Among all the collections of canon law in the history of the Church, Gratian’s Decretals have undoubtedly been the most influential. The Decretals (or Decretum Gratiani) is the shortened name for the Concordia discordantium canonum, “Concordance of Discordant Canons” by the medieval canonist Gratian. The Decretals would become the mainstay of the Latin Church’s canonical tradition, forming the first part of the Corpus Juris Canonici, the traditional Code of Canon Law that was in force until 1983.
The generation following the publication of the Decretals gave rise to an interpretive tradition exemplified by the Decretists, canonical scholars who commented upon the Decretals. In this essay we will survey the works of the twelve most influential Decretists of the 12th-13th centuries.
Little is known of Gratian; he lived in 12th century Bologna and was affiliated with the monastery of Sts. Nabor and Felix and possibly the University as well. He was likely a jurist of the ecclesiastical courts. His Decretals was composed as a concordance, that is, a text that reconciled apparently divergent canons that had come down in the Church’s legal tradition. Gratian’s death is placed sometime before 1159.
The Decretals are divided into three sections:
Part I consists of 101 distinctions (distinctiones), some consisting of general canonical principles, others relating more particularly to ecclesiastical persons. A distinctione is a legal question. In scholastic manner, Gratian states the question, rasies difficulties of interpretation, presents authorities on the subject, and gives his opinion. Readers familiar with Aquinas’s Summa would recognize this format.
Part II consists of 36 causes (causae), which are general catergories subdivided into different questions. Part II focuses on procedural issues, ecclesiastical governance, and matters relating to the sacrament of marriage.
Part III is commonly referred to as De consecratione and deals with liturgical law and the sacraments. It is comprised of five distinctiones.
As Gratian’s manual became the standard text in the emerging field of canonical jurisprudence, teachers and students in Europe’s law schools would continue to discuss, study, gloss, and explore the content of the received canonical tradition found in the Decretals. They in turn published their own commentaries on Gratian’s work. These scholars were known as Decretists (not to be confused with Decretalists, who focused exclusively on papal decretals). These commentaries generally took the form of summaries (summae), as well as glosses, which were interlinear commentaries on the text, the medieval equivalent of today’s running commentary found in the footnotes of a text.
The following is a list of twelve individuals broadly considered to be the twelve greatest Decretists in the century after Gratian. Not surprisingly, the Decretist movement began at the University of Bologna, where Gratian lived and worked. Bologna would remain the heart of canonical studies in Europe until late in the 13th century.
1. Paucapalea (12th century)
Paucapalea was the earliest Decretist, a student of Gratian who was the first to write a commentary upon the Decretals, called the Summa Decretum (1144-1150). Nothing is known about Paucapalea personally; he was almost certainly affiliated with Bologna, where is master lived and worked. Some of his commentary later became paleae, additions to Gratian incorporated into later editions of the Decretals as appendices. He may have worked with Gratian; scholars see some evidence of Paucapalea’s work in Parts I and III of the Decretals. His Summa was used frequently by other canonists, including the great Rolandus of Bologna.
2. Rolandus of Bologna (c. 1150)
Another contemporary of Gratian was the great Rolandus of Bologna, also known simply as Magister Rolandus. Rolandus was a professor of canon law at the University of Bologna. Two works have been traditionally attributed to him—the Stroma ex Decretorum Corpore Carptum, simply known as the Stroma, believed to be the second oldest commentary on Gratian—and the Summa Rolandi. This second work has occasioned considerable controversy, as it has been popualrly attributed to Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-1181), who was also named Roland (Bandinelli). Historians once proposed that Roland of Bologna and Roland Bandinelli were the same person. Scholars have generally dismissed this hypothesis and lean towards Bandinelli as being the true author of the Summa Rolandi. Little is know about Rolandus beyond this, save that he wrote a letter to Frederick Barbarossa requesting the emperor reconsider the expulsion of some scholars from Bologna.
3. Rufinus (c. 1164)
Rufinus was an Italian canonist who was also attached to the University of Bologna and was said to be the most influential of the Bolognese canonists of his generation. He may have been a late contemporary of Gratian. Rufinus wrote a Summa on Gratian that was vastly more extensive than those of Paucapalea or Rolandus. His Summa would be quoted extensively by future canonists, including his famous pupil, Stephen of Tournai.
4. Stephen of Tournai (1128-1203)
Stephen of Tournai is the first Decretist about whom we know anything in great detail. He was a Frenchman who studied canon law at Bologna under Rufinus. He would return to France, serving in turn as abbot of Saint-Euverte and Sainte-Genevieve in Paris. In 1192 he was made Bishop of Tournai. While still in Bologna he wrote the Summa in decretum Gratiani, which is a kind of amalgam of the works of Paucapalea, Rolandus, and Rufinus. Many of his letters survive and can be found in Migne’s Patrologia Latina.
5. Bertram of Metz (d. 1212)
Bertram of Metz was a Saxon nobleman who took Minor Orders and became a renowned canonist of the Holy Roman Empire. He was the first Decretist who was not associated with Bologna, having studied under the English canonist Gerard la Pucelle in Cologne (Pucelle never wrote his own summa, though he left behind considerable glosses on the Decretals). Bertram would later be raised to the episcopate of Metz and participated in the Third Lateran Council. His life was hopelessly tangled with the struggle between Church and Empire that characterized the Hohenstaufen era, but he found time to compose the Summa Coloniensis (also called Elegantius in iure diuino), a commentary on Gratian reflecting the Colognese school of interpretation. Two letters of Innocent III to Bertram survive, which found their way into the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX. It should be mentioned that Bertram is also supposed to be the author of another canonical work called Antiquitate et tempore, though scholars are sharprly divided on this.
6. Anonymous of the Summa Parisiensis (c. 1160-1170)
The Summa Parisiensis was the work of an anonymous scholar of Paris sometime around 1170. The work references the Bolognese school extensively (quoting, for example, Paucapalea and the Summa Rolandi), suggesting the author was a Frenchman who had studied in Bologna. The author had considerable knowledge of older law codes, including the Codex Theodosianus and the Corpus Iuris Civilis of Justinian. As the exact date of composition is unknown, it is uncertain to what degree the Summa Parisiensis influenced other canonical works. Some believe it was referenced by Stephen of Tournai when he composed his own summa.
7. Simon of Bisignano (c. 1177-1179)
Like other Decretists, Simon of Bisignano was a professor of canon law at Bologna who may have been a contemporary of Gratian. In the later 1170s he composed a Summa decretum Gratiani. Simon’s Summa is not simply a rehashing of other commentaries; his work demonstrates great originality and is the first Summa of the Decretists to incorporate newer papal legislation since the time of Gratian, especially that of Alexander III (he cites Pope Alexander 60 times). Simon did not believe that Gratian’s Decretals contained the entirety of ancient law and quoted extensively from older collections to supplement Gratian. He seems to have regarded the Decretals as a solid, if incomplete, summary of the Church’s canonical tradition which stood in need of being buttressed by older collections, as well as updated by newer legislation.
8. Anonymous of Summa Lipsiensis (c. 1186)
The Summa Lipsiensis was completed in Leipzig around 1186. It was incredibly extensive, likely the most substantive commentary between Rufinus and the late 12th century master Huguccio. It cites Rufinus, Stephen of Tournai, Simon of Bisignano, as well as other lesser known canonists. Despite its extensiveness, the work was not very original (it relies heavily on Bolognese texts) and has survived only in two manuscripts. Its impact and authorship are unknown, but some scholars point to an obscure canonist called Rodoicus Modicipassus.
9. Honorius of Kent (c. 1188)
Honorius of Kent (sometimes known as Honorius Magister) was Archdeacon of Richmond and a notable canonist during the reigns of Richard Coeur de Lion and John. He was educated at Paris and taught at Oxford, where he among the first group of canonists to hold teaching positions at the university. Honorius spent much his career tangled up in political and ecclesiastical wranglings, but he still found time to compose two summae, De iure canonico tractaturus and Summa decretalium quaestionum. The former is better known than the latter; it consists of three sections dealing with canonical procedures, consecration and church offices, and marriage. The Summa decretalium quaestionum would become the primary canonical reference text for the Anglo-Norman canonical schools.
10. Huguccio (d. 1210)
Huguccio came from the second generation of Bolognese legal scholars. He came from the same monastery as Gratian (Sts. Nabor and Felix) and likely studied under the master Gandolphus. He may have been Bishop of Ferrara, but this is disputed. What is certain is that he counted among his students the great Lothario de Conti, the future Pope Innocent III. Innocent held Huguccio in such high esteem that even as pope he referred difficult cases to Huguccio for judgment. Two of Innocent’s letters to Huguccio were included in the Decretals of Gregory IX.
Huguccio’s Summa on Gratian was completed around 1190 and was the most extensive and authoritative commentary of his age. He goes beyond merely commenting on Gratian and includes many of his own distinctiones, including opinions on deaconesses, hermaphrodites, and other oddities. Huguccio is known as one of the earliest canonists to argue that a pope who fell into heresy would ipso facto lose the papal office without any judgment in the external forum.
11. Anonymous of Summa Bambergensis (c. 1210)
The Summa Bambergensis is the nickname of a Roman text called the Summa animal et substantia. First discovered in Bamberg, this vast work quotes extensively from Huguccio. Some modern scholars have posited that the author may be the Dominican scholar, Bl. Reginald of Orléans. Reginald spent time in Rome and was prior of a convent in Bologna, giving him ample access to the great canonical traditions of both cities.
12. Johannes Teutonicus (d. 1245)
Johannes Teutonicus has gone by many names, including Johannes Teutonicus Zemeke, Joannes Simeca Teutonicus, and John Zimeke. He studied law in Bologna under the great master Azo (d. 1220), the famous glossator of Justinian. Teutonicus himself would go on to become a teacher at Bologna. He famously compiled a summa of decretals from the pontificate of Innocent III and sought the pope’s endorsement for his work only to be rebuffed. Around 1215 he completed his most famous work, the Glossa Ordinaria, which gathered summae from renowned Decretists (including Huguccio) and compiled them into a single manuscript. The Glossa Ordinaria is known for including many distinctiones regarding economic questions. Teutonicus died before he could finish his Glossa, but his student Bartholomew of Brescia completed the work, publishing it in 1245, the same year his master passed. Because of the comprehensive scope of the Glossa Ordinaria, it was endorsed by the University of Bologna and was often appended to Gratian’s Decretals and published together.
Phillip Campbell, “Twelve Notable Decretists of the Middle Ages,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, March 5, 2023. Available online at https://www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2023/03/twelve-notable-decretists-of-the-middle-ages