Magna Carta on Trial: Common Law Celebrates Itself

Berger, Matthias (26 July 2018). Magna Carta on Trial: Common Law Celebrates Itself (Unpublished). In: (Culture and Communications Graduate Committee seminar. Melbourne, Australien. 26.07.2018.

In postmedieval reception, the 1215 Magna Carta and its successor texts have frequently stood synecdochically for the Common Law tradition and have achieved totemic status as ‘founding’ documents of democracy and the rule of law. One highlight of the widespread UK celebrations of the charter’s eighth centenary in 2015 was a mock trial at Westminster Hall. Jointly organised by the UK Supreme Court and the official Magna Carta Commemoration Committee, the performance entitled Treason? was acted out by assorted members of the peerage and the legal profession, with distinguished members of the judicatures of several Common Law countries presiding. The counterfactual premise saw the rebellious barons – and with them, Magna Carta itself – in the dock. In a circular movement, present-day legal procedure was employed to legitimise its own ‘origins’ as, predictably, the barons were acquitted and the contemporary relevance of Magna Carta vindicated. This paper explores the performance as an intersection of medievalist practices of cultural heritage with a complex group identity. As was obvious from the script’s emphasis on the genesis of the charter, one aim of the performance was educational. Another was the affirmation of an ambiguous (trans)national identity: it celebrated the medieval origins of a distinctive legal culture later spread across the globe. The authenticity of place provided by the setting, the venerable former home of England’s highest courts, allowed for an effective collapsing of temporalities to suggest the unique continuity of a key institution of Englishness. Yet the involvement of legal practitioners from countries other than England and Wales made this Magna Carta medievalism more than a mere homecoming, but also an example of what Krishan Kumar has described as the ‘imperial’ tendency of English identity to reach outwards and encompass larger, British, Commonwealth and Anglosphere identities.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies > Institute of English Languages and Literatures

UniBE Contributor:

Berger, Matthias


300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 340 Law
300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 390 Customs, etiquette & folklore
400 Language > 420 English & Old English languages
800 Literature, rhetoric & criticism > 820 English & Old English literatures




Matthias Berger

Date Deposited:

23 Jan 2019 13:20

Last Modified:

23 Jan 2019 13:20

Uncontrolled Keywords:

Magna Carta; common law; UK Supreme Court; medievalism; presentism; cultural memory; British/English national identity; Anglosphere; Commonwealth; imperialism; national history; memory sites; heritage; Westminster Hall; authenticity; master narrative;


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