Power over the Body, Equality in the Family: Rights and Domestic Relations in Medieval Canon Law

By Frohnen, Bruce P. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Power over the Body, Equality in the Family: Rights and Domestic Relations in Medieval Canon Law


Frohnen, Bruce P., The Catholic Historical Review


Power over the Body, Equality in the Family: Rights and Domestic Relations in Medieval Canon Law. By Charles J. Reid, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2004. Pp. xi, 335. $35.00 paperback.)

At its core this book provides a very useful, comprehensive treatment of the rights accorded by medieval canon lawyers to various persons on account of their specific place within the familial structure. Reid provides a detailed discussion of the medieval canonists-including those well known to scholars in the field (e.g., Gratian and Hostiensis) as well as a number much less known. There also is a useful exposition of the Roman, Germanic, and other antecedents to the canonists, provided both in separate discussions and in Reid's exhaustive treatment of the sources used by them.

As its subtitle suggests, this book emphasizes the relational nature of rights in the medieval canonist literature. Thus, for example, in the chapter on the right to contract marriage Reid shows how the right was defined in significant measure through analysis of relationships between parents and their offspring. This analysis also contributed to greater understanding of parental authority and its limits-not coincidentally the subject of the chapter immediately following in the book. Reid also deals with the rights of women, in relation to husbands and fathers in particular, and the rights accorded testators and children in regard to testamentary dispensation.

Taken as a whole, Reid's book provides a helpful background to John Witte, Jr.'s From Sacrament to Contract and other histories of marriage more centered on early modern and modern developments. Reid also is seeking to make a contribution to the broader discussion of the development of rights and rights theory in medieval Europe. To this end he provides a brief but helpful introduction to the creative tension between individual and community in medieval discussions of rights, and a very brief conclusion characterizing his work as one reconstructing an older understanding of rights that coexisted with underlying, naturalist premises regarding marriage and family law.

There also are occasional attempts in the body of the book to show the broader implications of its exposition of medieval sources. Such attempts seem to take their cue from the book's title, "Power over the Body, Equality in the Family. …

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