Canon Law in the “Century of the Individual”: Revolution and Continuity

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The contrast which Sohm should have pointed out was between two different modes of legal thought, i.e. between the dialectical rationalization of the twelfth, and the linear traditionalism of the earlier centuries.81
The late Stephan Kuttner reminds the modern student that the legal culture of the twelfth century was diverse, with different “modes of legal thought”. The “contrast”, however, should not be taken as a discrete point in time; these modes could be simultaneous, overlapping. There is no denying the impact of the introduction of the dialectic and the emergence of the universities. At the same time, we should also consider the degree to which the older, pre-scholastic law persisted and how communities of legal interpretation, modes of reading and understanding the law could draw from both dialectic and traditionalism.

Ivo of Chartres enduring influence alongside newer, dialectical texts should not surprise. We should not focus solely on the when of intellectual change, as if it were some permanent divide. We must ask what texts are being read, and still being read, lest we become obsessed with the new. We must consider where the reading is taking place, the institutional setting.82 We must also consider who was reading, paying attention to different textual communities, never assuming that older texts vanished or that communities, for example monastic communities, especially those in the newer orders did not read a variety of texts, old as well as new.

Texts, textuality, and textual culture immediately raise the issue of power in society. If a new means of communication makes its appearance, who are its patrons? If new knowledge is produced, who controls it and for what ends.83
To these comments by Brian Stock, I might add the following: what about the persistence of older means of communications? We should neither be exclusively focused on the new nor should we assume it immediately displaced the intellectual discourse that came before. Examining only the patrons and institutions of the “scholastic revolution”--urban schools, universities, and developing institutions of curial law--misses the older means of communication about the law that remained in use independent from, or alongside, dialectical canon law. Perhaps this narrow focus reflects the agenda of modern patrons of medieval studies who, whether they have admitted it or not, have been looking for antecedents to their academic culture.

Instead of revolutions fashioned by Sohm, Berman, or their critics, simultaneous textual communities may be a more flexible way of understanding the diverse canon law of the central Middle Ages.84 Brian Stocks work on literacy and its social and cultural dimensions is a useful approach to this complex century, more useful than interpretations obsessed with irrevocable turning points. While recognizing significant watersheds in the evolution of textual communities--for example the increasing literary quality of heresies,85 Stock emphasizes that there was no mechanical force at work in this social and cultural evolution. Neither texts nor the communities of interpretation that gathered around them behaved in some sort of sequential, mechanistic fashion. If texts became increasingly normative, this did not mean that the spoken word became utterly displaced. Both existed side by side.86 Likewise, communities read both older and newer texts.87 Like scribes who did not hesitate to copy from two manuscripts and compare readings, monastic readers in the twelfth century utilized whatever materials they had available in their libraries and did not cease to read older authors like Ivo of Chartres when he spoke to their concerns. There was certainly a canon of legal texts present in the schools by mid-century. Gratian and the schools of commentary had to be mastered. The descent of glosses and summae did, indeed, create textual communities resembling something like a Lachmannian stemma codicum. Other texts, however, remained useful. Monastic readers copied what they found most useful. Ivos Panormia was likely as useful as Gratian. The fact that Panormia manuscripts are periodically modified demonstrates how useful the collection could be long after Gratian had appeared.88 The masses of decretist commentary trained students; what was needed on the practical level was a convenient, well-organized collection of tradition. The Panormia served this need into the early thirteenth century.89

New forms of theological hermeneutic certainly appeared, but neither everywhere at once nor to the automatic exclusion of older canon law. Gratian was copied; summae were written. But older collections like Ivos Panormia continued to be read.90 Other forms of communicating canon law also continued to reach new audiences. Some manuscripts transmit his Prologue among the letters;91 others transmit it as a treatise on canon law.92 We discover manuscripts where Ivos letters have been carefully selected to present a florilegium, with each letter treating a discrete case.93

The manuscripts suggest that audiences used a variety of legal resources, even after the scholastic jurisprudence had taken hold in the schools after the middle of the twelfth century. Cathedral and monastic scriptoria copied and used the latest canonistic commentaries by the decretists; they also continued to copy Ivo’s works.94 Even in urban settings, where one would most likely encounter the newest, best-trained jurists, Ivo’s collections continued to circulate.95 When an Austrian compiler decided to preface his abbreviation of Gratian’s Decretum with Ivo of Chartres’ Prologue, he was supplying Gratian with the introduction he had never composed.96 The texts were complementary; thus he brought them together. Such activity demonstrates how the reality of the manuscripts challenges neat categorizations imposed on medieval thought. Such evidence provides a powerful tonic against the distractions created by modern heuristic constructs like “feudalism” and “revolutions”.

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