A Living Law: Minor Canonical Collections in the Carolingian Period

In the eighth and ninth centuries, Western Europe experienced an impressive rekindled enthusiasm for scholarship and learning, fuelled by the Carolingian ambitions of correctio and emendatio of religious texts and practice. Its most important result was the impressive rise in the production of books. These Carolingian codices were filled with works of biblical exegesis, historiography, poetry, educational texts and (late-)antique literature. As a genre that intersects ‘with every aspect of medieval life and society’—to quote Kriston Rennie—, canon law was one of the main focal points of the period’s intellectual energy. In addition to the increased organisation of church councils, considerable learned effort and vast economic funds were spent on copying and distributing late-antique and more recent collections of canon law. It resulted in well over a hundred extant eighth- and ninth-century manuscript witnesses of great canonical collections with names like the Collectio Dionysiana, the Collectio Quesnelliana, the Collectio Quadripartitus, the Collectio Vetus Gallica, and the Irish Collectio canonum Hibernensis—to name a few. At the same time, Carolingian literati engaged in the compilation of canonical material in new combinations and arrangements, with an ambiguous high point in the massive undertaking that produced the body of texts known as the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries.

The most widely-disseminated canonical collections of the period are the aforementioned great collections, but in their shadow smaller collections and canonical florilegia were thought out, compiled, copied, and spread. These canonical compilations, assembled by local masters taking authoritative statements (‘canons’) from other works, are not seldomly characterised as ‘unstructured’ or ‘derivative’ in modern catalogues. Yet, the local initiatives testify to the intense interest in and vitality of this ‘living law’ throughout Carolingian Europe.

This two-year project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, aims to improve our understanding of eighth- and ninth-century canonical dynamism through a systematic study and analysis of these ‘minor’ canonical collections. Since they remain mostly unedited and unpublished, these works have by and large escaped modern study. Yet, to further our understanding of Carolingian intellectual developments, it is crucial to study precisely these scholarly exploits of ostensibly limited and mostly local influence.

The opening of Vesoul, Bibliothèque municipale 73 (79), containing the Collectio 91 capitulorum

Minor collections

Material unearthed during the project will be shared on this site. It is hoped that the fruits of this project are of use to other students of early canon law. Tipping my hat to Michael Elliott, the site will hold descriptions of manuscripts, transcriptions and stduies of canonical texts, and links to other resources on medieval canon law. It is a reflection of work in progress, which means that its pages may be altered or supplemented at any time.

The Vesoul-Laon cluster

In 1926, Paul Fournier published a short article on three canonical collections from the Carolingian period which in his opinion were of prime importance as witnesses to the age of reform. The three collections in question were the so-called Collectio 91 capitulorum, a text known as the Statuta Bonifatii preserved in the Collectio canonum Laudunensis, and the forged collection of capitularies by Benedictus Levita. Fournier drew attention to the textual links connecting, especially, the first part of the ‘Collection in 91 chapters’ with the other works, demonstrating how all three texts drew on a now lost collection of statements on religious discipline, correct worship, and moral behaviour, which was infused with the spirit of the Carolingian reform efforts.1

In the course of the project ‘A Living Law’, I will revisit Fournier’s collections, starting—like him—with the Collectio 91 capitulorum and ‘pulling the threads’ of textual and thematic connections, in order to reveal the network of clerics and legal scholars within whose sphere the collections were devised. It includes discussions of the more technical aspects of the collections and the manuscripts that preserve them, followed by a reflection on the religious and social meaning of the canonical statements collected in these works. The two approaches are then used to consider the inner workings of the intellectual network(s) that produced the minor collections of what I have termed (rather clunkily) the ‘Vesoul-Laon cluster’ of canonical works.