Seminar CCXIX: before the canon of canon law

Finally leaving November 2014 but not yet catching up to the all-important line of a full year behind, my backlogged reporting now brings me back into the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, where on 3rd December 2014 Dr Danica Summerlin was speaking with the title, “The Afterlife of the ‘Old Law’: rethinking the role of pre-Gratian texts in later twelfth-century canonical collections”. I’ve been in occasional contact with Danica since early in her Ph. D. and so was there at least partly out of loyalty, to her and the seminar both; this is not my topic, and I have consequently little contribution to make in a blog post, but it seems to me that her big point is worth blogging anyway.

Sixteenth-century fresco depiction of the First Council of Nicæa, A. D. 325, in the church of Ayios Sozomenos in Galata, Cyprus

A sixteenth-century depiction of canon law in creation in the form of the First Council of Nicæa, A. D. 325, in the church of Ayios Sozomenos in Galata, Cyprus

If you’ve read about canon law at a textbook level you may have a picture that runs roughly like this: once we’re out of the era of great Church councils to which the West pays attention (because I feel it’s worth remembering that none of these concepts make any sense outside the Latin world), canon law is a disjointed area of knowledge in which the general opinion is so disparate that people can easily make stuff up and be taken seriously; come the eleventh century, when as we know ‘from nothing’ civilisation suddenly shakes off the supposed Dark Ages and gets with the Europeanizing program, people like Burchard of Worms start producing more systematic compilations of rulings of Church councils; but really, none of this counts as much as the work of Gratian, whose Harmonisation of Discordant Canons, usually known to us as the Decretum from the papal legal judgements it also compiles, which puts everything worth including in a sensible order and is then (after about 1150) made the basis for high-level education in canon law and so propagates across the Latin West in short order, job done, civilisation achieved.1

A page from a glossed fourteenth-century of the Decretum, Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, Pluteo II sin. cod. 1, fol. 2r.

A page from a glossed fourteenth-century of the Decretum, Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, Pluteo II sin. cod. 1, fol. 2r.

Inevitably—and above at least deliberately—this is over-simplistic, but it also, argued Danica, very much misrepresents what the first users of Gratian’s work wanted it for. It is not as simple as that Gratian provided them with an authoritative source of ‘old law’, because the compilations into which his early work was copied often included extra stuff from older texts, and in some cases the older texts were preferred precisely because of their antiquity. Many texts were copied with his work which a modern classification would not even call canons (or decretals). They often take only a small sample of Gratian and then edit it together with stuff from Burchard, or similar, and sometimes the extra material is then copied separately, by people who presumably had Gratian but thought that they needed this extra stuff which he had, in the modern view, supplanted. As Danica spoke it became clear that she could show, as many times as we liked, that this replacement was not total and that it was very slow, still incomplete by 1250 or even later when these variant texts were still being copied. More importantly, what shouldn’t have been surprising but still is, I guess because something like Gratian looks like a centralised set of rules to which all the Church might have been expected to subscribe, is the scale of variation between the texts. Everyone who made a compilation from or copied part of the Decretum had their own particular purpose. Well thankyou Captain Obvious, you may well say, but it has not been obvious; what has supposedly been obvious is this idea of the Decretum as the almost-immediately-definitive version of Western canon law, and what Danica made obvious was that that was not obvious to its initial audience and users, and that what should be obvious to us instead is the variation of their responses to it.

1. E. g. the one I keep around partly for its list of rulers but partly as a source of evidence for the textbook clichés I like to lampoon, Jo Ann Moran Cruz & Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history 300-1492 (Boston MA 2004), pp. 408-409: “… these courts rested on a body of ecclesiastical law called canon law. This church law had been effectively pulled together by lawyers and administrators in the wake of the Gregorian reform, and particularly in the 1140s by Gratian, a law teacher at Bologna, in his Decretum, an authoritative concordance of canon law (see Chapters 11 and 14)”. And… that’s it. Even in those other chapters it doesn’t give any clue what the sources of canon law actually were or anything that might dispel the impression here given that these lawyers and administrators and Gratian actually originated the law which they published. Here as in the various webpages I’ve linked, the story we’re able to tell starts with Gratian making it all much simpler. Well, a different story could be told.

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