Tag Archives: manuscripts

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.


Manuscripts and readers

I have just over one month left of my year as a mediaevalist, before taking up my new post as Assistant Professor of Latin Literature at UBC in Vancouver. I thought I’d write some blog posts reflecting on this year of mediaeval adventures in Durham as I transition back to Classics and the teaching of Horace, Ovid, Ausonius, Virgil, Lucan, Theocritus (and so forth).

One of the articles I wrote this year was about canon law education before Gratian. Gratian, about whom I’ve blogged before, published, around 1140, what would become the standard textbook for canon law for the rest of the High and Late Middle Ages. Before this, canon law was not really a subject on its own. The cathedral schools and fledgling associations of teachers (masters) called uniuersitates would have touched this material, if at all, as part of training in theology.

Of course, people knew the canons of the church. This is most easily demonstrable in the works of canonists such as Ivo of Chartres (Bishop of Chartres, 1090-1115) or Burchard of Worms (Bishop of Worms, 1000-1025). However, the writings of other bishops also demonstrate an intimate knowledge of church canons and the theology underpinning them. For example, Anselm of Canterbury (Archbp of Canterbury, 1093-1109) demonstrates in his letters a similar use and knowledge of canon law as Ivo in his own letters.

The question arises, how does someone like Anselm or his contemporary, William of St-Calais (Bishop of Durham, 1080-1096), gain his knowledge of canon law in an age before it was being taught as a separate discipline?

The answer: They read books.

The case of William of St-Calais has been demonstrated very well by Mark Philpott, who compared William’s copy of the canon law collection Collectio Lanfranci with Simeon of Durham’s De iniusta vexacione, an account of William’s treatment by King William II ‘Rufus’. Philpott shows that every time Bishop William refers to the canons of the church at the king’s court at Old Sarum in 1088, there are marginal notes in his copy of Collectio Lanfranci.

So the question of how do you learn canon law before Gratian — or even, in many cases, after Gratian — moves our study of education from the classroom to the reading stall. It also takes our study of manuscripts from texts and scribes to readers and marginalia.

As a classicist, I have generally been interested in manuscripts as repositories of texts which can serve as a pathway or a window into the past, leading us back to something similar to an author’s ipsissima verba. As a medievalist, I have considered them in the other direction: How would a reader of this manuscript be influenced by the text?

For example, Durham Cathedral Library B.IV.17 is an early twelfth-century copy of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms. Among the elements of note are marginalia in pencil next to certain of the canons, revealing to us the interests of one of the readers. I noticed that a lot of these markings were towards the beginning, where Burchard deals with the right (or wrong!) behaviour of bishops, and I couldn’t help but think about some of Durham’s bishops who likely transgressed the canons presented here, or about the literal episcopal civil war between William of Ste-Barbe and William Comin in the 1140s, or, later, the disputes between the monks of the cathedral and bishop Antony Bek.

Another feature of this book is the underlining in black ink of the sources of authority in canon law. Here we see, then, a reinforcing of the authority of certain church fathers and of popes in matters of church regulation.

Any reader of this manuscript after the penciller will have noticed these markings, too, and will have had his reading of Burchard transformed as a result.

Many of these same features are also visible in the six Gratian manuscripts I studied this year, except that all the Gratian manuscripts are heavily glossed. Thus, regardless of what someone might have thought about the canons of the church as organised and harmonised by Gratian, that person’s reading of church law will be shifted and transformed by the glosses, automatically interpreted by the glossator. And the reader can add more glosses himself — some of them did.

Another aspect of reading a manuscript is the layout. You can see how these books could have been useful. Burchard and Gratian both lay out their texts with red headings and subheadings (ruber = red, hence rubric). New chapters or books might have a massive historiated initial to signal their existence. Running headings across the top also assist in the navigation of these high mediaeval books.

You may think, ‘But, of course! My copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival has running headings and chapter divisions and page numbers, and even an index of persons!’ Well, remember Collectio Coloniensis from back in 2016? Well, that manuscript is basically a big wall of text (ms Cologne 212):

This is not easy to navigate, I can assure you! The rubric at the bottom is almost all you get in Coloniensis. Most new items get uncial incipits in the same colour rather than a rubricated heading. It can be a real pain!

Consider Durham Cathedral Library, B.IV.17:

Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

Much easier to read!

There is much more to be said about the reader’s experience in the Middle Ages, but it is an important approach to manuscripts, one worthy of consideration (and I know other scholars work on it!). And one that is useful for classics as well!


Check out Ivo’s works here.

Durham Priory Library Recreated

Cologne’s digitised manuscripts: Codices Electronicae Ecclesiae Coloniensis.

Mark Philpott, ‘”In primis … omnis humanae prudentiae inscius et expers putaretur”: St Anselm’s Knowledge of Canon Law’, in D. E. Luscombe and G. R. Evans, eds, Anselm: Aosta, Bec and Canterbury (Sheffield, 1996), 94-105.

—. ‘The De iniusta vexacione Willelmi episcopi primi and Canon Law in Anglo-Norman Durham’, in David Rollason, Margaret Harvey, and Michael Prestwich, eds, Anglo-Norman Durham 1093-1193 (Woodbridge, 1994), 125-137.

Two Fulgentii for the price of one

In my latest post for the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog, I discuss the insufficiencies of the old Durham Cathedral catalogue and point out the library’s manuscripts with works by Fulgentius. Both of him. Enjoy!

Sorting out your Fulgentii

What can you learn from a list of popes?

My latest offering on the Durham Priory Library Recreated blog discusses what a late twelfth-century papal catalogue (a type of document I’ve blogged about before) shows us about eighth-century history. Or, at least, how it refracts that history:

Dates, Popes, and Emperors


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.

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

My latest post at the Durham Priory Recreated Project blog is about the various different Late Antique texts found in the priory library. In many ways, medieval Christianity is just a 1000-year reception of ancient Christianity. Enjoy!

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham