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23.03.07 D’Avray, Papal Jurisprudence, 385-1234

23.03.07 D’Avray, Papal Jurisprudence, 385-1234

D. L. d’Avray continues to be an immensely productive scholar who stretches himself and his readers thematically, theoretically, and chronologically. With this latest book, d’Avray applies his wide-ranging read of theory to canon law and challenges the temporal limits within which a medievalist typically operates. Those familiar with his corpus on sermons and preaching, marriage, and his Medieval Religious Rationalities: A Weberian Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) may be surprised by his legal turn in recent years (starting, perhaps, with his study of the papacy and dissolution of royal marriages), and yet his previous studies and analyses support a fresh and learned approach to the content of papal decretals, the phenomenon of two main “decretal ages,” and the development of the canon law tradition.

If you think you know what a book about papal decretals is going to be like, think again. This is not a standard accounting of popes and recipients, textual reception, and early medieval or later canonical collections. Rather, it constitutes a theoretical framework and explanation for why the Latin church has witnessed two distinct decretal ages, one in the late fourth-fifth centuries and one in the late twelfth-thirteenth centuries, and how the two ages are connected. At the same time, the study rests in part on the same kind of textual analysis and manuscript research that one would expect from a study of papal letters. The particular strength (and boldness) of the book, then, results from this combination of careful textual analysis with an overarching interpretation of, as the subtitle puts it, the “social origins and medieval reception” of these texts of papal jurisprudence that came to be so influential in the canon law tradition.

One cannot discuss this book without mentioning its source-focused companion volume. As with his Papacy, Monarchy, and Marriage, 860-1600, published in 2015 with a corresponding source volume, Dissolving Royal Marriages: A Documentary History, 860-1600 (2014), so too in this case d’Avray has written a work largely on the basis of the source material studied, edited, and translated in a separate volume. In this case, that volume is Papal Jurisprudence c.400: Sources of the Canon Law Tradition (Cambridge, 2019). Throughout this volume, that other volume of sources is referred to as PJc.400 and appears ubiquitously in the text and footnotes. Any library or scholar wanting to purchase Papal Jurisprudence, 385-1234 should also purchase Papal Jurisprudence c.400.

The heart of d’Avray’s primary argument can be boiled down to a single word: uncertainty. He argues that the reason papal decretals proliferated c.400 and again c.1200 is that changing social conditions had resulted in widespread uncertainty amid complexities within Christian ritual, hierarchies, clerical status, treatment of heretics, and doctrine. Widespread uncertainty raised the demand for clear, authoritative answers; as a result, Latin Christians, above all bishops, turned to popes for definitive decisions that could then guide their governance within their dioceses. The argument is so deceptively simple and, on one level, even self-apparent that one wonders why no one has stated it so clearly before. And one might wonder why d’Avray needed to spend years studying the manuscripts and texts of the papal decretals to come up with it and how original the argument is.

To appreciate d’Avray’s true contribution (which, I maintain, is substantial), one needs to appreciate the full scope of d’Avray’s theoretical framework, the individual sub-studies he has undertaken, and the scholarly claims or tendencies that he is pushing against. Refreshingly, with d’Avray, all his cards are on the table; he lays out his theoretical debts in Appendix D, where he lists Louis Dumont, Mary Douglas, Niklas Luhmann, Max Weber, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Geoffrey Hawthorn, and J. G. A. Pocock. It is this final scholar who provides d’Avray with the notion of reoccurrence, instead of simple continuity or disjunction, as a conceptual framework for thinking about two distinct ages of papal decretals. D’Avray expresses preference for this framework over other explanations, not for every historical question but for the perplexing problem at issue here. Pocock’s schema, which asserts that particular thinking and activity revive in particular environments, even several centuries apart, “works quite well for the history of papal jurisprudence” (12). In short, within similar environments, similar kinds of “social soil” (2), similar activity and responses result. With this framework, d’Avray can approach two historical time periods rarely studied together and offer something both to scholars of late antiquity and to medievalists while providing a model for how scholarship can cross the temporal boundaries that our academic subdisciplines have erected.

Each of d’Avray’s chapters is short, no more than fifteen pages long. He devotes more space to discussions of late antiquity and the very early reception of papal decretals in the sixth century than he does to the second age of decretals. These early and middle chapters are rooted in his extensive study of the early decretals, ranging from the first extant decretal by Siricius (to Himerius of Tarragona, dated to 385) to decretals by Leo I (440-461) and Gelasius I (492-496), the latter falling just prior to the first significant and influential collections of decretals, beginning with the Dionysiana (c.500). To build his argument, d’Avray first must make the case that conditions on the ground in the late fourth century were rife with uncertainty and that the concepts of “uncertainty” and “complexity” are better than “conflict” for explaining the spirit of the times and what gave rise to the early decretals. As imperial authority and structures grew weaker in the Latin west, as more people converted to Christianity, as Christians were highly mobile throughout the empire, and as conciliar activity and participation in the west were reduced, Christians did not necessarily have ready access to the decisions of Nicaea; they simultaneously became acutely aware of regional differences in Christian ritual, practice, and clerical norms and hierarchical structures through their travels and migrations. Meanwhile, strong theological uncertainty emerged through the debates between Augustine and Pelagius on grace while the rising stardom of monks created uncertainty about how those committed to the religious life should relate to and potentially fit within the clerical hierarchy.

Although the period undoubtedly witnessed conflicts among individuals and groups, the pope was not being appealed to primarily as an arbiter set to resolve conflicts; rather, the decretals testify to genuine questions and confusion amid a range of possibilities. With the rise in demand for certainty, there was a rise in inquiries sent to the pope, who under the model of imperial rescripts, issued responses. Many of these responses to various recipients are rather redundant, although d’Avray sees increasing clarity and precision even moving from Leo I to Gelasius I. The redundancy speaks to the widespread need for clarity on common issues of complexity and confusion; what started to reduce the need for new decretals was the dissemination of the collections of these decretals. The first three such collections are the Dionysiana, Quesnelliana, and, far less influential, the Frisingensis prima. Finally, people could refer to authoritative collections with answers to their questions, and, until historical developments had occurred of such a magnitude that significantly more and new uncertainties arose, fresh decretals for the most part did not need to be sought.

The last third of the book examines the reception of the papal decretals in the Carolingian and reform periods and finally in the canonistic discourse on Gratian’s Decretum in which the new decretals of the popes of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries are brought into dialogue with the earlier decretals as copied in the Decretum. The chapters on the Carolingian period (which includes Burchard of Worms in the very early eleventh century) and on the century 1050-1150 are particularly interesting; the analysis in the preceding chapter, which includes a discussion of the varied approach to papal decretals in Merovingian Gaul, Iberia, and Ireland, is also helpful, particularly in showing how the subject matter of canon law became broader and the dominance of papal jurisprudence within canon law was not a foregone conclusion. In all three chapters, d’Avray emphasizes how the early papal decretals were received, preserved, and perpetuated in select canonical collections. He includes treatment of Charlemagne’s famous Admonitio generalis, the first half of which copied the canonica instituta consisting of versions of early decretals and conciliar decisions. The next chapter contains d’Avray’s explanation of why increased uncertainty in the late eleventh and early twelfth century again prompted new decretals in the years that followed.

For d’Avray, the many treatments of papal and religious reform have failed to account adequately for why the reform happened when it did and why reform was considered an ideal to begin with. For him, explanations focused on the rise of a money economy as a background to a rejection of simony are too simple or misguided--all you have to do is read earlier papal decretals to know that simony had long been condemned. D’Avray’s own explanation hones in on social changes with an impact on clergy, definitions of celibacy (noting a huge change in the definition of celibacy, which had essentially been a “chaste marriage” starting at the rank of deacon in late antiquity but not a rejection of marriage), and the players and processes by which bishops were elected. When you look at the sources in combination with social changes, d’Avray maintains, you see an additional explanation for reform: “a legal system, alive in collections but static, comes up against systems that have evolved far beyond the law’s 4th-5th century context” (180). As a result, once again, Latin Christendom was thrust into uncertainty, in this case an uncertainty about how to reconcile the older texts with current realities. This uncertainty compelled Christians, above all bishops, once again to seek solid answers from the one institution that could be recognized as authoritative: the papacy. The final chapters devote attention to the Glossa ordinaria on Gratian’s Decretum, carefully attuned to the development of that text from Johannes Teutonicus’s post-Lateran IV (1215) version to Bartholomeus Brixiensis’s post-Liber Extra (1234) version.

The book closes with three lengthy appendices of texts. They consist of letters of Leo I, Gelasius I, and the Glossa ordinaria. All of these texts supplement and do not duplicate the selected decretals edited and discussed in PJc.400.

D’Avray’s book is strong on content but perhaps even richer for the conceptual clarity it elucidates and the scholarly lessons it instills. In terms of questions of anachronism and how scholars can usefully talk about phenomena of the past with concepts that make sense to scholars today without ignoring different realities and concepts in the period we are studying, his clear delineation of “etic” and “emic” concepts is useful (93). Admirably, d’Avray then proceeds to identify when he is using a term as an “etic” concept (a concept native to us that we use to categorize and analyze something in the past) as opposed to an “emic” concept (a concept native to the people we study). He utilizes this strategy when following a secondary argument of his work about the development of “law” and “theology,” recognizing that, for much of the time under review, no one describes their work or material in those terms.

Elsewhere, on many occasions, d’Avray criticizes those scholars of today who treat as ridiculous and irrational the religious views and vigorous debates of the people they study. D’Avray’s point is quite simple: as historians, we can’t do very well what we are trying to do (understand the past) if we disregard the matters that people of the past found important and in fact fundamental. For d’Avray, it is irrelevant what one’s personal views and beliefs are; what is relevant is how seriously we take our subjects and what kind of respect we afford them with their concerns. Thus, d’Avray at one point asserts, “anyone aiming to understand late Antiquity had better take Christology seriously, however alien from religion they might be, just as future historians of the early twenty-first century had better take gender theory seriously, even if they should personally find it strange. It was rational to wrestle with questions about what it actually meant to be the ‘son of God’” (139). D'Avray’s convictions on this front explain in part his resistance to the “all about power” thesis of Ali Bonner in her 2018 Oxford monograph, The Myth of Pelagianism. For anyone who has been tempted by Bonner’s controversial thesis, d’Avray’s rebuttals in chapter four, highlighting both specific problems in Bonner’s work and larger methodological ones, are well worth consideration.

While d’Avray’s work makes a substantial contribution to late antique and medieval studies of canon law and the papacy, not all scholars may be convinced by every argument or claim equally. D’Avray’s work is relatively short for the ambitious claims within it (241 pages before the appendices begin), and he simply does not have the space to substantiate every argument equally well. Medievalists looking back to late antiquity will appreciate d’Avray’s lengthier introduction to and treatment of the first decretal age, but scholars of late antiquity perhaps could use an equally robust introduction to the varied issues of the 12th century that set up and were dealt with in decretals c.1200. The breadth of “uncertainties” handled in the earlier period stand out against the much shorter list treated in the later period. One could criticize d’Avray, then, for unevenness of treatment. Additionally, for all his conceptual clarity, in a few cases he seems inconsistent. Why he is comfortable speaking of “law” as distinct from “theology” as an “etic” concept but is uncomfortable applying the term “administration,” preferring to speak of “an attempt to impose a judgment about what was lawful” (104), is unclear. Finally, in the very first chapter, he rejects the usage of the term “tradition” with a preference for “conversation” or “discussion strings.” He rejects “tradition” because it “tends to imply an absence of change or evolution” (13). Every Catholic theologian, and many others beside, would disagree. In fact, speaking of the tradition of papal jurisprudence--the handing down of decretals to successive generations, with their own colored reception of them--would seem, in my view, to express quite nicely what d’Avray wants to highlight.

Minor complaints aside, it is difficult to express how interesting a book d’Avray has written. He brings new insights and frameworks to the topic of papal decretals, pushes historians to think well beyond their typical chronological limits, and convincingly demonstrates that careful and even tedious textual and manuscript research can profitably be combined with larger social analyses for a stimulating and necessary addition to our understanding of how and why certain phenomena appear when they do.