Tag Archives: roman law

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!

View all my reviews

Justinian and (late) Roman continuity

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The Codex Justinianus (henceforth CJ for convenience) is one of the volumes of what, by the High Middle Ages, people call the Corpus Iuris Civilis, along with the other juristic/juridical/legal works of Justinian, the Digest (or Pandects), the Institutes, and Justinian’s own Novellae Constitutiones — these being the new constitutions that post-date the other work. CJ is itself an anthology of excerpts from imperial laws arranged thematically; some laws thus get themselves included multiple times. They date from Hadrian (r. 117-138) to Justinian (r. 527-565).

The Digest is the opinions of jurists where the laws conflict, a reality made manifest by CJ. It is mostly Ulpian (c. 170-223) and Paulus (2nd/3rd c. AD) The Institutes are the work of the Roman jurists, largely Gaius (108-178), mostly from the High Imperial period. These are texts that discuss how to apply the law in different cases. 

The Corpus Iuris Civilis demonstrates to us the fact that the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople (but poised to [re]conquer Africa and Italy), did not simply imagine itself to be the successor to ancient Rome but, in a very real way, was. Justinian’s consuls stand in a direct succession that saw itself receding back to Brutus in 509 BC and the foundation of the Republic. And Justinian’s desire to consolidate and clarify law, something attempted in the third century (Codex Gregorianus and Codex Hermogenianus) and fifth century (Codex Theodosianus), but not with as much staying power as Justinian’s work (esp. not the former two).

Thus, in CJ, Justinian does not restrict himself with the world after Constantine, as Codex Theodosianus had. He does not think only in terms of life in Constantinople. He sees that Roman law, taught in Beirut and applied in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, is a living body of laws that reach back to the days when an emperor resided in the Eternal City herself.

Because of this vision, I would argue that Justinian’s Novellae, despite some novelties that arise because of shifting circumstances, are themselves a natural outflow from the living tradition of Roman law. I will write more about living tradition someday soon, but it is an important idea to keep in mind when we look at the Roman and mediaeval (and all pre-modern) worlds. The process, content, and conceptualisation of the Novellae exist alongside the rest of the Corpus, alongside centuries-old laws in CJ, resulting in something that somehow is an outworking of that older tradition.

Late Antiquity is still antiquity, and Justinian, even as he forges a brave, new (‘Byzantine’) world, is part of antiquity. The world is shifting and transforming, yes — but it always has. Hadrian’s world is not Augustus’, Alexander Severus’ is not Hadrian’s, Diocletian’s is not the Severans’, Theodosius I’s is not Constantine’s or Diocletian’s, Justinian’s is Theodosius I’s — but they are all linked together by various traditions of the Roman world, including law.