King John attached, although the document is badly damaged as a result of incompetent nineteenth-century restoration work following fire damage in 1731. 

The seal in Ci is attached by a vellum tag, which an engraving by John Pine in 1733 suggests was originally in a different position and threaded through a fold at the foot of the document (Collins 1948: 270-1). Presumably the seal was reattached when Ci was ‘restored’ by a British Museum bookbinder named Hogarth in 1836 (Prescott 1997). This seal is now dark red/brown in colour, which suggests it is of white wax, varnished brown. Chaplais observes that by the early thirteenth century, charters 'were normally sealed with the great seal in green wax (cera viridis) appended on twisted or plaited cords of silk strands (usually of two colours, red and green being the most common combination)’ (1971: 15). Chaplais notes a few examples of charters sealed in white wax appended with a tag and adds ‘By the early part of the thirteenth century sealing in white wax was generally reserved for great-seal documents of ephemeral or temporary value’ (1971: 15). The sealing of this engrossment is anomalous, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that the seal was fixed or added to this document when it was acquired for Sir Robert Cotton, but in the present state of this document this is impossible to establish.
The 1215 engrossment which is now London, British Library, Cotton Augustus ii.106 (Cii), is the only one of these four documents in landscape format, but, as Collins emphasized, this document appears to have been heavily cropped when it was bound up for Sir Robert Cotton in a large volume of charters.

BL, Cotton Augustus ii.106 (Cii)

Cii was reported as still being bound up with all the other charters in Augustus ii in 1810 (Collins 1948: 272) and this huge volume was eventually disbound in 1834 to reduce the damage that was being caused to the documents contained in it (Prescott 1997: 406-7). It has been assumed that the three slits at the bottom of Cii were for seals (Breay and Harrison 2015: 67), but Collins (1948: 272) points out that the slits may have been made when the document was cropped and bound into a volume which seems the most likely explanation, a conclusion supported by Carpenter (2015:14). David Casley stated that Ci and Cii were in the same hand. Recent multispectral imaging of Ci may assist in verifying or otherwise Casley’s claim.  

Lincoln Magna Carta (L)

Although the seal in the Lincoln engrossment (L) is now missing, the three holes in a triangular arrangement through a fold at the foot of L indicate that the sealing practice in the case of this document followed that described by Chaplais as normal for early thirteenth-century charters; namely, a seal appended on twisted or plaited cords of silk strands. Unlike Ci and Cii, the twelve-fold folding of the charter is still evident, and on two of the folds is an endorsement, ‘Lincolnia’, in a hand which is apparently the same as that of the text of the charter. L also bears thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Lincoln pressmarks and appears in the Lincoln Registrum of about 1330. As Collins (1948: 265) remarked, ‘There is hardly a peradventure about the pedigree of L’ and there seems little doubt that this is one of the two engrossments of Magna Carta recorded as being dispatched to the Bishop of Lincoln on 24 June 1215 (Rowlands 2009: 1426). 

Despite misguided experiments with steam cleaning by Sir Hilary Jenkinson (Vincent 2010: 7), preserves diplomatic features which accident and misguided conservation treatment have compromised in the other engrossments. Given that it is also the engrossment with the best attested provenance, it is surprising that it has usually been the 1215 engrossment which has been sent abroad, including a loss-making trip to Australia in 1988, which helped precipitate a major dispute within Lincoln cathedral. The catalogue to the current British Library exhibition describes how L became stuck in America during the Second World War when it was exhibited at the British Pavilion of the New York World Fair and attempts were made by the British government to give L to the American people to encourage the American public to support Britain during the war (Breay and Harrison 2015: 246-9). A suggestion that one of the British Museum copies be given to Lincoln Cathedral to make up for the loss prompted Arthur Jefferies Collins to threaten to resign from the British Museum (ex info M.A.F. Borrie).

Salisbury Magna Carta (S)

Of the four 1215 engrossments of Magna Carta, however, the one whose appearance differs most obviously from the others is that in the Salisbury Cathedral archives (S), since it is the only one not in a documentary hand. As Sir James Holt comments: ‘The other three are plainly in a Chancery hand; S not so - not, at least, until the scribe of S is discovered at work in other Chancery documents. His hand is too “bookish”’ (Holt 2015: 374). Collins (1948: 270 n. 3) is even more trenchant: ‘Just as the text of S is inferior to that of the other exemplars, so its script is the least convincing. To my eye it rather suggests a date a decade or so later than 1215 and smacks of an ecclesiastical scriptorium. It seems to me to be similar in type (but earlier than) the hand of the charter of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury of 1244 in the British Museum, Add. Ch. 7500’. However, Collins noted that Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, two leading authorities on documentary script, would not rule out the possibility that S was written in the royal chancery in 1215, and Collins emphasized the variability of scripts in later reissues of Magna Carta.

Detail from Salisbury Magna Carta (S)

Nevertheless, doubt as to whether S was written in the royal chancery has constantly recurred. Claire Breay notes that 'The Salisbury Magna Carta does differ from the others in that it was not written in the hand of a scribe of the royal chancery. This may mean that it was produced by its recipient and presented for authorization under the Great Seal, but its text is as authentic as the other three (Breay 2002:37). In 1981, Daphne Stroud mounted a sustained criticism of the authenticity of S. She wrote that ‘Both in text and script S is the odd man out of the four manuscripts. It is written in the careful and dignified script employed at this period for copying books, not in the business hand normally used for Chancery documents in which Ci, Cii and L are written. It also has more textual variations than the other three’ (Stroud 1981: 51). Stroud noted that it had been assumed that tear at the foot of the document was thought to have been caused by a seal being ripped off but observed: ‘This is a reasonable assumption provided it can be established on other grounds that the document is in all probability genuine, but the M-gap does not by itself constitute proof that S once carried the Great Seal of King John’ (Stroud 1981: 52). Neither Wiltshire nor Salisbury were mentioned in the list on the dorse of patent rolls for the distribution of the writ for the publication of Magna Carta or in the schedule of charters issued. Stroud argued that the chancery never issued a writ or charter for Wiltshire and she proposed that S was not a chancery engrossment of Magna Carta, but a copy made by Elias Dereham, the steward of Stephen Langton who was later a resident canon of Salisbury. Elias took delivery of six engrossments of Magna Carta at Oxford on 22 July 1215 and had ample opportunity to make a copy of the document for his own use in order to preserve the terms of the original grant in the face of the more conservative reissues in 1216 and 1217. Although Stroud admitted that ‘we shall probably never know for certain how, when or why S came to Salisbury’, she suggested that one possibility was that ‘in later years, when the cause of the Charter was won and Elias himself was living quietly at Salisbury with the new cathedral rising under his direction, he still kept his copy of the Runnymede document as a tangible memorial to those few weeks in the summer of 1215 when he played a vital role in the most stirring political event of his time’ (Stroud 1981: 57).

Daphne Stroud’s article prompted a magisterial review of the issues surrounding in 1982 by Sir James Holt (1985: 259-64). Holt suggested that the clerical errors in were within the limits acceptable for a scribe writing such a lengthy document. He felt that Collins’s suggestion that the document might date from the 1220s was over-optimistic about the precision with which scripts can be dated. On the other hand, he felt that Daphne Stroud was being excessively rigid in implying that there was a single business hand for chancery documents and that book hands were not used. Holt stressed the variability of scribal practice evident in royal instruments and noted that, in any case, special measures might have been taken in the unusual circumstances of the summer of 1215 and the royal chancery might have drafted in external scribal assistance. Holt pointed out that the tear at the foot of S was in just the right place if  it was the seal was attached by silk strands threaded through holes arranged in an inverted triangle or M-shape, a less common method of appending the seal than the arrangement in L, but nevertheless an arrangement occasionally used (although one might expect a fold here if this sealing practice was used; Collins 1948: 271 suggests the fold was trimmed off after the loss of the seal). 

Above all, Holt examined the evidence of the dispatch list of writs and charters. Holt highlighted the distinction between the dispatch list for the writs, where the concern was to ensure that the sheriffs of every county were ordered to swear to the Twenty Five and that enquiries into abuses were begun, and the list of charters issued, which was less comprehensive. Holt argued that the list only notes those writs not sent to the sheriff by royal messengers and suggests that Wiltshire does not appear in the list because the writ been sent through normal channels, a conclusion subsequently endorsed by Ivor Rowlands (2009) in his detailed analysis. In the case of the list of charters on the dorse of the patent roll, the omission of Wiltshire is less surprising because only thirteen charters are listed (one for each of the dioceses with bishops in place, suggests Rowlands). Holt also noted that it would be unlikely that the university graduate Elias Dereham, if he was the scribe, would have made the mistake of preferring the future indicative to the more correct present subjunctive.

Emily Naish, the archivist of Salisbury Cathedral, has recently made the important discovery that there is a copy of the text of S on ff. 5v-7v of the Salisbury Cathedral cartulary, ‘Liber Evidentiarum C’, compiled before 1284 (Carpenter 2015b). This shows that has been at Salisbury since the thirteenth century and probably explains the endorsement, read by Collins as ‘Dupplicata’ on (see Carpenter 2015b, too), which also appears on a number of other Salisbury documents and doubtless indicated that they had been copied into the register. While there has been discussion of the dating of S, there has been no attempt to localize the hand, although Collins hinted that it might be a Salisbury hand in referring to London, British Library, Add. Ch. 7500. Further examination of known Salisbury hands in the first decades of the thirteenth century, though, does indeed seem to strongly indicate that S was written by a scribe from Salisbury Cathedral (or, rather, its pre-1220 institutional precursor at Old Sarum). Moreover, the Salisbury Magna Carta hand is both entirely commensurate with other hands datable to c.1215, and exemplifies that book-hand could be used alongside charter hand within a single institutional context. 

The hand and palaeographical context of S

The hand of can be compared, in the first instance, with other contemporary documents, including London, British Library, Additional MS. 4838, The Articles of the Barons, issued in 1215 (as well as with the three other 1215 Magna Carta engrossments, of course). Additional MS. 4838 is digitally available at the British Library website (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_4838_f001r). It is written in a legible, cursive charter hand, with its slightly backward-looking aspect; and a duct illustrating typical thicker ascenders and curvilinear strokes. Many ascenders are looped and descenders of p and q are tapered, curving slightly to the left. The final foot of and often extends below the line. Scribal characteristics include a single-compartment a, as well as double-compartment with an enlarged bow; d is round-backed; the tongue of is elongated in final position; g, notably, has a closed, or almost-closed, tail which extends in a loop from the right of the downstroke; the downstroke of sits on, or descends slightly below, the line. Both long s and a loosely-formed round s, arguably akin to Derolez’s ‘trailing s’, occur. The latter, in particular is important. The lower left limb of extends under the line and flicks to the right. Ligatures include the 2-shaped in or combination; ct where the ligature is formed from the top of t’s shaft extending and curving down towards the on the left. Biting letters include the common d+e, and p+p. Other noteworthy characteristics include the crossed Tironian nota; barred capitals (such as BCGNOPQ); the flat-topped form of suprascript a used to denote abbreviations like qua- or –ra-; and the dashed double i.
By contrast to this charter hand, and as noted by all scholars who have worked on the four 1215 Magna Carta versions, Salisbury’s charter is written in a mostly textura hand rather than a diplomatic hand. It is available in a rather odd yellowy digital simulacrum here: <http://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/pressrelease/2015/february/magna-carta-1215-salisbury-cathedral.jpg>. There is far less currency than one might expect from a documentary text; its formality is demonstrated in its upright aspect and general restraint. The duct suggests a pen angle of about 30’, and letters are formed with significant consistency. Ascenders are usually tagged or slightly wedged to the left; descenders are short and occasionally finish with a small tick to the right. Significant scribal characteristics include the persistent use of double-compartment a, sometimes with an enlarged bow in final position (‘Carta’, line 5; ‘custodia’) or initial position (line 9 ‘aliquid’, line 14); d is round-backed with a curve to the right at the end of the ascender, or straight-backed with a finish of equal floreation; the tongue of is very slightly elongated in final position. The letter g takes a variety of forms and is one of the most important characteristics of this hand: it is either relatively small with an equal sized closed tail and bowl (‘maritagium’, line 14—a typical book-hand type); or, also as in book-hand, it has a closed tail which is angular on the left (line 13, ‘exiget’); or, and most frequently and notably, the tail finishes with a flourish, which loops under the tail-end and sweeps up to the bowl (line 4, ‘Burgo’; line 7, ‘Regni’). The downstroke of sits on the line, as in textura hands. Occasionally, and, again, interestingly, a small majuscule r occurs, most often in front of variant forms of ‘Rex’, but also in ‘Relevium’ (line 8). A slightly later manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 275, a composite manuscript that has a thirteenth-century Life of Thomas Becket inserted between later texts (it is c. 1230, given that it’s written below top line), also shows this feature, such as at folio 233aR/11 and 12, ‘Regis’ (and elsewhere, including in medial position where it is ligatured with a [‘baRonia’, f. 233bV, line 25]). Of this form, Derolez (2003:91) comments ‘The majuscule r (R) occasionally present in Praegothica is found much more rarely in Textualis, except in a few early English manuscripts’. He gives an unillustrated example in his footnote 80 of a manuscript, dated pre-1201. It is likely, given the evidence presented here, that this feature is found rather later than Derolez suspects.

CCCC 275, f. 233aR/11, 12

Forms of R in Salisbury Magna Carta

In Salisbury’s Magna Carta, both long s and a loosely-formed round (perhaps ‘trailing s’) occur. The latter, in particular is important, too, and occurs in many charter hands in this period. The lower left limb of x curves under the preceding letter. Ligatures include the 2-shaped in or combination; a characteristic form of the crossed 2-shaped r, indicating –orum (line 5, ‘aliorum’); and ct where the ligature is formed from by a curved stroke extending from the top of c’s bow to the top of t. Biting letters include the common d+eb+b,d+d, and p+p. Other noteworthy characteristics include the usually crossed Tironian nota, which sit on the line, together with the occasional uncrossed version (lines 5 and 6 ‘7 heredibus’ and ‘7 Barones’ demonstrate each respectively); barred capitals (such as BCF, GHM, NOPQ); the open-topped form of suprascript a predominantly used to denote abbreviations like qua- or –ra (‘quam’, line 6; ‘libras’, line 8. This seems to be a consistently earlier practice than the flat-topped version of the mark.); the dashed double i; and a consistently curved abbreviation stroke. One final infrequent scribal practice in this text is the conjoining of enlarged a and round-backed d, where the back of d crosses through the bow of a, as in the image below. This is a feature most commonly witnessed in charter hands.

Conjoined 'ad' in Magna Carta S
There is far more one could say, but this collection of data, taken in toto, is sufficient to build a strong case for the production of S, the Salisbury Magna Carta, by a Salisbury scribe, as we shall demonstrate. A number of comparanda exist to support this claim, among them the existence of multiple Salisbury scribes writing in manuscripts and diplomata that are, and always have been, in situ in the archive that created them. Some of these are closely datable, but, of those I [ET] have examined quickly, most postdate the 1215 date postulated for the Magna Carta. Thus, for example, a small number of membrane slips containing the signed oaths of obedience to Salisbury’s bishop by abbots and abbesses provide approximately dateable writing associated with the institution. These illustrate hands confirming the obedience of Claricia, abbess of the Cistercian abbey of Tarrant in 1228; her successor, Emelina (before 1240); and Richard I of Reading in 1238, among others. Still, together with multiple charters, writs, and other diplomata extant from all aspects of the Salisbury chapter’s business, individual scribal characteristics can be discerned that permit a comprehensive description of script and textual production from the twelfth century to the Reformation (to be published in Treharne 2018). For the earlier thirteenth century, it is perhaps little surprise to learn that a wide variety of hands is exemplified in the corpus of diplomata from high grade book hands to those demonstrating the influence of court hand or evincing considerable currency or lack of calligraphic proficiency. In one remarkable volume, these variable scribal performances are gathered altogether as a witness to the diversity of scribal habits and competencies. More to the point here, these hands offer strong evidence supporting the localization and thus the origin of to Salisbury itself.

Registering Rules and Records

Such a finding emerges from the evidence suggested by a comparison of palaeographical characteristics between and certain scribes of The Register of St Osmund, now housed in Salisbury Cathedral Archive (see http://www.sarumcustomary.org.uk/exploring/PDF_files/1%20OCO/OCO-L.pdf). This Register, until recently deposited in the Wiltshire County Record Office, is generally dated to c. 1220, presumably because that is the date of the foundation of the new cathedral building at Salisbury. It may, of course, have been begun slightly earlier in readiness for the move from Old Sarum to the present site, since the volume contains the fullest extant text of Osmund’s Consuetudinary, including descriptions of the roles of the cathedral’s major officers and liturgical rites. It seems likely that the Register was compiled and maintained as both guide to the organizational practices of the cathedral and as a repository of the privileges, liberties and possessions of the institution. Following the Consuetudinary, the volume becomes, effectively, a cartulary with many documents added as the thirteenth century progressed. Taking stock in this way during the years of planning and implementing the move--a move initiated by Richard Poore, bishop of Salisbury 1217 to 1228, and granted in 1219 by papal indulgence--made absolute sense to ensure a secure record intended for the cathedral’s reference and archive.

The earliest scribe in the Register copied the opening folios containing the Statutes and Regulations of the cathedral. His is a book-hand of greater formality than that associated with Salisbury’s Magna Carta.

The Register of St Osmund, pp. ii-iii

Consistent with other textura of the period, the aspect is generally upright, though sometimes rather backward-tilting; the ascenders and descenders generally compact (and often lacking the flourish seen in S); the pen-angle about 30’. Two-compartment a predominates, and the occasional enlarged a makes a few appearances; straight-backed and round-backed d are used; the small 8-shaped g is most common. Like S, and many other examples, the left limb of x swoops under the preceding letter. There are frequent, but not ubiquitous barred majuscule forms. These increase in number as the manuscript’s earliest scribe works through his multiple stints. His biting letters include d+e and double p. As in S, there is the occasional use of a conjoined enlarged a and d in ‘ad’, where the ascender of round-backed d pierces the bow of a.

Register, p. 1

Register, p. 73

In the early pages of the Register, the Tironian nota is not crossed; later hands illustrate varied usage that is sometimes crossed, and sometimes simply 7. The suprascript a with a flat, closed top is most common in the introductory pages, but there are instances, too, of the open a seen in S. The macron, like S’s, is curved. Confirming a date of the first third of the century (and somewhat earlier, indeed) is the ‘above top line’ format of the folio. While the hand is more laterally compressed than that of S, there are distinctive similarities, as one might expect.

The most notable preponderance of similarities between a scribe of the Register and Salisbury’s Magna Carta comes quite far into the Register in a sequence of texts copied some time after 1222. At pages 111-113, in a section on canonical behaviour, the scribe, whose hand is more cursive than that of S, nevertheless evinces similar forms of enlarged a, trailing s, majuscules, punctuation, and various other features, illustrated below in the conglomerate image. Of most significance, this scribe writes the very notable g with a tail that loops back upon itself to touch the bowl. Now this g is very distinctive, and certainly allies the scribal practice of the Magna Carta hand with that of the Register’s scribe at these pages. It is seen elsewhere too, but always in manuscripts or diplomata that are possibly slightly later than Magna Carta, including, obviously, the Register itself. It occurs in other diplomata associated with Salisbury, including this below--from a document issued to Salisbury by Archbishop Langton in c. 1220 or a little earlier.

Document of c. 1220, issued by Stephen Langton in Salisbury Cathedral Archive. Note form of gS, and also final -s
Other instances of this particular form of g include Duchy of Lancaster, Cartae Miscellaneae 36, dated to 1229-30, and included as Plate Va in Hector; London, British Library, Royal 14. C. vii, fol. 150, dated 1250-59, and included in Denholm-Young as Plate 12; and in the final lines of CCCC 275, fols. 233a-n, which is post-1230, where the g is part of a final flourish at the foot of the writing grid. Its use in the Magna Carta might, then, be among the earliest recorded instances.

Amalgamation of some of the interesting similar features in the (yellowy) Magna Carta and the Register of St Osmund
What does emerge from this preliminary examination of Salisbury’s Register and some of the chapter’s documents and diplomata is how very varied scribal hands are in this period, as Holt indeed pointed out. This is particularly so when they are not consistently the highest grade of Gothic textura (quadrata, semi-quadrata, and so on). Not only is it quite difficult to categorize the preponderance of hands beyond the broadest categories, but also, there are dramatic changes in appearance and letter-formation within what are approximately contemporary stints in similar contexts of production. This reflects ‘the proliferation of documents’, as Clanchy says; the concomitant increase in numbers and levels of training of scribes; and the varieties of script commonly used for different kinds of writing (Clanchy 127-34), many manifested differently according to scribal proficiency and time. This is made abundantly clear by the rich diversity of evidence documented in the Salisbury Cathedral Archive. But then the consistent and significant number of similar forms between the Salisbury Magna Carta and other known contemporary Salisbury scribes becomes diagnostic of a shared writing environment. Thus, it is surely to this archival community that scholars should look to identify the common context for the Magna Carta’s production, if not the very scribe himself.

Textual Performance

In the face of the identification of the scribe of S as a member of the very institution which received and housed the charter, it would be tempting to leap to the conclusion that S is not an authentic Magna Carta and somehow did not deserve its place at the reunification event at the British Library in February. As both Claire Breay and Sir James Holt have previously emphasized, this is not the case. Salisbury, together with other cathedrals throughout England from the twelfth century onwards, had become increasingly meticulous about recording and curating significant diplomata, both within the cartulary or register, and in single sheet format. The identification of the scribe of S as from Salisbury tells us important things about how Magna Carta was disseminated and about forms of textual dissemination and preservation in the Middle Ages. It is indeed salutary, as Nicholas Vincent states, to acknowledge that a solid, if not preponderant, proportion of diplomata produced were written by scribes attached to the beneficiary rather than to the king (Vincent 2004: 31). Moreover, Holt (2015: 374) comments that the use of a book hand in S does not make it any less authentic: ‘In the circumstances at Runnymede and Windsor the Chancery could have impressed extra scribes to help with the lengthy exemplifications which the settlement required (although, if so, none of their work is apparent otherwise): more probably S could have been the work of one of the recipients, a messenger or agent of one of the counties, presented for authorization by the great seal - an acceptable though by now unusual procedure’. We can now suggest that consistently present palaeographical comparanda between some of the scribes of the Register and the scribe of S indeed indicates that S was written by a scribe from the cathedral which retains that version of the Great Charter to this day. The evidence of the tear together with its long attested history at Salisbury suggest that S was produced and then presented for sealing with the Great Seal. It would be an unlikely coincidence that a scribe who had been impressed to help out the royal chancery just happened to write out a copy which is now in his home institution. It is far more likely that recipients were able to present their own copies of Magna Carta for sealing by the Chancery.

The practice of ecclesiastical scriptoria preparing charters recording grants in their favour was a long-standing one, dating back to the earliest days of the appearance of the charter in England. It might be assumed that with the growth and professionalization of the royal administration in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries that this practice died out, but the variety of scribal forms on royal acta, which persisted on reissues of Magna Carta well into the thirteenth century, suggest that the sealing of documents prepared by the recipient was a more commonplace practice than has been assumed. If S was prepared by a Salisbury scribe, this may explain some of its textual idiosyncrasies, since the Salisbury scribe may have been working from a draft or intermediary copy in preparing his text. The textual relationships between drafts and final version is complex, and one of the great achievements of the Magna Carta project will be to help piece together these relationships.

We have tended to see the distribution of texts like Magna Carta as a one-to-many relationship, with a single approved text (the letters testimonial) being handed down and disseminated. But there were a number of earlier drafts of Magna Carta, the text of which is preserved in statute collections. This was first pointed out by Galbraith (1967), and David Carpenter (2015a: 19-21) has recently identified many more examples of texts derived from drafts incorporated into statute collections. The dissemination of Magna Carta was many-to-many, with drafts circulating and institutions presenting texts of the charter for sealing. Indeed, analogously, the process of dissemination of this political text reflects the way in which literary scholars have come to appreciate the complex cross-currents and intersections in the spread of literary texts, which do not follow simple hierarchies of descent. In this context, prescriptive ideas of authenticity are not helpful, and it is worth remembering Galbraith’s dictum that for contemporaries, for whom it was the act of making the grant which counted, the documents recording Magna Carta ‘would have meant no more than a carbon copy, or a printed copy of, say, a modern treaty means to-day’ (Galbraith 1948: 123). This outlook was still evident in 1731 when Speaker Onslow’s reaction to the damage to Ci was simply to have a certified copy made in a modern hand, as if it was a property deed which had been damaged. (This vera copia is now shares a pressmark with Ci, as Cotton Ch. Xiii.31b.)

Moreover, for many people in thirteenth-century England, it was how they heard Magna Carta which counted. Holt drew attention in 1974 to a French text of Magna Carta made shortly after 1215 in the Cartulary of Pont Audemer which also contains a French version of the writ of 24 June 1215 (Holt 1985: 239-57). Holt (1985: 242) proposes that the Magna Carta of 1215 was ‘the first document of political importance known to have been issued in the vernacular’. This is a problematic claim at a number of levels: it assumes that pre-conquest vernacular texts such as lawcodes were not of political importance; and it ignores suggestions that the content of Henry I’s coronation charter must have been made known in French and English, since it was addressed ‘all his barons and faithful men, as well French as English born’ (Poole 1913: 444-5). It is also worth noting Poole’s hint that the second charter of Stephen of 1136 might also have been promulgated in the vernacular: ‘It looks as though a scribe familiar with the style of French charters had attempted to produce a diploma in the Old English form’ (Poole 1913: 447).

French translations of reissues of Magna Carta also survive in other statute collections, such as Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 329a (Holt 1985: 243 n. 2). The fact that the Pont Audemer copy of the 1215 also includes a translation of the writ ordering the sheriff to proclaim the terms of the Charter indicate that the translation was made for use in a proclamation. Holt reviews evidence for the use of vernacular languages in proclamations for the thirteenth century. The re-issues of the Charter of 1216, 1217 and 1225, the Provisions of Merton, were also proclaimed in the shire courts. Holt assumes that these proclamations would have been in French and not English, a conclusion supported by Carpenter (2015a: 431): ‘We do not know the language of these readings, but they were probably in French as well as Latin’. In Holt’s view, the use of English for such proclamations began with the 1255 order concerning the excommunication of the infringers of Magna Carta which was to be ‘published clearly and lucidly both in the English and French tongue whenever and wherever it may seem expedient’ (Holt 1985: 242). Holt also notes the well-known royal letters of October 1258 confirming the Provisions of Oxford and promulgating ordinances for the reform of local government, issued in both French and English ‘so that they might be read by the sheriffs and understood and observed intact by all men in the future’ (Holt 1985: 242). In 1300, Edward I ordered Magna Carta to be proclaimed in Westminster Hall both ‘literally’ and ‘in the language of the country’ (lingua patria) (Carpenter 2015a: 431). 

The assumption has been that Magna Carta would have been disseminated in French and not English, and that the use of English in proclaiming major political documents developed only from the middle of the thirteenth century. However, recent work emphasizing the vibrancy and continued vitality of English in the twelfth century would seem to point towards the possibility that Magna Carta and its thirteenth-century reissues were proclaimed in English as well as French. The process of preparing these translations for proclamation was evidently an informal and ad hoc one, and it was only the chance discovery of the Pont Audemer text in 1974 that documented the French translation. It is worth noting that Poole (1913: 450) was more open than Holt and Carpenter to the possibility that Magna Carta was proclaimed in English in 1215, suggesting that the procedure adopted was similar to that for the Provisions of Oxford. Although Magna Carta was a settlement between John and the nobility and a grant directed to freeman, its ramifications were wide-ranging and in matters such as fish weirs or weights and measures it would certainly have been necessary to convey information about Magna Carta in English. Further investigation of the language of Magna Carta, and linking this understanding to recent scholarship on the history of English during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is a major area for future investigation; much of the discussion of this topic is still dependent on work done by Reginald Lane Poole and Faith Thompson over eighty years ago.

There is much more to learn, then, as demonstrated by the brilliant new work of the Magna Carta project team. Our work on the Salisbury origins of its own extant Magna Carta demonstrates that the process of textual dissemination for the 1215 Charter was indeed a complex and multi-faceted one, and that these diplomata were both produced and received in a variety of contexts. For King John’s subjects, it may have been how they heard Magna Carta that counted. For them the ephemeral and live text proclaimed in the towns and meeting places would have been as authentic a Magna Carta as the four original surviving instantiations from 1215 are for modern scholars. That this Great Charter can still generate such interest and debate is testimony to its continuing significance for all of its many successive audiences.   


Elaine Treharne should like to thank the Dean--the Very Reverend June Osborne--and the Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral for their permission to work in the Library and Archive. In particular, I should like to thank the Canon Chancellor, Reverend Canon Edward Probert, and the Archivist, Mrs Emily Naish. I owe enormous gratitude to Mrs Naish for many helpful conversations, for her knowledge of the archive, her kindness and her time. 

References and Further Reading

Breay, Claire. 2002. Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths. London: The British Library.  
Breay, Claire, and Harrison, Julian, eds. 2015. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. London: The British Library.
Carpenter, David. 2015a. Magna Carta. London: Penguin Classics.
Carpenter, David. 2015b. The Cartulary Copies at Lincoln and Salisbury of the Lincoln and Salisbury Engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta: http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/read/feature_of_the_month/May_2015_2
Chaplais, Pierre. 1971. English Royal Documents, King John-Henry VI (1199-1461). Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Clanchy, M. T. 2013. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Collins, Arthur Jeffries. 1948. The Documents of the Great Charter of 1215. Proceedings of the British Academy 34: 233-79.
Denholm-Young, N. 1954. Handwriting in England and Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Derolez, Albert. 2003. The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books from the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Galbraith, V. H. 1967. A Draft of Magna Carta (1215). Proceedings of the British Academy 53: 345-60. 
Grieve, Hilda E. P. 1954. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750. Colchester: Essex Record Office Publications.
Hector, L. C. 1966. The Handwriting of English Documents. Dorking: Kohler and Coombs Ltd.
Holt, J. C. 1985. Magna Carta and Medieval Government. London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press.
Holt, J. C. 2015. Magna Carta, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Parkes, M. B. 1969. English Cursive Book Hands, 1250-1500. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
Prescott, Andrew. 1997. ‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation’: the Restoration of the Cotton Library in C. J. Wright ed., Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Lawyer and his Legacy. London: The British Library, pp. 391-454
Rich Jones, W. H., ed. 1883. Register of S. Osmund (London: Longman & Co.), 2 vols. 
Rowlands, I. W. The Text and Distribution of the Writ for the Publication of Magna Carta, 1215. English Historical Review, 124: 1422-31.
Stroud, Daphne. 1981. Salisbury’s Magna Carta: Was It Issued by the Chancery? The Hatcham Review 2:12: 51-8.
Treharne, Elaine. 2018. Collective Memories in Salisbury Cathedral Library and Archives, 1200 to 1600.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2004. ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and his Contemporaries’, in Adrian Jobson, ed. English Government in the Thirteenth Century. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. pp. 17-48.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2010. Australia’s Magna Carta. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2012. Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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