‘…yet we do not despair’

Hope in early medieval canon law

While the dark clouds of uninformed, misguided higher education policy are gathering over universities in the Netherlands, I was asked to talk about hope in early medieval canon law for the International Medieval Conference (IMC) at Leeds this year. The confusion did not end there: canon law—with its flurry of prohibitions, penance, and anathemas—does not strike one as a textual genre in which hope is a central feature. Yet, there is more than meets the eye. In fact, I should like to argue in the course of this paper that canon law is the literary genre of hope par excellence.


‘And in the Synod of Agde: The drunkard, as the rank allows, must be expelled from communion for thirty days, or placed under corporal punishment.’

Collection in 400 chapters, c. 109
Vienna, ÖNB lat. 522, f. 159r

In a way, this statement is perhaps a tautology: in many respects, the act of writing, of producing something for future readers is always a testimony of hope. In an early call to human scientists to put emotions front and centre in their studies, Thomas Meisenhelder in 1982 defined hope as a particularly active emotion; one ‘which includes the sure recognition of the future’s uncertainty’, but still ‘continues to actively confront the future as if one’s actions had effective meaning’. Hope can then be contrasted with the passive endurance of an unalterable future. In a particularly moving description, Meisenhelder describes the hopeless person as one who ‘accepts the inevitability of his or her singular life and lonely death’. In contrast, the hopeful denies one’s finite aloneness and actively confront the two basic facts of life: loneliness and death.1

Viewed as such, the activity of writing down religious and ecclesiastical rules is a prominently hopeful act. The aim of the compilers was, one assumes, to cleanse society—and future societies—of disruptive behaviour and to help people alter their lives to accord better with an ideal, Christian future. This would be a particularly ‘big hope’, in the scheme proposed by Peter Burke, in a recent article titled ‘Does Hope Have a History?’ (the answer is, thankfully, ‘yes’). He distinguished the various objects of hope in ‘big hopes’ on the one hand (hopes for a better world, for the entire human race) and ‘small hopes’ (individual hopes, everyday hopes).2

The prefaces to canonical collections, one could argue, communicate the ‘smaller hopes’ of the compilers, i.e. the aims which they hope their specific collection serves to accomplish, but also refer to that ‘bigger hope’, the one concerning humankind. Dionysius Exiguus, the compiler of the Dionysiana, is clear about the end goal of canonical law in general, when he observes that the ‘discipline of ecclesiastical order, remaining invulnerable, might offer to all Christians a gateway for gaining the eternal prize.’ The latter Collectio Sanblasiana adopts the same preface.

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Living the law in the early medieval West

The earliest form of European law is canon law, the first body of legal texts with ambitions to universal applicability for all Christians in the West, regardless of geographic, political or social boundaries. From the fourth century onwards we observe a steady growth in the involvement of individual Christian clerics and church councils in the making and codification of law. Early medieval canon law collections, rulings of church councils, Papal legislation (in the form of letters), and penitential literature, far outnumber the surviving legislation issued by early medieval kings. Canon law, and especially canon law collections, was also much more sophisticated: it drew upon a wide array of sources, it benefited from the debate culture of church councils, it often sought to have a universal rather than local appeal, and it can be seen to interact with various European vernacular laws, some of which are couched in pre-Christian traditions. Canon law is an especially important historical source because the dialectic process through which it was formed allows us to gauge the way in which different contemporary cultural traditions could be fused and eventually forge new identities in the period of transformations from late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages.

However, many of the essential scholarly publications in the field of early medieval canon law are now over a century old. Despite being meticulously researched, they are extremely technical and are all but impenetrable to non-specialists (many are written in Latin).[1] Moreover, many of the sources necessary to study early canon law remain unedited and available only in manuscript. The impenetrability/unavailability of the sources and resources for the study of early canon law led, in the twentieth century, to the subject being generally neglected by early medieval historians. Late antique and early medieval canon law are still considered rather obscure subjects today. Yet, few would argue with the statement that religious and ecclesiastical law was of the highest importance for the literate (mostly clerical) elite throughout the Middle Ages. A better understanding of the dynamics within the genre therefore will not only elucidate the scholarly context of these intellectuals, but the insights gained from the study of these canonical texts can also be brought to bear on the development of western thought more generally.

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