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Update on Medieval Canon Law, and How to Deal with a Complex Book

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The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.

Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law: Esztergom, 3-8 August 2008

Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law: Esztergom, 3-8 August 2008

While reviewing some new Italian legal materials, I became intrigued by a monograph recently acquired by the Benelux, France and Italy Section of the African, Latin American and Western European Division of the Library’s Acquisition and Bibliographic Access Directorate (ABA) which is titled, Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law: Esztergom, 3-8 August 2008 and was published by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Apostolic Library) in Vatican City, in 2010.

The reason for my curiosity about this book was twofold. First, I wondered what would motivate scholars to meet and discuss legal principles dealt with about half a thousand years ago. Second, I wondered how was it possible to read a book whose pages were completely sealed. Yes, the book’s pages were sealed!

Confronted by this challenge, I turned to Robert Dardano, an acquisition specialist in ABA . Mr. Dardano indicated that pursuant to our internal procedures, books that require special care, such as this one, should be taken to ABA’s Binding and Collections Care Division (BCCD).  Since the book was printed with the pages attached at the top, BCCD Chief Jeanne Drewes had the top of the pages trimmed down so that the pages could be freely turned. BCCD staff do this type of work routinely as part of their job, but the work in this instance was expedited for the Law Library.

Robert Dardano, acquisition specialist at the Library of Congress

At last I could peruse the contents of the book and search for the answer to my first question: why are efforts still being devoted to analyze Medieval Canon Law? I first noticed that the book is a collection of the works of multiple scholars, each writing in his own language.  I counted at least five languages including English, Spanish, French, German and Italian.  These authors reviewed a myriad of Church doctrines, institutions, and legal problems all related to Canon Law in the Middle Ages.

The book is over 800 pages long and is arranged into nine sections covering a wide range of topics including the legal value of papal law-making in the early Middle Ages; legal sources of canon law prior to the Gratian Decree, an examination of Gratian’s Concordia Discordantium Canonum and its relation to contemporary sources, and a review of classical canonical sources after Gratian’s Decree.  The book also covers the treatment of the Eastern Churches according to Western Canon Law; features and innovations of the late Medieval and early Modern Canon Law; the regulation of natural resources in Canon Law; the Registers of Gregory of IX as a source of Canon Law; and the Byzantine view of the Canon Law.

Having delved into the contents of this tome, I would like to highlight one of the book’s chapters, “The Case of the Shrinking Client: A Study in the Professional Vocabulary of Medieval Lawyers,” by James A. Brundage. This chapter focuses on the vocabulary used in the Middle Ages to refer to what we call today the attorney-client relationship. The article examines the development of the patron-client relationship in Roman antiquity, and the resurfacing of this concept in the 12th and 13th centuries. As the author remarks, “The language of the law was shot with references to patrons, clients, and patronage,” and “A medieval advocate, whether canonist or civilian, if asked to name his occupation might very well have replied that he was a patronus causarum, a patron of lawsuits.”

To understand this linguistic evolution, the author explains how in ancient Roman law “the reciprocal relationship between patron and client bound them together through mutual trust and fidelity.” One crucial service that the patron rendered to his client was assistance in court. This began with the emergence of orators, who were highly skilled in rhetoric and eloquent in persuasion; it was here that the language of patroni causarum and clientes first arose. Orators were not necessarily learned in the law, and Cicero himself put eloquence before knowledge of the law as the key virtue for advocacy. Legal scholarship was the province of iurisconsulti (jurists), who could always be consulted and rarely appeared in court. In that sense, orators were not lawyers in today’s legal parlance. The combination of eloquence and formal legal training occurred during the second century A.D. with the rise of the advocati (advocates). By the beginning of the third century A.D. the difference between iurisconsulti and advocate had almost disappeared.

After the fall of Rome in 476 and during the barbarian invasions the legal profession was heavily handicapped; legal texts were preserved through monastic scriptoria  so that Roman law was saved and could be rediscovered later in the Middle Ages. The author also highlights the complexity of defining with precision the myriad of legal professionals which existed during the early and high Middle Ages: advocati, iurisconsulti, causadici, iurisperiti, patroni, or iudices.  None of these professions squared with the notion of the ancient Roman advocate.

Soon after the rediscovery of Roman law in the 12th century, canon law schools began to appear throughout Europe, and consequently, litigation in ecclesiastical courts started to boom. As the legal profession witnessed its own revival, Roman law patron-client terminology was borrowed to describe those involved in the legal profession. Lawyers started being referred to as patroni (patrons), their services as patrocinium (patronage), and the persons they serviced as clientes (clients).

The author also explains how the language of patronus (advocate) and clientulus (client) was progressively incorporated into lay and ecclesiastical proceedings from the 12th century onwards. The author concludes by discussing how the nomenclature of patronus and clientulus came to be seen as disparaging and condescending terminology. Perhaps these historical meanderings may shed some light on the current meaning of the expression “patronizing someone” in the English language.

Although I have not read the entire volume, I discovered why these topics are still relevant today. In fact, while the law of the Roman Catholic Church was codified through the Code of Canon Law in 1917 and the Canon Law for the Eastern (Catholic) churches was completely codified in 1990, the law of the other Oriental Christian churches has yet to be codified. Consequently, Medieval (Western) Canon Law remains in force today for the Oriental Christian churches. Hence, as Cardinal Péter Erdö notes in the preface, “[the] interpretation and application of these norms (Western Canon Law) constitutes an important task also for today’s oriental canonists.” And herein lies the response to my original question.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for this great post on medieval canon law! The book you are dealing with here contains congress proceedings. In a few weeks the International Society of Medieval Canon Law,, will held another congress on this subject, at Toronto (August 5-12, 2012). The series of congresses to be held every fourth year was started by Stephan Kuttner, the founder of an institute devoted to the study of medieval canon law. Its first see was Washington, D.C. It is now housed at Munich,
    The habit of selling books in a “sealed” way, to be opened by the buyer, is still alive in Italy. A century ago this was very common in Europe.

  2. Unfortunately, the one paper in Latin that was promised for the Esztergóm conference had to be cancelled due to the illness of the speaker.
    Mr. Figueroa expresses surprise that several languages were spoken at this international congress. Why does that surprise in this day and age, when global affairs and multiculturalism are the current buzzwords? Can we in any real sense be global and multicultural if we are monolingual?

  3. Dear Mr. Winroth,
    Thank you for your comment. We would very much appreciate any information if/when the one paper in Latin is included in the Esztergóm conference proceedings. The Law Library is fortunate to have a multilingual staff representing cultures from around the globe, and consequently, we agree that multilingualism is a tremendous benefit for successful global legal research.

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