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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).
Theology derives from the Greek word “theologia,” literally discourse about God. For most of the Middle Ages, it referred solely to the study of the divine nature. During the course of the twelfth century, however, the term acquired a more expansive meaning. Under the systematizing and system-building impulse of scholasticism, theology came to refer to the study of almost anything related to God’s activity in creation and salvation. Angels, ethics, last things, and a whole host of other subjects came to fall under its purview. For the anonymous author of the Summa “Antiquitate et tempore” even canon law counted as a form of theology, but many of his contemporaries thought otherwise and, in the end, it was their more restrictive understanding that prevailed. Hostiensis’ (d. 1271) claim that canon law could be called a form of theology because it was of divine rather than human origin, which elicited much criticism from later canonists like Johannes Andreae and Panormitanus, is the exception that proves the rule. The terms “theology” and “canon law” eventually came to refer to distinct – even rival – academic disciplines.