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Back to Runnymede

On his way to making the claim that ‘Magna Carta is back,’ Ferdinand Mount may have conceded more than was necessary to those modern critics who have asserted that the reforms of 1215 were ‘designed to benefit only a minority’, specifically not women or villeins (LRB, 23 April). Few today fret about the place of villeins in society: the charter’s alleged disregard for women gets considerably more attention – and yet may be entirely mistaken.

The Latin words in Magna Carta that are conventionally translated as ‘man’ and ‘men’ are homo and homines. But those words in fact meant ‘person’ and ‘people’. In the late 12th-century treatise on the laws of England, known by the name of Glanvill, we find the words ‘to a free person, whether male or female’ (libero homini tam masculo quam femine). Thus in Magna Carta all those references to liber homo and those guarantees of rights given liberis hominibus, such as clause 39 with its promise to put an end to arbitrary arrests and imprisonments and proceed only by the law of the land: all these were for women as well as for men.

It is undoubtedly the case that in early 13th-century England women were at a disadvantage compared with men, for example where owning property was concerned, but it was not Magna Carta that disadvantaged them, nor were they excluded from its provisions. It protected the property rights of widows and female heirs as well as those of male heirs. This fundamental fact about English law as declared in Magna Carta is hopelessly obscured by the usual translation of liber homo as ‘free man’.

John Gillingham

I was disappointed that Ferdinand Mount did not mention A.P. Herbert’s Uncommon Law case Rex v. Haddock of 1926 or so, in which Mr Justice Lugg concludes:

I am satisfied that so little of Magna Carta is left that nothing of Magna Carta is left, and therefore that chapter on which the appellant relies must be taken to have perished with the others.

The appellant has done his country an ill service in raising this point, for but for his rash act generations of English orators might have continued in the fond belief that Magna Carta was still the abiding bulwark of our liberties, and for that act I shall order him to pay a further fine of five pounds. But it is no part of my duty to conceal the truth, and I am compelled to declare with some reluctance that Magna Carta is no longer law.

Scott Herrick
Madison, Wisconsin

Definitions of Inequality

Jamie Martin quotes John Moore, one of Margaret Thatcher’s secretaries of state for social security: ‘However rich a society, it will drag the incubus of relative poverty with it up the income scale’ (LRB, 23 April). Moore was at least arithmetically correct, since at the time the official definition of relative poverty was anything below 50 per cent of mean household income after housing costs. During Tony Blair’s premiership, however, the definition was changed, apparently as a piece of EU harmonisation, to 60 per cent of median income, which meant that the very rich could go on giving themselves bigger and bigger pay rises without dragging Moore’s incubus upwards, provided that the people in the middle stayed where they were. Indeed, if the rich, by taking an increased share, reduced the amount available for those in the middle, they could even exert downward pressure on the official poverty level. The changed definition facilitated Blair’s goal of ending child poverty, while making its partial achievement less advantageous for the poor.

Keith Bilton
London NW5

In Grimsby

James Meek refers to the sandpiper as ‘a small white-breasted bird’ as if it were a single species (LRB, 23 April). In fact, ‘sandpiper’ denotes a family of wading birds embracing no fewer than ninety species worldwide, 25 of which can be seen regularly in the British Isles. They include tiny, sparrow-sized species like the stints, larger birds such as snipes and woodcocks, and the big godwits and curlews. Some do have the word ‘sandpiper’ as part of their vernacular name; there is a purple sandpiper, a green sandpiper and a wood sandpiper, for instance. However, the particular species that James Meek spotted is called the sanderling. As he notes, these delightful little creatures have a distinctive habit of careering along the beach by the edge of the waves like clockwork birds, darting out to snap up small morsels such as sandhoppers. Like many others of their kind, they breed in the Arctic, and we see them mainly as birds of passage and as winter visitors. Most are then wearing their ghostly grey and ice-white non-breeding plumage, with a dark smudge on each shoulder, so that they look as if they had been caught and grasped by someone with ink-stained fingers. They are among the most wide-ranging of all waders, migrating vast distances to spend the winter not only here but as far away as Australia.

Jonathan Elphick
Starcross, Devon

Who makes the best hummus?

Ben Jackson mentions that the websites removed from Google following the European Court of Justice ruling on the ‘right to be forgotten’ can still be accessed if you search for them from rather than (LRB, 9 April). Until recently they were also being gathered at, a website built by a developer in the US. It’s an interesting collection. A mafia boss had his Italian Wikipedia page taken down, though not the British (or any other) version. A man who had sex on a crowded train had the story removed from the Daily Mail’s site (though it now appears to be back up there). Then there’s the archaeologist who was busted shoplifting from Boots and had his story removed from the Oxford Mail (as soon as the OM found out it published another about Google removing it, renewing interest in a case that had long been forgotten). Another story concerns the rivalry between Israeli and Lebanese chefs over who makes the best hummus. It isn’t clear who requested its disappearance. Could it have been the man from Damascus who declares in the comments under the article: ‘I’ve eaten hummus in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates but none taste as nice or as better as hummus from Tesco’?

Jane Symonds
East Grinstead

Cash for Diagnosis

June Andrews writes of dementia that ‘the sooner someone sues a GP for failure to diagnose as early as possible, the better’ (Letters, 19 March). Screening is always a balance of benefit and harm. The UK National Screening Committee exists to determine where the balance lies between benefit and risk. This year, it has maintained its position that screening for dementia should not be offered. Why? False positives are rife. If the background rate of dementia for 65-year-olds is 6 per cent, screening would find four of the six (i.e. two would be given a false negative result) but 23 others would be told they have dementia when they do not. This isn’t just bad medicine, it is harmful medicine.

Further, Andrews promotes the use of litigation to drive earlier diagnosis. This creates several problems. When is it possible to diagnose dementia ‘earlier’? We know that imaging can pick up signals in the older brain which may or may not be abnormal. Most will never progress to a clear pattern of dementia. Would Andrews like each of these patients to be told that they ‘might’ have early signs of possible future dementia? Should doctors do this in order to prevent litigation against them? What about mild cognitive impairment (MCI)? This is not ‘dementia’, and neither is it clearly ‘early dementia’, given that while 5-10 per cent of people with MCI progress to dementia each year, 40-70 per cent actually improve. Would Andrews stipulate that all people with MCI be included under the dementia ‘net’, just in case?

Then there are people with memory problems. Would Andrews like me to tell my severely depressed patient, whose minor memory difficulties I am almost certain are related to their illness, that they ‘might’ have dementia? Will this prevent my being sued, even if my patient, distressed by this news, comes to harm through my desire to protect myself?

Wouldn’t it be far better to try and achieve ‘timely’ diagnosis? Making a diagnosis of dementia can be difficult, and even the experts we call on to assist us often find the diagnosis uncertain. Monitoring over time is a useful way of making the diagnosis clearer and more certain.

Margaret McCartney

Indoor Raincoat

I don’t own a pair of the Joy Division oven gloves mentioned by Lavinia Greenlaw, and hesitate to speak for those who do, but I suspect they aren’t in fact middle-aged fans of the post-punk quartet (LRB, 23 April). More likely they are fans of Half Man Half Biscuit, paying tribute to a song from that band’s 2005 LP, Achtung Bono:

Ooh ooh piccalilli shinpads
Ooh ooh polishing the nave
I keep wicket for the Quakers
In me Joy Division oven gloves.

Paul Taylor
University College London

How powerful was the Kaiser?

Christopher Clark counters John Röhl’s thesis that Wilhelm II was bent on war and had the authority to bring it about with the argument that the Kaiser was a scatterbrain who was not the decision-maker on most foreign and defence policy issues, including the lead-up to the First World War (LRB, 23 April). Clark is right that Röhl has not been able to ‘prove’ that the Kaiser alone steered Germany into war in 1914: many other hands were on the German tiller. Clark is also right in arguing that other European powers were responsible for provocative policies and actions, defensive perhaps, but not as seen from Berlin, which felt encircled.

But, if Röhl cannot prove Germany’s war guilt, it is because his terms of reference are focused – almost to the exclusion of every other player – on the Kaiser’s words, writings and actions, as a biographer’s must be. However, if one adds to Röhl’s investigation and conclusions the evidence unearthed by Fritz Fischer, in Germany’s Aims in the First World War, about Germany’s pre-1900 preparations for war and its postwar aim of hegemony over the continent, the case for its culpability is inescapable. Fischer and Röhl used different primary sources, cover different subject matter and focus on different protagonists yet reach the same conclusion: namely, that the Kaiser, his ministers and the high military command became convinced that only through the ‘noble’ act of war would Imperial Germany establish its rightful place in the world, just as America, the other rising power of the time, had done by waging the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Pedro Solares
Petersfield, Hampshire

Bye Bye Labour

Richard Seymour maintains that the idea that UK elections are won from the centre is a fallacy and that there is not ‘a large centre ground’ in British politics (LRB, 23 April). Not only is this disproved by Tony Blair’s electoral success: it ignores the lessons learned from Michael Foot’s performance in 1983. UK elections are not won from the radical left. Only 1945 contradicts that idea, an exceptional election in every way.

The election of 2015 is essentially a battle for disaffected Liberal Democrats. Virtually all the movement between parties (except in Scotland) is that of the 10-15 per cent of the electorate who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but are now planning to support a different party. Seymour acknowledges Nick Clegg’s problems briefly but then brushes them aside. He offers no evidence to suggest that there is a swathe of socialist support hanging back, waiting for a real red-blooded leftist party to emerge.

Matthew Young
London W7