1215: The Year of Magna Carta

Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

Read November 2005

I was due to see the Magna Carta twice in a few weeks, once in the National Archives of the US and then again at the British Library in the UK, so I felt picking up some background, and soon, would do me good. Unfortunately, I was in a fairly big hurry when I saw this book, so I failed to exercise my customary caution. As it transpired, I learned more from reading the Magna Carta reproduced at the back of this book than I did from the book itself. There's a lesson there, somewhere, about the value of source documents.

What were the ill-effects of being in a hurry?

I managed to miss the fact that Danny Danziger has already written a book called The Year 1000. Had I known, I would have stayed far from this book, for I believe it dangerous to encourage this kind of serialization. Down this path can only lie a confluence of two trends: October 4, 1758: the Day that Changed the World.

I missed something else, namely that this book wasn't really about the Magna Carta. I mean, it effectively says so, in the carefully-worded subtitle. But awfully little else happened in 1215, so the book is about the Magna Carta...sort of. I don't think the authors ever really decided.

I also missed that the blurb on the back cover promises such enlightening insights into medieval life as, ``women wore no underwear (though men did)''. To the authors' credit, this important issue takes up only one sentence in the book itself. To their discredit, they went with a publisher who would write such a blurb.

So what of the book itself? It turns out 1215 wasn't a particularly interesting year, so this book ranges over nearly half a century. We are treated to repeated references to the first author's speciality (shall we say), two centuries earlier, but with little clear connection. The book is largely a generic collection of details about life in the middle ages. (The blurb on the back also says that Westminster Abbey ``allowed each monk two pounds of meat and a gallon of ale per day'' [emphasis in the original], clearly asking us to be shocked at the drunkenness of those friars. Oh, please. London's water supply provided sparkling mineral water, no doubt.)