In 1999, Professor Richard Helmholz published Magna Carta and the Ius Commune, in which he argued that some of the ideas and language found in Magna Carta provide evidence that the early common law was engaging with the ius commune, the ancestor of modern civil law traditions. This Essay examines one piece of evidence highlighted by Helmholz and more recently by Professor Charles Donahue: that the Articles of the Barons, a preparatory document for Magna Carta, uses a phrase borrowed from canon law, appellatione remota (without possibility of appeal). Helmholz and Donahue pointed to its use as evidence that canon law formed part of the discussion when the drafters of Magna Carta were thinking about the common law. In this Essay, I argue that the use of this phrase is not actually evidence that canon law was being brought into discussions of the common law, since the phrase is used in the context of an ecclesiastical procedure. This example is nevertheless useful for highlighting some important features of Magna Carta. First, although there is a long tradition of associating Magna Carta with the common law, Magna Carta is not a text that is primarily about the common law. Rather, it contains provisions on several different types of law, including common law, forest law, and canon law, and underscores the pluralistic nature of English law in the thirteenth century. Second, the authors of the text seem to have gone to some length to keep these different types of law “discursively separate,” using common law terminology and canon law terminology only when appropriate to the context. And finally, although Roman and canon law were likely to have been part of the conversation about the contours of royal justice, they probably would have entered into the conversation at a high enough level of abstraction that they would not be visible in the text of Magna Carta. Overall, Magna Carta does not provide conclusive evidence whether contemporaries were thinking about Roman and canon law when reforming the common law.

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91 University of Chicago Law Review Online (2023)

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