Virginia Scholar Opens Magna Carta To Study | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

WAMU 88.5 : News

Virginia Scholar Opens Magna Carta To Study

Play associated audio
A 1297 copy of the Magna Carta purchased by the Australian Government.
Wikimedia Commons
A 1297 copy of the Magna Carta purchased by the Australian Government.

The Magna Carta had a significant influence on early American government. Thomas Jefferson taught himself Old English in order to study it. Now, a scholar in Northern Virginia is translating it and putting it online for a contemporary audience to explore.

As fundamental as the Magna Carta is to our political system, Bruce O'Brien, a University of Mary Washington scholar, says that nobody really knows exactly what the original document actually said, because every version is different. The same is true for English laws that came before the Magna Carta.

"You know, you can say I want to know what William the Conqueror actually intended, but you can spend your life studying it and still not know," explains O'Brien.

That seemingly impossible task is why he started an online archive of early English laws, based on images of every manuscript of English law produced before 1225. Essentially, what O'Brien is doing is historical detective work.

The first code to crack is the language itself -- most of the documents are written in Latin, Anglo-French, or Old English. He has to track down all the different versions and then compare their differences. One of the problems is that the bishops and abbots who wrote the laws down actually changed them to say what they wanted.

"What better way to have an impact than to have your own staff produce what looks like a code of laws, with the changes that you want to make," says O'Brien.

Because the laws are so open to interpretation, O'Brien is actually opening his website to anyone who wants to take a stab at understanding the early English laws.

"When the project goes online, not only will people be able to look at the manuscripts, but they'll also be able to register their own alternative readings; it democratizes the interpretation of English law," says O'Brien.

NPR

Searching For Buried Treasure In China, A Writer Discovers Himself

During the Sino-Japanese War, Huan Hsu's great-great-grandfather buried his vast porcelain collection to keep it safe. Hsu went to find it 70 years later, on a trip about more than missing china.
NPR

Cheez Whiz Helped Spread Processed Foods. Will It Be Squeezed Out?

Turns out, the history of Kraft's dull-orange cheese spread says a lot about the processed food industry — and where it might be headed as Kraft and Heinz merge.
NPR

Proposed Payday Industry Regulations Must Strike Delicate Balance

The federal government is moving to reign in the payday loan industry, which critics say traps consumers in a damaging cycle of debt. A look at the possible effects of proposed regulations.
NPR

App That Aims To Make Books 'Squeaky Clean' Draws Ire From Edited Writers

Clean Reader — an app designed to find, block and replace profanity in books — has drawn considerable criticism from authors. This week, makers of the app announced they would no longer sell e-books.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.