Bouvines, Magna Carta, and Why Medieval History Matters

by Institute of Public Affairs on August 5, 2014

According to the 2014 poll by the Lowy Institute, only 42% of young Australians between the ages of 18 and 29 believe ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’.

It may be because many of them don’t know where democracy came from, since some of the most important aspects of Western history are no longer taught at university let alone at school.

The medieval period, for example, gave us the rule of law, parliament, and the concept of the individual. But despite its importance, it is frequently left out of Australian university handbooks. In fact, surprising though it may seem, it currently ranks as the least popular historical period in academia.


There are 39 universities in Australia. Of these, 32 offer a history major as part of their Arts degree. Overall, we estimate that these universities together offer over 750 history subjects. Out of these, only 36 subjects on medieval history are on offer this year.

Out of those 36 subjects are sweeping overviews of most of the medieval period – like this one at Monash University – and subjects on more specialised subjects – including the University of Melbourne’s ‘War, Plague and Heresy‘ (its only medieval history subject) or the University of Western Australia’s subject on ‘The Vikings’. Fourteen of them are about heresywitchcraftwomen, and other very nuanced aspects of medieval culture. But there are no subjects specifically about medieval England.

By coincidence, we just passed a significant medieval milestone. 800 years ago last Sunday, on 27 July 1214, various European armies allied to England were dealt a devastating defeat in the field of Bouvines, Flanders.

Bouvines was a momentous event in English history – in fact, one historian in this article described it as ‘the most important battle in English history that no-one has ever heard of.’

Not only was it the death blow to ‘England’s’ continental (Angevin) Empire, but the disaster at Bouvines enraged the English barons at home and placed them on the verge of revolt.

It set in motion a rapid sequence of events that ended in June 1215 with the famous meeting at Runnymede meadow, when King John was forced to set his seal to a draft Charter that protected the powers of the barons, the freedom of English towns and the Church, and – most importantly – a promise to comply with the ‘laws of the land’.

As historian Ralph V. Turner (the writer of this book) explains inthis article, the completed version of the document – now remembered as Magna Carta – is often remembered as the beginning of the road to parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

As Daniel Hannan said in this compelling speech to the Freedom Association, though it was originally a failed peace treaty, it quickly became a powerful symbol of liberty.

Within decades of Runnymede, it was already being evoked by individuals as a protection against arbitrary rule. In 1258, it inspired another group of barons, led by Simon de Montfort, to force King Henry III to assent to a number of further reforms that limited his power and established two regular parliaments. Though most of these reforms were revoked after de Montfort was killed in a civil war, this period of radical reform left a permanent mark on English politics. During the reign of Henry’s son, Edward I, parliament meetings became a regular occurrence for the first time.

Over the fourteenth century, Magna Carta directly inspired developments in the due process of law and the concept of a fair trial, particularly through the famous Six Statutes of Edward III. After its ‘rediscovery’ in the early modern era, it also inspired generations of jurists, philosophers and reformers, and thus was foundational to Western democracy and the rule of law.

Next year will mark the 800 years since Runnymede, and celebrations are already underway across the English-speaking world. In England itself, the Magna Carta 2015 Committee has been set up to promote the anniversary celebrations. One copy of Magna Carta is currently touring in Boston. And the Church of England also has plans to commemorate the anniversary.

Unfortunately, if you wish to study the origins of the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, or the concept of the individual, you would be very fortunate indeed to find a university in Australia that still offers such subjects.

Reading, Watching and Listening

The Battle of Bouvines wasn’t the only milestone to pass within the last week. Another important anniversary – which you are much more likely to have heard about – passed yesterday: 100 years since Great Britain entered the First World War.

Here is a useful timeline of the events of the War. And here is an interesting article from Quadrant on the reasons for its outbreak. Expect more in the next issue of Horizons.

Earlier this month, the English conservative government ‘demoted’ Michael Gove from his previous position as Education Secretary.

The May edition of Horizons discussed the controversy that arose after rumour got out that Gove was trying to ‘ban’ To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from schools (he removed neither; here is an article on the issue from The Spectator andhere is Gove’s response in The Telegraph.)

His four years as Education Secretary have indeed been controversial. This article by Robert Peal from Standpoint argues that he is ‘the most dynamic education secretary… [England] has ever seen.’ Here is another article on his legacy in education.

Last month in Horizons, I argued that school Latin is not ‘nostalgic fantasy’ and that it can be valuable to students in all schools of all sectors.

This very encouraging article is about Haberfield Public School – a small government primary school in NSW which is about to introduce Latin. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the response so far has been fantastic:

There was so much interest in learning Latin at Haberfield Public School that when the idea was first mooted with parents last term, more than 160 students put their hands up, far more than the three classes the school could accommodate.

Earlier this year, a new book containing selected writings of the English philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott –Michael Oakeshott: Notebooks, 1922-86 – was published by Imprint Academic. You can read an informative review and an overview of Oakeshott’s life by John Gray here, from Literary Review.

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