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The Church and the Law in the Early Middle Ages

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2020

Rosamond McKitterick
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
E-mail address:


Two case studies from eighth-century Rome, recorded in the early medieval history of the popes known as the Liber pontificalis, serve to introduce both the problems of the relations between secular or public and ecclesiastical or canon law in early medieval Rome and the development of early medieval canon law more generally. The Synod of Rome in 769 was convened by Pope Stephen III some months after his election in order to justify the deposition of his immediate predecessor, Pope Constantine II (767–8). Stephen's successor, Pope Hadrian, subsequently presided over a murder investigation involving Stephen's supporters. The murders and the legal process they precipitated form the bulk of the discussion. The article explores the immediate implications of both the murders and the convening of the Synod of Rome, together with the references to law-making and decree-giving by the pope embedded in the historical narrative of the Liber pontificalis, as well as the possible role of the Liber pontificalis itself in bolstering the imaginative and historical understanding of papal and synodal authority. The wider legal or procedural knowledge invoked and the development of both canon law and papal authority in the early Middle Ages are addressed. The general categories within which most scholars have been working hitherto mask the questions about the complicated and still insufficiently understood status and function of early medieval manuscript compilations of secular and canon law, and about the authority and applicability of the texts they contain.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2020

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I am very grateful to the members of the Graduate Early Medieval Seminar, University of Cambridge, as well as to Mayke de Jong, Ira Katznelson and David McKitterick for their comments on an earlier version of this article, to the anonymous peer reviewers for constructive comments, and to my fellow editors for their help in preparing this text for publication.


1 The title is an eighteenth-century one. The text was previously known as the Gesta pontificum romanorum or similar titles: see my forthcoming monograph, Rome and the Invention of the Papacy (Cambridge, 2020); Franklin, Carmela Vircillo, ‘Reading the Popes: The Liber Pontificalis and its Editors’, Speculum 92 (2017), 607–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 On the Liber pontificalis, see also McKitterick, Rosamond, ‘The Popes as Rulers of Rome in the Aftermath of Empire, 476–769’, in Brown, Stewart J., Methuen, Charlotte and Spicer, Andrew, eds, The Church and Empire, SCH 54 (Cambridge, 2018), 7195Google Scholar.

3 All references in the Liber pontificalis in this article are to Louis Duchesne, ed., Le Liber pontificalis. Texte, introduction et commentaire, 2 vols (Paris, 1886; hereafter: LP). The English translations quoted are those of Raymond Davis, The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), TTH 13, 2nd edn (Liverpool, 2007).

4 Hallenbeck, J. T., ‘Pavia and Rome: The Lombard Monarchy and the Papacy’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 72/4 (1982), 1186CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Florian Hartmann, Hadrian I. (772795). Frühmittelalterlichs Adelspäpsttum und die Lösung Roms vom byzantinischen Kaiser (Stuttgart, 2006); Marios Costambeys, ‘The Textual Authority of the Liber Pontificalis: Pope Hadrian and the Life of Stephen III’, in Dorine van Espelo, Michael Humphries and Giorgia Vocino, eds, Through the Papal Lens: Shaping History and Memory in Late Antique and Early Medieval Rome, 300–900, TTH: Contexts (Liverpool, forthcoming).

5 Life 96.5, LP 1: 468–9 (Davis, Popes, 89).

6 Life 97.9–17, LP 1: 488–91 (Davis, Popes, 124–8).

7 Butler, H. C., ‘The Roman Aqueducts as Monuments of Architecture’, American Journal of Archaeology 5 (1901), 175–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 For the possible location of Elefans Herbarius in Regio VIII opposite the Theatre of Marcellus near the present church of S. Nicola in Carcere, thought to be a post-Roman prison, see Davis, Popes, 126 n. 21; and the illustration of its imagined appearance from Giuseppe Gatteschi's restauro of 1896 (complete with elephant) in Jason Moralee, Rome's Holy Mountain: The Capitoline Hill in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2018), 80.

9 For the politics of Ravenna, see Brown, Thomas S., Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy A.D. 554–800 (Rome, 1984)Google Scholar; Thomas S. Brown, ‘Byzantine Italy, c.680–c.876’, in Rosamond McKitterick, ed., The New Cambridge Medieval History, 2: c.700–c.900 (Cambridge, 1995), 320–48; Veronica West-Harling, ed., Three Empires, Three Cities: Identity, Material Culture and Legitimacy in Venice, Ravenna and Rome, 750–1000 (Turnhout, 2015).

10 Geneviève Bührer-Thierry, ‘“Just anger” or “vengeful anger”: The Punishment of Blinding in the Early Medieval West’, in Barbara Rosenwein, ed., Anger's Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY, 1998), 75–91, with references to the earlier literature.

11 Jeffrey Berland, ‘Mutilations in Eighth-Century Rome’ (unpublished essay, MPhil in Medieval History, University of Cambridge, 2016).

12 On prisons, see Hillner, Julia, Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Geltner, Guy, The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton, NJ, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Hillner, Prison, 119–50; see also Guy Geltner, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present (Amsterdam, 2014).

14 On the prefect and his functions and probable headquarters, see Carlos Machado, Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome (AD 270–535) (Oxford, 2019). I am very grateful to the author for allowing me to see a copy of his book in advance of publication.

15 For the late antique legal background, see Caroline Humfress, Orthodoxy and the Courts in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2007); eadem, ‘Law and Legal Culture in the Age of Attila’, in Michael Mass, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila (Cambridge, 2014), 140–5; eadem, ‘Patristic Sources’, in David Johnston, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Roman Law (Cambridge, 2015), 97–118; eadem, ‘Bishops and Law Courts in Late Antiquity: How Not to Make Sense of the Legal Evidence’, JECS 19 (2011), 375–400; eadem, ‘The Early Church’, in W. Anders and J. Wei, eds, The Cambridge History of Medieval Canon Law (Cambridge, forthcoming). I am grateful to Professor Humfress for sending me a copy of the last of these articles in advance of publication.

16 Loschiavo, Luca, ‘Was Rome still a Centre of Legal Culture between the 6th and 8th Centuries?’, Rechtsgeschichte – Legal History 23 (2015), 83108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Theodosiani Libri XVI cum Constitutionibus Sirmondianis, ed. Theodor Mommsen and Paul M. Meyer (Berlin, 1905; hereafter: CTh); ET The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions, transl. Clyde Pharr et al. (Princeton, NJ, 1952); Jill Harries and Ian N. Wood, The Theodosian Code: Studies in the Imperial Law of Late Antiquity, 2nd edn (London, 2012); John Matthews, Laying down the Law: A Study of the Theodosian Code (New Haven, CT, 2000).

18 CTh 16.1.2; see also Humfress, Caroline, ‘A New Legal Cosmos: Late Roman Lawyers and the Early Medieval Church’, in Linehan, Peter, Nelson, Janet L. and Costambeys, Marios, eds, The Medieval World, 2nd edn (London 2018), 653–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 See Wiesheu, Annette, ‘Bischof und Gefängnis. Zur Interpretation der Kerkerbefreiungswunder in der merowingischen Hagiographie’, Historisches Jahrbuch 121 (2001), 123Google Scholar; Hillner, Prisons, 261.

20 Simon Corcoran, ‘Roman Law in Ravenna’, in Judith Herrin and Jinty Nelson, eds, Ravenna: Its Role in Earlier Medieval Change and Exchange (London, 2016), 163–98.

21 For discussion of some aspects of relations between Rome and Byzantium in the Early Middle Ages, see McKitterick, Rosamond, ‘The Papacy and Byzantium in the Seventh- and Early Eighth-Century Sections of the Liber pontificalis’, Papers of the British School at Rome 84 (2016), 241–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 On the manuscripts, see E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores, 12 vols (Oxford 1935–71; hereafter: CLA), 8: 1167, 4: 513; Cresconius, Concordia canonum (Die Concordia canonum des Cresconius. Studien und Edition, ed. Klaus Zechiel-Eckes, 2 vols, Freiburger Beiträge zur mittelalterlichen Geschichte, Studien und Texte 5 [Frankfurt am Main, 1992]).

23 Simon Corcoran, ‘The Codex of Justinian: The Life of a Text through 1,500 years’, in Bruce W. Frier, ed., The Codex of Justinian: A New Annotated Translation with Parallel Latin and Greek Text (Cambridge, 2016), xcvii–clxiv, at cxlviii–cxlix.

24 Ibid. cxxi.


25 St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, csg 1395, CLA VII, 986. For further information on manuscripts of the Epitome Juliani, see the Bibliotheca legum project, a database of Carolingian secular law texts led by Karl Ubl, online at: <>, accessed 30 May 2018. See also Charles Radding and Antonio Ciaralli, eds, The Corpus Iuris Civilis in the Middle Ages: Manuscripts and Transmission from the Sixth Century to the Juristic Revival, Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 147 (Leiden, 2007), 37; Wolfgang Kaiser, Die Epitome Iuliani. Beiträge zur römischen Recht im frühen Mittelalter und zum byzantinischen Rechtsunterricht, Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte 175 (Frankfurt am Main, 2004). On extracts from the Epitome Iuliani in the Carolingian capitulary collection compiled by Ansegis, see Stefan Esders and Steffen Patzold, ‘From Justinian to Louis the Pious: Inalienability of Church Property and the Sovereignty of a Ruler’, in Rob Meens et al., eds, Religion and Power in Early Medieval Europe: Essays presented to Mayke de Jong on her 65th Birthday (Manchester, 2016), 371–92; Stefan Esders, ‘Roman Law as an Identity Marker in Post-Roman Gaul (5th–9th Centuries)’, in Walter Pohl et al., eds, Transformations of Romanness in the Early Middle Ages: Regions and Identities, Millennium Studien / Millennium Studies 71 (Berlin, 2018), 325–44.

26 The Summa de ordine ecclesiastico in Berlin, Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1735 (Burgundy, s.VIII/IX), is another instance of selections from the Epitome of Julian. It is clearly a copy of an earlier original for it is incomplete. On St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, csg 722, see below, 32.

27 Constitutiones Sirmondiae (Theodosiani libri XVI cum Constitutionibus Sirmondianis et leges novellae ad Theodosianum pertinentes, ed. T. Mommsen and P. M. Mayer, 2 vols in 3 [Berlin, 1905]). See the discussion by A. J. B. Silks, The Theodosian Code: A Study (Amsterdam, 2007); and the suggestions made by Mark Vessey, ‘The Origin of the Collectio Sirmondiana: A New Look at the Evidence’, in Harries and Wood, eds, Theodosian Code, 178–99, with reference to the earliest surviving manuscript of the full texts of these eighteen imperial statements from Constantine to Theodosius in this collection: Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1745 (Burgundy, c.700); CLA 8: 1061.

28 Hubert Mordek, Kirchenrecht und Reform im Frankenreich. Die Collectio Vetus Gallica: die älteste systematische Kanonessammlung des fränkischen Gallien. Studien und Edition, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 1 (Berlin, 1975).

29 Vessey, ‘Collectio Sirmondiana’, 198–9.

30 The work to substantiate this supposition remains to be done, but the Concordia canonum is one indication of a similar activity undertaken in northern Italy to those evident in Frankish manuscripts: see Cresconius, ed. Zechiel-Eckes.

31 LP 1: 490 (Davis, Popes, 128).

32 Hillner, Prison, 281–2, 293–8.

33 Mayke de Jong, ‘Monastic Prisoners or opting out? Political Coercion and Honour in the Frankish Kingdoms’, in eadem, Frans Theuws and Carine van Rhijn, eds, Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden, 2001), 291–328.

34 Standard Latin dictionaries such as Lewis and Short or Niermeyer cite instances from the sixth century onwards, including papal letters, for emendatio meaning ‘reform’ and ‘bringing to perfection’.

35 Hillner, Prison, 298–313.

36 Ibid. 1–2.


37 On damnatio memoriae and the politics of legitimation, see, for example, Harriet I. Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture, Studies in the History of Greece and Rome (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006); Charles W. Hedrick, History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin, TX, 2000); Mark Humphries, ‘From Usurper to Emperor: The Politics of Legitimation in the Age of Constantine’, Journal of Late Antiquity 1 (2008), 82–100.

38 Life 96.21–4, LP 1: 476–7 (Davis, Popes, 98–9).

39 Epistolae Karolini aevi III, MGH Epp. 5, 120–1.

40 Rosamond McKitterick, ‘The damnatio memoriae of Pope Constantine II (767–768)’, in Ross Balzaretti, Julia Barrow and Patricia Skinner, eds, Italy and Medieval Europe: Papers for Chris Wickham on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, P&P Book Series (Oxford, 2018), 231–48.

41 ‘[U]t aliquantos episcopos gnaros et in omnibus divinis scripturis atque sanctorum canonum institutionibus eruditos ac peritissimos dirigerent ad faciendum in hanc Romanam urbem concilium pro eadem impia novi erroris ac temeritatis praesumptione, quam antefatus Constantinus apostolicae sedis pervasor ausus est perpetrare’: Life 96.16, LP 1: 473 (Davis, Popes, 94–5).

42 Life 96.17, LP I: 473 (Davis, Popes, 125).

43 For analysis of the Frankish bishops, see Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge, 2008), 299–302 (where I wrongly described Constantine II as an ‘anti-pope’ on p. 300), particularly Table 6. The order of names in the list is possibly significant. Given that this is the work of an Auxerre scribe, he may deliberately have given prominence to Sens, the metropolitan of Auxerre. George of Amiens had formerly been bishop of Ostia and first arrived in Francia as a papal legate in 756. Thereafter some element of ecclesiastical hierarchy is observed, for the next five bishops are all metropolitans (indicated in bold in Table 1), although Reims is almost at the end of the list. There are a number of Frankish ecclesiastical provinces not represented (Cologne, Arles, Trier, Rouen and Bordeaux), but this may reflect the considerable number of vacancies in sees during this decade as well as the feasibility of particular bishops being able to travel to Rome.

44 For further comment, see McKitterick, ‘Damnatio memoriae’.

45 See Projet Volterra, University College London, online at: <>; Bibliotheca legum, online at: <>; the Carolingian Canon Law project, overseen by Abigail Firey in Lexington, Kentucky, online at: <>; Capitularia. Edition der fränkische Herrschererlasse, led by Karl Ubl, online at: <>; Formulae – Litterae – Chartae, a legal formulae project led by Philippe Depreux in Hamburg, online at: <>; Projekt Pseudo-Isidor, online at: <>; Edition der falschen Capitularien des Benedictus Levita, online at: <>.

46 Friedrich Maassen, Geschichte der Quellen und der Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters, 2 vols (Graz, 1870); F. W. H. Wasserschleben, Die Bussordnungen der abendländischen Kirche (Halle, 1851); Herman J. Schmitz, Die Bußbücher und die Bußdisciplin der Kirche nach handschriftliche Quellen dargestellt (Mainz, 1883); Raymund Kottje, Die Bußbücher Halitgars von Cambrai und des Hrabanus Maurus. Ihre Überlieferung und ihre Quellen (Berlin, 1980); Ludger Körntgen, Ulrike Spengler-Reffgen and Raymund Kottje, Paenitentialia minora Franciae et Italiae saeculi VIII–IX (Turnhout, 1994); Hubert Mordek, Bibliotheca regum francorum manuscripta. Überlieferung und Traditionszusammenhang der fränksichen Herrschererlasse, MGH H 15; Lotte Kéry, Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages (ca.400–1140): A Bibliographical Guide to the Manuscripts and Literature (Washington DC, 1999); Detlev Jasper and Horst Fuhrmann, Papal Letters in the Early Middle Ages (Washington DC, 2001); Linda Fowler-Magerl, Clavis canonum. Selected Canon Law Collections before 1140: Access with Data Processing, MGH H 21 (here the ‘selection’ is of ‘virtually all the systematically arranged collections’; that is, she omits the chronologically arranged collections).

47 Dionysius Exiguus, Collectio canonum (Hubert Wurm, ed., Studien und Texte zur Dekretalensammlung des Dionysius Exiguus [Bonn, 1939]); Latin versions did exist of some of the texts, such as ‘Prisca and ‘Isidore’: see C. H. Turner, Ecclesiae Occidentalis Monumenta Iuris Antiquissima, 2 vols (Oxford, 1899, 1930).

48 Klaus Zechiel-Eckes, Die erste Dekretale. Der Brief Papst Siricius an Bischof Himerius von Tarragona vom Jahr 385 (JK 255), aus dem Nachlass mit Ergänzungen, ed. Detlev Jasper, MGH ST 55.

49 Rosamond McKitterick, History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004), 245–59.

50 Rob Meens, Review of Fowler-Magerl, Clavis canonum, EME 17 (2009), 219.

51 Rachel Stone, ‘Canon Law before Canon Law: Using Church Canons, 400–900’, paper given at the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar, 14 February 2014; W. Davies and P. Fouracre, eds, The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1986).

52 Humfress, Orthodoxy and the Courts, 211.

53 R. H. Helmholz, ‘Canon Law and Roman Law’, in Johnston, ed., Cambridge Companion to Roman Law, 396–422, at 397.

54 Claudio Soliva, ‘Zu den Capitula des Bischofs Remedius von Chur aus dem beginnenden 9. Jht.’, in Clausdieter Schott and Claudio Soliva, eds, Nit anders denn liebs und guets. Festschrift Karl. S. Bader (Sigmaringen, 1986), 166–72; see also Reinhold Kaiser, Churrätien im frühen Mittelalter. Ende 5. bis Mitte 10. Jahrhunderts (Basel, 1998). A major portion of this codex comprises palimpsested leaves from a sixth-century uncial copy of Hilary of Poitiers, In Psalmos.

55 Susan Keefe, A Catalogue of Works pertaining to the Explanation of the Creed in Carolingian Manuscripts (Turnhout, 2012).

56 E. von Dobschutz, Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis im kritischen Text, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 38/4 (Leipzig, 1912). For discussion, see Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989), 200–5.

57 McKitterick, Rosamond, ‘Knowledge of Canon Law in the Frankish Kingdoms before 789’, JThS n.s. 36 (1985), 97117Google Scholar, reprinted in eadem, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th–9th Centuries (Aldershot, 1994), II.

58 Turner, Monumenta; on decretals, see Jasper ad Fuhrmann, Papal Letters; Geoffrey D. Dunn, ‘The Emergence of Papal Decretals: The Evidence of Zosimus of Rome’, in Geoffrey Greatrex and Hugh Elton with Lucas McMahon, eds, Shifting Genres in Late Antiquity (Farnham, 2015), 81–92; idem, ‘Collectio Corbeiensis, Collectio Pithouensis, and the earliest Collections of Papal Letters’, in Bronwen Neil and Pauline Allen, eds, Collecting Early Christian Letters: From the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2015), 175–205.

59 Mordek, Kirchenrecht und Reform.

60 Cologne, Dombibliothek, MS 91 is a s.VIII copy.

61 See the articles assembled in La Giustizia nell'alto medioevo (secoli V–VIII), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull'alto Medioevo 42 (Spoleto, 1995); La Giustizia nell'alto medioevo (secoli IX–XI), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull'alto Medioevo 44 (Spoleto, 1997).

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