Late Roman History and Canon Law

Last week, I had blood taken. As the nurse extracted it, and I looked the other way, she made small talk, presumably to keep my mind off the grotesque and bizarre occurrence underway. She asked if I was on my way to work (it feels like a triumph when people no longer assume I’m a student), and I said sort of, that I’m an academic and can work anywhere with a book and my laptop, and that I was headed for a café afterwards.

She asked what my research was.

I said that I research Durham’s medieval manuscripts of canon law.

I think her response was something of a crestfallen, ‘Oh,’ — that sounds boring, being the subtext.

I said that it’s can actually be very interesting. For example, when you read late antique papal letters, interesting questions come up: What do you do if someone who had been captured by barbarians comes back to Roman territory and finds his wife has remarried? Leo the Great (pope, 440-461) says that the first marriage stands (Ep. 159).

The nurse seemed unconvinced and wished me a good cup of coffee. Probably the least interested/impressed person I’ve ever told about my job.*

Sometimes, when I tell people the story from Leo’s letters, they respond, ‘Well, of course, the man wins.’ In fact, the same case came up during the episcopate of Innocent I (pope, 401-417), only in Innocent’s case it was a woman returning from captivity. He also ruled in favour of the first marriage — precedent for Leo in 458.

Now, there are important and interesting things going on with the canons of marriage here, I can assure you, including their relationship to Roman law and the development of sacramental theology.

However, those are not what I’m thinking about when I try to prove to people that canon law is interesting. Rather, I’m thinking: Hey! Look, canon law tells us about normal people! ‘Normal’ people are often voiceless in our sources, aren’t they? And, if we imagine canon law as merely a body of regulations, then we see only the bishops and councils. But why does Nicetas of Aquileia write to Leo about these cases, anyway?

Here we meet ‘normal’ people — the people of the Roman Empire who are having to put the pieces back together after the barbarians have left town. In this case, men who were legally (or presumed) dead return to Romania and have to fight for their legal privileges. This displacement of persons by barbarians is not uncommon — in other cases, we learn of people carried off as children who do not know whether they were baptised before their abduction by barbrians (see Leo I, Ep. 167).

In the case of Aquileia, I imagine that the displaced men presumed dead were carried by Attila in 452. The people who were abducted as children, mentioned in Ep. 167, have returned to Narbonne around 458. Are they victims of the Battle of Narbonne, 436/7? That would account for their return home as adults. I am not certain.

But here, in these two little incidents, canon law texts are giving us the human face of the Later Roman Empire and the post-430 disruptions that were occurring in people’s lives in western Europe. This is what makes canon law interesting.

*Medievalists, including one fellow who researches scholasticism, often act as though they are in awe of anyone who dares touch canon law with a ten-foot pole, given its complexity.

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