Unravelling the secrets of the Codex Florentinus

The Digest, the massive anthology of classic Roman law created for emperor Justinian (482-565), is the core text studied by scholars of Roman law. The textual tradition of the Digest is not straightforward. One of the most intriguing questions is the sudden return of the unabridged text of the Digest in the eleventh century. A key role for establishing the text of the Digest is traditionally given to the Codex Florentinus, a manuscript present in Florence since 1406, now kept at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. On the library’s webpage with an overview of its manuscript collections this manuscript figures in a class of its own. The Pandette, the Italian rendering of the Greek name Pandektai for the Justinian Digest, is special indeed. Recently the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (BML) has added a PDF of a very extensive article by Davide Baldi about the history of the Codex Florentinus, ‘Il Codex Florentinus del Digesto e il Fondo Pandette della Biblioteca Laurenziana (con un’appendice dei documenti inediti)’, Segno e Testo 8 (2010) 99-186.

Baldi’s article deserves close reading, if only for the extensive references to scholarly publications, the edition of sources about the presence, consultation and treatment in Florence of the manuscript from the fifteenth century until 1800, and the additional set with color photographs of the Codex Florentinus. The strength of his article is the wealth of information and its availability online. In this post I will summarize and comment on Baldi’s article which in my view deserves translation into other languages.

A witness from the sixth century

The history of the Codex Florentinus holds a lot of riddles. Where did it come from? When was it written? How did it reach Italy? Why does the common version of the Digest found in seemingly countless medieval manuscripts written from the late eleventh century onwards differ so much from the text in this manuscript? Scholars of Roman law, antiquarians, palaeographers and codicologists have wrestled with these questions and studied this manuscript for centuries.

Logo BMLThe online catalogue of the BML has a filter to search for bibliographical information about manuscripts, including the Pandette, the search term which gives already an impression of earlier research. Today you can see for yourself who did actually consult the Pandette since 1992 using the BML’s Dedalo, the online monitor of manuscript movements. Anyway the BML provides you with a links collection for manuscript and papyri research.

In his article Baldi offers first of all a very detailed codicological and palaeographical description of the Codex Florentinus. This information points in the end more conclusively than ever before to Constantinople and the sixth century as the time and place of its completion, but Baldi admits this cannot be established with absolute certainty and remains a debated question. A date in the sixth century is probably as close as we can get to the official publication of the Digest by Justinian in 533. Apart from the medieval manuscripts with the text of the Digest the Greek Basilica, a reworking of the Digest for the East Roman Empire, and a small number of papyri are textual witnesses of the Digest. Baldi points to the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB) where these papyri and the Florentine manuscript are listed, the latter as LDAB 7619. For the Basilica Baldi mentions the edition by G.E. and C.G.E. Heimbach and others (Basilicorum Libri LX (Leipzig 1833-1846)), which surely was used by scholars before the modern edition by the team at Groningen led by Herman Scheltema (17 vol., Groningen-‘s-Gravenhage 1953-1988). The Codex Florentinus has been the subject of two facsimile editions, Iustiniani Augusti Digestorum seu Pandectarum codex Florentinus olim Pisanus phototypice expressus (Rome 1902-1910) and Justiniani Augusti Pandectarum codex Florentinus (2 vol., Florence 1988).

The Codex Florentinus is not without textual lacunae. Baldi notes carefully all missing manuscript pages. These lacunae are very important for tracking the relation with the Florentine manuscript in later manuscripts, but they give also an indication of its closeness to the original manuscripts made in 533. The scripts used – without space between words – and the lay-out, the writing hands and decoration, scribal notes and remarks of users, and in particular the bindings and much else are carefully examined with due reference to relevant publications which are sometimes difficult to trace.

A chequered history

One of the stories accompanying the Florentine manuscript is the legendary tale of its conquest from Amalfi by the Pisans around 1135. Baldi admits that Amalfi was closely connected to the Byzantine empire, but he cannot find any substantial evidence for this story. In the mid-twelfth century the Bolognese lawyers Bulgarus and Rogerius saw the manuscript in Pisa. In the years around 1360 Leonzio Pilato studied the graeca, the Greek words used in the Latin text, and made a list of them on two new quires which were added to the two volumes of the codice Pisano, one of the other names for this manuscript. This addition is astonishing in view of the high regard for this manuscript. Leonzio’s Greek and his handwriting were not good: the list is hard to read and mistakes are around everywhere. The Codex Florentinus contains an epigram in Greek celebrating emperor Justinian. Leonzio’s transcription of this text, too, is faulty.

The coming of the Pandette from Pisa to Florence happened for sure in 1406, a fact noted in a number of chronicles. In the Palazzo dei Priori a Sancta Sanctorum, a kind of tabernacle, was created to contain the precious manuscript. In 1439 the official acts of the Council of Ferrara-Florence were deposited in it, too. In 1445 the manuscript got new bindings. For details of the period since 1406 Baldi is often able to use and adduce sources present at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana or kept at the Archivio di Stato in Florence on a scale not done before in studies concerning the littera Florentina, yet another nickname of the manuscript.

In 1490 Angelo Poliziano made a full collation – a detailed material inspection – of the manuscript. His notes left the Palazzo dei Priori in 1517, got lost, but finally came to the Laurenziana in 1760 (Laur. Plut. 91 inf. 15-17). In 1525 the Signoria ordered a transcription of the Codex Florentinus in which somehow the libri D. 21 to D. 27 are lacking. These three volumes are now at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (Banco Rari 24, 25 and 26). Baldi follows the Pandette to its new location in the mid-sixteenth century in the Cappella di San Bernardo of the Palazzo dei Priori. In 1553, the year of the publication of Lelio Torelli’s edition of the Digest for which he had amply consulted the famous manuscript, it moved to the Stanza della Guardaroba. In 1690 the manuscript miraculously was not damaged by a great fire in the Palazzo. I have skipped the name of numerous famous humanists and scholars that came to look at the manuscript. From Boccacio and Marsilio Ficino to Jean Mabillon and Laurens Theodor Gronovius, all of them saw in Florence the venerable manuscript. A landmark is the study made by Hendrik Brenkman (1681-1736) who published the Historia Pandectarum (Trajecti ad Rhenum 1722, online in Munich; facsimile Frankfurt am Main 2005), still consulted nowadays. Bernard Stolte’s book Henrik Brenkman, Jurist and Classicist (Groningen 1981) will inform you about this scholar who intended to publish a new critical edition of the Digest. Only Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krueger succeeded in fulfilling this wish (Digesta Iustiniani Augusti (2 vol., Berlin 1868-1870 – the editio maior)).

Baldi shows his capacities as a detective masterfully in the paragraph on the attempts since 1761 to transfer the Codex Florentinus to the Biblioteca Laurenziana. Only in 1786 did the manuscript actually arrive. He ends his many-sided tale with short notices on the modern embellishments of the bindings and the creation of facsimiles of this manuscript that has been on public display for the last time in 1983. The appendices to Baldi’s article with the transcription of numerous archival records are given on more than thirty pages. The ten color plates show a number of manuscript pages and details of the texts, the fifteenth-century binding and the artistic additions to the covers from the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Less is more

Here I have knowingly condensed a very dense article, and I could have told you more about the contents of the Digest. Baldi succeeds in his really long article in giving both a very detailed description of the manuscript itself and a detailed story in nuce of the documented presence of this utterly remarkable manuscript. The sudden surfacing of the Digest in the eleventh century remains one of the most enigmatic and most influential events in Western legal history.

Of the remarkable archival records edited by Baldi I will give here just one example. At pp. 160-161 Baldi gives as document XIX a fragment of the eighteenth-century study by Giuseppe Averani (1662-1738) from the Ashburnham manuscript kept at the BML. Baldi cites Averani, a most versatile scholar who teached law in Pisa, on more occasions. Here Averani discusses one of the most curious and intriguing habits of medieval lawyers citing the Digest, the use of the abbreviation ff. Even the great German scholar Hermann Kantorowicz was at a loss for a clear explanation in his Über die Entstehung der Digestenvulgata. Ergänzungen zu Mommsen (1910), originally an article in the Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte 43 (1909) and 44 (1910). I have my own opinion about a solution for this riddle, but Averani came already with a very simple and elegant explanation for the origin of this habit. In his view medieval lawyers originally used the Greek letter Π (pi) when referring to the Digest or Pandectae. Because medieval people did not understand Greek – this, however, is a rude generalization – the two vertical lines and the horizontal line on top of them got transformed into two f’s. It remains to be shown by palaeographers and calligraphers whether this scribal transformation is indeed so easy to realize, but for me Averani’s explanation rings true. By sheer coincidence I read today a notice about the Palaeographia website and the beta version of the Graphoskop, a new tool to assist the analysis of historical handwriting. It will take some time before such tools can be used with confidence.

The Istoria delle Pandette fiorentine of Averani (Florence, BML, ms. Ashburnham 1332; microfilm online, Biblioteca Europea d’Informazione e Cultura) merits further study, perhaps even an edition, even if it clearly starts as a reworking of Brenkman’s book. Davide Baldi kindly informed me he has transcribed Averani’s text. He is planning to publish it. Brenkman had helped Averani to get his Interpretationes Iuris published in Holland (first edition Leiden 1716). Averani does figure in the second edition of Juristen: ein biographisches Lexikon. Von der Antike bis zum 20. Jahrhundert, Michael Stolleis (ed.) (Munich 2001).

A host of scholars has studied the Codex Florentinus. Baldi’s article shows graphically how many skills they need to study this manuscript in depth. In fact the modern study of it shows in a nutshell how disciplines in the humanities not only can work together, but more strongly that only by combining forces and accumulated knowledge, methods and tools such study will remain fruitful. Dealing with a number of both modern and classical languages is here a condition sine qua non. I have added a link to Baldi’s article on my webpage concerning medieval law, where you will find Baldi in the company of scholars as Wolfgang Kaiser, Tammo Wallinga and others who have studied and will continue studying the Florentine Pandette anew for our times. In view of threatening – and actually happening – drastic cuts in funding of both legal history departments and the humanities in general one might doubt whether future generations will be able to acquire or assemble all qualities needed to follow in their footsteps. Nani super humeros gigantum, dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, is a proverbial expression from the twelfth century that well may revive.

A postscript

Hans Erich Troje published last year a study about the sixteenth-century editions of Justinian’s Digest, “Crisis Digestorum”. Studien zur historia pandectarum (Frankfurt am Main 2011; Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte, 264).

8 thoughts on “Unravelling the secrets of the Codex Florentinus

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Mr. Lenssen,

      Thank you for asking this question which does point to a not completely unlikely confusion. The word codex in the title “Codex Florentinus” refers to the manuscript. The Codex Theodosianus and the Codex Iustinianus are the names for codes of law issued by these Roman emperors. Justinian issued the first version of his code in 529. A revised version, the “Codex repetitae praelectionis” was published in 534 which contains the numerous laws issued between 529 and 533. In my post I refer to other names for the Florentine manuscript, in particular the Littera Florentina and Codice Pisano.

      I have taken care not to describe the Florentine manuscript as the “original manuscript” or one of the sixty official copies made in 533. Baldi does not see it as an official copy.

  1. tonlenssen

    As far as I understand it the article of Baldi is about the Codex Florentinus (CF) as a book, not about the – wider – history of the Roman law in the Middle Ages. This history begins with the glossators who glossed the Pandects or Digests, which are supposed to have been at their disposition. Glossing begins already in the 11th century. Some authors say the glossators had no more than fragments. Manlio Bellomo, The Common Legal Past of Europe. 1000-1800, 1995, pg. 60-63, describes how Irnerius compiled the Corpus Iuris Civilis as concretely as if he had been present at the work of Irnerius. For him there is no secret about the rise of the study of the corpus. Maybe “the sudden return of the unabridged text of the Digest in the eleventh century”, as you put it has not occurred – suddenly – or there is less of a secret about it. In any case, I fear, we are talking about two different stories.

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Mr. Lenssen,

      Thank you for clearing the fog in my reaction! It is the position of the Codex Florentinus for the medieval tradition of the text of the Digest you want to discuss. Between the manuscript in Florence, the littera Florentina and the socalled vulgate version, sometimes called littera Bononiensis, Mommsen postulated in his edition a Codex Secundus – abbreviated S – which must have differed from the Codex Florentinus. I am not aware of a Codex A. The readings in this manuscript led according to Mommsen to the peculiarities of the vulgate version of the Digest. Using the term Corpus Iuris Civilis is a bit awkward. In fact only around 1500 an edition of all parts of this corpus appeared with this title. Major feats in making this corpus are the rearrangement of Justinian’s Novellae, the addition of authenticae, medieval imperial constitutions, and rather late the insertion of the Libri Feudorum.
      Italian scholars have different visions of the way the study of Roman law developed in the eleventh and twelfth century, and they stress different things. The Codex Iustinianus had never been out of sight, but references to the Digest were very scarce up to the mid-eleventh century. The “return of the Digest” is to some extent indeed a hypothesis – alluring and powerful! – but its renewed presence did indeed unite forces for the start of the medieval scholarly use and interpretation on a massive scale, which did led to the creation of glosses, of discussions (dissensiones dominorum) and finally large overviews, the summae. It prompted the activity of lawyers in Bologna, a pivotal city between the North and South of Italy, the foundation of law schools and of Bologna’s University. Anyway the peculiar division of the Digest into the Digestum Vetus, the Infortiatum and the Digestum Novum, is one of the major facts still calling for a convincing explanation. After discussing several other explanations in his 1910 study Hermann Kantorowicz took it as a joke, stemming from the titles De divortiis, Soluto matrionio and De novi operis nuntiatione.

  2. Andrew Chapman

    Hello, I am trying to find a reference in a paper to the Digesta (Libri Pandectarum) 43.20 in a paper (Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head’) by a Katherine Kroeger on the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλη. She writes ‘The Digest of Justinian declared authoritatively, “The head is the place whence the water issues forth.”, and gives the above reference. I have found the Latin at the latin library dot com: ‘Caput aquae illud est, unde aqua nascitur:’, which I suspect is what she is quoting. Can you tell me whether the reference she gives is to the Latin version only? Also, could you guide me to an ancient Greek translation of this passage, if it exists. Thanks for your help, Andrew

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Thanks for your question! Justinian ordered an anthology of the classical Roman laywers to be compiled. The original text of this anthology is Latin, as was the text of the sources used by the compilers. The best and most authorative Greek translation of Justinian’s Digest is to be found in the Basilica. This translation in Greek for the Byzantine Empire had force of law. The old edition by G.E. Heimbach and others can be found online [Basilicorum libri LX (6 vol., Lepizg 1833-1870)]. The modern edition by the team of Dutch scholars led by Herman Jan Scheltema is only available in print [Basilicorum libri LX (8 vol., Groningen 1955-1988)]. In volume 6 of the Heimbach edition it is stated at page 323 that D. 43.20 is translated in Bas. 58.20, but the end is lacking, see the text in vol. 5, 209-210. You will have to check the edition by Scheltema.
      A quick search for normal meanings of the Greek word kefalè strongly suggests that there is no connection as far as literal meanings are concerned with a connotation or meaning as source. At D. the discussion is about the Latin expression “the head of the water”, about a composite expression, and not about the word “caput” on its own. “Caput aquae” is an expression which uses the word for head in a figurative way, not literally. At the end of D. it is stated that we call that place the head where it [i.e. the water] first emerges. Latin dictionaries regularly mention this use of caput, a metaphorical use. Let me not forget to note that this expression “caput aquae” occurs only in a discussion on a particular kind of water use, and not in a general statement by Roman laywers on this subject. Hopefully my answer helps you a bit. Unfortunately I have no time to delve deeper into this matter, although I am surely intrigued by the biblical texts which Kroeger tries to interpret.

    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Dear Professor Frier,

      Thanks for your question! In the Teca Digitale of the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Florence – http://teca.bmlonline.it/TecaRicerca/index.jsp – mainly manuscripts of the Fondo Plutei have been digitized. I cannot readily find a digital version of one of the facsimile editions, in particular not for the Iustiniani Augusti Digestorum seu Pandectarum codex Florentinus olim Pisanus phototypice expressus (Rome 1902-1910). The Karlsruher Virtual Catalog, http://kvk.bibliothek.kit.edu/ , does not list currently a digitized facsimile edition of the Codex Florentinus. In a post at my blog concerning tools for searching facsimile editions – https://rechtsgeschiedenis.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/the-mirror-of-manuscripts-on-searching-facsimile-editions/ – I looked at several websites, but they, too, do not lead to any digitized version of either a facsimile of the Codex Florentinus or the manuscript itself.

      Another manuscript at the BML is also called Codex Florentinus [BML, Mediceo Palatino 218-220], see http://www.bmlonline.it/il-codice-fiorentino-della-biblioteca-medicea-laurenziana/, the Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, a text in Spanish and Nahuatl by Bernardino di Sahagún documenting sixteenth-century Mexico, has been digitized for the World Digital Library, https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10096/. I suppose this can be confusing indeed for legal historians like me accustomed to view “our” Codice Fiorentino as the one and only very special manuscript… The Codex by Sahagún can also be viewed in the Teca Digitale of the BML.


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