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

43 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2011 Last revised: 4 Oct 2014

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law

Charles J. Reid Jr.

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)

Date Written: 1999


The modern Western legal tradition owes a great debt to the medieval canon law of the Church, several new authoritative titles have shown. James Brundage’s Medieval Canon Law provides an efficient outline of the development of Western canon law from its apostolic beginnings till the sixteenth century. He deals particularly with the monumental influence of the 12th century shadowy figure named Gratian, the supposed compiler of the anchor text of canon law called the Decretum. John Noonan’s Canons and Canonists in Context rejects the common idea that Gratian was a monk or a bishop, and he questions whether Gratian authored the Decretum, particularly its influential texts on marriage. He shows that Paucapalea, a disciple of Gratian, may well have written a portion of the Decretum, too. Noonan also challenges the legend that Rolandus, Gratian’s famous commentator, was the same Rolandus that became Pope Alexander II. Jean Gaudemet’s Église et cité explores the contested relationships between medieval religious and political authorities, and their respective canon and civil law systems. This book is particularly effective in showing how medieval jurists resolved complex jurisdictional conflicts and issues of conflict of laws. R.H. Helmolz’s, The Spirit of Canon Law analyzes closely how the medieval canonists – on their own or in collaboration with the civil lawyers – resolved intricate and enduring questions of public, private, penal, and procedural law that are still relevant today. This Article offers an appreciative review of these four volumes, setting them in the context of the emerging historiography of the law of the High Middle Ages.

Keywords: Gratian; Canon Law; Catholic Church; Papacy; Civil Law; Law and Religion; James Brundage; Jean Gaudemet; John Noonan; R.H. Helmholz

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:

John Witte Jr. (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
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Charles J. Reid Jr.

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

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Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States

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