Gideon de Jong

“Let us walk by the same rule”, Anchoring Church Law between Constantine and Charlemagne

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From very early on Christian communities created rules to organise themselves. These ‘canons’ would grow to become an entire legal system. This ‘canon law’ did not take shape In Isolation, but drew from both Christian and secular conceptions of life, law and government, all while Rome’s Empire fell and Charlemagne’s Empire emerged.

From very early on Christian communities formulated rules to organise themselves. Under Emperor Constantine I the first ecumenical council at Nicaea promulgated a number of conciliar decisions meant to order Christian life. These decisions, called ‘canons’ in both Greek and Latin, would prove to be the building blocks of ecclesiastical or canon law. They were gathered and organised in various ways, mostly through collections. At first these collections contained acts of both ecumenical and local church councils. Later, other normative material would find its place in these sources as well.

As the material preserved in collections of canon law was removed and added to, its practitioners formed, used and abused conceptions of authority and canonicity. Lines of tradition were continued, broken, redrawn and restored as Christian communities encountered the challenges posed by the changing world of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Always in dialogue with both Roman and non-Roman ideas of law and authority, these communities developed a sense of themselves as something radically new, an institutional Church, while creating similarly new ideas of secular and state power in the process. The growing and changing meaning of these new ideas must be taken into account in order to make sense of the established understanding of canon law as rules for and by the Church.

This project will shed light on the ways in which the necessary adaptation of sometimes centuries-old material to new circumstances was anchored in tradition. How did the minutes of church councils turn into canons? What made a canon a canon? What rules were applied when formulating new canons? How much room did appeals to tradition leave for innovation and change? Did inclusion of a normative text in a canonical collection change its character? How did readers deal with the great variety of collections?