1215 by Danny Danziger


The Year of Magna Carta
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“No vill or man shall be forced to build bridges at river banks, except those who ought to do so by custom and law.”

The years preceding 1215 in England were bad ones, apparently, for the folks who didn’t wish to be press-ganged into building bridges; they weren’t much better for those who liked a little variety in their diet, for in those days “the poor virtually fasted every day,” even if their simple repasts spared them from the tooth decay that the rich, with their artificial sweeteners, suffered. British historian/writers Danziger (co-author, The Year 1000, 1999, etc.) and Gillingham (History/London School of Economics) take readers on an informal, sometimes even breezy tour of the times, explaining oddments and customs: Chairs being rare, for instance, visitors to a house were usually seated on daybeds; only an important guest was given the seat of honor, whence the modern term “chairman” or “chair.” Danziger and Gillingham linger appreciatively on some of the better aspects of the day, when cathedrals and seats of learning were established and England’s holdings were beginning to expand across the waters to France and Ireland. But they don’t shy from the less idyllic features of life in Merrie Olde, when slavery may have been abolished but serfdom endured (“Economic and social circumstance inevitably meant that some people were less free than others”). Their narrative, which moves along nicely, closes with the rebellion of the English knights against King John, who, most commentators agree, needed to be rebelled against; the result was the Magna Carta, a translation of the complete text of which closes this study (and makes it of extra use for readers seeking good value for their shilling). Danziger and Gillingham suggest that the most important clauses of the Magna Carta concern the requirements for fair trials and judgment by peers—but protection against having to build bridges unwillingly must have been nice, too.

A reader-friendly glance at a turning point in history.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-5773-1
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2004


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