Even those who paid next to no attention to their history teachers know about Magna Carta — or at least they know it first came about in 1215. To deliver all the other relevant details, we now have a new teacher in the form of Monty Python's Terry Jones, who, on the occasion of this great charter's 800th anniversary, provides the narration for these two short animations, "Magna Carta: Medieval" and "Magna Carta: Legacy," that tell the rest of its story.
These videos come as part of a whole web site put together by the British Library meant to help us all "discover the history and legacy of one of the world's most celebrated documents." To this end, they've put up an introduction to Magna Carta by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, which summarizes both its origins and its relevance today:
Originally issued by King John of England (r.1199-1216) as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.
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Three clauses of the 1225 Magna Carta remain on the statute book today. Although most of the clauses of Magna Carta have now been repealed, the many divergent uses that have been made of it since the Middle Ages have shaped its meaning in the modern era, and it has become a potent, international rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power.
These animations, of course, add a great deal of visual, narrative, and comedic vividness to this important piece of Western political history, following it from the reign of King John ("one of the worst kings in history"), through civil war, the creation of the United States of America, struggles for voting rights and the freedom of the press, right up to the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in a sense Magna Carta's modern descendant. "Although very few of Magna Carta's original clauses remain valid in English law," says Jones, "it continues to inspire people worldwide. Not a bad legacy for an 800-year-old document."
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.