Robert Grosseteste and the Science of Canon Law

Robert Grosseteste and the Science of Canon Law

I had the opportunity this past Friday to give a paper entitled, ‘Robert Grosseteste and the Science of Canon Law’ at the conference Science, Imagination, and Wonder: Robert Grosseteste and His Legacy at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. The conference was part of a different Durham-aligned project, The Ordered Universe. Nonetheless, our work on the priory manuscripts was relevant.


How is it that Durham Cathedral’s manuscripts are relevant to our understanding of a bishop of Lincoln who was likely educated at Hereford? Well, my research question was, ‘What was the landscape of English canon law (esp. manuscripts) at the time of Grosseteste’s education (1190s)?’


This question cannot be answered at Hereford, whose cathedral library has only one manuscript of the right period, O.II.10, that was probably actually in Hereford at the time.


It can be answered at Durham, which is why people get so excited about Durham Cathedral Library — we still have so many of the books and can trace down many of the wanderers.


And in Durham, we find a good collection of canon law manuscripts of this era (hence why I study them) — six copies of Gratian’s Decretum (all glossed: DCL C.IV.1, C.III.1, C.I.7, C.II.1, C.I.8, and Cambridge, Sidney Sussex 101), two/three post-Gratian decretal collections (DCL C.III.1, C.III.3 [mentioned below], and C.III.4), Johannes Faventinus (C.III.7), and the Panormia falsely attributed to Ivo of Chartres (Cambridge, University Library, Ff.4.41), as well as, a few years after the dates chosen for my study, a copy of the Glossa Palatinia of Laurentius Hispanus (DCL C.III.8) and an evolutionary manuscript, DCL C.III.3, that starts with Bernard of Pavia’s Compilatio Prima, to which was added the collection of Gilbert, and then a decretal collection scholars call the Dunelmensis secunda.


Interestingly, Durham’s copy of Huguccio (DCL C.I.20) is from the fourteenth century, although he wrote c. 1190.


Each of these manuscripts has a story to tell, showing us something about the world of canon law in England on the cusp of the thirteenth century. All of them together also tell a story, especially if we break the bonds of my paper and extend our survey to 1234 at the end of the ‘classical’ period of medieval canon law, for here we see the history of English medieval canon law in microcosm, from Gratian to Gregory IX (six of Gregory IX as well, if I remember correctly), with the general contours of canon law in the period at large, but some English particularities as well — the presence of early decretal collections, for example, and particular sets of glosses to Gratian, particularly in C.II.1 and C.I.7.


The highlight of the set is the manuscript chosen by Richard Gameson for Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral, C.I.7, which has some very beautiful illuminations (incl. 29 illluminated initials), in particular the letter H that starts the text (Gratian begins with the words ‘Humanum genus’). This H has a bishop (the pope?) in the top, being handed the law by Moses and the Gospel by Christ. In the bottom half is an emperor being handed scrolls about law by kings. Here is an ordered universe, a hierarchy — if not quite a celestial hierarchy! 😉 — with canon law at the top and civil/Roman law at the bottom.


I wonder what impression it would have made on a reader such as Grosseteste?