Church Councils

Canon law collections provide a major resource for understanding some of the practices and concerns of the Merovingian Church. They also present evidence for some ways in which ecclesiastical institutions intersected with lay society. As with other kinds of normative sources, historians have not always been in agreement about how much “reality” and how much “tradition”/ “imagination” the canons might reflect. The collections themselves usually included lists of decrees from church councils – many made in imitation of earlier ones – which were copied together with papal letters. Some were arranged thematically (“systematic collections”) and many others were arranged council-by-council.

Study of councils and canon law is complicated by the fluctuating issue of authority. Kings and nobles, for instance, often participated in meetings which produced legislation, but there were times when bishops acted more independently. How sharply the tidal movements of secular-episcopal relations were felt is often a matter of conjecture, not helped by modern preconceptions about Church and State. Having said that, however, it is also notable that while the decisions of earlier councils gained authority through subscription lists, eighth-century ones became increasingly folded into royal governance, notably in Mayor Carlomann’s capitulary announcing the decrees of the councils of the Concilium Germanicum (742) and Les Estinnes (743). Indeed, councils and canon law are as richly revealing about different forms of power in the early medieval world as they are about ecclesiastical history per se.

Manuscripts and Collections:

Collectio Frisingensis Prima

Possibly of c. 500, possibly from Rome

Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 5508 [link] – an early-ninth century copy, possibly from Reichenau. This manuscript also contains the seventh-century collection, Collectio Diessensis.

Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6243 [link] – a late-eighth century copy from the Bodensee region and Freising.

Collectio Corbeiensis

Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 12097 [link] – a collection from the early sixth century, to judge by the list of popes which goes up to Vigilius (537-555).

Collectio Coloniensis

Cologne, Dombibliothek, MS 212 [link] – a late sixth-century manuscript of canon law and papal letters. The date is suggested by a list of popes near the end which originally went up to Agapitus (535-536) but which was later extended up to Gregory the Great (590-604) [169r] but without any details of the length of his pontificate.

Collectio Albigensis

Albi, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 2 (147) [link] – dated to the decade 880-890 through comparison with other manuscripts of the period, but based on a compilation of c. 600.

Collectio Pithouensis

Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 1564 [link] – a collection of c. 600, copied probably in Chelles c. 800.

Collectio Laureshamensis

Vatican, BAV, pal. lat. 574 [link] – a collection of c. 650, copied in the Upper Rhine region c. 800.

Collectio Vetus Gallica

A collection associated with Etherius of Lyon (d. 602), and edited by Mordek in Kirchenrecht und Reform (1975).

Cologne, Dombibliothek, MS 91 [link] – a late eighth-century copy from Corbie.

St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 675 [link] – a ninth-century copy from St Gall.

Collectio Burgundiana

Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België, MS 8780-93 [link] – a manuscript of late-eighth or early-ninth-century date, but of uncertain origin. The collection is thought to date to the beginning of the eighth century.

Select Bibliography

G. Halfond, The Archaeology of Frankish Church Councils AD 511-768 (Leiden, 2010).

L. Kery, Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages (Washington, DC, 1999).