This exhibition examines the rediscovery of Roman law in the Middle Ages and how it influenced the codification of canon law, the law of the church. Canon law held jurisdiction over matters such as wills, defamation, marriages and the conduct of the clergy. The show also highlights the process of codification and publication of the laws of individual cities and the reemergence of law as an esteemed profession in medieval Europe.
“Presenting manuscripts never before exhibited in the museum, this focus show is a step in making this fascinating field known to the public,” said Martina Bagnoli, assistant curator of manuscripts and rare books, in a prepared statement to the press.
This exhibition will present some of the cases brought before ecclesiastical tribunals in the Middle Ages. The modern public will find many similarities with contemporary life. In the 13th century, judges had to answer instances of annulment of marriage on the basis of impotence, false pretence and presumed death as well as rule over blatant instances of corruption.
The criteria to argue and rule over these cases were found in large volumes for the instruction of students called Decreta. First assembled by the monk Gratianus, the Decretum explored different cases of the law, tracing the theological implications behind the courts’ decisions. These compilations enabled both students and seasoned practitioners of church law to argue cases presenting similar facts or to construct arguments involving issues that had not yet been addressed by the ecclesiastical courts. Often the Decreta were accompanied by lengthy explanations written by well-known university law professors. These commentaries were written in the margins surrounding the main text. The layout of these law books, which were written by hand, was an extraordinary feat of page design. In some books, precious illuminations were added so that the reader could capture the essence of the case at a glance.
In the Middle Ages, at a time when human and divine law were closely linked, the dispensation of forgiveness was informed by the same philosophical undercurrent pinning the writings of the Decreta. Among the documents in the exhibition is a rare papal bull (1331) signed by bishop Beraldus of Fargues (1314–1333) granting forty days of indulgence to whoever visited or gave alms to the Church of Notre Dame de Fargues at Albi in France during specific feast days. If sins could not be atoned by pilgrimage or donations, a confessor might peruse the Summa Confessorum, a popular manual for priests receiving confessions, so that they could find a just punishment for the expiation of sins. One such Summa on view is illustrated with an image of a medieval tribunal—lawyers and priests sit at their desks, each with an open law book in front of him, while God presides as Supreme Judge.
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This story was published on December 15, 2005.