The Papacy and Canon Law in the Eleventh-Century Reform

By Blumenthal, Uta-Renate | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Papacy and Canon Law in the Eleventh-Century Reform


Blumenthal, Uta-Renate, The Catholic Historical Review


In the eleventh and early twelfth century the age-old Christian concepts of individual renewal, renovation, restoration, and reformation took on a new and wider meaning. The ideal of individual Christian renewal was linked with the notion of the renewal of society as a whole, that is to say of the Church as a whole.1 This renewal, a remarkable unfolding of intellectual sophistication, coincided not only chronologically with what is justly called the "Twelfth-Century Renaissance"; it was part and parcel of the same developments.2 They were accompanied by a new emphasis on ancient as well as familiar collections of canon law and the rediscovery of Roman law.' My topic forms one aspect of this renaissance. Paul Fournier's famous papers on Roman canonical collections at the time of Gregory VII and on the pontificate of Urban II as a turning point in the history of canon law have provided an invaluable basis for much subsequent work, but they presupposed the "Gregorian" reform as a fait accompli, ascribing "Gregorian" collections to reformers in the circle of the contemporary pontiff, Gregory VII (1073-1085).4 I would like to look at canonistic materials, the reform, and the papacy from a different perspective. These remarks will explore canon law as origin, inspiration, and source for the renewal and reform of the Church in the eleventh century, particularly with regard to reform of and by the papacy.

Scholarship of the last decade or two has thoroughly revised the old assessment dating back at least to the Magdeburg Centuries that the eleventh-century reform was based on a rediscovery of the PseudoIsidorian forgeries,"Nicht Pseudo-Isidor, sondern die Kirche wurde neu entdeckt!" Horst Fuhrmann convincingly concluded his magisterial analysis of the fate of the False Decretals in Rome since the 870's. This fabrication, very likely compiled around 850 near or at Reims to defend episcopal rights, was available at the papal court and even cited haphazardly in papal letters for almost two hundred years before Pope Leo IX and his collaborators in December, 1053, used excerpts from the Decretals in support of their conviction of the pre-eminent place of the Roman See in correspondence with Africa (JL 4304, 4305) and Constantinople (esp. JL 4302).5 It has been said that in these letters "there appears a conception of the primacy differing significantly from that of the pre-reform period" with an emphasis on a second, alternative "Roman tradition" elaborated, for example, by Pope Leo I and Pope Gregory I. This second view, for centuries only a shadowy presence if that, sees Peter as princeps apostolorum and Rome "as head of all the churches." The concept was emphatically represented by the Constitutum Constantini.6 The "Donation of Constantine" used by the papacy in the letter of 1053 to Michael Kerullarios, patriarch of Constantinople, was ultimately derived from the version transmitted by the PseudoIsidorian Decretals.7 It may be said, therefore, that beginning in the 1050's papal letters increasingly paid attention to and used the PseudoIsidorian Decretals, not, however, that they were suddenly discovered in a forgotten, dusty corner of the papal archives. Pseudo-Isidore, therefore, does play a role in eleventh-century developments, constituting a ready reservoir of ringing statements about the nature of papal authority. They were modified and adapted without hesitation when they were at odds with eleventh-century views, but were invaluable nevertheless in providing legal support for both old and new themes. A comparison of Pseudo-Isidorian materials, both authentic and false, found in the Decretum of Burchard of Worms around 1022 with those found in Gratian's Decretum of 11408 revealed a stark numerical contrast: 141 excerpts in Burchard versus 400 in the case of Gratian, very largely a resuit of the activities of collectors between c. 1080 and 1100.9

Old texts read from a new perspective could and did wreak havoc when they were used to take the measure of conventional ideas and customary practices. …

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