Who needs canon law?

Basically, everyone the Middle Ages needed canon law. Here’s my latest post for the work blog, about some of the people in Durham who needed canon law and the books they left behind:

Who needs canon law?



Anselm’s human face

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

In his Life of St Anselm, Eadmer tells of a time when they were staying in a church in Italy, outside of which was a cistern with a hole in the top:

One night, when we were sleeping in this church, Anselm happened to get up with a gentle step, as his manner was, lest he should disturb us. But when he had got outside, he forgot the hole, and, making his way towards it in the darkness, he fell in, crying with a loud voice as he fell, ‘Holy Mary.’ At this noise, we and our companions who were sleeping in the tents, leaped up from our beds in a panic and ran to him. When we saw him at the bottom, we were almost beside ourselves with fear and anguish of spirit. Seeing this, he at once raised his head and with a courteous air and cheerful look told us that he had come to no harm. Some of us therefore climbed down on the side opposite to the sheer drop where there was a way of descent, and brought him out of the place altogether safe and sound. -Book 1.32, Trans. R. W. Southern p. 110

It’s the cry, ‘Sancta Maria!’ that gets me.

Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity

Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity: Selected Translations, 500-1245Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity: Selected Translations, 500-1245 by Robert Somerville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This volume provides an introduction to its overall theme, then selected prefaces to canon law books, divided chronologically. Each chapter provides an introduction to the era covered as well as to the prefaces translated before providing translations. Each translation includes bibliographical detail for you to check the Latin for yourself.

The first chapter treats Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, taking us to around the year 700. The second covers the period from the Carolingians to around 1000. The next chapter is the Era of Reform, 1050-1140, followed by ‘Gratian and the Decretists’, and closing with ‘Papal Decretals and Their Collectors: 1190-1245’.

I read this volume primarily to gain insight into why canon law books were compiled in the Middle Ages. This question finds its variously-phrased answers, but the canonists also discuss how they compiled these books, and what the problems facing them were. The question of why tends to get a combination of ‘everything is confused and the books are hard to use’ and ‘to produce a useful, organised compendium of everything you need to know.’ As canon law grows throughout the Middle Ages, the sources themselves become like a forest; the canonists produce their books to help guide the reader. The utility is mostly for bishops hearing cases or priests hearing confessions, but there is also an idea that an educated layman could learn how live righteously expressed in some of these prefaces (rarely, however).

Different prefaces also discuss the concept of law as well as of procedure. Sometimes they consider what the authorities in canon law were, and whether there is a hierarchy of authorities. Later ones probe the relationship between secular and divine law.

This book is extraordinarily useful and has bibliographical notes throughout. Although a general history of canon law is not its intention, and not its result, it is certainly helpful in this regard, at least in terms of the development of canon law collections as well as of medieval juristic/canonistic thought.

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Justinian and (late) Roman continuity

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The Codex Justinianus (henceforth CJ for convenience) is one of the volumes of what, by the High Middle Ages, people call the Corpus Iuris Civilis, along with the other juristic/juridical/legal works of Justinian, the Digest (or Pandects), the Institutes, and Justinian’s own Novellae Constitutiones — these being the new constitutions that post-date the other work. CJ is itself an anthology of excerpts from imperial laws arranged thematically; some laws thus get themselves included multiple times. They date from Hadrian (r. 117-138) to Justinian (r. 527-565).

The Digest is the opinions of jurists where the laws conflict, a reality made manifest by CJ. It is mostly Ulpian (c. 170-223) and Paulus (2nd/3rd c. AD) The Institutes are the work of the Roman jurists, largely Gaius (108-178), mostly from the High Imperial period. These are texts that discuss how to apply the law in different cases. 

The Corpus Iuris Civilis demonstrates to us the fact that the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople (but poised to [re]conquer Africa and Italy), did not simply imagine itself to be the successor to ancient Rome but, in a very real way, was. Justinian’s consuls stand in a direct succession that saw itself receding back to Brutus in 509 BC and the foundation of the Republic. And Justinian’s desire to consolidate and clarify law, something attempted in the third century (Codex Gregorianus and Codex Hermogenianus) and fifth century (Codex Theodosianus), but not with as much staying power as Justinian’s work (esp. not the former two).

Thus, in CJ, Justinian does not restrict himself with the world after Constantine, as Codex Theodosianus had. He does not think only in terms of life in Constantinople. He sees that Roman law, taught in Beirut and applied in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, is a living body of laws that reach back to the days when an emperor resided in the Eternal City herself.

Because of this vision, I would argue that Justinian’s Novellae, despite some novelties that arise because of shifting circumstances, are themselves a natural outflow from the living tradition of Roman law. I will write more about living tradition someday soon, but it is an important idea to keep in mind when we look at the Roman and mediaeval (and all pre-modern) worlds. The process, content, and conceptualisation of the Novellae exist alongside the rest of the Corpus, alongside centuries-old laws in CJ, resulting in something that somehow is an outworking of that older tradition.

Late Antiquity is still antiquity, and Justinian, even as he forges a brave, new (‘Byzantine’) world, is part of antiquity. The world is shifting and transforming, yes — but it always has. Hadrian’s world is not Augustus’, Alexander Severus’ is not Hadrian’s, Diocletian’s is not the Severans’, Theodosius I’s is not Constantine’s or Diocletian’s, Justinian’s is Theodosius I’s — but they are all linked together by various traditions of the Roman world, including law.

Indictions (more Roman dating; still not Ovidian)

You may be thinking, ‘Gee, dating by consuls sure was fun. How else did Romans write the years in dates?’ Let me tell you, if consular dating is your bag, you’ll love indictions. I was reminded of the ancient Roman indiction cycle recently, since my current research has brought me up against Pope Gregory VII (pope, 1073-85), who uses this system in his letters, thus:

Data Rome VIIII. Kalendas Maii, Indictione XI.

Given at Rome, 8 days before the Kalends of May (24 April), in the eleventh indiction.

One may quickly jump to the conclusion that this is some medieval popery. After all, doesn’t Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604), who comes after The End of Ancient Christianity use indictions as well? Aha, but what sort of man was this first Pope Gregory? Gregory the Great was a Roman aristocrat of senatorial descent who owned a villa on the Caelian Hill, had spent time in the imperial court of Constantinople, and who acted as though Gaul was part of the Empire, not an independent, Frankish kingdom.

Not the sort of guy to go around using new-fangled dating systems.

However, the consulate was gone by Gregory’s day (the last consul was Basilius in 541). But the consulate was not the only way to write a year. Nonetheless, people did not universally and immediately start writing things Anno Domini according to their favourite paschal tables and systems of computus. They did keep using some of the older systems, and the indiction gains greater prominence at this time, at least from what my own, informal glance at the evidence shows.

Two questions, then: What on earth is an indiction? Who used them?

The indiction can be very unhelpfully explained as a fifteen-year cycle for late Roman taxation purposes. It was instituted by the Emperor Constantine (possibly originally developed by Diocletian, r. 284-305), and definitely in use in Egypt (whence come so many useful papyri for this sort of thing) by 313. What this means is that the emperors declared what the average valuation for taxation would be for the next fifteen years. The fifteen years themselves form the indiction. The very first indiction, proclaimed in 313, was backdated to 1 September 312. Every 1 September, every 15 years, a new indiction started, with the start of a new fiscal cycle for the imperial administration.

When used in dates as the Gregory VII quotation above, the word indiction actually refers to one of the fifteen years of the cycle. Thus, if people had been using the indiction in this way in 312 (which I’m pretty sure they weren’t), then ‘first indiction’ would refer to 1 September 312 – 31 August 313. Then the second indiction would begin, and so on for fifteen years. Then the cycle starts again with the new fiscal term.

One of the things this reminds us of — and it’s something I like to point out — is that Constantine, like Diocletian before him, was a reformer and shaper, and he would have been a big deal even without converting to Christianity. Indeed, perhaps his ability to think outside the conventional Roman box is part of why he threw his lot in with the Christian god.

One more small but important note is that, due to an error, in the medieval West, indictions began on 24 September. This must make chronology fun for people who look at Latin-Byzantine relations in the Middle Ages!

Anyway, that, in short, is what an indiction is. I’m probably imprecise in one or more ways; hopefully Richard will correct me in the comments.

People who use indictions to write dates:

A few Latins: Popes. Popes also used consular formulae in letters whereas such dates don’t survive for other letters. So the papal chancery is a big deal, whatever you think about institutional religion. Bede. No surprise, given that he wrote a text call On the Reckoning of Time. Cassiodorus in the Variae; I’ve not checked his historiography.

A few Greeks: Evagrius Scholasticus does sporadically, but not as his main means of dating. Theophanes Confessor.

In Syriac, at least Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, it seems.

Lots and lots of other people do, but I really don’t have time to hunt them all down.

Everything a monk needs: My latest post on the Durham Priory Project blog

I have just posted a wee discussion of the book donation list of William of St Calais and how it includes precisely the sort of books monks need to live by the Rule of St Benedict. It’s linked below. Enjoy!

The Book Donation List Of William Of St Calais: Everything A Monk Needs?