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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.