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Gratian, ‘Father of Canon Law’, was a bishop, historian finds

New research has uncovered that Gratian, a famous 12th-century lawyer who compiled the canon law text known as Decretum Gratiani, became the Bishop of Chiusi and died on August 10th in 1144 or 1145, according to paper delivered today at the 14th International Congress of Medieval Canon Law.

Anders Winroth of Yale University revealed his findings at a plenary paper entitlted ‘Where Gratian Slept: The Life and Death of the Father of Canon Law’, which he presented to fellow historians at the University of Toronto. Gratian is considered the most important figure in canon law during the Middle Ages, but very little is known about his life. Winroth was able to piece together various sources to discover the new details about the man who taught law at the University of Bologna.


A key source about Gratian was a 12th century Necrology written in Siena. The work (Siena, Biblioteca communale degli Intronati F12, fo. 5 r.) contains a reference to a Gratian, bishop of Chiusi, who died on August 10th. Historians have known about this reference, but it was believed since the 19th century that the Necrology also stated that this Gratian died around 1240. Winroth examined the original manuscript and discovered that there was no reference to any year of death for this Gratian. He also also found that this particular reference was actually written between the years 1136 and 1160.

This new evidence corresponds with a note found in the Chronicle of Robert of Torigni (written circa 1180) which claimed that Gratian was the bishop of Chiusi. But this statement was doubted in part because by the late twelfth-century there were several different accounts about Gratian’s life, including the Summa Parisiensis which claimed he was a monk.


Winroth notes how difficult it has been to discover any information about Gratian. His Decretum has no preface that might have offered some biographical information about the writer. The earliest commentaries to his work seem to have little knowledge about him as well. Winroth explains, “by the mid-twelfth century Gratian was unknown even though his work was famous.”

Winroth believes that Gratian was a teacher at Bologna for only a couple of years, where he penned his Decretum, but that he soon left this position for a much better job – becoming the Bishop of Chiusi around 1143. This career change was well-known in the twelfth-century  – the scholastic theologian Peter Lombard, for example, became the Bishop of Paris.

However it seems that Gratian’s new career was short-lived, as Chiusi had a new bishop in 1146. Winroth thinks that Gratian would have died on August 10th, in either 1144 or 1145. Meanwhile his writings on canon law were being taught by other scholars in Bologna, and throughout the twelfth-century spread out over Europe.

Gratian is probably buried in the Chiusi’ cathedral. There has been a long tradition in the Italian town that ‘Father of Canon Law’ had served as its bishop, but medieval records about the bishopric are rare.


The theories presented by Winroth were met with approval by the assembled scholars. Professor Joseph Goering of the University of Toronto, who is one of the conference organizers’, said, “Gratian is perhaps the most important figure in medieval canon law but we hardly know much about him. This new research gives us some interesting clues on who this person was.”

The 14th International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, which began on Monday, has seen over a hundred papers delivered. Professor Goering adds, “This congress was an opportunity for scholars to talk about medieval canon law – its really covers a wide range of topics from marriages to how kings were deposed in the Middle Ages. We are very happy to have many of the leading historians in the field giving papers here.”

Reports on other papers delivered at the International Congress of Medieval Canon Law:

The Evolutions of Knowledge in Medieval Canon Law

Learning the Law in the Carolingian Empire

Taking Inventory of Manuscripts. Survey of Tasks Achieved and Tasks to Do

Monastic ‘Centres’ of Law? Some Evidence from Eleventh-Century Rome

The Legal Framework of Divorce ‘a mensa et thoro’ and the Administration of Justice within the Low Countries


Adultery in Late-Medieval Northern France

Qui facit adulterium, frangit fidem et promissionem suam: Adultery and the Church in Medieval Sweden

Processus iudiciarius secundum stilum Pragensem: Its Manuscripts and Edition