What can we learn from one of our oldest canon law manuscripts

kn28-0212_160 incipit of epistulae decretalesSo today I finished off one round of work on a manuscript that lives in Cologne at the Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und Dombibliothek; its shelfmark is 212. The collection of documents in this manuscript is called — originally — Collectio Coloniensis. In my notes, I just call it K. I’ll refer to the manuscript as Cologne 212 from hereon in.

Cologne 212 is a manuscript from the turn of the seventh century (so, c. 600) written in a single column in a half-uncial hand. Rather than describe what a half uncial is, I refer the reader to the image on the left. It is also written in scripta continua — continuous writing. No breaks between words. This can be annoying. In fact, if you take your eyes off this massive block of text too long, it becomes very difficult to find your place again.

Cologne 212 is a very exciting manuscript for my research because — regardless of how early the collections that dwell within them were compiled — most of the manuscripts I work with are Carolingian or later — so, eighth- or ninth-century books; like the manuscript I talked about most recently. Cologne 212, then, is potentially very significant. It was written during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604) and shows us at an undeniably precise moment what knowledge of Canon Law was like in Gaul (‘France’ as you call it today) as well as the state of the texts (how good/bad they are). Because most of our collections, even when dated early, exist in later manuscripts, manuscripts like Cologne 212 shold pique the interest of every canon law scholar.

Just to give you an idea, one canonical collection (collection of material pertinent to canon law) that is related to the collection in Cologne 212 is called Frisingensis Prima. Scholars date the collection to about a century before Coloniensis. Its manuscript (Cologne, Clm 6243) is from the late 700s. One of our other earliest collections is called the Collectio Quesnelliana; Quesnelliana is dated to sometime around 495, maybe a bit after. It is transmitted in seven manuscripts, of the eighth, ninth, and twelfth centuries. The earliest securely dated Quesnelliana manuscripts are from c. 780. Another canonical collection that many scholars (but not Rosamond McKitterick!) date early — 500-525 — is the Vaticana; two of its manuscripts are eighth-century, and the third is ninth-. Another early sixth-century collection is Sanblasiana — its earliest manuscript is eighth-century. The very famous Dionysiana, in its form with papal letters from c. 525,  exists in nothing earlier than the ninth century. I could go on.

Cologne 212, then, is special. It is an early canonical collection that is contemporary with its manuscript. Only a few early collections exist in manuscripts so close to them in time. Out of the canonical collections I surveyed in my Ph.D., only three, in fact. The other two are: the sixth-century Corbeiensis in a sixth-century manuscript (Paris, lat. 12097); seventh-century Albigensis in a seventh-century manuscript (Toulouse 364 + Paris, lat. 8901).

Cologne 212 is not only close in time to its gathering — its gathering is close in time to the composition of its texts. Amongst its varied contents, it contains canons from the Second Council of Vaison in 529, the Fifth Council of Orléans in 549, and a letter from Pope John II to Caesarius of Arles from 534. Several other sets of documents from sixth-century councils and Caesarius are contained herein — mere decades after their composition.

The texts I’m looking at — letters from Popes Siricius (384-399), Innocent I (401-417), Zosimus (417-418), Celestine I (422-432), and Leo I (440-461) — are on the whole less than two centuries out from their original composition. Not bad, all things considered.

So, what did I find in Cologne 212? Well, yesterday and today I was looking at the group of papal letters associated with all of the above popes except Leo. It comes in this manuscript with the heading, ‘INCP CAN URBICANI.’ As a result, the selection of letters immediately following (not including Siricius, but anyway…) goes by the name ‘Canones Urbicani’ in the scholarly literature. These letters, whether in this particular order or not, come up in a number of different manuscripts, and the textual criticism of them is my current project.

Vat. Reg. lat. 1997

Vat. Reg. lat. 1997

My initial response to the text of these letters as I went through Cologne 212 was that they share a lot of variants with W and Te (as I term Collectio Weingartensis, in this manuscript in Stuttgart, and Collectio Teatina in Vat. Reg. lat. 1997). I am still trying to sort out W in my mind, but I do know, having studied Vat. Reg. lat. 1997 a lot, Te is definitively Italian and shares a lot of readings with a lot of other Italian canonical collections. So Gaul and Italy are not so far apart — yet. I still have a lot of other manuscripts to look at, some of them from Gaul.

Unfortunately, Cologne 212 is not a perfect manuscript. As you can see on this page, the letter of Celestine I to the Bishops of Apulia and Calabria runs into the text of his letter to the Bishops of Viennensis and Narbonensis — the former letter ends at ‘blanditus inludat’ in the second-last line. But instead of giving the date and then a new heading, the text runs into chapter IV (as divided in the Ballerini edition from 1757 now in Patrologia Latina 56) of the latter letter, ‘ordinatus uero quosdam’.

This, as it turns out, is common for the rest of this group of letters. A few more chapters fall out of this letter, and then again in the letter of Pope Siricius of Himerius of Tarragona. So, as far as those missing chapters are concerned, ‘low quality’. Presumably it was copied from a damaged exemplar.

But I also found something I’m still thinking about.

In Siricius’ letter to Himerius (from 385), Rome’s bishop is telling his Spanish colleague about how clergy shold go through the ranks. In the edition I’m collating against (not the Ballerini; unsure what their text is here) — and every manuscript I’ve read thus far — we read:

acolythus et subdiaconus esse debebit; postque ad diaconii gradum

[having lived content with a wife…] he will be allowed to be an acolyte and a subdeacon; and after, to the rank of deacon

Yes, this is only a sentence fragment. But Cologne 212 adds two interesting phrases. Its text reads:

quinque annis acolitus et subdiaconus esse debebit postquae tricensimo anno ad diaconii gradum

[having lived content with a wife…] for five years, he will be allowed to be an acolyte and subdeacon, and after, in his thirtieth year, to the rank of deacon

Since these temporal phrases don’t turn up in the other manuscripts I’ve looked at for this letter — Dionysiana, Dionysio-Hadriana, Weingartensis, Teatina — the temptation is to reject them, especially Dionysiana and Teatina are definitely old and definitiely Italian — even if their manuscripts are newer.

Another reason to reject them is that they are the sort of thing I expect to be added to canon law manuscripts. These manuscripts were written as sources for canon law, I believe. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that someone would slip in information that makes them more practical. These are standard canonical time periods and ages. If Siricius didn’t actually write them, a scribe could imagine that he had. Indeed, a scribe could have written them as interlinear notes that were later incorporated. That’s how these things work.

You have to read between the lines. Just in case someone else was.

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One thought on “What can we learn from one of our oldest canon law manuscripts

  1. Pingback: Briefly again on the Cologne manuscript from last time | The Wordhoard

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