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In the Steps of Gratian: Writing the History of Canon Law in the 1990s

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law

Charles J. Reid Jr.

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)


Emory Law Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 647-688, 1999

The modern Western legal tradition owes a great debt to medieval canon law. New medieval canon law texts have recently come to life and led to a more scholarly discussion. Canon law took its shape in the 12th to 13th centuries, giving the church jurisdiction over spiritual and temporal matters. There were three grounds of church authority: liturgical sacraments; Christ’s delegation to Peter; and the canon as the true source of Christian equity.

This canon law of the High Middle Ages has been the subject of several works of synthesis. James Brundage’s Medieval Canon Law attempts to sketch an outline of the canon law of the Western church, demonstrating how Christianity transformed from a persecuted fringe cult to a dominant world religion. Brundage’s learned writings explain how the work of a shadowy figure named Gratian had a huge impact on the development of canon law.
Jean Gaudemet offers a more comprehensive review of medieval canon law in his work Église et cité, as he explores the relationship between sacred and secular in Western Christianity. In particular, Gaudemet asks how the Church defined itself and conducted its relations with secular government, and he also asks how Church law was implemented and how it has changed the church over time.

John Noonan’s volume, Canons and Canonists in Context is a collection of seventeen studies from the 1960s to the 1980s. Noonan studied Gratian, calling him the father of the scientific study of canon law. All that is known of Gratian is hearsay. Noonan rejects the common idea that Gratian was a monk or a bishop, and even questions whether Gratian authored the Decretum. Noonan also challenges the legend that Rolandus, who wrote a commentary on Gratian, was the same Rolandus that became Pope Alexander II. Noonan does equally fine detective work showing that Paucapalea, a disciple of Gratian, may have added to Gratian’s text. Finally, Noonan shows that Gratian battled against the Christian marriage tradition that parents have role in choosing a spouse for their children; Gratian argued that only the emotional assent of husband and wife matter.

R.H. Helmolz’s, The Spirit of Canon Law is a learned, lively account of medieval canon law from Western Christendom. Helmholz reads the canon law as a modern inquisitor who wants to know what ancient brethren thought and taught about discrete legal questions. The sophistication of medieval canon law demonstrated mastery of issues and wide-ranging interests. His work shows the diversity of ideas in medieval canon law but also shows the consensus of the day.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 43

Keywords: Gratian, canon law, law, religion

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Date posted: June 13, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Witte, John and Reid, Charles J., In the Steps of Gratian: Writing the History of Canon Law in the 1990s (1999). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 647-688, 1999. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1851163

Contact Information

John Witte Jr. (Contact Author)
Emory University School of Law ( email )
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)
Charles J. Reid Jr.
University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )
MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
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