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Law fans may get much pleasure from this short book. A surprising amount is revealed about the 13th century political economy in England, in non-technical terms (along with the archaic terms in the document, as translated from the original Latin, most of which are defined clearly here). I got a feel for the relationships between various groups in that society I never had before. Laws were built from a layered sense of order, privilege and obligation extending from God to the lowliest serf. The author's comments and asides are more informal than those in a typical academic work, occasionally veering into personal opinions, but always very briefly. Sometimes this works well by revealing some angle I hadn't thought of; and occasionally it seems a little out of place. I was surprised how many legal issues I had thought more modern, were addressed in the Magna Carta. The author's comments sometimes point out legal loopholes that could be, and surely were, exploited with dubious ethics and methods, much as they are today. The Magna Carta was in part an attempt to codify rules more openly and clearly, to stop some of these abuses.
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Fiction writer Irene Radford is captivated by Medieval history, and years after seeing the original Magna Carta on display, begins research for an historical fiction novel set around the events that led to the signing. Along the way, she blogged a commentary about each point in the charter, which gave way to this little book.
Offering a point-by-point translation from the original Latin, Radford's analysis and commentary is covers the nearly 800 years since it was signed. It's a thought-provoking look at life in the Middle Ages under King John and how much (or little) has changed as a result since that time.
The book is clearly directed at the layperson, and I think it would be interesting to contrast an historian's view. For a friendly introduction to Magna Carta, a person can walk away from this one feeling educated. It's very well done.
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