by Kathryn Hadley
Yesterday, July 30th, the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held by the British Library, Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral, were awarded ‘Memory of the World’ status by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Their inscription on the Memory of the World International Register was approved by the Director General of UNESCO, Mr Koichiro Matsuura, following a recommendation by the 14-member International Advisory Committee of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.
The UNESCO Memory of the World International Register is a catalogue of documentary heritage of global significance, similar to a World Heritage Site list for documents and archives. It was created in 1997 and forms an integral part of the Memory of the World Programme, which was established in 1992 to promote the preservation and dissemination of valuable archive and library collections worldwide. Inscriptions to the International Register are made every two years.
Magna Carta is just one of the 35 documents added to the International Register this year, bringing the total number of inscriptions since 1997 to 193. Other additions, this year, include the Diaries of Anne Frank, the League of Nations Archive from 1919 to 1946, the Royal Archives of Madagascar from 1824 to 1897, the Donguibogam, an encyclopaedia of medical knowledge and treatment techniques compiled in Korea in 1613, and the Library of the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux in France inventoried by the Abbot Pierre de Virey in 1472 and which forms one of the largest medieval monastic library collections in western Christendom.
Magna Carta is often described as one of the founding documents of British liberty because it imposed, for the first time, detailed written constraints on royal authority in the fields of church rights, taxation, feudal rights and justice. It also reasserted the power of customary practice to limit unjust and arbitrary behaviour by the king. It is the fourth Memory of the World inscription from the UK, alongside the 1916 documentary and propaganda film The Battle of the Somme (inscribed in 2005), General de Gaulle’s Appeal of 18th June 1940, made in the BBC studios in London (jointly nominated with France and also inscribed in 2005), and the 13th-century Mappa Mundi held at Hereford Cathedral (inscribed in 2007).
Other documents which have previously been granted Memory of the World status include the Bayeux Tapestry and the Original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France, the Gutenberg Bible printed in Gottingen, Germany, the pre-Colombian Codices in Mexico and the Korean Jikji, which contains the essentials of Zen Buddhism and is world’s oldest book printed using metal type.
Phil Spence, Director of Operations and Services at the British Library, described the importance of Magna Carta’s recent inscription on the International Register:
‘Magna Carta is a fundamental document in the history of our nation, and has
international significance for its definition of the rights of the individual.
The declaration that "no free man should be imprisoned without the lawful
judgment of his equals" still has great resonance 800 years after Magna Carta
was first drawn up. The two original copies of Magna Carta are among the British
Library’s most historically evocative, precious and popular treasures.’
Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony, Master of the Rolls and Chairman of the Magna Carta Trust also welcomed the UNESCO announcement:
‘There are few documents which have had the resonance of the Magna Carta, the
foundation of English law and the first recognition that the people have rights
enshrined in law and that even monarchs’ powers are limited. Following the
signing of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, virtually every country in the
world has sooner or later, embraced democracy, recognised human rights and
espoused the rule of law.’
For further information on how and why Magna Carta became a beacon of liberty in Britain and the United States, read our article The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215
Picture: copy of Magna Carta held by the British Library