Tag Archives: apostolic canons

The story in a canon law manuscript

One of the manuscripts that I had to consult both for my PhD and for my current research lives at the Biblioteca Vallicelliana. Its shelfmark is A.5. Like most of the manuscripts I study, this is a manuscript about canon law; wait, no, it’s a manuscript of canon law. Before you fall asleep, I direct your attention to this piece about making canon law sexy. (That’s actually a potential book title; I claim it now!)

Manuscript A.5 is very large. 35.5 x 45.5 cm large. It’s over 300 pages long, written in two columns. The main text is in Caroline minuscule with capitalis rubrics. Here’s some Caroline minuscule to keep you happy:

Page of text (folio 160v) from a Carolingian Gospel Book (British Library, MS Add. 11848), written in Carolingian minuscule. From Wikiwand.

Page of text (folio 160v) from a Carolingian Gospel Book (British Library, MS Add. 11848), written in Carolingian minuscule. From Wikiwand.

As I say, the manuscript under discussion is a canon law manuscript. Its contents list the Concordia Canonum of a fellow named Cresconius, the Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana, and then a bunch of other material we call the Collectio Dionysiana adaucta, closing with some selections of St Augustine about the Trinity (I didn’t take time to determine which selections).

Cresconius’ Concordia is a rearrangement of the Collectio Dionysiana by theme, rather than chronology. So passages from church councils and papal letters are taken from the their original context in the Dionysiana and given together by topic. It was made to be a handbook for bishops who try cases.

It’s not here.

A fragment of Cresconius’ introduction is. But of what follows, all we find is a list of the tituli (chapter headings). This moves straight into a catalogue of popes that ends with Nicholas I (858-67). Catalogues of popes are one of the ways we can date either a manuscript or the collection of documents it contains. In this case, it has generally been assumed that Vallicelliana A.5 is from the papacy of Hadrian II (867-72). Mordek, in Biblioteca Capitularium (1995), simply states that the manuscript is from the mid-ninth century.

However, it was clear to me when viewing this manuscript that the words for Pope Nicholas were written by one hand and the numbers by another. Unlike the earlier popes. I suggest, therefore, that the manuscript was penned during the pontificate of Nicholas I, and that the dates for his papacy were filled in by a second hand during the pontificate of Hadrian II — or later.

After this catalogue of popes comes the preface of Dionysius Exiguus to his canonical collection, then a list of all of his tituli, then the text of the augmented version of Dionysius’ collection called the Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana (so called because Hadrian I sent a copy to Charlemagne whence all others come). After the Dionysio-Hadriana comes the Dionysiana adaucta.

Pretty straightforward. These are the things in the manuscript.

But manuscripts are not simply repositories of texts. A manuscript tells a story. As Rosamond McKitterick argues in History and Memory in the Carolingian World:

Chronologically-ordered canon law collections are essentially history books, for they offer a progression of ideas and decisions of the church issuing from the great councils and popes of the church, all securely dated and geographically located. (255)

There are various ways ms A.5 can tell its story. One is simply by telling the story of the Dionysio-Hadriana adaucta — a story wherein the government and regulation of the church is taken care of by church councils and popes. And what makes that story especially interesting is that papal letters pertinent to canon law (decretals) become much thicker on the ground in this collection at the same time that local councils thin out. The only fifth-century local council that I recall seeing in this collection is the anti-Pelagian Council of Carthage of 418, presided over by Bp Aurelius of Carthage (but ratified by Pope Innocent I!). Whereas the fourth century was dominated by local and ecumenical councils, the fifth is dominated by popes and ecumenical council.

Worth thinking about.

A second way (and then I’m done!) this manuscript can tell us its story is paratextual elements. Paratextual elements are, things beside the text — the layout of the page, the size of writing, the choice of bookhand, the behaviour of a scribal corrector, the decoration, the order of contents, etc.

The most interesting paratext in this manuscript runs folios 33v-35v — that is, two spreads of open pages and the back of one (manuscript pages are numbered only once for front and back, then recto and verso). Here we meet what has been seen as one of the defining moments of Church history since the later fourth century, and especially since the Council of Ephesus (431).

33v-34r contain four purple rectangles (2 per side) containing text in golden uncial writing and beautiful litterae notabiliores (‘more notable letters’) to start each section of the text herein. The litterae notabiliores have Carolingian knotwork in them that would make many an eye think, ‘Celtic’. 33v begins:


The Nicene Creed (‘Credimus in unum…’) begins on 34r with its own beautiful littera notabilior C. That page ends at ‘homousion hoc’ — choosing to transliterate but not translate the once-contentious homoousion. Which is normal behaviour in Latin manuscripts (overall, their use of Greek characters is mixed — see Aaron Pelttari, ‘Approaches to the Writing of Greek in
Late Antique Latin Texts’, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 51 (2011) 461–482).

The Creed runs for 34v-35r, still golden uncials in four purple boxes, but no start of a text, so no litterae notabiliores. 35v gives us two final purple boxes, but this time they are in a golden capitalis instead of uncial, smaller than the preceding uncials, giving a preface to the canonical material of Nicaea. Here’s a page from Codex Amiatinus, a Bible (‘Bede’s Bible’?) written in a form of uncial from Britain (to give something of an idea; the image is from Wikipedia):

Codex_Amiatinus_(1_Cor_1,1-21)Most medieval books display what McKitterick calls a ‘hierarchy of scripts’ (‘Script and book production’, in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, 222) — but especially the Carolingians. Here we see the hierarchy: uncial – capitalis – minuscule.

If you wish to find a text dear to the heart of Christians across the world, there is none — besides the Bible — more popular than the Nicene Creed. A version of it (not this, a Latin translation of the original) was introduced into the liturgy by Emperor Justin II (r. 565-574). Justin did so as an attempt to restore unity to a fractured Christianity in his empire, since it was a text that Chalcedonians (both Neo-Chalcedonians who supported Justinian and those in Northern Italy who resisted the condemnation of the Three Chapters in 553) and their ‘Monophysite’ (Miaphysite/conservative Cyrillian) opponents. I doubt it was much of a concern for Justin II, but the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East — which existed outside the Empire in Persian territory and beyond — also approved this Creed. And today, it is affirmed by the descendents of those ecclesial communities; even certain Protestants who protest its use believe it!*

The prestige of this Creed, then, goes a long, long way back.

And it was clearly seen as the most important thing in manuscript A.5 by whoever put it together, giving the Creed the royal treatment (literally, if you think about it).

This love of Nicaea, with its anti-Arian anathemas (these are included in the version in this ms!!) and all, helps explain why A.5 ends with the teaching of Augustine on the Trinity. Augustine was/is the most pre-eminent of the Latin Church Fathers, and Carolingian Christianity embraced the Church Fathers as an integral part of its own heritage. Who better than Augustine, then? And so the manuscript concludes.

Thus I conclude: This manuscript tells a story. The story is that of the rise of the papacy and the church councils. The story of church order from the (apocryphal) Canones Apostolorum (‘Canons of the Apostles’) to the reforming work of Pope Zacharias in the 700s. The person who created it believed strongly in the Trinity, so the climax of the story is the Council of Nicaea and its Creed. The last word is given by Augustine — about the Trinity.

Every manuscript is unique. Every manuscript tells a story. We just need to learn how to read those stories.

*But not Christadelphians, Oneness Pentecostals, Hillsong (I think?), Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians of any sort, and undoubtedly other groups.

A moment in Gregory of Tours illustrating canon law textual criticism

Gregory of Tours and Salvius of Albi before Chilperic I

Gregory of Tours and Salvius of Albi before Chilperic I

In his History of the Franks, (written ca. 593/4) 5.18, Gregory (Bishop) of Tours provides a lengthy description and discussion of the trial of Praetextatus, Bishop of Rouen, by King Chilperic who was accusing Praetextatus of colluding with Chilperic’s enemies and selling/giving away some of the king’s goods for his own profit. Eventually, despite Gregory testifying in the trial as to Praetextatus’ innocence, and the worthiness of Praetextatus’ testimony, some of Chilperic’s cronies trick Praetextatus into making a confession that he had colluded with Chilperic’s son Merovech to have Chilperic murdered. Praetextatus’ hope was that he would receive mercy and clemency from the king.

King Chilperic, unfortunately, was operating to please his wife Fredegund. And if a Frankish king or lord is ever doing something nasty because of his wife or mistress in Gregory’s History, he will see it through to the end, even when — as Chilperic does — he secretly admits his opponent’s innocence. Interestingly, the case does not initially begin because of Fredegund but because Chiperic hears that Praetextatus ‘was bribing people to against his [Chilperic’s] interests.’ It is only later that Gregory brings in the Fredegund connection. Later on, after Chilperic’s death, Fredegund and Praetextatus will have a run-in again.

But Gregory’s portrayal of royal women is a discussion for someone else.

The next, after Praetextatus’ admission of guilt, Gregory and the other bishops were sitting around awkwardly, having told Chilperic that they wouldn’t do anything to Praetextatus without the canons of the church (that is, the regulations concerning ecclesiastical discipline). Thus the following:

King Chilperic went home to his lodging. He sent to us a book of the canons, with a newly-copied four-page insert, which contained what appeared to be apostolic canons, including the following words: ‘A bishop convicted of murder, adultery or perjury shall be expelled from his bishopric. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 5.18, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics)

Praetextatus is accordingly sent into exile and only recalled after Chilperic’s death.

This story about the book of the canons is very intriguing. I like first of all that Gregory says nowhere whether this was a forgery, but he obviously thought so. It’s more than a little suspicious that the sought-after canon is on a ‘newly-copied four-page insert’. And Gregory says that these only appeared to be apostolic canons. He is saying without saying it that Chilperic doctored a manuscript to get the desired results — and he went straight to the source, providing apostolic canons, not ones from a church council or a pope, but the Apostles themselves.

Did Chilperic think the bishops would be deceived, or did he assume they would just give in at this point? Gregory, at least, was not deceived.

What gave Chilperic away was the fact that the quire was newly-copied. It didn’t match. It was not, as a modern person might assume, the fact that the forged text alleges to be from the apostles. This is because there is a text called the Apostolic Canons, and it was included in many canon law books throughout the Middle Ages.

Forgery is a not uncommon phenomenon in canon law. The very Apostolic Canons, or the text known as the Apostolic Constitutions, are forgeries. We have at least one forged letter of Leo the Great. In the mid-ninth century, a group of canonist-forgers known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’ forged an extensive series of papal letters from the ante-Nicene period.

The Chilperic forgery in Gregory is an egregious example of someone making stuff up simply to get his way. While that tends to lie beneath all forgeries, it is also the case that many medieval people made forgeries in the name of someone who, they believe, would have said what the forgery said … if only they had said it. And I’m fairly sure the Apostles would not have been keen on murderers and adulterers as bishops!

Finally, this story also reminds us of the fragility of the integrity not only of any text, but of compilation-style texts — by which I mean a series of canons, into which any unscrupulous character could slip in a new canon or even silently remove one and renumber it all. But not only canons, but sources such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or those trendy Jesus-sayings-sources like the Gospel of Thomas.

The job of the text critic is to engage in textual archaeology and unearth the truth about any potential interpolations and to never take a text claiming apostolic authority at face value. Gregory of Tours seems not have, either.