Top Medieval Law Scholars Explore Magna Carta’s Legacy at BORJ Symposium

On Friday, March 18, the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal (BORJ) hosted “After Runnymede: Revising, Reissuing, and Reinterpreting Magna Carta in the Middle Ages.” The day-long symposium explored Magna Carta’s impact between its issuance in 1215 and resurgence in the seventeenth century.

Professor Thomas McSweeney, William & Mary Law School’s resident specialist in the early history of the common law, said that although 2015 represented the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the original document, King John’s death the following year led to important revisions that make 2016 an equally significant anniversary in its formation.

“2016, in a sense, kicks off the anniversary of the later development of Magna Carta, the process by which a failed peace treaty was transformed into a charter of liberties, which became part of both the English and American constitutional traditions,” McSweeney said.

Elaborating on those developments, the symposium offered four panels with world-renowned scholars in medieval legal history from the United Kingdom and North America.The first session, “Magna Carta’s Dissemination,” featured Janet Loengard (Moravian College), Richard Helmholz (University of Chicago), and Paul Brand (University of Oxford), and addressed Magna Carta’s influence upon such topics as the widow’s quarantine, the English Church, and the diffusion of texts in the thirteenth century.

The second panel featured Professor McSweeney and Karl Shoemaker (University of Wisconsin-Madison) delving into the religious dimension of Magna Carta.

The next panel explored the later history of the Charter of the Forest, featuring Ryan Rowberry (Georgia State) and Sarah Harlan-Haughey (University of Maine).

Prof. Tom McSweeney

Prof. Tom McSweeney

Charles Donahue (Harvard University), Anthony Musson (University of Exeter), and David Seipp (Boston University), rounded up the day with a discussion of Magna Carta in the later Middle Ages. Topics included an investigation of the transformation Magna Carta from law to symbol, and Magna Carta’s role in the “lawless” fifteenth century.

Students appreciated the opportunity the symposium held in providing a glimpse into a significant aspect of legal history.

“History not only helps us to understand why the law is what it is today, but it also forces us to think about what the law can be tomorrow and what role attorneys can play in shaping it,” said Alyssa D’Angelo J.D. ’18. “We learn that the law has never been—and will likely never be—divorced from people, economic systems, and governments.”

D’Angelo added that she is confident that “this lesson will serve us well in practice, where we will be forced to confront the law in context.”

D’Angelo’s classmate Breanna Jensen concurred. “Events like the Magna Carta symposium are important for law students because they provide that historical background that we don’t always have time to cover in class.”

The event was sponsored by William & Mary’s Bill of Rights Journal. Since 1992, the BORJ has published important scholarly works on constitutional law. Published four times per year, the journal is ranked the third most-cited student-edited constitutional law journal by Washington and Lee’s Law Journal Rankings Survey.

A Tribute to Our Past: The George Wythe Room in the Wolf Law Library

satiraby John Satira, Class of 2017

After a summer away, I returned to William & Mary Law School this semester and was welcomed by a brand new edition to the Wolf Law Library: The George Wythe Room. To learn more about the George Wythe Room, I sat down and spoke with Ms. Linda K. Tesar, Head of Technical Services and Special Collections, and I got some more information about the newest edition to William & Mary Law School. As a fan of history, museums, and libraries, I appreciated having the opportunity to learn about the Room.

George Wythe Room

George Wythe Room

In 2007, the Wolf Law Library began gathering books for the George Wythe Collection. The special collection was meant to contain books and other documents that are important the legacy of George Wythe. The idea to create a room dedicated to displaying the collection blossomed in 2010, and the Room was completed and opened in August 2015. Why the focus on George Wythe? Not only is he the partial namesake of our law school with its official title as the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, but George Wythe was the first ever professor of law in the United States while he taught as the Professor of Law and Police at William & Mary in the  late 1700s. Wythe is so important, in fact, that along with having his own room, the Wolf Law Library also runs an academic wiki called the Wythepedia that is an online database of all things George Wythe-related.

The George Wythe Room has been modeled off of the Thomas Jefferson Collection in the Library of Congress, which makes the room seem like a modern replication of the type of library Wythe himself would have had. Currently, the Room contains nearly 330 titles and over 650 volumes. You can even check out a digital recreation of the Room here. Due to some of the books being many, many years old, the displays are protected by ultraviolet (UV) glass, special lighting, and a climate control system that keeps the temperature and humidity consistent. The precautions are important for preservation of the historical documents, or as Ms. Tesar puts it, “That’s what rare books like.”

Room 2Aside from books and related documents, other features of the Room have historical significance as well. In particular, the Room contains three notable paintings. The first is one of George Wythe himself, which is displayed prominently in the Room for obvious reasons. There are also two lithograph paintings in the George Wythe Room: one of Thomas Jefferson and one of John Marshall. These two men are among the most notable and nationally prominent of Wythe’s legal students, with Jefferson serving as the third President of the United States and Marshall serving as the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

One of the reasons I chose to attend William & Mary Law School is due to its well-regarded status as a starting point of American legal education. Walking past the George Wythe Room each day helps to remind me of the important legacy William & Mary has, as well as a legacy that I am now a part of.

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