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Medieval law

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The Middle Ages form a period of roughly thousand years, from 500 to 1500. During this long period not only clear local differences existed, but also different legal systems came into force. In Byzance a form of Roman law ruled, the so-called Byzantine law. Only after 1100 Roman law became again a subject of intensive study in Western Europe. The Catholic Church developed its own law, canon law, which grew in importance after 1100. Apart from canon and Roman law local and regional legal systems existed, customary law. Such regional laws could become imperative for other regions, too; likewise a city charter could be followed by other cities. On top of that some legal systems were specifically bound to persons or groups. Manorial rights and lease law were imposed on some people, but for instance merchants largely developed their own law, before Roman and canon law, too,  came to bear on it. Both Roman and canon law had in them the possibility to offer more or less absolute legal norms.

Roman law during the Middle Ages

Since the start of the nineteenth century the revival of Roman law has been disputed. This was prompted by the prestige associated with Roman law and with national pride: pride on an own independent legal development or pride on the healthy influence of this legal system from Classical Antiquity. The start of this revival is for some part still unclear, due also to the kind of questions one asks and the landmarks one is looking for. It depends also on wanting to maintain or not an unbroken continuity from Late Antiquity. Searching for the "revival" of Roman law could imply looking at quotations of and references to Roman law, looking at the number and the date of manuscripts with Roman law texts, researching education in law schools or looking at other forms of the study of Roman law. Clear and sensible questions stand at the beginning of any fruitful research.

A major problem is at one hand the rather unexpected and largely unexplained sudden return of the complete text of the Digest of Justinian, and at the other hand the fact that the vulgate text, the most widely used medieval text of the Digest, does differ from the oldest manuscript, dating from the sixth century,  kept in Florence, the "littera Florentina".

In the twelfth century Bologna was the primary place where the intense study of the Digest started. One did study the Codex also. Between the lines and in the margins one placed comments in the form of glosses. In particular Azzo's comment on the Codex, the Summa Azzonis, gained great authority in legal practice: "Chi non ha Azzo, non va a palazzo". The glosses grew out into complete line-by-line commentaries. In the thirteenth century Franciscus Accursius assembled the nearly 100,000 glosses of different origin into a standard gloss, the Glossa Ordinaria. In Bologna, the study of canon law might have started even earlier,  and perhaps it was studied even more thoroughly. Thus the law schools of Bologna formed the beginnings of its soon much visited university (1188). Soon juridical abbreviations were created, as you can see also in some examples from medieval legal manuscripts in Cambridge. Elsewhere on this site there is more information on searching medieval manuscripts.

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After their study at universities such as Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Montpellier lawyers found a job in the service of bishops, royal courts, cities and legal courts, or they became in their turn teachers at other universities. In the thirteenth century new universities started, for example at Cambridge, Orleans, Toulouse, Padova, Naples and Salamanca. The creation of new universities continued during the next century with Cologne, Heidelberg, Erfurt, Siena, Pisa, Perugia and Dublin, and also in Eastern Europe, with Vienna, Prague, Krakow and Budapest. In 1425 the first university of the Low Countries was founded at Louvain, where Nicolaus Everardi studied (see one of his consilia). In the fifteenth century a number of university foundations faltered, but others still exist.

Lawyers acted as judges, professors, advocates or as counsellors. They often advised courts. Their consilia formed the basis of verdicts. Medieval judges often only pronounced a verdict, but they did not formulate it. In particular during the Late Middle Ages courts asked lawyers to write consilia, pieces of legal advice. Here is an example. To avoid partial advice one tended to ask for consilia from faraway. Law faculties delivered a kind of collective consilia.The Roman law offered the possibility of a more or less independent legal standard, something decidedly necessary in view of the great number of legal systems and forms. Well known lawyers wrote commentaries on city statutes, or they were commissioned to revise them.

At university, one did not just train new lawyers. One studied intensively the old texts, the glosses and newer commentaries. This study did result in new legal doctrine. Medieval doctrine did contribute for instance a lot to the understanding of legal persons, unjust enrichment, possession and contracting. One worked also in the field of legal procedure, public law and political theory. Some of the great "romanist" lawyers are Odofredus de Denariis, Jacques de Revigny, Cino da Pistoia, Bartolus de Saxoferrato, Baldus de Ubaldis and Paulus de Castro.

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Scientific study of medieval Roman law

During the eighteenth century the first attempts came to study the history of Roman law during the medieval period. Before that time one studied the Roman law with a view to practice or from interest in Classical Antiquity. Both views could be combined. The attempts of the Enlightment period have been superseded by the first multi-volume standard work, the "Geschichte des römischen Rechts im Mittelalter" [History of Roman law during the Middle Ages] (1821-1830) by Friedrich Carl von Savigny. However, for individual lawyers and universities from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it is certainly worthwile to use older studies. Since Savigny a continous outpouring of studies has started.

The present scientific study takes places in a number of centers. Leiden has developed a tradition with among others attention to the medieval School of Orleans and courts in early modern Europe. At Frankfurt am Main the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte is an important research institute with a rich library and large microfilm collections. Active research groups are also present in Rome and Catania. At Leipzig a project has started for an online updated version of the repertory of medieval manuscripts concerning Roman law, the "Verzeichnis der Handschriften zum römischen Recht bis 1600" (4 vol., Frankfurt am Main 1972) by Gero Dolezalek and Hans van de Wouw. It will include now also canon law manuscripts.

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Literature - Introductions to medieval Roman law

On the "Return of the Digest" one can find more in the following recent articles:

Some titles of more general introductory works not only concerned with the Middle Ages:

An important and thought-provoking book that follows a major part of Roman law through history, touching on medieval Europe, Old Dutch law and South-Africa, shows what Roman law is about:

Encyclopedic in form, but partially outdated and criticized for their concept of legal history are:

The following scientific journals publish regularly articles on medieval law:

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Links   see also my links on medieval history

Introduction   Roman law   Scientific study   Literature   Reprints   Links


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