Medieval Canon Law

By Lynch, John E. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Medieval Canon Law


Lynch, John E., The Catholic Historical Review


Medieval Canon Law. By James A. Brundage. [The Medieval World.] (New York: Longman. 1995. Pp. xii, 260. $12.99 paperback.)

In the course of the last fifty years American historians of the Middle Ages have come to realize the remarkable role canon law played in the development of Western Europe. Canon Law "formed a crucial component of medieval life and thought. Its rules affected the lives and actions of practically everyone, its enforcement mechanisms were increasingly able to reach into everyday affairs at all social levels, from peasant villages to royal households, and the ideas debated in the canon law schools constituted an influential and pervasive element in medieval intellectual life." The records of church courts and the archives of ecclesiastical administrators "make up a very large fraction of the evidence that survives from the Middle Ages (p. ix).

Up until the appearance of this volume, however, novices had at hand no really appropriate survey of the discipline in English, beyond articles in encyclopedias and the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. There was only the history of the sources in Amleto Cicognani's Canon Law, but that was outdated (1935), and the one hundred pages devoted to the classical period served mainly as a reference source.The 1951 lectures of Bishop R. C. Mortimer of Exeter at the Berkeley campus of The University of California, later published as Western Canon Law, though exceptionally well worth reading even today, necessarily lacked the desirable depth. Constant Van de Weil's History of Canon Law (1991), No. 5 of the University of Louvain's "Theological and Pastoral Monographs," was too brief; it made no attempt to deal with significant issues and was not helpfully organized.

Brundage, on the other hand, has managed to give an in-depth treatment of a very complex subject while avoiding the temptation of the expert to include less significant authors and developments. Especially valuable, even to one knowledgeable in the field, are the up-to-date bibliographical references in the notes.The two appendices, the Romano-canonical citation system and the biographical notes on the major canonists of the classical period, will also prove useful to professional historians.

The first three chapters survey chronologically the development of law from its beginnings in the early Christian Church, through the early Middle Ages, and climaxing in the classical period from Gratian (1140) to the Black Death (1348). …

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