Tag Archives: textbooks

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.