Guy Standing – Let us celebrate the 800th Anniversary of The Charter of the Forest

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BRAVE NEW EUROPE continues its series of articles concerning the Commons with this contribution by Guy Standing.

Guy Standing is an economist and professorial research associate at SOAS University of London. His most recent books are Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen and The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers thrive and Work does not pay


In every part of Europe, there should be a celebration on November 6 this year, the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, one of the most radical constitutional documents in history. On November 6, everybody who calls themselves ‘green’ or ‘left’ should lift a glass of something special in salute to the principles it espouses.

In June 2015, at the height of international celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the document that was to become the Magna Carta 800 years ago this year, a written question was tabled in the British House of Lords, asking whether the government would hold similar celebrations to those being organised for the Magna Carta that month for the Charter of the Forest in 2017.

The Minister of Justice, a Lord Faulks, answered by dismissing the Charter as unimportant and as having had little international impact. With his privileged background and representing the Party of large-scale landowners, his answer was hardly surprising. But he was profoundly mistaken on both counts.

Imagine the scene. On a cold morning of November 6, 1217, a ten-year-old King Henry III watched as a royal Regent, William Marshall, and a cardinal sealed two carefully crafted Charters. One was henceforth known as the Magna Carta and consisted of a shorter version of the Charter of Liberties that had been sealed by bad King John and the barons on June 15, 1215. That has gone on to be taught to almost all schoolchildren to this day, rightly so.

The other was the Charter of the Forest. Ironically, it was probably more influential for many generations, and every church in England had to read it out four times a year. It is beautifully and uniquely radical.

For a start, it was the first environmental act in history. In its 17 articles, it set the tone for future environmental charters, referring to the governed right to access wood and trees and water, preserving trees, deer, boar and other wild animals desired for food. It set limits on the monarchy in all those respects, whereas over the previous 150 years a succession of kings had arbitrarily exploited the commons and imposed savage penalties on the commoners wanting to access the commons.

Of course, it did not do anything like what we would do today. But it set out in a progressive direction. Vitally this was the first charter in history to assert rights of the common man (and woman). This was nice, since really it was asserting the rights of the property-less, whereas the Magna Carta was essentially about the rights of property-owners.

The Charter set out the right to subsistence. It said, in effect, that those who did not own property nevertheless had a right to have access to the means of subsistence, and to do so in a managed way so that the resources could be reproduce and preserved. This is a fundamental principle of the commons, and of all progressive politics worthy of the name.

Had Garrett Hardin read and understood the Charter of the Forest, he could not have written his simplistic and ideologically influential article, ‘The tragedy of the commons’, in 1968. He said that land was a commons, everybody would overuse it and it would collapse. Neo-liberals used his article as a prop to justify privatisation and enclosure. But the Charter had shown the fallacy of that reasoning. It had set rules for the governance of the commons, so that they would be preserved for future generations. It even legitimised local stewards, known as Verderers, who had responsibility for ensuring that outcome. In some parts of England today, Verderers still operate, a remarkable testimony to the legacy of the Charter. But they mostly served to lay the foundations of local magistrates courts, where common law was and is practised for and by commoners.

In establishing a right to subsistence, the Charter pointed in two directions that are fundamental to a Left-Green narrative in the 21st century – the right to work and the right to a basic income. As far as the former is concerned, the Charter is more radical than leading declarations in the 19th and 20th centuries, notably the Papal Encyclical of 1891 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, both of which boil down to saying that the poor have a duty to labour and the state has a duty to support those who demonstrate their willingness to labour.

By contrast, the Charter gave substance to a real right to work, by enabling the property-less to have access to means of production and reproduction, and access to raw materials. This was a defence against labour commodification. The Charter has suffered from having been written in a language of the 13th century, with concepts and words that have faded into obscurity.

Nevertheless, in its difficult prose, it asserted that commoners – the property-less – had the right to obtain and use wood, water, clay, peat, minerals, herbal medicines, the right to pasture animals and take and breed fish and the right to build small mills, ponds and pits. What was called ‘the common of marl’ was symbolic, in that it referred to taking and using clay for all sorts of productive purposes. And it allowed for the ‘right to estover’, meaning that people could gather wood, fruit, nuts and so on constituting the necessaries of life.

But everything was in proportion, with the emphasis being on use value, not exchange value. The Charter was thus a barrier to labour commodification and capitalist exploitation via enclosure and privatisation.

The Charter marked another harbinger of values cherished today. It was a forward step for feminism, bearing in mind that women were little more than chattels. On that November day in 1217, an amended Article 7 in the Magna Carta stated that widows could henceforth refuse to be remarried and had a right to access ‘reasonable estovers in the commons’, that is, subsistence. This was a significant breakthrough for huge numbers of women.

Lord Faulks may find all this was unimportant and uninfluential. But it was comforting to read an official organ of the American Bar Association at the outset of the anniversary year, in which it was acknowledged that the Charter had influenced the US Constitution and was now more important than for hundreds of years.

Just before writing this article I asked Noam Chomsky if he would write a two-line tribute to the Charter. Characteristically, after a little hesitation (and a little persuasion!), he sent a lovely email of support, recognising its vital importance today for all societies. We must use the 800th anniversary to revive its principles and vision of the commons, a right to basic income and an ecologically balanced society.

To William Marshall, who forced it into life on that November morning 800 years ago, “Respect!”


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