Tracing the records of medieval synods

Header blog Corpus Synodalium

For the second year on row I would like to depart from my tradition of opening the new year with a post on Roman law. The Roman empire and its law will receive due attention this year, too, but 2020 is a year with a quadriennial International Congress of Medieval Canon Law in St. Louis, Missouri, and therefore medieval canon law shall figure in my first post. I found out about the project Corpus Synodalium: Local Ecclesiastical Legislation in Medieval Europe / Législations ecclésiastiques locales dans l’Europe médiévale thanks to the accompanying blog, also called Corpus synodalium. Let’s have a look at this project which charts literally vast stretches of medieval Europe.

A database and a blog

The international community of scholars in the field of medieval canon law is not very large. In it lawyers, historians and theologians work together, contributing from each discipline the necessary methods, approaches and knowledge needed to study this field successfully. For some people an American project with a title in Latin and a French subtitle may perhaps look a bit eccentric, but it is typical for this interdisciplinary field. There are several blogs at the international Hypotheses network with a Latin name and a subtitle in another language.

Banner Corpus Synodalium

The project Corpus synodalium is at home at Stanford University. Its aim is to trace the records of local ecclesiastical legislation from medieval Europe between approximately 1215, the year of the important Fourth Lateran Council, and 1400, and to create a repertory with the texts of diocesan statutes and the records of provincial synods. The project description points to the large number of relevant texts, some two thousand, and their scattered presence in archives and libraries. This situation has contributed to a relative neglect of this resource type for the study of the medieval church and medieval canon law. Rowan Dorin (Stanford University) leads the project. Among the members of the advisory committee are Abigail Firey and Charles Donahue. Behind the name of Charles Caspers only his institute has been mentioned, the Titus Brandsma Instituut, a center created by the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and the Dutch province of the Carmelite order for the study of mysticism and spirituality.

The database of the Corpus synodalium is accompanied by further documentation, You can find here information about the progress of the project and also about the use of Philologic4, a well-known tool for text analysis and retrieval created at the ARTFL center of the University of Chicago. There is an explanation about the database fields and a set of guidelines for the transcription and editing of sources. The bibliography (PDF) contains information about the printed and handwritten sources used for this project. The list of further resources may contain only the great sources of medieval canon law from Gratian onwards, but the team provided links to digital versions of them. I had not yet spotted the digital version of the Decretum Gratiani, the Liber Extra (Decretales Gregorii IX), and the Liber Sextus of pope Boniface VIII at the website of the Scholastic Commentaries and Texts Archive (STCA); other collections and commentaries are already announced, but they are not yet present. The overview of texts already made available at SCTA is impressive. There are sections for canon law, statutes in canon law and civil law, meaning Roman law; the latter section of STCA is still under development.

As for the database of Corpus synodalium you can approach it in three ways, as a proper database, both in the original version and a normalized version, accessible after registration with Rowan Dorin, and as an online spreadsheet (viewing only, last update May 2019; 7,2 MB). Even a look at this spreadsheet is already interesting. The information has been put into thirty fields. It is possible to query for dioceses, church provinces and countries, the year of creation, the ecclesiastical authority involved – sometimes papal legates – and their regnal years. Critical editions are indicated and in their absence information about manuscripts. Aspects such as language or fragmentary tradition can be researched, too. When possible the digital presence of editions and sources has been recorded, and also the status of each entry.

Results screen database Corpus Synodalium

The results screen of the Corpus Synodalium database

The database opens with a screen offering two ways of browsing the contents, on the left using the names of the locations and on the right a choice from five centuries, 1100 until 1600. As an example of a diocese I choose here Tournai (Doornik). Two results appear on the left. On the right a block comes into view with several filters you may want to use. In the top right corner above the box with the filters is a tiny button Map All Results which leads you to the map; this button will be made more visible. You can also use another button in the top right corner to export the records ID’s you have found.

Example metadata in the Corpus Synodalium

When you click on a search result you can check either the metadata or go to the text edition. In the menu bar below the title of the database you have not only a general search field, but also four distinct search options: the concordance, a representation of search results as keywords in context (KWIC), collocation for establishing connections between particular terms, and the time series option for showing occurrences over time. In the dark grey bar are clickable areas enabling you to go to the project homepage, the user guide, to a feedback form and to Philologic4. With the button Show search options you open an advanced search mode. You can even tune your search to include approximate results, and sort results in the order you deem useful.

The subtitle of the project may lead you to infer only statutes and synods from France have been included, but the corpus does contain information on all regions of medieval Europe, including the British isles. Texts from 1181 to 1495 have been included. Before you jump into doing statistical work it is good to note that for some three hundred items the date has been entered between brackets, but they can be viewed in chronological order. For this particular reason only it is sensible the team put in additional field concerning the date and time of texts.

In order to get access to the database I contacted Rowan Dorin who provided me with the necessary information. He urges users to look first at the latest progress report (PDF) and look at the information provided about the project before entering the database and returning too quickly with the impression some things are still missing. The report (April 2019) makes clear the database will eventually contain nearly 2,200 texts. Nearly 1,300 texts have now been transcribed and fed into the database. Some 300 texts have never before been published.

With the report firmly in my mind I start looking for texts in the database stemming from the Low Countries. After all, in 2020 you remain entitled to my Dutch view! I checked for documents concerning the medieval diocese Utrecht. There are twenty texts mentioned for Utrecht between 1291 and 1355, all edited by J.G.Ch. Joosting and S. Muller Hzn. in the fifth volume of their source edition Bronnen voor de geschiedenis der kerkelijke rechtspraak in het bisdom Utrecht in de middeleeuwen (8 vols., ‘s Gravenhage 1906-1924). Alas there is no online version of the complete set. The Dutch Royal Library has digitized only three volumes of the set at the Delpher platform, luckily for this post apart from the volumes 2 and 6 also volume 5. In this case there is probably also a copyright problem for the newer volumes.

However that may be, I could check this edition quickly. I noticed the synodal statutes of bishop Dirk van Are, issued in 1209 and reissued by bishop Wilbrand van Oldenburg in 1236 (vol. V, pp. 48-53) have not made it yet into the spreadsheet and the database. These statutes had been published already by the near namesake of Samuel Muller Hzn. (1852-1915), his nephew Samuel Muller Fzn. (1848-1922), son of the famous book dealer and collector of engravings and pamphlets Frederik Muller, in Het oudste cartularium van het Sticht Utrecht (The Hague 1892) 172-178. The team at Stanford adds for two statutes from Utrecht information about a much older edition, the Concilia Germaniae edited by Johann Friedrich Schannat and Joseph Hartzheim (11 vol., Cologne 1759-1790). For the synod in the archdiocese Cologne held in 1332 by Heinrich von Virneburg not only the edition by Joosting and Muller is noted (V, pp. 1-43), but also those in the Concilia Germaniae IV, 282-285 and by Mansi, vol. XXV, cols. 723-726. Seventeen statutes have been connected with this archbishop, and the information about their manuscript tradition, (partial) editions and relevant literature mentioning them is excellent.

Looking beyond the database

Of course the Corpus synodalium is not a creation ex nihilo. There is a steady flow of studies and editions. Twenty-five years ago Joseph Avril wrote his most valuable article ‘Les décisions des conciles et synodes’ for the volume Identifier sources et citations, Jacques Berlioz et alii (eds.) (Turnhout 1994) 177-189. At the university of Bonn you can find the Bibliographia Synodalis Iuris Antiqui (BISA) with both a German and an English interface. The repertory for relevant sources from France exists already for a half a century, Répertoire des statuts synodaux des diocèses de l’ancienne France du XIIIe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, André Artonne, Louis Guizard and Odette Pontal (eds.) (Paris 1969). Odette Pontal contributed the volume Les statuts synodaux for the Typologie des sources du Moyen Âge occidental (Turnhout 1975). Avril and Pontal edited numerous French synodal statutes. The bibliography of Jakub Sawicki appeared even earlier [Bibliographia synodorum particalarium (Città del Vaticano 1967)]. These works are just a few examples of repertories, studies and editions.

Let’s not forget to look at the blog of this project! The category cartographie of the blog enables you to follow the progress of the integrated digital map of medieval ecclesiastical jurisdictions using the ArcGIS system, more specifically for church provinces and dioceses. It took me some time to spot in the database the tiny button which opens the map. If you insist in having a preview of the map you can open it also separately, but currently only the black-and-white version is working. The changes in the boundaries of dioceses and church provinces will also eventually become visible. The posts do not tell which product of the ArcGIS product line is used. The reason behind the somewhat hidden place of the map is a clear wish to create publicity only when the map and the database come close to perfection. The blog informs you about the regular international workshops around the project held since 2018. It tells you also how Rowan Dorin started in 2011 to create the overview of relevant sources for the Corpus synodalium. He intends to launch the project officially in June 2020.

A preview of things to come

After using the database for several days it is time to write about my first impressions. Even though what I saw is really a preview of things to come, I can only applaud the efforts of Rowan Dorin and his team. I would have been happy with having only an online repertory of resources for studying diocesan statutes and provincial synods, but here you get also access to the texts themselves of these resources. The Philologic4 database enables you to study these texts in other ways than you would do when using a printed edition. The European scale of the Corpus synodalium is most welcome. The visualization of results on an online map invites you to make comparisons outside the corner of Europe you happen to be studying.

Of course the database has not yet been completed. The navigation and the visibility of some buttons and search fields certainly can and will change. The user guide will in later editions include guidance for navigating the database. The map does not yet show all its qualities and even adjustable colors, but it will become an example of mapping medieval data on a scalable online map. Dorin is even considering the option of bringing in directly the major texts of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, too, for further enhancing the research possibilities of this project. As for now, it is wise to keep in mind some elements may appear to be incorrect or in need of adjustment in their current state, but you should not hesitate to send your comments and corrections to the team at Stanford which deserves the gratitude of legal historians, of medievalists in general and in particular of all those studying the history of medieval canon law.

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