Tag Archives: canon law

After Leo, then what?

Me at Leo’s tomb, St Peter’s

My current research is embroiled in the next steps of my project on the letters of Leo the Great — editing, translating, and writing a commentary on them. If I live to see the end of this, what will my next big project be? I will stick with papal letters if I’ve not tired of them, but from a different perspective.

I would want to write a social history of Latin Christianity in the long (papal) fifth century — Siricius in 385 to Symmachus’ death in 514. The core sources would be the papal letters, although I am not afraid of using corroborating evidence or challenging them with contrary evidence as I go. One of the frustrations I had with Crisis Management in Late Antiquity is that, since it was a study of only one body of evidence, all sorts of other questions of how bishops dealt with crises were excluded, or at least potential answers were excluded. I don’t want to do that.

The question I would pose would be a sidestep of papal history and episcopal self-fashioning in late antique Rome. Instead, I would ask, ‘What do these letters tell us about everybody else? Especially the laypeople.‘ What is everyday life like for the fifth-century citizenry of the cities to whom the popes write? Papal letters, like other episcopal letters and canon law documents, are responding to situations. What situations are they responding to? What are the ramifications? How does this fit in with other evidence?

Some of these situations have been studied already, but my angle is not, ‘What does this tell us about Innocent or Celestine?’ Rather, my angle is, ‘What does this tell us about the lives of these ‘ordinary’ people?’

If I’m tired of papal letters by then — as I may well be — a book on the devotional expectations of fifth-century Italian preachers of their lay audience would be of interest, assessing Leo the Great, Peter Chrysologus, and Maximus of Turin. All-too-often visions of late antique piety are concerned with monks or with what these preachers would have considered ‘deviant’ practices — so what did they recommend, and what is its meaning in its own place and time?

Reading a manuscript as a whole

Related to my last post of medieval musings, the other important methodological concern that characterised my research this year was not simply paying attention to paratextual elements in manuscripts but to their contents as a whole. It may be a gross oversimplification to say this, but in a great many studies of canon law, there is an ever finer process of definition and cutting away. Thus, someone who studies decretals will look at the first 18 folios of a manuscript and pay no heed to the copy of Gratian to which the decretals are attached. Or someone who does canon law will look at the ‘canon law’ section of a miscellany but not its theological section.

Once again, however, when we put ourselves in the reader’s seat, we cannot look at the manuscripts in this way. When I study Durham’s six glossed copies of Gratian’s Decretum, I am interested in what else I may find. Durham Cathedral Library MS C.III.1, for example, begins with a ‘homemade’ canonical collection with excerpts from a variety of sources, including a papal catalogue, an arbor consanguinitatis, and a decretal collection. And then a glossed copy of Gratian of similar date but a different hand. If these were bound together early, most readers will have had their reading of Gratian shaped by this other material, not just the glosses.

One result, for example, is the emphasis on papal authority that comes from the papal catalogue and the decretal collection. Also, the ongoing controversy in canon law about marriage is cast into sharp relief by the arbor consanguinitatis.

That is just one example.

Another example that my boss told me about two days ago is the fact that, once the Latin translation of John of Damascus De fide orthodoxa is complete, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo finds itself always transmitted with the Damascene. Somehow, people found a resonance between these two documents. Those who read the texts would inevitably be influenced by this editorial decision.

I once queried why notitiae of Roman provinces find their way into canonical collections. The answer is that Carolingians in the ninth century created a system whereby the bishop of the Roman province number Prima in those notitiae was the Primas, the Primate, with certain rights and responsibilities to those below him. So the administrative structure of a long-dead empire was suddenly of great interest, and people copied these texts. If all I did with a manuscript was read the ‘canon law’ material, I would miss this important nuance in the reader’s experience.

Rosamond McKitterick, in History and Memory in the Carolingian World, has argued that by collecting papal letters alongside church councils, the authority of the popes in matters of canon law was reinforced. It makes sense when you read the whole manuscript together, doesn’t it?

Examples abound. This is a useful approach, and it certainly helps one understand some texts when they don’t seem to make sense in any other way.

Law As Theology

It is commonplace to say in discussions about medieval canon law that before c. 1140 with Gratian’s Decretum, canon law was not distinct from theology. But nobody does anything about it! So here’s my latest from the Priory Project blog where I discuss how considering canon law as theology might help us come to understand one of Durham’s manuscripts:

Law As Theology: Hypothesising About One Of Durham’s Canon Law Manuscripts

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.

Gratian’s Decretum both fills and creates a need

Tree of consanguinity (13th-c, not a Durham ms; do not know which ms)

This week, I spent some time analysing three of Durham Cathedral Library’s canon law manuscripts, C.II.1, C.I.7, and C.III.1. All of these are from the late twelfth or very early thirteenth century. Sadly, none is yet digitised. They are all manuscripts of Magister Gratian’s so-called Decretum, a canon law collection put together around 1140 in Bologna (original title: Concordia discordantium canonum — Concord of discordant canons). They all include glosses — marginal commentaries keyed to individual words in the main text. C.II.1 and C.I.7 have the same base gloss.

The University of Bologna, where Magister Gratian taught, has a strong claim to being Europe’s first university (as we understand the term), and where the scholastic study of both Roman and canon law was born in the 1100s. With the rise of the university comes the need for textbooks. We all know this today — as an undergraduate, I used Wheelock’s LatinGreek: An Intensive CourseA History of the Roman People, all books designed specifically for teaching, for the classroom (the schola in medieval terms; thus scholasticus, thus ‘scholasticism’).

Gratian’s Decretum is that textbook for most of the rest of the Middle Ages, although as the body of papal legislation ramps up in the 1200s, it becomes necessary to supplement Gratian in the classroom with the new laws. Gratian offers the reader a systematic setting forth of church law. He begins with what many call the ‘Treatise on Laws’, a discussion of what natural and customary law are, what their domains are, what justice is, whether laws can be unjust, and what the sources of authority in law are amongst other concerns.

The Decretum as most people used it from the 1150s on, then systematically treats different sub-areas of canon law. Following the scholastic method, Gratian lays out for the reader different opinions from various authorities (councils, popes, church fathers) and seeks a way through them where they differ, finding the concordia of the book’s title. When the authorities themselves do not naturally create a resolution, Gratian will give his own.

The result is a massive compendium of canon law covering most of what one needs to know in the mid-1100s. It is much larger than, say, the Decretum of Burchard of Worms from the early 1000s (having held manuscripts of both, I can attest to this fact). Nevertheless, Gratian’s Decretum fills the need for a canon law textbook, a need keenly felt, given how quickly it was dispersed and how full its dominance really was. Take note that canon law is the one subject taught at all medieval universities and that some of the cathedral schools, such as that of Lincoln, closed because they did not offer canon law. A textbook such as this had a wide audience and great potential.

It fills a need.

I think also, however, that it creates a need. With a text suited to the methods of the twelfth-century classroom becoming widely available, more people would be able to become more deeply acquainted with the broad range of church legislation that Gratian had compiled. It became the set body of esoteric knowledge needed to become a professional in canon law. With everyone teaching it and learning from it, anyone who wanted to make a case in an ecclesiastical court or through a written plea/appeal or simply who wanted to get a job done in compliance with church law, would have to have either someone versed in canon law at hand or be that person him’erself (usually him, this being the Middle Ages, but not always).

Thus, by its very popularity, Gratian’s Decretum created the need for Gratian’s Decretum. We don’t have four copies in Durham for no reason. No matter how good Ivo’s Decretum or Burchard’s or the Panormia attributed to Ivo was, without the particulars of law as set out in Gratian’s Decretum, one would be at a disadvantage in the brave, new world of burgeoning canon law and the growth of the western church as a legislative institution.

So everyone got a copy.

Law and Theology in the Middle Ages by G. R. Evans

Law and Theology in the Middle AgesLaw and Theology in the Middle Ages by G.R. Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a readable introduction of a topic that deserves more interest — the relationship between law and theology. After setting the stage by discussing the various definitions needed to address the very questions of ‘law’ and ‘theology’, Evans gives an account that is largely focussed on law in the High Middle Ages, bringing into play certain theological concepts as needed.

An example of the difficulties of definition lies in the fact that the English word law translates both ius and lex, and the Latin iustitia can mean either righteousness or justice. These are important points if we are to attempt to make an entry into how medieval people thought about and practised law. Several other definitions are assessed throughout, with recourse to the Digest of Justinian, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, and then the high medieval canonists, decretists, and jurists — Gratian, Anselm of Laon, the Summa ‘Elegantius’. Theologians who give spiritual flesh to the legal thought herein are usually Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, but only one Peter Lombard.

Much of the middle of the book is taken up with a straightforward discussion of legal operation in the Middle Ages. This was very clear and pitched at an introductory level but with constant reference to the primary sources. It is clear that Evans, writing from the perspective of theology and intellectual history, was interested in helping others from her own background gain a grasp of medieval law and its relevance to theology. As a result, we have a very good description of medieval legal process that is tied into the great medieval worldview through the introduction and conclusion.

The only difficulties I had with the book were the references to contemporary English law and procedure. What little I know of modern law is either Canadian (like me) or American (because of TV and movies).

This is a book that opens up what should be a fruitful field of study. Greta Austin has already taken up Evans’ summons in the final chapter of Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. No doubt others have and will. I find myself wanting to work backwards from Evans’ starting points — that is, to look at Late Antique canon law and pastoral theology up to Isidore of Seville!

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