Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Jews and the Magna Carta

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Jews and the Magna Carta

Article excerpt

When Lincoln Cathedral's copy of the 1215 Magna Carta was on display at the Missouri History Museum in 1987, I was eager to see it. I'd never read it but remembered the romanticized scene we learned about in high school of King John signing it at Runnymede Meadow in front of a group of barons on horseback dressed like they were in an Errol Flynn movie.

June 15 is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the original "Great Charter," which was reissued in various forms during that century. Magna Carta kept the king's power in check, at least against the nobles, and is the origin of many protections that we have as American citizens. For instance, it guaranteed a trial by jury of one's "peers," at least for the nobility (but not for "Joe Peasant" now known as "Joe Sixpack").

What surprised me, as a Jew and a lawyer, when I read the enlarged text next to the ancient manuscript was that "the Jews" were mentioned as if they were a different kind of human being:

"If anyone who has borrowed from the Jews any amount, large or small, dies before the debt is repaid, it shall not carry interest as long as the heir is under age, of whomsoever he holds; and if that debt falls into our hands, we will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

"And if a man dies owing a debt to the Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if he leaves children under age, their needs shall be met in a manner in keeping with the holding of the deceased, and the debt shall be paid out of the residue, saving the service due to the lords. Debts owing to other than Jews shall be dealt with likewise."

The first section basically stopped the running of interest on the death of a borrower and in conjunction with a third clause favored the Crown, which inherited the borrower's debt. The second gave the borrower's wife a dowry interest and his children a kind of Social Security out of the borrower's property before the lender could collect.

In a way, the first of these protections for widows survives in Missouri law in that a spouse has a dowry (one-third in most cases) interest in her deceased husband's real estate even if it was owned in his own name and even before the claims of his creditors. …

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