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

Richard Trentlage, Oscar Mayer Weiner Song Writer, Dies At 87

In 1962, Richard Trentlage recorded an advertising jingle in his living room that began "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner..." He was no one-slogan wonder.
NPR

This Historian Wants You To Know The Real Story Of Southern Food

Michael Twitty wants credit given to the enslaved African-Americans who were part of Southern cuisine's creation. So he goes to places like Monticello to cook meals slaves would have eaten.
NPR

October Can Be Frightful For Investors. Will Politics Make It Scarier?

The stock market ended the first three quarters of 2016 on a positive note. Rising stock prices typically help an incumbent party in a presidential election year. But October can be a wild month.
NPR

The United Nations Is Launching A Space Mission

The U.N. is planning to send its first spacecraft into orbit, packed with scientific experiments from countries that can't afford their own space programs.

Leave a Comment

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