Saturday, May 16, 2015

Nisi Per Legale Judicium Parium Suorum Ut Per Legem Terrae

Update: I have now confirmed that the word (discussed throughout this post) that I initially read as "ut" is, in fact, "vel", just as it has almost always been given when the transcribed, Latin wording of the 1215 version of Magna Charta has been published.  The word certainly does resemble "ut", but I now know that as represented using the system of abbreviation used in Magna Charta and other documents in the early thirteenth century, "vel" is difficult to distinguish from "ut".  I have decided to leave this post as it was (other than in that this update has, of course, been inserted at the beginning of the post), but those who read it should keep in mind that I was writing about something that I now know to be false.

The 800th anniversary of Magna Charta is one month and one day from today, so I think I was reasonable (along with nearly everyone else, apparently) in assuming that we'd had enough time to correctly transcribe the Latin text from any or all of the three known surviving (and still-legible) original copies of the 1215 (and first issued) version of Magna Charta.  In a strict sense, our assumption was true, but everywhere I have looked (so far) for the original, Latin text of that 1215 version, I have found text which, though largely consistent with the wording of the 1215 Magna Charta, included at least one mistake.  That mistake would have been easy to make and difficult to catch, but it may have significantly affected the apparent meaning of what later came to be known as "Chapter 39" of the 1215 Magna Charta.

As I see them, these are the words of Chapter 39, "Nullus liber homo capiatur ut imprisonetur, aut disseisiatur, aut utlagetur, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nec super eum ibimus, nec super eum mittemus, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum ut per legem terræ."

In every publication (covering a variety of formats)*, however, in which I have found a version of the text of the 1215 Magna Charta or of its "Chapter 39", both of the places where I found the word "ut" (and placed it in the sentence above) were filled instead with "vel".  In later editions of Magna Charta, including the version which is regarded as a statute and was subsequently confirmed several dozen times, "vel" actually does stand in place of "ut", which I suspect either resulted in or resulted from the misreading of the original, 1215 version of the charter.  However, I am confident that I am correct in seeing "ut" (rather than "vel") in the three known surviving, legible copies of the 1215 Magna Charta.

When I first noticed this, I was looking at a high-quality, scanned image of one of the two "Cotton" copies of the 1215 charter.

The more interesting "ut" of the two is the one which precedes "per legem terræ," but the "ut" which appears earlier in the sentence did turn out to be more important than I had initially thought.

In this copy, the word used is clearly "ut", not "vel".  At that point, however, I wasn't sure whether to conclude that the wording of the 1215 charter is not what it has been believed to be or that the discrepancy was reason to doubt the identity or authenticity of that copy of the charter.  I wanted to know which was right, of course, and since I was already aware that there were two other known, surviving, and legible original copies of the 1215 Magna Charta, I found images of them online in order to see and decide for myself (though admittedly not in person) which words they used.

First, I looked at the image of the "Lincoln" copy.

The word preceding "per legem terræ" looks more like "ut" than like "vel" in the Lincoln copy, but it is not nearly as easy to read in this copy (or in the "Salisbury" copy, as it turned out) as in the still-legible Cotton copy.  As a result, the "ut" which links "capiatur" with "imprisonetur" near the beginning of the sentence is even more important than I had first thought:

Even if the "ut" preceding "per legem terræ" had become impossible to recognize as either "ut" or "vel" in the Lincoln and Salisbury copies, the clarity in both copies of the "ut" between "capiatur" and "imprisonetur" would have allowed us to conclusively confirm that which initially seemed so implausible: that at least one "ut" in these three copies of the 1215 Magna Charta somehow came to be recorded elsewhere as "vel", and we did not notice it until a month and a day before the charter's 800th anniversary.

In the Salisbury copy, the "ut" which is followed with "per legem terræ" looks a little distorted, but it still appears to be the letters "u" and "t", and I do not think it looks at all like "vel".

The other "ut" is easily identifiable as "ut".

The Articles of the Barons and the 1216 and 1217 versions of Magna Charta also appear to use "ut", not "vel", in Chapter 39.

For all of these reasons, I am certain that the word is "ut".  I am a bit less confident in my impression that what I have noticed is unknown to other people (including those who care which Latin words actually do appear in "Chapter 39" of the 1215 version of Magna Charta), but I expect to learn a little more about that from their reactions as I share this information with them.

* My Google searches for this did turn up two results (which Google seems to have rounded down to zero, though I do not know what the purpose of that was:

 ...), though both of those books were (apart from the Latin, of course) written in German.  Being written in German would have tended to prevent people from reading them who were already familiar with the Latin text of the 1215 Magna Charta as it had been represented in English-language books, and that would have reduced the probability that someone would notice the difference between the two versions of the Latin text.

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