Unity and Diversity in Early Medieval Canonical Collections

XIV: Fourteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law

August 5 – 11, 2012 (Toronto, Canada)

Unity and Diversity in Early Medieval Canonical Collections 

Wagschal, David

The tradition of the first millennium tends to be written as chaotic and with few threads of unity. This is the common view from the high middle ages looking back, i.e., “harmony from dissonance” as termed by Stephan Kuttner in the 1960s. Narratives of reform demand a narrative of per-existing discord and dissonance. General secondary literature is peppered with this perspective from the high middle ages towards the first millennium. This viewpoint tends to consign the early period as an evolution to the eventual high advancement of the high middle ages.

Individual collections were rarely accurately described. A simple account of what sources are contained in the account, what order they’re in and what the collection looks like is either entirely absent or incomplete. It’s difficult to divine the early canonical tradition because it was not a true snapshot of what was going on. You can’t engage in comparative discussion if you don’t have the information and this can push scholars to a point of prejudice in their study of the early canonical texts.

Then Wagshal turned to the Byzantine tradition. When you examine the content of each form, it’s basically composed of one collection that develops and is organised in different ways. Each version is a tweak of the standard imperial corpus.

Almost none of these source surveys think globally, none are cross referenced and most are written on a north-south axis. When it comes to regions outside of their own zones, there is a passing awareness of this literature and little to no unity. This compounds the feeling that the early period is chaotic and dissonant.

Despite the differences in these collections, the similarities are rather striking. They are similar in content and structure, all have an apostolic preface of some type, development is common, comparable patterns of growth and change, especially in the 6th century. Lastly, the sources share a substantial body of common sources and law. North of the Alps, the similarities do diverge and get a bit more chaotic, however, most assume the Mediterranean ideal of sources, and textual structure. This contradicts the notion of there being no commonality across the early texts, and dispels notions of chaos and dissonance.

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons