Stitching up our rights

I expected to be interested in the Magna Carta Exhibition at the British Library. You can’t take the history degree out of the girl. But I didn’t expect to be moved, to be so moved. This was my response to Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery currently on display alongside the main exhibition. Another crossover arts piece and like Woolf Works it begins with words.

The Magna Carta

If you didn’t know that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, 800 years ago, you must have been out of the country. The media loves a round-numbered anniversary and so do museums and governments. The original Magna Carta was signed by King John under duress from his barons who were objecting to his arbitrary justice and tyrannical rule. The document was basically a peace treaty and it represented John’s acquiescence to the demands of his barons. It was promptly annulled by the Pope. The settlement with the barons had lasted less than three months.

More important than John’s immediate struggle with his barons, the Magna Carta came to stand for the guarantee of rights for people all over the world. Initially, of course it was only men the barons who mattered. In subsequent struggles with the monarchy the clauses were revised and the document rewritten, so there are now many versions. The idea of a guarantee of rights was taken up by other British men (The Chartist movement), by women (The Suffragettes), by the French Revolutionaries and by those subjected to colonial rule, in C18th US and elsewhere. Nelson Mandela referred to it and to British justice in his famous and final speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964: ‘…I am prepared to die.’

Only three of the original clauses are still in force. The rights of the Church and of the City of London featured in the original Magna Carta as the first and ninth clauses respectively. Individual freedoms were placed much lower. But here is the essence of subsequent claims to individual legal rights:

Clause 29: NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. (From Wikipedia entry accessed 10.6.15)

Note we are talking about free men – not about women at all. The number of freemen in the C13th was limited and women didn’t get a look in until much, much later (ie C20th).

181 Votes for W Magna C

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

I have long enjoyed Cornelia Parker’s work, especially Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View aka the Exploding Shed (1991), and also the witty and alternative items she submitted to the Turner Prize in 1997.

I like how she makes us look at something in a different way, shows us the underbelly of her subjects, and involves others in the production: steamroller operators, Royal Artillery explosives experts and so on. She is inventive and inviting.

181 ContributorsThe finished Magna Carta embroidery is 13 meters long. In this form it recalls the Bayeux Tapestry, albeit is laid on a table and not displayed on a wall. Its creation was a joint enterprise of people involved with the legal and penal systems of our country – prisoners, judges, lawyers, civil liberties campaigners, MPs – as well as professional embroiderers.

It is not the document itself that is embroidered, but a wikipedia page. A nice touch to indicate the wikiness of the treatment of the Magna Carta over the centuries, constantly updated by users.

Here is why I was so moved:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. The detail of the embroidered text and wiki images are a pleasure in themselves. Who can deny the skill of the embroiderers who have reproduced the postage stamp images from the webpage? They are objects of great beauty and skill. And even the underside gives great pleasure. The photographs in the British Library pack include many of the underside. 181 word
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Magna Carta is about our rights in law. Every conceivable person – nearly 200 people – associated with the law that you have heard of stitched a word or more. There are famous prisoners and many referred to only by their first names, mostly men. Julian Assange, Moazzam Begg (formerly held in Gitmo), judges, QCs (Michael Mansfield QC, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC), Gareth Pierce (solicitor), campaigners and other relevant stitchers: Jon Snow (broadcaster), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), MPs, Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian) and Edward Snowden.
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger. The new government threatens to repeal and replace the legislation. The outcomes are not likely to enhance our freedoms or further the principles of universal entitlement to rights.
  5. Needlework is a political act in Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Exploring how traditional and female crafts can be political acts has always interested and excited me. The Suffragettes used “An Army of Banners” to draw attention to its claims. (The blog Woman and her Sphere has an interesting post about the Artists’ Suffrage League: here.) And a large data base of banners and banner designs were collected by the Women’s Library and can be viewed here. Think of all those Trades Unions’ banners. There is a good tradition of subversive quilting as well. 181 huddersfield-banner
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery (and ballet) carry ideas. Although the Suffragettes found words did not get attention fast enough!

181 WSPU banner

And a late and much admired addition to the Suffragette banners in this post is this one designed by Mary Lowndes:

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Thanks to Eileen (my co-author) for discussing the experience with me and giving shape to some of the blog. Mistakes are mine, of course.

I shall be at Eye of the Needle: Art, Stitch, Partnerships and Protest on Monday 13th July at the British Library. See you there?

MAGNA CARTA Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1st September 2015.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker can be seen (free) at the British Library until 24th July 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. A pack including fold out reproduction of front and back, photographs, interviews and essays. Published by the British Library.

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5 Comments

Filed under Feminism, words

5 Responses to Stitching up our rights

  1. A passionate and interesting post – and a timely reminder of the real significance of Magna Carta. Your warning about the Human Rights Act resonates particularly with me: we in the UK face an alarming erosion of our civil liberties under the new government. I wasn’t aware of the embroidery you mention; thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’m going to London in a few weeks – must try to get to the exhibitions you refer to.

  2. Apologies for reappearing here so soon. By coincidence the very next item in my email box after the link to your post was this item from OUP Blogs: http://blog.oup.com/2015/06/magna-carta-anniversary-vsi/?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=oupblogvsi.
    It gives a slightly less nuanced view of the real significance of Magna Carta than yours, but does at least acknowledge that much of its iconic democratic reputation is mythical.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for both of these comments SImon. Both the British Library Exhibition and the Embroidery are interesting and I learned a lot from them. I would recommend both (Embroidery is not on for so long).
      And I hope the coincidence of comments about HRA means people are building to resist the reduction in our rights. Hey Ho!
      Thanks for the link. I will look at that later today.

  3. Eileen

    Excellent blog Caroline – so congruent with the paradigm.

    p.s. Just to let you know that some strange words appear at the top of your blog – some dim-witted hacker? (Oldest granny fuck video clip is what it says).

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