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Canon law refers to the body of rules and regulations governing the Christian Church and its members. Before the modern era, it had as much influence on the daily life of Europeans as secular law has on life in the modern world. It touched nearly every aspect of medieval society, dealing not only with what most people today would consider to be religious matters but also with many issues of a purely secular nature. Trying to understand medieval Europe without knowing medieval canon law is like trying to understand the Renaissance without ever having read the Bible or the Latin and Greek classics: impossible yet not uncommon. Because of the modern separation between Church and state as well as the rise of secularism, canon law plays only a limited role in most modern-day societies. It has had little influence on recent legal and social developments and is marginal to the way that most people lead their lives. Considered from a deeper and richer historical perspective, however, the influence of canon law has been enormous, long-lasting, and remarkably diverse (see Chapter 30).
Law schools flourished in the Byzantine Empire at the beginning of the Middle Ages, notably in Constantinople and Beirut. They taught, in Latin, the law of the Roman Empire, which also regulated the affairs of the Church (see Chapter 9). The reign of Justinian (527–65) brought the new compilations of law later known collectively as the Corpus iuris civilis (see Chapter 13) and soon also a shift of the language of instruction to Greek. Legal education, including teaching of eastern canon law, continued practically as long as the Empire survived, and beyond, producing notable scholars of canon law, such as John Zonaras (fl. early twelfth century) and Theodore Balsamon (d. after 1195) (see Chapter 9).
The century between c. 1130 and 1234 was a time of great renewal and transformation in canon law when much of the foundation was laid that would define the legal structure of not only the church but also secular society well into modern times (see Chapter 30). At this time, papal legislation found its stride, in the form of papal decretals and conciliar decrees (notably from the four Lateran councils, 1123–1215). The inhabitants of Europe sought out the pope’s judicial decisions in unprecedented masses, creating a rich body of papal case law. At the same time, legal study grew exponentially at the law schools, particularly in Bologna, where an expanding and often innovative tradition of analysis and commentary, which were also inspired by the recently rediscovered Roman law of the emperor Justinian, brought canon law to new levels of complexity, sophistication, and precision.