The Charters of Liberties

A historical struggle for the commons and civil liberties

Lesson Plan from “The Commons” Syllabus

Elsa Noterman, noterman[at]

Quick Description

This lesson connects the development of political, legal and economic rights with the historical struggle over the commons – or how people collectively manage shared resources. The lesson is designed to fit into a unit on the history of the commons for an upper-level undergraduate course on the global commons. While it has been created for a course in geography, the lesson would be relevant to a variety of courses that explore topics of the commons, environmental management, Anglo-American history, social movements, and international law. Through this lesson students will gain a historical framework for understanding the concept of the commons and the opportunity to practice analyzing primary texts.

Learning Objective(s)

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Understand the history of the commons – including historic enclosures
  • Examine a primary text and utilize it to make arguments
  • Evaluate efforts to defend and reclaim the commons

These learning objectives for this lesson contribute to the broader objectives of the course. Specifically, they will further students’ abilities to describe the concept of “the commons,” understand the history of the commons in multiple contexts, comprehend historic and contemporary enclosures of the commons, analyze historic and contemporary debates over the management of the commons, evaluate efforts to defend and reclaim the commons around the world, and finally, to examine primary texts and utilize them to make arguments.

Course Plan

This lesson is designed to introduce students to the development of the commons as a set of socio-legal practices and concepts, in order to establish content and skills that will be drawn on during the rest of the course. After introducing the concept of the commons in the previous week(s) of the course, this lesson will ground the concept in social, legal and political history – and provide a means of viewing contemporary phenomenon in light of global history. Additionally, through the evaluation of primary texts, this lesson will offer students a means of practicing historical analysis early in the semester – a skill they will then continue to develop throughout the course.

Related Reading

Click image for book review
Click image for book review

The primary reading assignment for this class is drawn from The Magna Carta Manifesto (Peter Linebaugh 2008). The readings from Manifesto will connect contemporary discussions of economic justice and civil liberties, with the history of the commons. This historical grounding will serve as a foundation for the rest of the course. The article by Walbert will prepare students to read and analyze primary texts in class. Specifically, students would be asked to read the following in preparation for class:

  • Peter Linebaugh (2008) The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
    • Chapter 1: Introduction (pp. 1-20)
    • Chapter 2: Two Charters (pp. 21-45)
  • A guide to reading primary texts such as Kathryn Walbert’s “Reading primary sources: An introduction for students” available at:
  • Supplementary reading (optional for undergraduate students and required for graduate students taking the course): “Destroying the Commons: How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta,” a 2012 speech by Noam Chomsky at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Student-Centered Activity

The student-centered activity will focus on understanding and analyzing primary texts – specifically the Magna Carta and the Forest Charter (or the Great Charters of Liberties) – that were initially formulated in 11th century England to set out a series of political and economic liberties, including rights to the commons. This activity will provide an opportunity to practice analyzing historical primary texts and to think about how these texts might be contribute to contemporary debates about the commons and civil liberties. Students should come to class prepared, as the readings for this lesson will provide some important context and strategies for this activity. After a 20-minute mini-lecture – which will also highlight key context and strategies – students will divide into small groups. Utilizing the “think-pair-share” strategy (depending on the size of the class, there may be more than two students in each group), students will be asked to examine a couple of clauses (or ‘chapters’ – some are one sentence long, while others are paragraphs) of the Magna Carta [7, 8, 20, 28, 30, 31, 38, 39, 40, 41, 47, 48, 60] and the Charter of the Forest [1, 9, 12, 13]. After reading through each clause together – and looking up terms that they do not know in the glossary (see Materials section) – each group will discuss and write down responses to the set of questions (see questions in the Directions section). [NOTE: It may be useful to model this activity by working through one clause as a class before students divide up into small groups – see the Directions section for an example.]

The small groups will then share what they have learned and raise any remaining questions with the rest of the class. Depending on the number of groups and assigned clauses, this exercise should take around 30-minutes: 20-minutes for the small group activity and 10-minutes for the report-back to the larger class. Finally, in the time remaining, the class will discuss shared themes among the clauses as well as how to read primary sources, why analyzing historic texts might be important in understanding contemporary processes, and how ideas from a different time and place can migrate to other contexts and become enrolled in contemporary ideas and institutions.

Materials Needed

The materials for this lesson include:

  • Translations of selected clauses from The Great Charters of Liberties of England – including the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest – enough copies for each student. See appendix I of this lesson plan (Linebaugh 2008 also has translations of the entire charters in the appendix of the book).
  • A glossary of terms – a copy for each small group. See appendix II of this lesson plan.
  • Blank paper for brainstorming in small groups
  • A slide (or whiteboard) with the questions for the small groups


Before moving to the student-centered activity, a “mini-lecture” should provide some context for the activity and connect this lesson to the broader themes of the course. Specifically, this lecture should review the historical context of the Great Charters – when they were signed, who was involved, what prompted their creation, and how they have been drawn on in more contemporary contexts. In addition, this part of the lesson offers an opportunity to define some key terms and discuss some strategies for analyzing historic primary sources.

Directions for Students

Students, in small groups, will be asked to read and analyze a couple of clauses from the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. After reading through each clause together – and looking up terms that they do not know in the glossary – each group will discuss and write down responses to the following set of questions. After about 20-minutes, the small groups will share what they have learned with the rest of the class.

For each clause the students will be asked to consider and write down answers to the following questions:

  • What, in simple language, does the clause say?
  • What grievances might this clause address and/or what right(s) (social, economic, political) does it assert?
  • Who might be most affected by this clause?
  • What are the implications of this clause (how might this clause change certain practices and/or ideas)?
  • Does this clause resonate with any contemporary laws, customs and/or practices?

Before breaking into small groups, go through an example by looking at one of the shorter clauses from the Magna Carta as a class:

[40] To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

After reading the clause, ask students to answer the questions as a class. Possible answers include:

  • What, in simple language, does the clause say? This clause asserts that the king (using the royal “we”) will not charge any fees for seeking justice under the law – and thus, will nor perpetuate injustice through the judicial system.
  • What grievances might this clause address and/or what right(s) (social, economic, political) does it assert? The clause suggests that prior to the Magna Carta, people were charged for the provision of justice – and that these fees led to the denial or delay of justice. The clause puts restrictions on the authority of the king in the judicial system and seeks to remedy previous injustices in the judicial system. It asserts a political right to justice.
  • Who might be most affected by this clause? People who could not previously afford the charges for seeking justice or rights would likely be the most affected by this clause.
  • What are the implications of this clause (how might this clause change certain practices and/or ideas)? In general, it promotes more equality under the law – regardless of economic status. It also possibly wards off corruption and misuse of the justice system.
  • Does this clause resonate with any contemporary laws, customs and/or practices? The clause resonates with current laws that provide equity under the law – such as habeas corpus, which restricts the denial and delay of a trial.


Following the activity, after the small groups have shared with the larger class, a large-group discussion of common themes that emerged during the activity – and the process of historical analysis itself – will provide an opportunity to make sure students understood the activity and to reiterate some take-home points, including:

  • There is a long history of struggles for the commons and civil rights (and these struggles are connected). People have been sharing and managing resources in order to meet their material needs for centuries. Struggles to protect these resources have included the assertion of political as well as economic rights.
  • Contemporary laws and customs have resonances with and connections to ancient laws and customs that were developed in very different contexts.
  • Primary sources are resources that can be used to understand broader socio-political trends and historical contexts for more contemporary institutions and practices.


Title: The Charters of Liberties: A historical struggle for the commons and civil liberties

The Great Charters of the Liberties of England

MAGNA CARTA, 1215, 1217 and 1225: Selected Clauses (translation from the British Library):

[7] At her husband’s death, a widow may have her marriage portion and inheritance at once and without trouble. She shall pay nothing for her dower, marriage portion, or any inheritance that she and her husband held jointly on the day of his death. She may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, and within this period her dower shall be assigned to her, and she shall have meanwhile her reasonable estover in the common. There shall be assigned to her for her dower a third of all her husband’s land which was his in his lifetime, unless a smaller share was given her at the church door. [1217 and 1225] No widow shall be forced to marry so long as she wishes to live without a husband, provided that she gives security not to marry without our consent if she holds of us, or without the consent of her lord if she holds of another.”

[8] No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without the consent of whatever other lord she may hold them of.

[20] For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a husbandman the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighborhood.

[28] No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.

[30] No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.

[31] Neither we nor any royal official will take wood for our castle, or for any other purpose, without the consent of the owner.

[36] In future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs. It shall be given gratis, and not refused.

[38] In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

[39] No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

[40] To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

[41] All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however, does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too.

[47] All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly.

[48] All evil customs relating to forests and warrens, foresters, warreners, sheriffs and their servants, or river-banks and their wardens, are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably. But we, or our chief justice if we are not in England, are first to be informed.

[60] All these customs and liberties that we have granted shall be observed in our kingdom in so far as concerns our own relations with our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.

CHARTER OF THE FOREST, 1225: Selected Clauses (translation from the UK National Archives)

[1] First, we will that all forests, which King Henry [II] our Grandfather afforested, shall be viewed by good and lawful men; and if he has made forest of any other wood more than of his own demesne, whereby the owner of the wood has been hurt, forthwith it shall be disafforested; and if he has made forest of his own wood, then it shall remain forest, saving the Common of Herbage, and of other things in the same forest, to them which before were accustomed to have the same.

[3] All woods which have been made forest by King Richard our uncle, or by King John our Father, until our first coronation, shall be forthwith disafforested unless it be our demesne wood.

[9] Every freeman may agist his own wood within our forest at his pleasure, and shall take his pannage. Also we do grant, that every freeman may drive his swine freely without impediment through our demesne woods, for to agist them in their own woods, or else where they will. And if the swine of any freeman lie one night within our forest, there shall be no occasion taken thereof, whereby he may lose anything of his own.

[12] Every freeman from henceforth, without danger shall make in his own wood, or on his land, or on his water, which he has within our forest, mills, springs, pools, marlpits, dykes, or arable ground, without enclosing that arable ground, so that it be not to the annoyance of any of his neighbors.

[13] Every freeman shall have, within his own woods, ayries of hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons, eagles and herons: and shall have also the honey that is found within his woods.


Title: The Charters of Liberties: A historical struggle for the commons and civil liberties

GLOSSARY for The Great Charters of the Liberties of England

Definitions with * are from Linebaugh P. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 301-311. Other definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online (

Afforest*: “To convert into a forest or hunting ground. Essentially, a juridical process or type of management, rather than an act of planting.”

Agistment* (agist): “The action of opening a forest for a specified time to livestock; ‘the common of herbage.’”

Ayrie (or eyrie): “A large nest of a bird of prey, especially an eagle, typically built high in a tree or on a cliff.”

Demesne: “Land attached to a manor and retained for the owner’s own use.”

Disafforest*: “To except from the operation of the forest law; to reduce from the legal state of forest to ordinary land […] to return to the commons.”

Dower: “A widow’s share for life of her husband’s estate.”

Enclosure*: “The action of surrounding land with a fence or hedge, the means of conversion from common land to private property.”

Estover: “The right to take wood from land one does not own, especially land of which one is the tenant or lessee.”

Forest*: “Based on medieval Latin term meaning ‘the outside woods,’ i.e., unenclosed; a woodland district set apart for hunting and having special laws.”

Freeman: “A person who is not a slave or serf.”

Herbage*: “Herbaceous growth or vegetation; pasture, as distinct from the ground on which the grass grows.”

Husbandry/husbandman: “The care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals. A person who cultivates the land; a farmer.”

Marl: “An unconsolidated sedimentary rock or soil consisting of clay and lime, formerly used typically as fertilizer.”

Marlpits: “A pit from which marl is dug.”

Pannage*: “The feeding of swine in the forest; the right of pasturing pig’s in the woods; pig’s food or meat called mast, consisting of acorns, nuts, and the like.”

Warrener: “A gamekeeper.”

Writ: “A form of written command in the name of a court or other legal authority to act, or abstain from acting, in some way.”

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