Magna Carta and May Day

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Magna Carta and May Day: What have they to do with each other?

First of all let’s recollect what we know about each of them. Magna Carta (meaning large charter) put an end to a civil war between King John and the English barons seven hundred and ninety years ago this June. So, while we might think of it in the framework of political science as a constitution, it also contained something of the nature of a treaty.

The barons opposed King John for many reasons. We are most familiar with the compalaints which were redressed in chapter 39 of the Charter, the “nullus liber homo” clause, “No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseised, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed, nor will we condemn him but by lawful judgment of his peers, and by the law of the land.” The words are familiar to us from the 5th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The chapter has been frequently quoted during the last year because the U.S. government — let us call it the chain of command — has violated the provisions that derive from this chapter — the prohibition of torture, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and due process of law. Those who oppose the despotism and lawlessness of ëthe chain of command’ refer to Magna Carta because it is part of the heritage of mankind against the bullying, cruelty, and greed of kings, potentates, and quote sovereign powers. These are protections for the individual. But what of our class?

Now turning to May Day we recollect it as a worker’s holiday because the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada “resolved that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” In Chicago the iron molders at the McCormick works were locked out even though McCormick himself was enjoying a profit rate of 71% which he enhanced by cutting wages by 15%. The iron molders protested, and the police shot four of them dead.

A few days later thousands of people attended a meeting near Haymarket Square to hear several speakers protest. When the crowd began to dwindle away a stick of dynamite was thrown during the police charge. All hell broke loose, many were killed, and the Sheriff of Cook County instructed the police to “make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” expressing a pre-Magna Carta view of authority. Eight men were brought to trial eventually, and four of them were hanged, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Adolf Fishcher, and August Spies whose last words were these. “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

The time that August Spies anticipated came soon, and the voice for an eight-hour day was soon heard beyond the United States and Canada to the whole world, as workers, peasants, students celebrated May Day and with it, to quote Oscar Ameringer, “the divine message of more money and less work.” That “divine message” is actually a faith-based initiative if there ever was one. However, it has been lost in those modern forms of enslavement, debt peonage, forced labor in penitentiaries, export zone sweatshops, mandatory overtime, multiple job-holding, and feminization of poverty which, even if we are not all comfortable calling it the work of satan, certainly characterizes contemporary planetary labor. For if the eight hour day actually came as a result of May Day struggles, it surely has long since gone.

So, that’s what most of us know about Magna Carta and May Day. And what they have in common is loss — the lost liberties, the lost eight-hour day. They seem to have little to do with each other, separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years. Even if we put aside geography and chronology for a moment and compared them on the basis of class struggle, it is the difference that seems to stand out. The feudal barons who stood up against King John were themselves large landed magnates, latifundista, who commanded the labor of serfs and villains in the feudal mode of production. The struggle in Chicago in contrast was a class struggle between industrialists and the proletariat, a new type of ruling class even though we dub them robber barons, and a new type of worker, huddled in slums crammed into factories.

While it is true that Magna Carta contained provisions to benefit or to protect Jews, city-dwellers, and merchants, acknowledging in these commercial interests a new historical force, a force which was relatively weak at the time, yet its inclusion signified that Magna Carta attempted to weld together a class bloc, or coalition, providing to the disparate elements methods of dispute settlement, policy making, and over-arching spiritual supremacy of the Christian church.

Magna Carta was a treaty in the class war, and it helped to make a ruling class. As for King John, as soon as he could, he resumed war and discarded Magna Carta but then he dropped dead. The story of his death became the stuff of legend among the peasant commoners conveyed by word of mouth and remembered as oral history even by William Morris who in breathing its bold and blunt heroism I paraphrase. Fleeing his enemies King John lost all his baggage in an onrushing tide of the sea, and in a foul mood took shelter in Swinestead Abbey, Lincolnshire,. “How much is this loaf sold for?” he asked at dinner, and when told one penny he answered, “by God, if I live for one year such a loaf shall be sold for twelve pence!”

One of the monks nearby heard this and considered that his hour and time to die had come, and that it would be a good deed to slay so cruel a king and so evil a lord. So he went into the garden and plucked plums and replaced the pits with venom. Then he came before the king and knelt saying, “Sire, by St Austin, this is the fruit of our garden.” The King looked evilly on him and said, “Eat first, monk!” So the monk ate but changed not countenance any whit. So the King ate too. Presently right before the king’s eyes the monk swelled and turned blue and fell down and died. Then waxed the King sick at heart, and he also swelled, sickened, and died.

This is history from below, and like any history it must be examined. First, plums, not thought of as native to England, did indeed originate in Byzantium and probably came to England at the time of Magna Carta with the returning crusaders. But whether this delicious weapon of the spiritual suicide bomber actually came from Palestine, as St George, England’s patron saint, most certainly did, has not yet been determined with certainty by English botanists. I intend to suggest that the story of Magna Carta can never be understood without at the same time considering the manifold influences of Islam even upon that grey and cold island that lies off the coast of northwestern Europe.

Second, not only were the herbariums and orchards of the English monasteries early examples of collective labor, they were also progenitors of communal living upon natural resources held in common. Thus, when the monk offered King John, who in his own infinite greed had attempted to gather unto his own self all the forests of England, a fruit of the garden, it was a fruit in the double sense of both a product of human labor and a product of the earth, rain and sunshine, as the peasants who told this story and as William Morris who repeated it well understood. We however, sunk in the slough of alienation, must be reminded.

Let us return to May Day. When George Rawick, the historian of the oral history and self-activity of the Afro-American struggle against slavery, came to the University of Massachusetts on May Day to help us observe the 100th anniversary of Haymarket, he wanted to emphasize, not that Albert Parsons partnered up with Lucy Parsons, herself an Afro-American, for mutli-culturalism is easy to grasp. Rawick emphasized the surprising and odious fact that Albert Parsons had risked his life once for the slave masters of the Confederacy! Rawick wanted to emphasize that human beings change owing to circumstances, owing to one another. We do not change just as we please, it takes agitation, education, organization.

The troops in Chicago were seasoned in fighting against the Sioux Indians who had defeated Custer. Black Elk referred to “the story of all life that his holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one spirit.” Yes, the Indian wars of the great plains were wars of privatization. Frank Cushing lived five years among the Pueblo Indians and reported just a few years before Haymarket, of “the old women who have been off among the mountains gathering peaches all day, staggering home at sunset, under huge baskets, strapped across their foreheads, full of the most delicious fruit.”

I mention peaches only because I mentioned plums. Ummm. The fruits have no nations, though it is true their germ plasm is endangered by enclosures. My point is that privatization has smashed a huge variety of commoning regimes around the world and its police have massacred a huge number of commoners.

After King John died, the Charter of Liberty was brought out again but this time with a significant revision and a significant addition. The addition was the smaller Charter of the Forest in contrast to which Magna Carta got its name. The Charter of the Forest certainly was not a ëcommuunist manifesto,’ however it was most certainly a charter for the commons because it sought to return, not the whole forest to the people, but some of the customary rights to its resources to the practise of commoning. These included pannage, or the right to put pigs into the forest to dine on the acorns, beechnuts, and mast, thus helping to provide the two-leggeds with food for the winter. Another common right recognized in the Charter of the Forest was herbage, or the permitting cows to graze in forest lands and purlieus, thus providing if not ëroast beef of olde Englande’ then the children with milk. Chiminage, or the right to travel in the forest without having to pay tolls was also acknowledged, a form we might say, of public transport.

In addition to these additions to the Charters of Liberty, the Magna Carta itself was revised in its chapter 7 which made provision that the widow “shall have her reasonable estovers in the commons.” Estovers referred to wood gathered in the forest for the distinct purposes of 1) fuel for warmth and cooking, 2) handles for implements and tools, 3) timbers for fencing and building. The “reasonable estovers to the commons” thus refers to what we call day social security and the safety-net. These provisions were gender specific not because women were particularly defenceless against the male dominated structures of economic and legal power — the call for gender equality which rang out from southern France among the Albigensians was heard all over Europe — but because women played a leading part in the commonages and in the remembrance of commoning practices. And here they are in Magna Carta!

Albert Parsons said this at his trial. “What is socialism or anarchism? Briefly stated it is the right of the toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production and the right of the producers to their product.” Now we are in a position to come to some conclusions. We can see what Magna Carta and May Day have in common. Parsons does not refer to estovers, pannage, herbage, chiminage and so forth. He raises the slogan of socialism or anarchism, not feudalism. Parsons intends to include men as well as women in socialism. Parsons refers not just to the material civilization that depended on the forest. He intends to include the factories and forges fueled by coal. Parsons intends in his meaning to include all toilers not just the hands at any moment gripping the plough.

Magna Carta and we must remember the defenses against the ‘chain of command.’ Magna Carta and we must remember to make a coalition of alliances, our movement of movements. Magna Carta and we must remember our commons, our earthly treasury. May Day and the eight-hour day. May Day and world-wide working-class solidarity. May Day with William Morris:

And in hope every spring-tide come gather together
That unto the Earth ye may tell all your tale.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at:












Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: