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The world’s most famous document (Language level B2-C1)

Giugno 2015
Alla base di tanti diritti umani che oggi si danno per scontati, la Magna Carta fu firmata esattamente 800 anni fa. Tutto iniziò in Inghilterra, quando i baroni, stanchi delle tasse di King John...

di Julian Earwaker

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The British Library’s copy of Magna Carta. This is one of four surviving copies of this 800 year old document.
The British Library’s copy of Magna Carta. This is one of four surviving copies of this 800 year old document.
Julian Harrison
Julian Harrison

At the British Library in London, a line of people stands to view rare books and manuscripts in glass cases. Together with the video screens and information panels, they tell a fascinating story of conflict, power and justice. In the final gallery, displayed all alone behind a large window, is an ancient sheepskin manuscript. On it, handwritten in small Latin lettering, are almost 4,000 words. This is Magna Carta – written and sealed on June 15th 1215. The anniversary exhibition explains how, over 800 years, the document has changed the way the world views democracy, liberty and law.


“Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents in the world,” explains Julian Harrison, curator of medieval manuscripts with the British Library and responsible for the exhibition. “It has influenced people across the centuries, people such as Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. Magna Carta was cited in the English Civil War, it inspired the US Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and similar constitutions in many countries around the globe. Magna Carta has been used in court cases about human rights, democracy, freedom of speech and detention without trial. It is said that, apart from the English language, Magna Carta is the most important export Britain has ever given the world.


Back in 1215, King John was doing a bad job of ruling England and a very bad job of protecting his territories in France. In order to fund his expensive and unsuccessful military campaigns, John taxed his barons – the wealthy landowners who controlled much of England. Royal justice was arbitrary and came at a price. The barons rebelled and a series of battles followed. A truce was agreed and a peace treaty prepared. On June 15th 1215, the document received the royal seal at Runnymede in Surrey. It contained many conditions – including the key provision that no one could be imprisoned without a fair trial. The document was known as the Great Charter of Runnymede and later became known simply as Magna Carta.


In reality, Magna Carta only provided protection for a wealthy elite. It offered little for ordinary people living under the feudal system of the time. In any case, within 10 weeks Magna Carta was annulled by the pope, and war between King John and the barons continued. But in 1216, John died and his nine-year-old son, Henry III, took the throne. Magna Carta was reissued in an amended form, and soon became part of the law of the land. 




Speaker: Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

June 15th marks a major anniversary: on this day in 1215, a group of English barons gathered on the island of Runnymede on the River Thames and obliged King John, also known as “bad King John,” to sign a document called Magna Carta. 800 years later the British Library in London is organizing a special anniversary exhibition, and we asked its curator, Julian Harrison, to explain the importance of Magna Carta: 

Julian Harrison (Standard British accent)

Magna Carta established for the first time that everybody was subject to the law, that nobody – not even the king – was above the law. And certain of its principles are still valid today, and we often take them for granted – most notably the clause in Magna Carta which states that “No man shall be arrested or imprisoned save by the lawful judgement of their equals, or by the law of the land. To no one shall we sell, deny or delay right or justice.” These are really, really important principles, but people often don’t realize that they originated in Magna Carta.


But, as Julian Harrison explains, Magna Carta is often the subject of humorous misinterpretation:

Julian Harrison

People often believe that their human rights are enshrined in Magna Carta, and here at the British Library, sometimes we’re contacted by people who have been issued with a parking ticket in the City of Westminster, and they’re contesting that claim because they believe that Magna Carta, you know, gives them the right to park wherever they wish! Or, for example, other recent claims in law courts citing Magna Carta have included people claiming that they are a descendant of the barons who actually forced Magna Carta upon King John and therefore, as a descendant of one of the barons, they believe that they are immune from English law. Unfortunately, none of those things are actually true!


In spite of these examples, the legacy of Magna Carta is a serious matter:

Julian Harrison

I think the most important thing to remember about Magna Carta is the fact that, ultimately, it established a principle that everybody was subject to the law. Of course the story doesn’t end now. We’re commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta but, looking into the future, looking to see how people will continue to use Magna Carta; for example, in very recent years  Magna Carta has been used by detainees at Guantanamo Bay to challenge their detention, and indeed the United States Supreme Court justices actually giving some of those detainees the right to challenge their detention, actually cited Magna Carta in their judgement. So Magna Carta will continue to be used, but whether people actually look back to the original document and actually understand why it was created is another matter.


You can view two of the original copies of Magna Carta at a special exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy, which is showing at the British Library until September 1st 2015. The British Library is a two-minute walk from St Pancras International rail and underground station in central London. Admission to the exhibition costs £12 for adults; www.bl.uk 


• King John was nicknamed Softsword because of his lack of military success
• More than 40,000 people entered a ballot for tickets to see the four surviving, original copies of Magna Carta displayed together for the first time ever, at the British Library in February 2015
• A recent survey by ITV found that only half of young British people aged 18-34 know what Magna Carta is
• Two of the four remaining original copies of Magna Carta are held at the British Library, one is kept at Lincoln Cathedral and the other at Salisbury Cathedral

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The City of Westminster. Il comune di Londra (centrale). Londra è divisa in due città, the City of London (la vecchia città romana che corrisponde alla City, la zona finanziaria di oggi) e the City of Westminster. Le zone meno centrali si chiamano boroughs.

Actually. In effetti, in realtà. Gli inglesi usano la parola actually quasi come intercalare, e Julian Harrison la usa molto frequentemente.