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Becoming the Plutarch of Renaissance Lawyers

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Quid sit quod multi vitas principum and ducum… diligentissime conscripserint atque inde genus hoc scribendi profectum, paulatim ad eos homines pervenerit, qui leniores quodammodo virtutes profitentur, Philosophos dico, Medicos, Oratores, Poetas… donec ad Rhetores ac Grammaticos deventum est, nemo adhuc extiterit, qui sibi Legumlatorum et Iurisprudentum vitas in argumentum iusti et peculiaris operis desumpserit…

How is it that many authors have so diligently written the lives of princes and generals and once this genre of writing was well-covered, gradually they turned to write about those men who profess virtues that are somehow more delicate – I mean philosophers, physicians, orators, poets, even rhetoricians and grammarians. Yet there has not been one author thus far who has chosen to write a proper, narrowly tailored work on the lives of legislators and jurists… (Translated by author.)

Bernardino Rutilio, Jurisconsultorum Vitae (Basel, n.d.).

These words are from the preface of Bernardino Rutilio’s Jurisconsultorum Vitae (Basel, n.d.), the earliest extant book-length work dedicated to legal biography. Rutilio asks why were there no biographies of lawyers before he set out to write one. This type of question was very common among humanist authors of the 16th century.  They were aware that they were engaged in new kinds of writing, and that they were retooling old literary forms. In their rhetoric they suggested that the changes they made were commonsensical. It seemed obvious to write about lawyers. How could other authors have missed the opportunity?

The 1536 Basel edition of Bernardino Rutilio's Jurisconsultorum Vitae.
The 1536 Rome edition of Bernardino Rutilio’s Jurisconsultorum Vitae. [Photo credit: Andrew Weber]
Much can be said about Rutilio’s observation. Sometime between the end of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century, European writers began composing biographies of intellectuals. Until that time, with few exceptions, people wrote biographies about two types of subjects: military and political leaders on the one hand, and churchmen and saints on the other. Within a few decades, however, all of that changed as a large and popular literature that celebrated the lives of men of letters – poets, theologians, philosophers, historians, physicians and jurists – arose throughout Western Europe. Alongside piety and military might, these new biographies suggested that intellectual greatness deserved widespread public acclaim as well. Legal biography owes its origin to that innovation.

Bernardino Rutilio (1504-1538), an author who wrote on legal and ecclesiastical topics, was active in Germany and Italy at the beginning of the 16th century. His Jurisconsultorum Vitae (Lives of the Jurists) is a survey of the lives of lawyers in Roman antiquity. Beginning with Papirius (fl. 509 BC), the first known Pontifex Maximus in Roman history, and ending with Tribonian (d. 582 CE), who was the jurist that the Emperor Justinian appointed to edit the legal code of the Roman Empire, the work’s 77 entries detail the circumstances of the subjects’ lives and activities, and highlight their contribution to literature and the law. In the work’s dedicatory letter, Rutilio explains that he writes about these lives so that the reader might use them as a model, either to be emulated or avoided, in pursuit of a good life. This is to be preferred, he says, to living without a conscious model, a way of life that can only result in “an unruly and confused inter-sprinkling of good and bad…”

Half-title of the first edition of Fichard's Vitarum Recentiorum Iureconsultorum Periochae (Basel, 1537)
Half-title of the first edition of Fichard’s Vitarum Recentiorum Iureconsultorum Periochae (Basel, n.d.) [Photo credit: Andrew Weber]


Rutilio’s moral purpose in writing the Vitae echoes themes that can also be found in the works of ancient biographers such as Plutarch and Suetonius who wrote about political leaders – the lives of the great can instruct in a way that is conducive to the public good. The new biographers’ innovation was to take up this idea and apply it to the lives of their subjects, whatever their field of endeavor. Another example appears in the second instance of legal biography ever published: Vitarum Recentiorum Iureconsultorum Periochae (Basel, n.d.) (Summaries of the Lives of the More Recent Jurists), by Johannes Fichard (1512-1581).

Fichard’s Periochae is a collection of biographies of important lawyers who lived from the time of the rediscovery of the Roman law (sometime in the 11th century) until the beginning of the 16th century. It begins with Irnerius, who established the medieval Roman law tradition in Bologna at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th centuries, and concludes with Fichard’s own teacher, the German humanist jurist Johann Ulrich Zasius (1461-1536) who taught in Freiburg until 1536. Each entry recounts the events of the subjects’ lives and locates their legal accomplishments in a narration of their professional lives and institutional affiliations. Like Rutilio, Fichard explains the value of biographies in the preface to the work. The study of a variety of lives, he argues, makes our minds free (ut liberaremur) as much as it gives pleasure.

This device appears on the verso of the last printed page of the 1537 edition of Vitarum Recentiorum Iureconsultorum Periochae, printed in Basel by Johannes Oporinus. In it, Athena holds the head of the Gorgon in her right hand. Her owl is at her left.
This device of Robert Winter, Johannes Oporino’s brother-in-law and business partner, appears on the verso of the last printed page of the first edition of Vitarum Recentiorum Iureconsultorum Periochae. In it, Athena holds the head of the Gorgon in her right hand. Her owl is at her left. [Photo credit: Andrew Weber]
If Rutilio’s and Fichard’s books seem to be a matching set, it is no coincidence. Rutilio’s book was first published in 1536 by Antonio Blado in Rome. Not long after its publication, Johannes Oporinus (1507-1568), the famous Basel printer, sought Fichard’s assistance in creating a companion volume to that work. That volume would complete the history of Roman lawyers that Rutilio began by bringing the story of the Roman law from its rediscovery in the middle ages up to the present day. Fichard, who was quite young, but already an up-and-coming scholar, had produced earlier that year a collection of biographies of his favorite humanist authors entitled, Virorum qui superiori nostroque seculo erudition at doctrina illustres atque memorabiles fuerunt vitae (Frankfurt, 1536). Some scholars have described his book as hastily thrown together, a cut-and-paste of short essays by other authors. But to Fichard’s credit, he made a creative attempt in his book to imitate the parallel structure of Plutarch’s Lives that was successful enough to attract Oporinus’ attention.

Fichard agreed to write the book, and as planned, Oporinus – or more likely his brother-in-law, Robert Winter – printed the first edition of Fichard’s Periochae as a companion volume to a new edition of Rutilio’s Vitae. Its year of publication is unclear. It includes a dedicatory epistle by Rutilio, which is quoted at the top of this post. That dedication also appears in a 1538 edition of Rutilio’s Vitae by the Lyon Printer Germain Rose for which it may have been prepared. Another interesting feature of the joint publication of Rutilio’s and Fichard’s books is the inclusion of a composition that was discussed here in an earlier post on this blog: Giovanni Nevizanno’s Inventarium librorum in utroque iure hactenus impressorum, or “An Inventory of the Books on Civil and Canon Law Printed to Date,” originally printed in Lyon in 1522. Nevizzano’s Inventarium was the first printed bibliography of law books. And like Nevizzano’s book, Rutilio and Fichard’s biographies were designed to provide the market with a comprehensive view of legal authorities and their contributions, offering a tool for organizing information about a body of scholarship that was growing at an unmanageable rate.

Fichard’s Periochae enjoyed some success, appearing in subsequent editions in 1565 and 1584 and in a 1721 compilation by Guido Panciroli, which reproduced the 1565 edition.

The following titles can be found in the rare books collection of the Law Library of Congress:

Iurisconsultorum vitae / Bernardino Rutilio autore.
Romae : Apud Antonium Bladum, 1536

Iuris consultorum vitae : nouissimè elimatae & mendis non paucis quibus scatebant, repurgatae / Bernardino Rutilio autore.
Lugduni : Apvd Germanum Rose, 1538.

Iurisconsultorum vitae / veterum quidem per Bernardinum Rutilium, unà cum eiusdem Decuria ; recentiorum vero ad nostra usq[ue] tempora / per Ioannem Fichardum Francofurtensem ; ad haec Indices duo locupletissimi omnium scriptorum in iure tam pontificio quàm ciuili à ueteribus & recentioribus iureconsultis ad haec nostra usq[ue] tempora editorum / per Io. Neuizanum, Lud. Gomessium, & Io. Fichardum collecti.
Basileae : [s.n.], [1539?]

Panciroli, Guido, 1523-1599.
De claris legum interpretibus libri quatuor
Guidi Panziroli Regiensis, JCti et in Gymnasio Patavino juris interpretis, De claris legum interpretibus libri quatuor : accessere Joannis Fichardi … Vitae recentiorum JCtorum, Marci Mantuae … Epitome virorum illustr[ium], Joan. Baptistae de Gazalupis Historia interpretum et glossatorum juris, Catellani Cottae Recensio brevis insignium juris interpretum et doctorum, Matth. Gribaldi Mophae Catalogus interpretum juris civilis, Alberici Gentilis De juris interpretibus dialogi sex : quibus tum vitae JCtorum clarissimorum exponuntur tum et fata restituti juris Rom. ac jurisprudentiae novissimae origo, varia item academiarum historiam illustrantia recensentur / cura D. Christiani Godofr. Hoffmanni.
Lipsiae : Apud Jo. Frid. Gleditschii B. filium, 1721.


Comments (2)

  1. Well done article. I found it very interesting. Thanks.

  2. Thank you, Nathan. Great post!

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