Magna Carta and Modernity in Medieval Films, part 2:


In the last entry, we saw how Magna Carta was modernized in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Today we see a similar transformation in Ironclad.

Like Ridley Scott, Jonathan English, director of Ironclad, released in 2011, claims historical accuracy for his film. Like those of Ridley Scott, English’s claims don’t hold up.1 Compared to Robin Hood, Ironclad has more historical and less folkloric content. Ironclad is based on a real event, the siege of Rochester Castle, and its characters, although a mixture of real and fictional, do not include any mythical figures like Robin Hood. Nonetheless, Ironclad’s treatment of Magna Carta is equally as modern as Robin Hood’s and, in fact, is even more strongly reminiscent of an eighteenth-century document, the Declaration of Independence.

Ironclad is set in the fall and winter of 1215, during the baronial rebellion that followed the failure of Magna Carta. The film focuses on the siege of Rochester Castle, in which it imagines that seven brave defenders held off the forces of John and his mercenary army. (The director, Jonathan English, has acknowledged his inspirations included The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai).2 These medieval magnificent seven are led by Baron William of Albany and Thomas Marshal, a troubled Templar who in the course of the siege falls in love with Isabel, wife of the castle’s lord, Reginald Cornhill.3 John ultimately takes the castle, but is unable to follow up on his victory when an invading French force shows up, led by Prince Louis, son of King Philip. John flees, and the film ends with John’s ignominious death by dysentery after losing his treasure in the Wash while Thomas and Isabel ride away from the castle to live, presumably, happily ever after.4

While the time period of Robin Hood is well before the actual time of the granting of Magna Carta, the action of Ironclad takes place in the months after Runnymede. Magna Carta still plays a large role in the film, however. The civil war of late 1215 is presented as resulting from John’s attempt to take revenge on the supporters of Magna Carta; the defenders of Rochester Castle see themselves as defending the ideals of Magna Carta. However, the Magna Carta of Ironclad is not the Magna Carta of Runnymede. To paraphrase Greta Austin, who claims that all medieval films are “modernity in drag,” Magna Carta in Ironclad may be described as “the Declaration of Independence in drag.”5 Like the Declaration, it has a single author. Like the Declaration, it is signed by its supporters. Like the Declaration, the physical object, the document itself, is seen as significant. And like the Declaration, the meaning of the document has been transformed from its original context to be something else.

In Ironclad, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton is presented not only as a supporter of Magna Carta but also as its sole author. Langton was identified as the author of Magna Carta at one time, but today the scholarly consensus is that its composition was a group effort, with Langton perhaps insisting on clause one, on the liberty of the English Church.6 In Ironclad, however, when we first meet Langton in the episcopal palace at Canterbury, he tells Thomas, “I am to be excommunicated for writing Magna Carta.”7This is understandable for dramatic reasons—the story is easier to follow if we can attach a face to the document everyone is fighting over. But in addition, Stephen Langton is the stand-in for Thomas Jefferson.

The script refers several times to John’s “signing” Magna Carta. In reality, Magna Carta was not signed but sealed.8 Interestingly, a few references to sealing the document do creep in—it’s almost as if the screenwriters knew the proper term but frequently lapsed into the familiar error. This confusion is already evident in the film’s opening sequence, where a voiceover spoken by Charles Dance, who plays Stephen Langton, provides the historical background necessary to understand the rest of the story:

“It was agreed that John could remain on the throne, on one condition—that he would sign a document upholding the rights and privileges of all free men, but ultimately limiting the power of the monarchy. [At this point we see John sign the document.] The Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede on the fifteenth of June in the Year of our Lord twelve hundred and fifteen.” [emphasis mine]

The look of this scene is clearly influenced by nineteenth-century visual representations of what the artists imagined to have happened on June 15, 1215. Do a google image search with terms like “Magna Carta signing” and you’ll see plenty of examples.9 The one I believe the filmmakers chose is an 1864 illustration by artist James Doyle.10 In the illustration, John is in a tent, seated at a table covered with a red tablecloth embellished with gold brocade. He is surrounded by standing knights and clergymen. Through the open back of the tent can be seen more tents spread across a rolling green meadow next to a river.

James Doyle, ”John Signs the Great Charter,” 1864.

In the opening sequence of Ironclad, there is an establishing shot with a tent-covered meadow next to a river; the camera then takes us inside John’s tent where he is seated at a table covered by a red cloth embellished with gold brocade and surrounded by standing knights and clergymen.

The field at Runnymede, from Ironclad.
John signing Magna Carta, from Ironclad.

The writers did enough research to know that Magna Carta was sealed. They must have just assumed it was signed as well, partly from the influence of the visual tradition they were following, but also because in modern times we expect important legal or governmental documents to be signed. A bill doesn’t become a law until the President signs it; the Declaration of Independence couldn’t take effect until the delegates signed it. So Magna Carta must have been signed as well.

The parallel of Ironclad’s Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence extends further. The prop Magna Carta used in the film was neither a duplicate of one of the surviving 1215 copies nor modeled on the eighteenth-century facsimile (as Robin Hood’s was). Rather, Ironclad’s Magna Carta has a similar layout to the Declaration. John’s signature is centered below the main text, in large letters—like his namesake president of the Continental Congress—with the other signatures in columns to its left and right.11 In fact, the leaders of the baronial revolt did not sign it either, but our familiarity with the Declaration of Independence has conditioned our expectations of what such a document should look like.12

The Magna Carta signed by ”John of England,” from Ironclad.

On the must-see list of any first-time visitor to Washington, D.C. is the Rotunda of the National Archives, where the “Charters of Freedom” exhibit reverently showcases the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Americans revere the Declaration as a physical object.

Ironclad has a similar view of the importance of the document itself. In an early scene, John and his Danish mercenaries arrive at the castle of one of his enemies. John shows him a copy of Magna Carta and, pointing to it, asks if this is his handwriting. The baron claims he was forced to sign it; John grimly replies, “I know the feeling” and has the man hanged. Later on, John is shown in a sacked burning castle surrounded by heaps of bodies; one has a crumpled-up bloody copy of Magna Carta stuffed in its mouth. When the rebels first occupy Rochester castle, a member of the resident garrison protests, “The rebellion’s over. The king surrendered to the Great Charter.” Albany then pulls a copy of Magna Carta out of a leather tube and says, “Magna Carta. This one sealed by the King’s own hand.  And now he’s executing everybody who supported it.”13 Late in the siege, when the defenders are coming to realize that they are doomed, Reginald Cornhill wants to negotiate a surrender. Squire Guy, the idealist youth among our “Magnificent Seven,” objects, saying, “We swore an oath, to Albany—to England.” Cornhill answers, “Your oath is worthless. Magna Carta is worthless. The Church has annulled it. Whatever happens here is meaningless.” He leaves the room and Guy silently unrolls Magna Carta and looks at it. Almost the last thing we see in Ironclad, after a final Charles Dance voiceover that narrates John’s death and the loss of his treasure in the Wash, is a shot of Magna Carta floating in muddy water.

Ironclad’s view of Magna Carta’s broader significance is also informed by modern expectations and parallels the popular understanding of the Declaration of Independence. In the popular mind, Jefferson’s list of all the crimes of George III is forgotten; all that we remember is “All men are created equal” and the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Similarly, in Ironclad all the technical clauses of Magna Carta are ignored and its scope is extended to, as the initial voiceover sequence puts it, “upholding the rights and privileges of all free men.” English echoes this judgment in his commentary, where he references America’s other founding document: “The Magna Carta of course is one of the original documents that formed the basis of liberty and justice for all men and was the basis of the American Constitution.” When John first confronts the rebels at the walls of Rochester castle, Albany reminds him that he “sealed a charter giving the people of England freedom.”14

This emphasis on “the people” and “freedom” is especially notable in the words of Squire Guy. When Thomas finds out that Guy has never killed anyone, he tells him, “Then you will learn that it is not a noble thing.” Guy counters, “Not even when it’s for freedom?” Thomas, the disillusioned Crusader, replies, “Not even when it’s for God.” When Cornhill asks the company at dinner in the castle why they support the rebellion, Guy proclaims, “Because we are for the people.” Again, English reinforces this sentiment in his commentary:  “The central theme of the film is worth—the worth of men, the worth of the people; that’s essentially the concept of the Magna Carta.” 15 Finally, the last words spoken in the film reinforce this idea of Magna Carta as a declaration of freedom that was ahead of its time: “In time the great keep of Rochester was rebuilt. It stands to this day. So too does the noble dream that was Magna Carta.”


No one has ever made a straight historical movie that tells the story of Magna Carta—one that begins in John’s reign, climaxes at Runnymede, and doesn’t have any legendary figures in it.  Some studio missed a great opportunity for a 2015 release. But why has no one made such a film? Perhaps it’s because Magna Carta now exists more in memory than in history, and in memory it’s no longer tied to specific events (apart from the signing ceremony, which didn’t even happen). The legacy of Magna Carta has turned it into a document about freedom and modern constitutional democracy. Whatever it meant in 1215, this is what it means now, so even in movies that are set then, Magna Carta is presented with the significance it has now.

The directors of both Ironclad and Robin Hood claim to be telling historical truths, but both are incorrect. Not just because they are careless with historical facts (although they are), but because both films are a-historical. Ironclad at least keeps Magna Carta tied to its own historical moment, but then turns it into the Declaration of Independence. Robin Hood takes Magna Carta completely out of history, placing its origins in the 1160s or 70s and its resurrection in 1200 and transforming its content into a generic “rights of man”—in effect, making it timeless, and, in true Enlightenment fashion, universalizing it.

Both these movies perpetuate the Enlightenment stereotype of the Middle Ages. If the Middle Ages are the Dark Ages—by definition, unenlightened—then if anything positive appears in the Middle Ages, it must be modern. The filmmakers have clothed a medieval document that arose at a specific time and place, out of specific circumstances, to meet the needs of specific people, in Enlightenment dress.  Truly, “modernity in drag.”

Magna Carta and Modernity in Medieval Films, part 1

Robin Hood

The year 2015 saw considerable attention paid to Magna Carta on its 800th birthday.  Books were published, aimed at audiences both popular and scholarly.1 The Magna Carta Trust organized a myriad of special commemorative events, including lectures, exhibits, walking tours, conferences, and performances. The Library of Congress displayed Lincoln Cathedral’s 1215 copy of Magna Carta as part of an exhibit titled “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor.”2 Not to be outdone, the British Library mounted a major exhibit, “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” that reunited all four surviving 1215 copies of the document.3 One medium that did not participate in this commemoration, however, was the cinema. There were no Magna Carta-themed major releases in 2015.

It’s not as if the early Plantagenet era as a whole has been neglected by filmmakers. Of all the eras in medieval history, the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth century time of Henry II and his sons is perhaps the best-known to an English-speaking audience. Modern movie-goers have become well-acquainted with the period from films like Lion in Winter and the various versions of Robin Hood. In fact, if you watch these films in the correct order, you can learn much of the story of the first Plantagenets (if you don’t mind a few inaccuracies).

Becket (1964) tells the story of the conflict between Henry II and the archbishop of Canterbury, culminating in Thomas Becket’s 1170 martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. 4 Lion in Winter (1968) dramatizes the tortured emotional relationships of Henry, his Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John after the death of Henry the Young King in 1183.5 The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is set in 1194, with John ruling England as regent while his brother King Richard was held captive on his way home from Crusade.6 Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, released in 1973, duplicates this setting, 7 but Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood of 2010 begins with the death of Richard in battle in 1199 and depicts the early days of John’s reign.8 Ironclad (2011) jumps to the civil war that occurred in 1215.9

Most of these films are set prior to 1215 and therefore don’t include Magna Carta as part of the narrative, although it could be argued that the near-universal depiction of John as a tyrannical bully is a type of foreshadowing, given that the audience knows what’s coming.10Two exceptions to the cinematic silence regarding Magna Carta are the 2010 version of Robin Hood and 2011’s Ironclad.11

Robin Hood, which purports to present the “real story behind the legend,” imagines that an early version of Magna Carta was drafted by the Robin Hood character’s father. Ironclad is a dramatization of the siege of Rochester, part of the civil war that ensued after Magna Carta was granted in June 1215. In both films, Magna Carta is represented as a document more modern than medieval. Specifically, both Robin Hood and Ironclad transform Magna Carta into a product of the Enlightenment.

Robin Hood

Robin Hood, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe as Robin, opens in 1199, with King Richard’s army besieging the castle of Chalus in southern France. When Richard is killed by a crossbow bolt, the archer Robin Longstride, who had been confined in the stocks for insubordination, takes advantage of the situation and escapes along with a few fellow soldiers. As they make their way home, they interrupt an ambush by the French of a party of English knights who are carrying Richard’s crown. Robin and his buddies drive the French away, but the English knights are all killed. As one of them, Robert Loxley, is dying, he commends his sword to Robin and asks him to return it to his father, from whom he was estranged. Robin and his friends take on the identity of the dead knights as a means of getting passage across the Channel. On the boat, he reads words etched into the sword’s hilt: “rise and rise again until lambs become lions.”

After safely delivering the crown, thereby informing John of his brother’s death, Robin travels to Nottingham to discharge his promise to the dead Robert Loxley. There he finds the knight’s widow, Marian, and her elderly father-in-law, Walter. Walter asks Robin to assume the identity of his dead son Robert in order to protect Marian and the estate from the depredations of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin is reluctant at first, but agrees when Walter tells him his own history.

Robin’s father, Walter tells him, was a stonemason who, many years ago when Robin was a small child, led a revolt against tyranny. As Walter tells the story, we see the events in flashback. Robin’s father had carved the revolt’s slogan, “Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions,” into a slab of stone, and little Robin pressed his handprint in the wet mortar.  Robin’s father wrote a manifesto—a “charter of liberties”—but the revolt failed, his father was executed, and the charter was forgotten. Walter produces a copy of the charter and tells Robin its time has come once again. In the meantime, a traitor in John’s court, Godfrey, has incited a baronial revolt against John and plotted an invasion of England with French king Philip Augustus.

In his persona as Robert, son of Walter—or, we might say, Robert fitz Walter12—Robin joins the baronial rebellion against King John’s tyranny. He convinces the barons that rather than remove the king, they should demand that he issue a charter that would guarantee their liberties.  John agrees to the charter and, having reconciled with the barons, goes to the Channel coast to meet the French invasion. The invasion is repelled thanks to Robin’s military leadership (aided by Marian, who shows up on the beach wearing a perfectly-fitting suit of armor she apparently had hanging in her closet). Now that John’s throne is secure, he sets the charter on fire and makes a speech of his own, asserting that he rules by Divine Right. The film ends with Robin being declared an outlaw and taking to the forest with Marian. The final words on the screen are “And so the Legend begins.”

Like most historical films, Robin Hood claims historical accuracy. In the “Director’s Notebook” included on the Blu-ray version of the film, Ridley Scott says,

“I think the idea of Robin Hood is so tied up historically in terms of was he real? I believe he was real. There was somebody who existed who ignited the flames of this idea, this legend. But what’s interesting is digging up all those facts, because people think they’re just facts of fiction, the facts created by some writer of a fictional idea, when actually they’re not, they’re real, they’re absolutely real.”13

And like most historical films, those claims to historical accuracy don’t hold up. To take just one example, there was no epic battle on the beach in 1200 between an invading French force led by Philip Augustus and English defenders under King John—because Philip Augustus never invaded England. And don’t even get me started on the Higgins boats.14

The presentation of Magna Carta in Robin Hood is also historically dubious. The filmmakers have given their Magna Carta a chronology that is, shall we say, confused. The film opens in 1199, with Richard’s death. In the documentary “Rise and Rise Again: Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood,” Ridley Scott claims that they deliberately chose that date to distinguish this version of Robin Hood from earlier ones. In the classic Robin Hood retellings going back to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the historical moment is 1194, while Richard is being held captive in Austria on his way home from the Third Crusade. His brother Prince John is ruling tyrannically in his absence and plotting to usurp the throne. Both Ivanhoe and the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood (heavily indebted to Ivanhoe) conclude with Richard’s triumphant return and restoration of legitimate rule. Ridley Scott, however, deliberately rejects that narrative:

“What we’ve tried to do is redefine the times, in fact shift the timeline. We kill Richard instead of having him ride in and save the day. But I think it’s more historically accurate, in my opinion anyway, in terms of what the cultural melee [sic] was that a Robin Hood character could rise out of.”15

Yet if they wanted to introduce Magna Carta into the story, it’s still fifteen years too early. And the backstory makes it earlier still. Walter Loxley tells Robin that his actual father had drafted a charter of liberties several years ago, when Robin was a small child. (Robin had earlier told Robert Loxley that his father abandoned him at the age of six.) Robin is presented as a grizzled old veteran who had fought with Richard on crusade, including at the siege of Acre (1191), so he must be at least in his 30s (Russell Crowe was 46 when the film was released). This dates the writing of the original charter to the 1160 or 1170s.16

The real Magna Carta arose out of the specific circumstances of the end of John’s reign, but we are given no hint of what prompted Robin’s father to write his charter back in the days of Henry II (who is not actually mentioned), unless it is understood to be generic medieval tyranny. When Robin as an adult resurrects his father’s charter and urges John to grant a new one, John does so, only to renege on his promise and publically burn the document. Perhaps he has to do this to leave room for the real one to be granted fifteen years later.

The time period that best fits the presentation of Magna Carta in this film, however, is neither the mid-twelfth nor the early thirteenth century; it’s the eighteenth century. The first hint of a modern overlay on the film’s ostensibly medieval setting is the occupation of Robin’s father—a stonemason. Recall that many of the American Founding Fathers were Freemasons. The content of the film’s charter of liberties also evokes the Age of Enlightenment more than the Middle Ages. In the “Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood” documentary, Oscar Isaac (the actor who plays King John) states, “The issues that [the film] deals with are enormous. I mean freedom, you know, the rights of man.” In the “Director’s Notebook,” Ridley Scott characterizes Robin Hood as follows: “He’s captured everyone’s imagination by being the definitive athletic warrior who has the rights of men as part of his main principle.” He’s Super-Philosophe-Man!

Robin’s speech at Barnsdale in front of the barons and King John also has a modern ring to it. The beginning of the speech at least attempts to sound medieval. Robin denounces tyranny using a metaphor of cathedral-building, probably inspired by his newly-discovered masonic origins:

“If you try to build for the future, you must set your foundations strong. The laws of this land enslave people to its king. A king who demands loyalty but offers nothing in return. I have marched from France to Palestine and back, and I know—in tyranny lies only failure. You build a country like you build a cathedral—from the ground up. Empower every man, and you will gain strength.”

But as he continues, his call for a charter of liberties begins to sound like a mashup of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights:17

“If your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of liberties, allowing every man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from conviction without cause, or prison without charge, to work, eat, and live on the sweat of his own brow, and to be as merry as he can, that king would be great. Not only would he receive the loyalty of his people, but their love as well.”

Guaranteeing safety “from conviction without cause or prison without charge” recalls the due process amendments of the Bill of Rights.This item, at least, might be said to stem from Magna Carta’s famous clause 39, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, or will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land,” usually taken to be the origin of due process.18

“Allowing every man to forage for his hearth” is rather awkwardly worded. I assume he’s not talking literally about collecting kindling in the woods but is referring more generally to private property rights, repeated when he asserts the liberty “to work, eat, and live on the sweat of his own brow.” The echoes of John Locke in this sentence shift to Thomas Jefferson with the final liberty enumerated, “to be as merry as he can.” The rights of man, according to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of merriness.

John’s response to Robin’s passionate oratory is, “What would you have? A castle for every man?” To which Robin rejoinders, “Every Englishman’s home is his castle”—thereby anticipating not only Magna Carta, but also Edward Coke’s 17th-century legal dictum. The historical confusion continues later, when John publically renounces and burns Magna Carta. He makes a speech using the language not of the rights of man but of absolute monarchy:

“I did not make myself king; God did. King by divine right. Now you come to me with this document, seeking to limit the authority given to me by God.”

If Magna Carta is the Bill of Rights, then John is James I or Louis XIV.

Given the eighteenth-century sound of the charter, it’s appropriate that the production designers gave the physical document an eighteenth-century look as well. In 1733, after a fire two years before had damaged one of the four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta, the engraver John Pine was asked to produce a facsimile, now in the British Museum. Pine apparently thought the unadorned text of the 1215 parchment looked too plain, so around the outer border of the document he added, in color, the coats of arms of the 25 barons whom clause 61 of the document entrusted with its enforcement.

Facsimile of Magna Carta by John Pine, 1733.

In the movie, when Robin finds a copy of the charter his father had written and hidden away years before, we see that it was modeled on the 18th-century facsimile.

The Charter of Liberties from Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.

In other words, a 2010 movie uses an image of a 1733 copy created as a result of a 1731 fire of a 1215 document that is imagined to have been drawn up decades before by the father of a legendary character.

Next: Magna Carta in 2011’s Ironclad.

The Huguccian Moment: Medieval Origins of the Declaration of Independence

In memoriam Brian Tierney, part 2

Brian Tierney’s portrait as president of the American Catholic Historical Association, 1965.

I wrote this essay originally for a summer faculty seminar at Mount St Mary’s University held in 2007 on the American founding, directed by Dr Peter Dorsey of the English department. I learned most of the medieval material from the graduate seminars I took from Brian Tierney at Cornell: Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, Church and State in the Middle Ages, Medieval Conciliarism, and Medieval Canon Law, as well as from his published works as specified in the notes. I publish it here as a tribute to him.

A Brian Tierney bookshelf.

In the preface to his 1927 book The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, Charles Homer Haskins wrote,

“The title of this book will appear to many to contain a flagrant contradiction. A renaissance in the twelfth century! Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light and progress and freedom of the Italian Renaissance which followed? How could there be a renaissance in the Middle Ages, when men had no eye for the joy and beauty and knowledge of this passing world, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?”

Haskins’ rhetorical questions apply equally to my subtitle. Medieval Origins of the Declaration of Independence! Do not the Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stagnation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest contrast to the light and progress and freedom of the Enlightenment? How could the Middle Ages have anything to do with the Declaration of Independence, when medieval people knew nothing of natural rights, government by consent, or a right of rebellion, their gaze ever fixed on the terrors of the world to come?

Haskins justified his title this way: “The answer is that the continuity of history rejects such sharp and violent contrasts between successive periods, and that modern research shows us the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed.” 1 The historiographical movement Haskins represented has been termed “The Revolt of the Medievalists”; this is the historiographical tradition in which Brian Tierney worked. I would like to extend this revolt to tracing the medieval roots of the Declaration.

In an episode of the 1980’s sitcom Family Ties, Alex Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, dreams that he is watching Thomas Jefferson (played by Alex’s father in the dream) draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition to proposing a few changes in wording (“try ‘self-evident,’ Mr. Jefferson”), Alex also suggests that he use “brown crinkly paper” to write it on. 2 The scene works because not only do we know what the Declaration is supposed to sound like—we know that it says “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” not “really obvious”—we know what it’s supposed to look like. And what it looks like is medieval.

Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton encouraging Thomas Jefferson (his father Steven Keaton, played by Michael Gross) as he writes the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t produce the famous version on the brown crinkly paper (actually parchment, which is also what medieval documents were written on); his handwritten draft survives, written in a surprisingly legible hand and with no special formatting. After the final text of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the Continental Congress directed that the text be “engrossed on parchment.”3 This task was undertaken by Timothy Matlack, assistant to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress. 4 The layout of Matlack’s version follows point by point the layout of medieval papal documents.

Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Here we see the familiar image of the official copy of the Declaration below a privilege issued by Pope Gregory IX in 1234. The languages and the scripts are different, of course, but otherwise the two documents look strikingly similar. Both highlight their opening words in larger letters that use a different script from the main body of the text.  Both occasionally vary the script used in the body. Both have witnesses’ signatures, each of which is accompanied by a distinguishing flourish, arranged in vertical columns at the bottom of the page, with the main signatures (John Hancock and Pope Gregory IX) larger and in the center.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Timothy Matlack had a papal charter next to him when he dipped his quill into the ink to begin writing “In Congress.” My hypothesis is that the visual format of ecclesiastical documents influenced the look of royal documents, probably by means of clergymen working in royal chanceries—it’s no accident that “cleric” and “clerk” are the same word in Latin (clericus). Then I suspect that colonial charters followed the format of other royal documents, and the colonial charters influenced the look of the Declaration. Someday I’ll take the time to document this hypothesis (yet another retirement project!).

This same path was followed by several of the important ideas in the Declaration.  Concepts developed in the church, especially by canon lawyers, were applied to secular governments, including the kingdom of England, and then some of them crossed the Atlantic. These ideas include the existence of natural rights, government by consent, and the right of rebellion.

Among the truths that the Declaration of Independence holds to be self-evident is that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, clearly, is drawing on the early modern philosophical tradition of natural rights, especially as developed by John Locke (whose formulation was “life, liberty, and property”). But the early modern rights theorists were themselves drawing on a medieval tradition that began with the twelfth-century Decretists and really got going in the fourteenth-century disputes between the Franciscans and the papacy, a tradition that has been documented in the works of Brian Tierney and which I studied in his courses.

Gratian’s Decretum is a collection of canon law texts compiled around 1140; it includes papal decrees, conciliar pronouncements, and excerpts from the Church Fathers, all arranged topically. Many of the texts contradict each other (the collection’s official title is Concordia Discordantium Canonum, or “Concordance of Discordant Canons”), so canon lawyers immediately began to write commentaries that explored the issued raised by these opposing texts.  These commentators on the Decretum are called Decretists.

One of the issues the twelfth-century Decretists debated in their commentaries was the origins of private property. The Decretum includes a text that states, “by natural law all things are common.” Human institutions are supposed to reflect natural law, so the Decretists needed somehow to account for the existence of private property. The Decretist Huguccio, for example, concluded that “common” (commune in Latin) meant “to be shared [communicanda] in time of necessity.” But otherwise, individuals had a right to their own property. 5

All the definitions, distinctions, and speculations of the Decretists regarding property were put to good use in the fourteenth-century Franciscan poverty disputes. For centuries Benedictine monks had given up all personal possessions when they joined the monastery, but the monastery as a whole owned plenty of property which the monks were able to share (their model was the early Christian community described in Acts 4:32-35, which “held everything in common”). In his attempt to follow the commandments of the Gospel literally, Francis of Assisi had embraced absolute poverty, enjoining his friars, as the formula had it, to own nothing “either individually or in common.” The problem is that it’s difficult to live that way, especially as the order grew larger and expanded its ministry. The working solution, established in the bull Ordinem vestrem issued in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV, was that buildings, furniture, books, clothing and so forth donated to the Franciscans would be owned by the church as a whole and just “used” by the Franciscans.

This compromise distinguishing between ownership and use was not acceptable to all the Franciscans, however. A splinter group, known as the Spirituals, saw this compromise as a corruption of Franciscan ideals (and therefore of the Gospel). They insisted on what they called “poor use”—it wasn’t enough simply to renounce legal ownership; one should actually live in poverty. The papacy saw the Spirituals as dangerous, because they could easily go from claiming to be holier than churchmen who lived in luxury to claiming that all property held by the church was illegitimate, because it was contrary to the absolute poverty of Christ and the Apostles.

The Spirituals’ position played into the hands of supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor against the temporal claims of the papacy. Faced with this threat, in 1323 Pope John XXII, in the bull Cum inter nonnullos, declared the belief that Christ and the Apostles were absolutely poor to be heretical. To justify the papal position, opponents of the Spirituals asserted a natural right to property. They argued that it is impossible to renounce this right (in other words, it is inalienable) because, while one might give up one’s possessions, one can never renounce the right to one’s own body or to items consumable in use (like food—how can you say you don’t own the food that you swallow and digest?). The rich tradition of medieval discussion of rights was passed on to the seventeenth-century theorists. 6

Another self-evident truth found in the Declaration of Independence is that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that this consent could best be expressed by means of a representative assembly such as a Parliament developed in the Middle Ages. Eighteenth-century American Whigs frequently referred to the Magna Carta as one of the sources of their rights as Englishmen. Item twelve of Magna Carta states that the King agrees that “No scutage or aid [types of monetary contributions to the crown] may be levied in our kingdom without its general consent.” (This, of course, is the urtext for “No taxation without representation”).

But an additional source for the idea of consent comes not from common law but from canon law. Beginning around 1200, canonists began to cite a formula they found in Roman law (although in a completely different context 7), Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur, or “What touches all ought to be approved by all,” when referring first to the operation of ecclesiastical corporations (such as monasteries, religious orders or cathedral chapters) and then as a justification for church councils. 8

Soon the phrase began to appear in secular contexts as well. For example, in 1293, the government of the Florentine popolo issued a law code called the Ordinances of Justice whose first rubric echoes Quod omnes tangit:  “that is agreed to be most perfect which . . . is approved by the judgment of all.” 9 Two years later, King Edward I of England issued a summons to Parliament that included these words: “a most just law, established by the careful providence of sacred princes, exhorts and decrees that what affects all, by all should be approved.” 10

When a government based on consent begins to act tyrannically, wrote Jefferson, the people have a right to rebel against it: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” This passage is another part of the Declaration that is usually considered to be Lockean. But again, medieval canonists also wrote about circumstances in which a people might remove their ruler. In the twelfth century, Decretists became concerned about what would happen if the pope were to be a heretic. This would be very dangerous, because a heretical pope could infect the faithful with his incorrect teachings and thereby jeopardize their eternal salvation. The Decretists concluded that the Church, as represented in a General Council, could depose a heretical pope. But some Decretists took their logic a bit further—what if the pope committed not heresy but some other serious sin? Given his position, wouldn’t that be just as bad? What if, for example, he were a fornicator? Huguccio imagines the situation:

“But I believe that it is the same in any notorious crime, that the pope can be accused and condemned if, being admonished, he is not willing to desist. What then? Behold, he steals publicly, he fornicates publicly, he keeps a concubine publicly, he has intercourse with her publicly in the church, near the altar or on it, and being admonished will not desist. Shall he not be accused? Shall he not be condemned? Is it not like heresy to scandalize the church in such a fashion?”11

Huguccio’s list of imaginary papal sins reminds me of the crimes Jefferson attributed to George III. Huguccio denied that a General Council could actually sit in judgment on a sinful pope, because a pope can be judged by no one. Rather, because of his sins he was incapable of being pope and therefore automatically deposed himself. The Council simply “declared” that he had done so. Is that possibly what Jefferson thought he was doing when he listed the king’s crimes as part of declaring independence?

The twelfth-century canonists were thinking hypothetically, but in the late fourteenth-century a situation actually arose in which the pope appeared to be endangering the whole body of the church. During the Great Schism, which began in 1378, first two, then (after 1409) three men all claimed to be the legitimately elected pope and all of them refused any concession or compromise. Drawing on the ideas of Decretists like Huguccio, writers known as Conciliarists argued that in such a dire situation the whole church, as represented in a General Council, had a right to depose the schismatic popes. The first attempt to do so, the Council of Pisa, failed (that’s where the third pope came from), but the 1415 Council of Constance successfully asserted the powers of a General Council, deposed all three popes, and elected a new one.

The Conciliarists, however, went beyond the emergency situation; they believed that the church would be better off if General Councils met regularly, instead of only in a crisis, in hopes that crises would not develop. In other words, they believed in parliamentary government for the church. In 1417 the Council of Constance issued the decree Frequens, which stipulated that from then on General Councils should meet at regular intervals. 12

The Conciliarists, as you may have noticed, ultimately were not successful; the Catholic Church did not become a constitutional monarchy. But their writings were eagerly adapted by seventeenth-century English Parliamentarians during the English Civil War—wherever they read “Pope” they substituted “King,” and for “General Council” they substituted “Parliament.” The 1689 English Bill of Rights includes a provision “that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.” This was clearly inspired partly by Charles I’s failure to summon Parliament between 1629 and 1640, but it is also a definite echo of Frequens.

Alan Gibson, in Interpreting the Founding, characterizes J.G.A. Pocock’s republican approach to the American founding as

“a sweeping narrative that traces the transmissions and transformations of the civic humanist tradition of political thought through three reconstructions: the first in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Florence (“The Machiavellian Moment”), the second in early modern England (“The Harringtonian Moment”), and a third in revolutionary America.” 13

I would like to suggest that Pocock’s “sweeping narrative” didn’t begin far enough back, and further that it is itself trapped in a sweeping narrative invented in the Renaissance and strengthened in the Enlightenment—the threefold periodization of the western tradition into ancient, medieval and modern. American history is modern history; it therefore by definition can’t be medieval. Brian Tierney, the historian who has done the most to uncover the medieval, and especially the canonical, roots of modern political ideas, has written that the history of constitutional thought can’t be understood “unless we consider the whole period from 1150 to 1650 as a single era of essentially continuous development.” 14

Or, to put it another way, perhaps we should consider the ideological origins of the American Revolution to begin, not with a Machiavellian, but a Huguccian Moment.

Brian Tierney with several of his former students in 2005, at a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Foundations of Conciliar Theory.