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.

In recent years a number of scholars have been engaging in innovative, fresh research, contributing to the emergence of the study of canon law as a central theme in the historiography of early medieval Europe. Present-day historians of canon law are becoming increasingly aware of the potential of their sources to shed light on matters beyond the dispensing of justice or the imposing of discipline on Christian communities.[2] Early canon law is now recognized as playing a decisive role in the development of western thought and culture. Indeed, recent studies have begun to illuminate the ways in which canon law contributed to many of the most important social, political and intellectual developments in the late antique and early medieval periods, and to issues like identity and social-group formation, conceptualizations of the early medieval ‘Other’, the process of conversion, the regulation of literacy, the interpretation of the Bible, and the formation of historical consciousness.[3]

The present project aims to capitalize on this recent trend in canonical scholarship, by harnessing the skills and focusing the energies of a cadre of international scholars (including both established scholars and early-career historians) exploring the subject of early canon law in a social context. The pooled professional and intellectual resources of the network thereby formed will serve to encourage and support further research on the subject of ‘Contribution of Canon Law to European Culture’, within (at first) the structure and timeline defined by the present proposal, and (later) within the structure of a larger, fully elaborated, international project.

[1] For instance Sancti Leonis Magni romani pontificis opera, post Paschasii Quesnelli recensionem ad complures et praestantissimos MSS. codices ab illo non consultos exacta, emendata, et ineditis aucta …, 3 vols., eds. G. and P. Ballerini (Venice, 1753–1757); Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche nebst einer rechtgeschichtlichen Einleitung, ed. F.W.H. Wasserschleben (Halle, 1851); Friedrich Maassen, Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters (Graz, 1870); Ecclesiae occidentalis monumenta iuris antiquissima, canonum et conciliorum Graecorum interpretationes latinae, 2 vols. in 9 parts, ed. Cuthbert H. Turner (Oxford, 1899–1939); Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum, series prima, 4 vols. in 14 parts, ed. Eduard Schwartz (but J. Straub for vol. 4 parts 1 and 3) (Berlin and Leipzig, 1927–84).

[2] For instance Michael Glatthaar, Bonifatius und das Sakrileg. Zur politischen Dimension eines Rechtsbegriffs, Freiburger Beiträge zur mittelalterlichen Geschichte 17 (Frankfurt am Main, 2004); Ludger Körntgen, ‘Kanonisches Recht und Busspraxis: zu Kontext und Funktion des Paenitentiale Excarpsus Cummeani’, in: W.P. Müller and M. E. Sommar (eds.), Medieval church law and the origins of the Western legal tradition: a tribute to Kenneth Pennington (Washington, D.C., 2006), 17–32; Andreas Thier, ‘Dynamische Schriftlichkeit: Zur Normbildung in den vorgratianischen Kanones-sammlungen’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 124 (2007), 1–33; Abigail Firey, A contrite heart: prosecution and redemption in the Carolingian empire, Studies in medieval and Reformation traditions 145 (Leiden, 2009); Guy I. Halfond, The archaeology of Frankish church councils, AD 511–768, Medieval law and its practice 6 (Leiden, 2010); Rob Meens, Penance in medieval Europe, 600–1200 (New York, 2014).

[3] See, for instance, Roy Flechner, ‘An insular tradition of ecclesiastical law: fifth to eighth century’, in: J. Graham-Campbell and M.J. Ryan (eds.), AngloSaxon/Irish relations before the Vikings, Proceedings of the British Academy 157 (Oxford, 2009), 23–46; idem, ‘The problem of originality in early medieval canon law’, Viator 43 (2012), 29-47; Sven Meeder, ‘Text and identities in the Synodus II S. Patricii’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 98 (2012), 19–45; idem, ‘Biblical past and canonical present: the case of the Collectio 400 Capitulorum’, in: Clemens Gantner, Rosamond McKitterick, and Sven Meeder (eds.), The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2015), 103–17; and Michael Elliot, ‘Boniface, incest, and the earliest extant version of Pope Gregory I’s Libellus responsionum (JE 1843)’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 100 (2014), 62–111.

See also