Late medieval European society was profoundly shaped by the legal institutions and lawmaking activity of the Catholic church. From the late twelfth century onward, papal law proliferated, with the curia sending forth letters and decrees to the farthest reaches of Christendom. The resulting legislation, which accounted for much of the so-called “general law” of the church, covered a vast range of topics, from the election procedures for bishops to the proper attire of Jews, and from criminal procedure to the validity of testaments. Few areas of late medieval life were left untouched.
On a local level, this rapid expansion in papal lawmaking found its echo in the expanded legislative activity of bishops, which was usually carried out at the regular gatherings of provincial councils and diocesan synods. The resulting legislation survives from nearly every part of Latin Christendom and its thematic range easily rivals that of the general law. Given its richness and detail, it has few parallels as a window into the social and religious history of late medieval Europe. Notwithstanding the significance of this local legislation, however, it has long been eclipsed (in terms of scholarly interest) by the church’s general law. This comparative neglect of local ecclesiastical legislation has persisted even as medievalists working on other areas of church history and the history of religious life have long since broken free of the gravitational pull of the medieval papacy and its centralizing structures.
Comparative work on this local ecclesiastical legislation has been hampered by the scattered nature of these sources. At least 2000 distinct texts survive for the period 1200-1500, and many of these remain in manuscript or are available only in rare early modern printed editions. Over the past few years, the project leader (Rowan Dorin) has worked to mitigate this challenge, initially through assembling the first-ever repertory of this corpus, and subsequently (with the help of a team of research assistants) through the creation of a full-text database of these sources.
Where previous scholarship on local ecclesiastical legislation has necessarily operated within narrow geographical and chronological bounds, this full-text database will soon enable large-scale comparative analysis of this rich historical sourcebase. Scholars interested in medieval law and church history will be able to explore systematically the limits of normative centralization, the survival of local specificities, and the willingness of local authorities to embrace, resist, imitate, or innovate in the face of papal directives. And given the breadth of topics encompassed within this corpus – from marriage to moneylending – the full-text corpus will hopefully become a point of reference for anyone pursuing research on the social and religious history of late medieval Europe.