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22.02.19 Morton, Byzantine Religious Law in Medieval Italy

22.02.19 Morton, Byzantine Religious Law in Medieval Italy

James Morton’s Byzantine Religious Law in Medieval Italy introduces scholars to the relatively unknown genre of nomocanonical manuscripts produced in southern Italy. These books of Byzantine canon law were written in the tenth through fourteenth centuries, a period of enormous changes for the Greek church in Italy. Drawing on extensive archival work at thirteen European libraries, Morton assembled a corpus of twenty-six nomocanon books of civil and canon law as well as ten nomocanonical manuscripts that preserve biblical and patristic texts alongside the legal material. Morton’s database amends the Repertorium der Handschriften des byzantinischen Rechts revising the details of the production and contents of the manuscripts. [1] This updated list of manuscripts and their contents are documented in an over thirty-page appendix of thirty-six manuscripts and supplemented with a second appendix of twelve other possible books.

Beyond introducing the manuscripts to an Anglophone audience, Morton examines how and why the books were produced and their context within Italian legal pluralism. Drawing on ideas from legal anthropology especially from Robert Cover’s scholarship about paideic and imperial modes of law, Morton argues that Byzantine canon law was one of the many legal systems present in medieval Italy that continued to be culturally relevant long after it lost its legal utility. [2] During the Norman period, nomocanons were practical manuscripts produced to help Italo-Greek monasteries manage their lands, monks, and independence from the Latin church. After the end of Greek canon law courts in southern Italy during the thirteenth century, Greek canon law manuscripts continued to be produced, reaffirming the legal basis of Greek religious practices.

The first section of the book provides context for the genre of nomocanons, Italo-Greek Christianity, and the early modern transmission of the manuscripts. In chapter one, Morton introduces how the textual collections of nomocanons developed slowly across centuries for use by the Byzantine church as well as the basic characteristics of these manuscripts. The next chapter outlining the history of the Greek church in Italy emphasizes that Byzantine re-conquest of the ninth and tenth centuries laid deep foundations for the Italo-Greek church that arose in the Norman period and was only seriously challenged after the Fourth Crusade. Chapter three details the survival of nomocanon manuscripts by the fifteenth-century monastic order of St. Basil and the sale of Salento manuscripts on the Renaissance book market.

The second section addresses the role of Italo-Greek canon law in the Norman kingdom. In chapter four, Morton tries to construct how Greek canon law worked in the ninth and tenth centuries utilizing two nomocanon collections to make up for the lack of procedural sources. While these textual collections are quite conservative in the laws that they preserve, the marginalia suggest that their readers knew of contemporary legal trends in Constantinople and marked up these books to reflect their opinion about the jurisdictional boundaries of the Patriarch of Constantinople. When the Normans conquered southern Italy, nomocanon collections changed to incorporate texts that challenged Latin religious practices especially concerning the azyma (unleavened host) and fasting. The next chapter focuses on how during the Norman period, Italo-Greek monasteries utilized nomocanons to manage their monks and lands. These wealthy, well-endowed monasteries produced eleven manuscripts that survive from the Norman period, and they were largely exempted from episcopal control by the Norman kings; Morton characterized these monasteries as an autonomous archipelago. This dynamic allowed monastic producers of Greek canon law collections to treat the pope and his legal decisions as “distant and legally irrelevant” (113) and instead perpetuate the fiction that these monastic houses were still under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

In chapter six, Morton argues that the distinctive status of Italo-Greek monasteries is also apparent in the style of the books that they produced. The monastic nomocanon manuscripts have no stylistic connections to books produced at Latin monasteries despite the close proximity between these monastic communities. Instead, the nomocanon books were quite conservative reflecting historical and contemporary connections to the Byzantine world. Traditional monastic nomocanon books “have quite austere appearances” (122) with minimal decoration, a distinctive ruling system, and unusual quire construction reflecting codicological traditions that had long been present in southern Italy. Morton examines three manuscripts produced at the Patiron monastery located near Rossano as examples of luxury manuscripts that were modelled on contemporary Constantinopolitan books. These three manuscripts have the same contents and luxury decoration, originally derived from a book purchased by the founder of Patiron in Constantinople in 1105, and were used for reference in judicial settings as well as religious education.

The next chapter explores how the Greek secular clergy was largely independent from the papacy because of Roger II’s opposition to papal intervention in his domain. Because there are no surviving nomocanons that can be directly connected to Italo-Greek bishops, Morton examines a civil law manuscript with a canon law appendix and a nomocanon that belonged to an aristocratic family in Rossano. Morton argues that the lack of papal letters sent to Greek bishops suggests papal disengagement with the community, and legal pluralism of Norman civil law was paralleled in canon law. While Morton is quite clear about the lack of source material, these are significant conclusions to draw on limited evidence.

In the third part of the book, Morton examines how nomocanons were produced and used after the end of Greek canon law courts in southern Italy. Chapter eight outlines the political and religious shifts that underlie this legal transition detailing the end of Norman-Hauteville rule, the greater involvement of Pope Innocent III in southern Italy, and the appointment of Latin clergy to the position of patriarch of Constantinople. Morton indicates how two Greek monastic houses responded to these changes through their nomocanons. The Italo-Greek monastery Grottaferrata enjoyed a close relationship with the papacy, receiving papal privileges exempting it from episcopal control, allowing the continued use of Greek canon law. Between 1222 and 1230, the monastery produced a new nomocanon (Grottaferrata, Nomocanon Marc. Gr, 171) that totally ignored Latin canon law. In contrast, the monastery of Holy Saviour of Messina tried to resist the Latin archbishop of Messina’s right to confirm the election of the monastery’s archimandrite. Their nomocanon manuscript (Vall. C. II. I) preserves thirteenth-century marginalia hinting at the monastery’s legal strategy. Despite the imposition of the Latin canon law on the Italo-Greek communities, nomocanon manuscripts continued to be used and produced.

The next chapter examines a group of at least six (and up to eleven) manuscripts produced on the Salento peninsula after 1215. Part of the a distinctive Salentine book culture, the codices have a classical minuscule developed in Otranto and decorative motifs of vines that are leafy and twisted. Unlike most of the other nomocanons discussed by Morton, these books were used by priests. The texts preserved in this group of manuscripts explained why Greeks practiced Christianity differently than Latins and regularly criticized Latin religious practices. One of the central concerns of the nomocanons was the issue of whether Italo-Greek priests could marry, which was a critical issue on the Salento peninsula where Latin and Greek rite communities lived side by side. According to Morton, these manuscripts “proved that Italo-Greeks were right to be different or at least not wrong” (191).

Morton examines the role that Greek canon law played within southern Italy as the Italo-Greek community became more and more separated from Byzantine Christianity. This period of the late twelfth to fourteenth century was not a straightforward transition to Latin practice. While there was official tolerance of Italo-Greek Christianity, there was also unofficial intolerance especially around the flash points of Saturday fasts, azyma, and clerical marriage. The nomocanon manuscripts gave the Italo-Greek community certainty about the antiquity of their practices and legitimated their faith as a distinct community. Drawing again on the work of Robert Cover, Morton argues that nomocanons stopped being important in an imperial sense during this period and played a paideic role in convincing both Greek and Latin communities of the validity of the Italo-Greek religious tradition.

In the conclusion, Morton explores the larger implications of the nomocanonical tradition within southern Italy. He argues that these manuscripts especially those produced after 1215 do not make sense in positivist understandings of the law. Instead, the nomocanonical legal tradition was part of a “normative social discourse” (211) as well as an example of legal pluralism in practice. In this section, Morton acknowledges the limits of what nomocanons can tell us about Italo-Greek religious identity, because the members of the community that adopted Latin practices stopped producing nomocanonical books. For Morton, this study also helps us to reconsider the distinctions between Catholic and Orthodox identities.

This clearly-written book makes important contributions to scholarship about legal pluralism and book culture in Italy and adds considerably to our understanding of the Italo-Greek community. Most importantly, Morton makes the largely ignored tradition of Greek canon law manuscripts produced in Italy much more accessible to scholars by providing substantial descriptions of these books and situating them within their historical context.



1. Ludwig Burgmann et al., eds., Repertorium der Handschriften des byzantinischen Rechts (Frankfurt am Mainz: Löwenklau, 1995-2017) vols. 20, 28, 34.

2. Robert M. Cover, “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term-Forward: Nomos and Narrative,”Harvard Law Review 97.4 (1983) p. 4-68.