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While the ‘bigamy’ rules applied only to the clergy, and remarriage by lay men or women after a spouse’s death was unproblematic, the indissolubility rule applied to all. The earliest papal legislation was already trying to enforce the system (perhaps unique in the history of literate societies) that ruled out both divorce and polygamy. For the married clergy one can imagine that this was successful in that they were under the bishop’s control. What effect it had on the laity is impossible to estimate but the legacy of these decretals would be a key fact in medieval history. Exclusion from communion after proven adultery came within the purview of the clergy.
Most of the rituals that would much later be defined as ‘sacraments’ make an appearance in the earliest papal legislation, along with one or two rituals that never made it into the final ‘sacrament’ category, notably a curious combination of penance and quasi-exorcism. The papal decretals show Christian ritual in a formative phase of development. Liturgy too is both recognizable in broad lines – the structure of the year and the week according to the life of Christ, penance, and celebration – but not yet in the form with which medievalists are familiar. Liturgy and rituals are saturated with a symbolic mentality.
Command hierarchy is as much in evidence as status hierarchy in this first age of papal decretals, though the two structures do not map tidily on to each other. By the end of the fourth century a complex chain of command with many levels had developed in the Christian Church. The bishop in his city played a pivotal role, but below bishops were large communities of clerics, sometimes running their own churches, and between an ordinary bishop and the bishop of Rome there might be two layers in the hierarchy of authority. This hierarchy of power regulated elections to bishoprics. It went with an increasingly precise geographical division of the Christian world into dioceses. Could a cleric move from one diocese to another? This was the kind of practical problem that arose.
Whether to baptize returned heretics, and whether to let them exercise priestly functions, were major practical problems, solutions for which called on the subtlety and flexibility of, especially, Innocent I.
Tensions arising from the establishment of monasteries in Gaul by John Cassian get associated in a long decretal of Celestine I with Cassian’s mild but firm critique of Augustine of Hippo’s views on grace and free will. These topics are the only core theological subjects discussed at length in the Dionysiana and Quesnelliana collections: the latter has three fascinating letters of Innocent I to African bishops, apparently endorsing their hard-line views on grace and (corrupted) nature, but in fact significantly silent on key points, stoppping short of some hard-line Augustinian positions.
The word ‘hierarchy’ can mean both status hierarchy and a hierarchy of command. The managerial hierarchy of a modern company is instrumental, not embedded in a system of meaning and values. Late Antique hierarchies of command were on the other hand integrated in the value system, but even so this hierarchy of power should be distinguished from status hierarchy, though the two were intertwined. Some societies have more hierarchy of the status sort than others. The Church of late Antiquity was on the high end of the hierarchy scale. There was a multiplicity of gradations of status within the clergy, as well as a sharp differentiation between clergy and laity.
‘Bigamy’ – the ban on twice-married men or husbands of widows becoming clerics – was another way of marking out the clergy from ordinary people. For the latter, remarriage after the death of a spouse was unproblematic, but it was an absolute bar to a clerical career. The underlying rationale takes one deep into the realm of symbolism.
Celibacy is a strong theme in the earliest papal legislation and it is connected with both kinds of hierarchy. The connection with status hierarchy is strongest as celibacy marked off the deacons, priests, and bishops from lower levels of clerical status, but the ‘celibacy line’ is also linked to command hierarchy, as deacons, the first level of hierarchy of which celibacy was required, were key figures in the government of episcopal churches, notably at Rome, where they were more powerful than priests. The clerical celibacy of late Antiquity is a different sort from that of the eleventh-century Gregorian Reform. In the second half of the fourth century the Roman Church began to enforce the rule that clerics should give up sex if they wanted to be promoted to deacon, though they would not separate from their wives (below which there were a series of levels where clerics could be sexually active with their wives). This celibacy rule may have arisen to help the ordinary clergy keep up with monastic asceticism, but its rationale and function was to mark out the separateness of those who came closest to the Eucharist.
The aim of the book is twofold: to uncover the content of the legal uncertainties that led bishops to write to popes in the decades around 400 CE, and to establish the texts of their legal rulings as found in the three earliest canon law collections. Data to enable users to track the subsequent reception of these rulings up to the mid-twelfth century is also provided.
Penance was a possibility for returning heretics and for other sinners too. As is well known, the penitential system was quite different from what developed subsequently, key features being that the penance was public, marking reinsertion into the community, and that it could be done only once, though anyone could be forgiven at the point of death. Again, practical problems arose: could the clergy do penance? Could one return after penance to professions with a high risk of sin, given the unrepeatability of the ritual? Such practical problems are reflected in the early decretals.
Rather than providing a detailed survey of recent research (since this is available elsewhere), the chapter concentrates on the key contributions to the field of Erich Caspar, Charles Pietri, Geoffrey Dunn, and two historians influenced by Michel Foucault: Kristina Sessa and George Demacopoulos.
The celibacy within marriage of the secular clergy may have been a response to the celibacy of monks, because monks were becoming prominent in Western Christianity in the fourth century. Originally lay, without clerical orders, their relation to the ordinary clergy, while not hostile, was complicated and problematic from the start. What happened when clerics became monks or vice versa, for instance? Dealing with the interactions of these two elites would be a central role of the papacy ever afterwards. In the early papal legislation we see the start of this mediating role.