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XIV: Fourteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law
August 5 – 11, 2012 (Toronto, Canada)
Plenary Session: Learning the Law in the Carolingian Empire
Abigail Firey (University of Kentucky)
How did Carolingians learn canon law? In councils, courts and through controversies, some learned in Roman law and in the capitularies issued by rulers. They learned in monasteries and episcopal centers. Distinguished professor, Abigail Firey spoke to those who aspire to gain some understanding of Carolingian law her focused on possible areas where lay Carolingians could access legal texts and and learn canon law outside of Church circles.
The tenth century was a particularly active pre-Gratian period of canon law.In the Merovingian period, Roman law was studied. By the Carolingian period, lay persons appeared also have an understanding of law and there is evidence that learning outside of purely legal circles existed. Firey mentioned two surviving wills from the ninth century of lay persons requesting law books and knowing enough to use the terms like, “according to law”. Certain individuals were using written law to have an advantage in personal and property disputes.
Is there evidence of systematic education in law during this period? To answer this, we need to turn to manuscripts. Some documents show that laws were written for the care of animals, care of labourers etc…and there were some surviving manuscripts that indicate knowledge of legal workings. However, there is a lot of incomplete evidence and in most Carolingian law texts it is difficult to see where they came by their knowledge of canon law. As we usually associate a bishops with canonical knowledge, the monastery was a natural place for the study of law. It is an interesting feature of the Carolingian period that canonical and episcopal landscapes were so intertwined. Both regular and secular clergy were exposed to law. Despite the ideal of remaining within the monastery walls Carolingian monasteries were ecclesiastical thoroughfares. Fiery stated, “The walls of the cloister were quite permeable.”, with political exiles entering and escaping when times and circumstances changed, and child oblates entering then leaving as they advanced to higher offices outside the monastery. These are examples where episcopal and secular contact can been seen. However, manuscripts cannot be completely indicative of legal learning because monasteries were such thoroughfares. There is an awful lot of fluctuation and scholars must always take into account the dynamism of living institutions, and that books and people move in unpredictable ways.
Although there is no standard model for Carolingian education, the study of canon law manuscripts in places such as Salzburg, demonstrate a match between episcopal centres and a monasteries. Monastic libraries contained books which they did not produce, and books were sent on to other libraries or produced for export to other destinations. There appeared to be efficient production of large canon law collections.
Monasteries were not insulated from traffic in legal texts. Whether a Carolingian student would learn law in a monastery or another place remains unanswerable. We should turn our gaze away from the view of a single, authoritative compilation. It cannot be doubted that Carolingians wanted or needed access to late antique texts.
Firey then turned briefly to glosses. Glosses show the pressures on the Carolingian church and provide examples of property and other disputes. Glosses drew upon a wide range of sources and areas of Roman law with multiple authors who were not always named. They were a collective local centre of academic activity and have philological, educational and religious importance.