I found approaching canon law for the first time for historical research more than a little tricky, so I thought I would distill some of the most helpful ‘starter’ information I found on the way for anyone else embarking on it. (For more detail on what I was actually looking for, see my earlier post.)
In a (not so) recent post, I was
complaining about remarking on the difficulties I’ve encountered deciphering the early modern printed editions of the canon law texts I’m working with. Today I thought I’d focus on what canon law is and why I’m hoping these texts will be worth the effort.
I’ll start by giving some general background on canon law and then dive into a more detailed discussion of an example from my own research.
I began Trinity Term with a confident grasp of my dissertation topic. I made my way through the chronicles and vies in a systematic fashion, added faithfully to my annotated bibliography, and conceived the whole project as just a matter of putting the hours in and getting it done.
Then it all started going a bit wobbly. . .
Estoire des Engleis (“History of the English”) is the oldest surviving work of historiography in the French vernacular, composed sometime after 1135 under the patronage of Constance FitzGilbert, the wife of a minor Lincolnshire nobleman. It describes the history of England starting from Cedric of Wessex’s landing on its shores in 495 and continuing all the way through the death of the Anglo-Norman king William II in 1100. Although Gaimar was a learned cleric, he composed his history in French verse, rather than in Latin prose, presumably for the better entertainment and edification of his aristocratic audience.
In his work the Didascalicon (c. 1125), one of the classic theological texts of the twelfth-century renaissance, Hugh of St. Victor lays out an integrated view of human knowledge, insisting upon the need for a scientific pursuit of the traditional arts in order to relieve life’s physical weaknesses and to restore humans’ union with the divine Wisdom. Unusually, as well discussing the traditional pedagogic categories of the trivium and quadrivium, he includes sections on the practical and mechanical arts (such as commerce and agriculture).
In his discussion of the process of study, Hugh also gives us an intriguing peek at his own school days:
This week I requested my first manuscripts from Special Collections – which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you take into account that this involves a Bodleian librarian cheerfully handing over 800-year-old books into my
grubby carefully scrubbed hands.
Our books have informed us that the pre-eminence in chivalry and learning once belonged to Greece. Then chivalry passed to Rome, together with that highest learning which now has come to France. God grant that it may be cherished here, that the honour which has taken refuge with us may never depart from France. God had awarded it as another’s share, but of Greeks and Romans no more is heard; their fame is passed, and their glowing ash is dead.
Chrétien de Troyes, c. 1170
It’s interesting that the etymology of the word essay goes back to the Latin word exigere, which means “to weigh, or put to the test”. While in Oxford the word does typically just refer to “a short piece of writing on a particular subject”, that older definition is actually feeling pretty accurate at the moment.