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Review: Magna Carta exhibition British Library, London


“Link John Magna Charta by Ernest Normand” by Ernest Normand – Project Gutenberg ebook of The Rise of the Democracy , by Joseph Clayton. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Link_John_Magna_Charta_by_Ernest_Normand.jpg#/media/File:Link_John_Magna_Charta_by_Ernest_Normand.jpg

By Adrian James Kirwan

This year is the 800th anniversary of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta or ‘Great Charter’ of 1215. It was famously agreed to by King John of England at Runnymeade to avoid a battle with his rebellious nobles. In the document the king gave certain guarantees; the principal ones being protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to justice and restrictions on payments due to the crown. While the document was annulled within a short period by Pope Innocent III, it was reissued in various forms by subsequent monarchs and has become a symbol of Citizen’s rights throughout the world.

                The British Library is currently housing an impressive exhibition detailing the history of the Magna Carta. The exhibition using historical texts and audio-visual displays is quite successful at explaining the origins of the document to the visitor. In doing so it highlights the evolving relationship not only between the monarch and his most important nobles, but also their relationship to the pope and his role as a legitimising force within the hierarchical structure of the kingdom. Using various historical texts from the British Library’s extensive collections the exhibition traces the life of King John and shows contemporary perceptions of the charter.

The changing perception of the charter and what it signifies is an important element of the Magna Carta’s history. While originally a very short-lived document that sought to protect the rights of a few high-level nobles, it has been transformed over many centuries to a foundational document of human rights. The exhibition makes great efforts to highlight not only the origins of the charter but also the evolution of its various reincarnations. Great effort has been made to demonstrate its impact on the shaping of the modern world, the charter being view as one of the most significant documents in the development of citizens’ rights and the social contract. Thus, demonstrating that what we would consider to be the inalienable rights of the citizen, such as habeas corpus, were developed over a significant period of time, with individuals often using Magna Carta, however erroneously, in support of these rights.

On display is a fabulous range of texts displaying the contemporary and subsequent importance of this historical document. Most significant of these on display are two of the four surviving copies of the origin document.

Further reading:

The British Library’s website has extensive resources for those who want to find out more about the document and its history, this is available at:  http://www.bl.uk/magna-carta?ns_campaign=treasures&ns_mchannel=ppc&ns_source=google&ns_linkname=Magna%20carta%20british%20library&ns_fee=0


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


An 8th century cure for snake-bites

By David Collins

Several news organisations recently ran a story telling of scientists from the University of Nottingham who recreated a medieval ‘eye salve’ by using a recipe found in the Medicinale Angilicum or Bald’s Leech book as it is sometimes known. This manuscript is a 9th century Anglo-Saxon medical text which describes a whole series of medicinal remedies for various ailments. What was remarkable and indeed newsworthy was that when this ‘eye salve’ was tested it proved to be remarkably effective against MRSA, a superbug resistant to methicillin resistant antibiotics.

This led me to think about which other medieval remedies might warrant further investigation. One I think that has been overlooked or perhaps forgotten is Bede’s cure for snake-bites. The Venerable Bede is not widely known for his interest in medicine. Bede was a monk, a theologian and historian born in Northumbria in the early 670s who lived to the year 735. He spent most of his life in the monastery of Jarrow where he became a prolific writer. Much of his writing is on theology and religious history but he also tackled subjects as diverse as language and the computation of time and chronology (this was of particular importance to early medieval Christians who were keen to conclusively fix a date for Easter).

It is in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 731 (The Eccesiastical History of the English People) that we rather surprisingly find a cure for snake-bites. Here Bede tells us that,

‘in the case of people suffering from snake-bite, the leaves of manuscripts from Ireland were scraped, and the scrapings put in water and given to the sufferer to drink.’

Once this remedy has been taken,

‘These scrapings absorbed the whole violence of the spreading poison and assuaged the swelling’

So it seems that it is the scrapings of Irish manuscripts that are the key to this treatment. Bede’s remedy does follow a certain logic. For he also tells us that in Ireland there are no reptiles to be found and serpents can’t survive there (St. Patricks association with snakes wasn’t to appear till the 11th century). He then intriguingly adds that,

 ‘although serpents have often been sent from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish’

One wonders why snakes would be a common cargo on boats crossing the Irish Sea? As well as the fact that the scent of Irish air can kill snakes he also states that,

‘In fact almost everything that the island produces is efficacious against poison’

Considering that the only manuscripts finding their way across the sea from Ireland would in all likelihood have been of a religious nature this might have made them seem doubly potent against snake or serpent venom.  This I feel all clearly warrant further investigation in light of the University of Nottingham findings. I propose to first find a snake (this might prove difficult being based in Ireland), then a willing volunteer and finally a medieval Irish manuscript (Maynooth University has a limited selection but TCD will surely loan one for such sound scientific research).

Further Reading:

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Judith McClure and Roger Collins (eds) (Oxford, 1988)

Werewolves in the woods – a 12th century account of strange happenings on the borders of Meath

By David Collins

Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a prominent Cambro-Norman churchman and celebrated historian composed many works, two of which were concerned with Ireland. Gerald visited Ireland in 1183 and again in 1184 where he compiled the material he would use in both his Topographia Hibernica and Expugnatio  Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’  1187 and ‘Conquest of Ireland’ 1189).Better known to students of history, the Expugnatio is his account of the coming of the English (Gerald’s description) to Ireland. Not only is this work openly favourably to the Anglo-Norman belligerents but it also promotes the role played by Gerald’s relatives, a closely connected group of knights some of whom would found the politically powerful Geraldine dynasties of Kildare and Desmond. Gerald’s slightly earlier work, the Topographia, is concerned not only with the geography and of Ireland but also its ancient history, wildlife and various accounts of miracles. This work, as with the Expugnatio, is decidedly critical of the habits and behaviours of the Irish partly as a means of justifying the aforementioned conquest.

Gerald’s account first describes the various animals that can be found in Ireland and indeed those that are absent (all poisonous animals, not just snakes!). In this section he tells us that ‘Bede says that there are only two kinds of harmful beasts in Ireland, namely, wolves and foxes’ (the Venerable Bede 673 – 735). Gerald follows this by stating  [single space here instead of double] ‘I would add the mouse as a third, and say that it is very harmful indeed’. In the second part of his Topographica which describes various miracles, Gerald returns to the subject of wolves. He explains that three years before John de Courcy, Lord of Ulster arrived in Ireland (1182) that a priest had been travelling from Ulster to Meath with a young companion. One night while camped in a wood a wolf approached their campfire and to the consternation of the priest spoke the following words:

‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’

The understandably astounded priests first response was (surprise surprise) to pray to the holy trinity not to be harmed. The wolf then went on to explain that he was a native of Ossory and that as a result of an ancient curse by a St. Natalis every seven years a man and a women were exiled, not only from Ossory but also from their human form by transforming into wolves. The wolf continued that his companion was nearby gravely ill and in need of a priest to give her the last rites. The priest followed the wolf to a hollow tree where there lay a second wolf, crying and groaning with a human voice. The priest proceeded to give the last rites right up to the last communion. The she-wolf begged him to continue but the priest said he did not have the viaticum with him. At this point the first wolf reappeared carrying a small bag which contained the priest’s consecrated hosts. It seems that at this point as the priest was reluctant to continue, the wolf to ‘remove all doubt’ pulled all the skin off the she-wolf with his paw and revealed the shape of a woman within. The priest ‘more through terror than reason’ continued with the sacrament and wolf skin reformed over the woman’s body. The wolf then shared their campfire that night and the next day showed the priest the surest way through the woods before thanking him and promising to reward him when he regained his human form.


Gerald concludes his tale by telling us that two years after these events he himself was passing through Meath where the bishop was calling a synod to discuss the matter. The synod concluded that a report of the affair along with the priest’s confession should be sent to Rome for investigation (Gerald claims that this was at his suggestion). The report was duly dispatched along with all the seals of those Bishops and Abbots present at the synod.

It is worth pointing out that while Gerald is occasionally guilty of exaggeration he was never one to invent facts. He was always careful to stress that the more fantastical tales he recounts were not witnessed directly by him. Even the strangest episodes that might well at first glance seem to have been created to serve a specific agenda often, on closer examination, have their origins in early medieval Irish literature. While this strange tale of werewolves in Meath was evidently well known in ecclesiastical circles in 1184, we are fortunate that Gerald took the time to record it for posterity.

Further reading

Gerald of Wales, The history and Topography of Ireland, translated by John J. O’Meara, (London, 1982).

Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica, translated and edited by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin, published by the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1978).

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