The Medieval Review 16.09.41

Dora, Cornel, et al., ed. Wenn Bücher Recht haben: Justitia und ihre Helfer in Handschriften der Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen: Katalog zur Jahresausstellung in der Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen 30. November 2014 bis 8. November 2015. St. Gallen: Verlag am Klosterhof, 2014. pp. 107. CHF 25.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-3-905906-14-1 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Abigail Firey
University of Kentucky

This delightful introduction to legal history, the print rendition of an exhibit of manuscripts at the Stiftsbibliothek of St. Gall, is a reminder of the value of manuscript catalogues as scholarly and pedagogical resources. While most manuscript catalogues will be used only when there is need to investigate the date, provenance, content, and codicological condition of particular manuscripts, there is a rich seam of catalogues that have been compiled to illustrate interesting themes or problems, such as, for example, Laura Light's recent Traces: People and the Book catalogue (Les Enluminures, 2016), which explores the signs of human contact with manuscripts, or other sale catalogues that, while not organised topically, capture information and images of manuscripts that, if they pass into private hands, may not be seen by scholars and students for quite some time. The manuscripts of St. Gall, fortunately, are about as fully available for universal consultation as any because of the pioneering digital project (e-codices,; as well as the Codices Electronici Sangallensis, that has made images of the complete codices freely accessible on the internet, using the best standards and most recent technology for viewing. The interest of Wenn Bücher Recht haben: Justitia und ihre Helfer in Handschriften der Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, therefore, is in the selection and commentary, both of which make it a helpful companion to the CESG repository and a free-standing work in its own right.

The advantages of introducing medieval law through selected manuscripts are threefold. First, the visual differences between legal documents and lawbooks, and between lawbooks of earlier and later periods, give students an immediate appreciation of the range of activities, purposes, and types of texts that were within the sphere of "medieval law". That notarial hands retain their striking paleographic characteristics across centuries, even when they absorb the form of contemporary scripts, shows a continuity in the use of visual codes, suggesting conservatism in the construction of legal documents that were expected to retain their authority almost to eternity, and from time immemorial (22/23, 34/35). On the other hand, the dramatic changes after the mid-twelfth century in the presentation of canon law in books designed for study (30/31, 32/33, 42/43, 44/45, 48/49, 50/51, 52/53, 54/55, 64/65) reflects the impact both of university teaching and also the evolution of a ius commune, a commonly known meta-law, founded on the conjunction of Roman and canon law, and shaped by the shared practices and interpretations disseminated in university classrooms. In contrast, the selected manuscript of the Schwabenspiegel (24/25), the Swiss and southern German analogue to the better known Sachsenspiegel or the French coutumiers, a late medieval, vernacular compendium of putative customs, legal principles, and statutes drawn from a range of sources, was not designed to support the extensive commentary of the glossae ordinariae found in manuscripts of later medieval Roman and canon law, although many manuscripts of such collections of legal norms were. Such visual distinctions can help students classify legal activities and artefacts, and reinforce a chronology on which to frame legal history.

Second, there has long been a coterie of legal historians who anchor their work in manuscript studies. In part, this is due to the exploratory nature of much research in legal history: there are still too many texts that have never been published; there are many variations and versions of texts that have been published. As those variations and versions are potentially important indications of textual adaptation according to time or place, rather than scribal errors or unintended textual mutations, they require attention. The study of legal history is directed as much toward the use of texts and formulae as to their original composition, and manuscripts are a vital link to moments and sites of use. This book will initiate students into the habitus of thinking about medieval law with reference to specific manuscripts, and the variety of practices and fluidity of texts represented in them.

Third, the manuscripts offer an occasion for brief explanations of both the general and the particular. The editors have made efforts to highlight connections between the history of St. Gall and the content of the selected manuscripts, such as tensions between the monastery and the bishopric of Constance, imperial support for St. Gall, and juridically-trained personnel at St. Gall (pp. 11-13, 15, 20/21, 22/23, 32/33, 34/35, 56/57, 60/61, 66/67, 78-97). They have done so with a fine eye to connecting those episodes to broader historical themes, such as the power of the papacy, or contestation between monastic communities and bishoprics. In this respect, the commentaries on the plates also offer nice methodological models that show how other, local sources can be related to more general jurisprudence, thus bringing to life its abstract principles or prescriptions.

Wenn Bücher Recht haben is organized around the six vitrines of the original exhibit. These vitrines were designed to illustrate six major themes in legal history, from the seventh to the fifteenth century. The first two vitrines display materials related to the legal actors deemed most important by the organisers: the emperor and the pope. Two subsequent vitrines contain materials related to judicial process, penance, confession, indulgences, and areas of law. The third pair of vitrines has manuscripts of early medieval "barbarian" or "folk" law: that is, the leges now generally accepted as representations or descendants of provincial, "vulgar" Roman law. Accompanying these exhibits are charters related to St. Gall, and also a miscellany of the monastery's treasures, such as the Plan of St. Gall, an annotated copy of the Benedictine Rule, and manuscripts attesting to the use of Old High German and neumes. There are usually six items in each of the sections of the book; each item is discussed in a full page facing the image of a single, selected page from the manuscript; there are also two-page introductions to each section. The shelfmark, date, provenance, and number of folia of the manuscripts are very clearly set forth, as is the name of the person or text to be most associated with the image and commentary. The images are of high quality, and in colour.

There is an elegant and interesting general introduction to the whole volume by Philipp Lenz, which is in many ways more insightful than the somewhat coarse classifications imposed in the vitrines. Lenz's dissertation research on fifteenth-century St. Gall infuses some of his commentary in welcome ways. [1] For a very compressed (5 pages) guide to medieval law, Lenz's account is admirable for signaling late medieval contempt for lawyers, the political doctrine of the two swords, the deep penetration of legal learning even in cloistered communities, the importance and range of canon law, especially in the development of theories about corporations, consensus, and representative government, as well as the transnational nature of the ius commune, and the dynamic interplay between norms, praxis, and written collections of law.

The short introductions to each vitrine and the commentaries on the images draw upon the very respectable bibliography (100-105) that ends the volume. The bibliography comprises classic works, especially on canon law, primarily reference books, handbooks, or studies that are quite tightly focused on particular legal texts, manuscripts, or the legal profession in the middle ages, primarily in German or English. In this respect, too, the volume serves as a fine and concise introduction to the standard contours of the field. Such respectability comes with a price: there is no colouring outside the lines in the commentaries or introductions to each section. There are no hints that well-worn narratives might be reconsidered (and are being reconsidered), no gestures toward recent, refreshing perspectives on law and society, no allusions to the fundamental complexity of evolution and transmission of very varied strands of legal traditions.

Thus, an exciting aspect of the book is its lacunae, which invite further enquiry, both paleographic and historical. Students could be directed, for example, to consider how the St. Gall collection might or might not conform to the processes operating around 1500 in the re-conceptualization of archives and their significance for legal activities; as Simon Teuscher has demonstrated, with examples from Switzerland, this was a reconceptualisation with significant import for the use of legal documents and lawbooks. [2] The representation of manuscripts from the late middle ages would provide a nice platform for such investigation (24/25, 32/33, 34/35). Students interested in the Carolingian period could study Rosamond McKitterick's extensive and detailed research on the St. Gall charters, and her discussion of their paleographic, regional, and cultural contexts. [3] The greatest area left unexplored in Wenn Bücher Recht haben is the period between the two "renaissances" on which the catalogue firmly focuses: the Carolingian period and the period after the publication of Gratian's Decretum. So, for example, students could study digital images of manuscripts on the CSEG, such as St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 150, a 9th and 10th century "composite manuscript containing books of penance (Poenitentiale Capitula Iudiciorum, Poenitentiale Theodori, Poenitentiale Vinniani, Poenitentiale Sangallense simplex, Poenitentiale Sangallense tripartitum), texts by the Church Fathers, and more"; or St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 676, "written between 1080 and 1100, likely at the Cloister of St. Blaise or the Cloister of Allerheiligen (All Saints) in Schaffhausen by theologian and canonist Bernold von Konstanz or by employees under his supervision...[containing] the Poenitentiales by Rabanus Maurus ad Heribaldum, the sixth book of the Poenitentiales by Halitgar of Cambrai, excerpts from the Decretum of Burchard of Worms, proceedings of the first Christian Councils, the Epitome Hadriani and the Collectio 74 titulorum cum appendice Suevica; or St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 677, of the tenth century, a "composite manuscript of juridical and theological content, probably from the Abbey of St. Gall...[containing]...the capitulary of bishop Hatto of Basel and bishop Theodulf of Orléan, the Poenitentiale of one Pseudo-Egbert, the provisions of the Council of Nicea (325), works by Alcuin, including his tract De virtutibus et vitiis as well as a copy of the Admonitio Generalis of Charlemagne from 789; or St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 679, from the Eastern Frankish empire around 900, "a collection of juridical works...[including] a copy of the Bussbuch (Book of Penances) by Bishop Halitgar of Cambrai († 830) and the important law collection Collectio LIII titulorum. [4] The chronological presentation in Wenn Bücher Recht haben is also a bit skewed by the commentaries' focus on the date of textual composition, rather than manuscript representation; a quite different story might emerge, were more attention given to the dates of active copying. Paleographers will find ample opportunity to expound upon the plates, as there usually no discussion of the script, and even the comments regarding mise-en-page are brief. In sum, this is a book that can have many uses for students, historians, and paleographers.




2. Simon Teuscher, "Document Collections, Mobilized Regulations, and the Making of Customary Law at the End of the Middle Ages," Archival Science 10 (2010): 211-229.

3. Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 77-134 (not listed in the bibliography).

4. All quoted descriptions are from the online cataloguing of e-codices.

Copyright (c) 2016 Abigail Firey

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