Liberty, Legacy and…Fishing Weirs?
The peculiar bits of one of the world’s most famous documents
Magna Carta has come to the Museum. As far as historical documents go, this one is at the top of the heap – “Magna Carta” means “Great Charter” in Latin, and they don’t call it great for nothing.
Magna Carta established rules to limit the power of monarchs and provided for some legal rights such as trial by a jury of peers. It even talked about the rights of women, declaring that a widow could not be compelled to remarry after her husband passed away, although she still needed permission if she wanted to remarry.
All that said, Magna Carta of 1215 was not originally meant to be a beacon of justice and liberty. In fact, the original document has a lot of peculiar bits, packed in there right alongside all the more noble bits that everyone likes to talk about today.
Some parts of Magna Carta actually restricted liberties. Two clauses, 10 and 11, singled out Jewish money lenders and attempted to limit how much money they could make from loans, while another – clause 54 – prohibited women from accusing a man of murder or manslaughter unless it was her husband.
Other bits of the original Magna Carta actually fired people. Clause 50 declared that eight Frenchmen would be removed from their positions in the English government. One of those fired was Philip Mark, the Sheriff of Nottingham, who would later feature in the legend of Robin Hood.
Perhaps the most peculiar clause of Magna Carta was clause 33, which called for the removal of fishing weirs from the rivers in the Kingdom of England. Fishing weirs? Why would the writers of Magna Carta concern themselves with fishing weirs?
Well, back in 1215, fishing weirs were a pretty big deal. These dams were meant to catch fish, but they could also cause rivers to fill with silt until boats couldn’t travel down them at all. Rivers were the highways of the day, so if they became blocked, it was a huge problem. In fact, the clause dealing with the weirs comes before any of the more famous clauses about justice and equality. Some historians have argued this might be because the writers of Magna Carta saw fishing weirs as a more important issue than rights and liberties.
Regardless of what the original writers intended, it is the spirit of justice and equality found in Magna Carta that has stood the test of time. This fascinating document has influenced everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Eleanor Roosevelt to Nelson Mandela. It seems likely Magna Carta will continue to speak to human rights defenders far into the future.
If you’d like to learn more about Magna Carta and its legacy, you can visit the exhibit Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy, at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights until September 18, 2015. You can also attend the different curators’ talks about Magna Carta, taking place on September 2, 9 and 16.
 Nicolas Vincent, “The Clauses of Magna Carta,” Magna Carta, www.bl.uk (accessed August 24, 2015).
 Nicolas Vincent, “The Clauses of Magna Carta.”
 Danny Danzinger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), p. 283.
 Matthew Shaw, “Early America and Magna Carta” and Alexander Lock, “Magna Carta in the 20th century,” Magna Carta, www.bl.uk (accessed August 24, 2015).