The term decretal, epistola decretalis or littera decretalis, is used very generally to describe a letter containing a papal ruling, more specifically one relating to matters of canonical discipline, and most precisely a papal rescript in response to an appeal. The decretal is distinguished from the solemn privilegia, confirming rights or jurisdiction, and from other litterae touching on matters of political or nonjuristic interest. A given decretal may have universal or limited application, or indeed be restricted to its single immediate context. In practice, mandates and commissions relating to judicial or administrative matters are often considered decretals, although they are not strictly so, and are frequently found in decretal collections.
Nature and History. The earliest decretals were litterae praeceptoriae, issued with emphatic and conscious mandatory force and modeled on the judicial formulae of Roman law. It is debated whether the first known papal decretal was issued by Damasus (d. 384) or Siricius (d.399), although the latter asserted that such litterae were issued by Liberius (d. 366). Their use is clear from Siricius' pontificate, in the incorporation of such authoritative phrases as volumus et mandamus, and in the following centuries they were widely used in matters of canonical discipline. The growth of papal centralization from the mid-11th century led to a striking increase in the number of decretals issued, as a result both of the rising number of appeals to the Curia from all parts of the Western Church and of the need to resolve numerous doubtful questions that the evolving doctrines and judicial practices of the period provoked. The Decretum of gratian (c. 1140–41) marked a major turning point in the history of canonical codification. Following the general acceptance of Gratian's work as an adequate summary of ius antiquum, decretals now formed increasingly the principal element in collections, composed predominantly of new law enunciated for the most part in the numerous contemporary or recent decretals mentioned above (see decretals, collections of). Simultaneously, reflecting the new scientific spirit of Canon Law, the decretals became the subject of more precise definition and analytical classification in decretist commentaries.
A classical definition of the decretal was provided by stephen of tournai (1160–70), for whom it was a papal rescript to a bishop or ecclesiastical judge on any doubtful point of law, super aliqua causa dubitante, or for resolving some difficult question of procedure arising in the Church courts. He distinguished it as a species of law from a canon (the decision of a general or provincial council) and from a decree (a decision reached by the pope in consultation with his advisers and set down in writing, but not in response to a particular enquiry). Meanwhile, the scientific method applied in decretist commentaries by Stephen's contemporaries to the problem of the various species of decretals and their individual sanctions produced the following more complex classification: general and special. General decretals are sent to all or many provinces; special decretals are sent to individuals. Special decretals are in turn subdivided into several kinds. Some define or limit a point of law and are important even outside their immediate context, unless specifically limited to time or person. Some mandate a course of action, but do not require immediate compliance unless questions of faith are involved. Some prohibit action, but do not require immediate compliance unless the matter forbidden is altogether illegal. Others, finally, grant indulgence or dispensation by virtue of the pope's discretionary powers, and these have no importance outside their special circumstances. This was a satisfactory basic classification, and later canonists had little need of further elaboration. In practice, from the mid-12th century, decretals were often described as extravagantes, that is, extra Decretum Gratiani vagantes, and were sometimes referred to also as sententiae, or even as decreta. After the medieval period the use of the term decretal was narrowed, being limited to solemn documents dealing with such matters as dogmatic definitions and canonizations.
Legal Authority. The legal force of decretals was discussed by popes from the time of their earliest known use: on specific points by Siricius (385), Innocent I (405), and Zosimus (418); and as a general principle by Leo I in 443. Gregory I, Nicholas I, and Gregory VII are among later popes known to have repeated and defined this principle, in demanding obedience to apostolic precepts expressed in decretal letters. The 19th distinction of Gratian's Decretum provides a useful retrospective summary of earlier pontifical statements on decretal authority and an insight into the growing perception of the problem in a period when the decretals were increasing numerically beyond all previous practice and widening in the scope of their applications. Gratian here declares that decretals have the same authority as canones and decreta, even if they are not incorporated in canonical collections, although they may not conflict with scriptural precepts or previously existing papal statutes. In the 20th distinction, he proceeds to place them likewise above scriptural writings of the Fathers, such as Augustine and Jerome, since, although the Fathers may have greater scientia, they have not the papal potestas. Gratian further asserts in the 25th causa that the prima sedes has the power to make laws binding to others without itself being subject to them; it may grant special privileges and concessions beyond the general rules, but as mater iustitiae it should observe equity in all things.
Although Gratian was not dealing specifically with decretals in the 25th causa, the decretists swiftly developed his thesis and applied it to them. The most radical elaboration is found in Huguccio's Summa (c. 1188–90). For huguccio, so great is the authority of the papal decretal that, in the event of conflict with previously existing law, the decretal has the greater force, since the pope can exercise his discretionary power; he has the right of laying down canons and interpreting them, and in practice he does so in dogmatic, moral, administrative, and other matters. In support of this argument, Huguccio instances decretals of Alexander III (1159–81) and proceeds to analyze the essential basis of papal power, resting on the Petrine foundation of the Roman See: to resist the apostolic precepts savors of heresy and schism, and persons guilty of such an offense should be excommunicated as heretics. It was not possible to take the theory of decretal authority much farther than this.
Form and Pattern. The pattern of decretal composition evolved to reflect the general diplomatic developments of the papal chancery. The earliest decretals already imitated the mature practice of Roman imperial forms of legal instruments; the later letters in general passed through many stages of growth, with high points of achievement under the chancellors John of Gaeta (from 1089) and Albert de Morisa (from 1178), attaining a marked distinction in the pontificate of Innocent III. In their fully matured forms of the 12th and 13th centuries, decretals, like most forms of simple litterae, were less lavishly drafted than solemn privilegia, which were noted for their generosity of spacing and elaboration of detail, rotas, monograms, crosses, subscriptions, and so forth. The decretals were simpler in form and smaller in size, with an economy of parchment and script alike. Both kinds were sealed with the two-faced bulla. The privilegia and litterae gratiosae had their seals attached by silken cord; those of the decretal letters were attached by hempen cord. Conventions of internal structure and transcription had become stabilized by the late 12th century. The diplomatic formulae and cursive traditions were now well established, and the overall pattern had become uniform. Every decretal, as well as every privilege, was drawn up in three main parts: protocol, contextus (or text), and eschatocol. The protocol included the inscription with identification of pope and recipients, conventional phrases, and greetings. The contextus comprised the arenga, narratio, and other elements peculiar to the matter in hand, and included a pars historica (or species facti ) and a pars dispositiva, dealing with the strictly juridical matter of the case. The eschatocol was composed of the terminal elements, including date. The convention in the late 12th century was to state the place of issue, the date according to the Roman style, and the pope's pontifical year. Within these sections, common form phrases were devised to meet frequently recurring situations, as with the Sane si his exequendis and Sane si uterque vestrorum in letters to judges delegate. Large numbers of 12th–century decretals survive in canonical collections only, greatly distorted as a result of the loss of nonjuridical elements. In these the protocol was drastically abbreviated, at times with the corruption of historical details. The species facti of the text was sometimes eliminated. The eschatocol was often omitted entirely, with the resulting loss of the date.
The incidence of forgery raises a further question of much importance. In Alexander III's pontificate, canonists already included in their decretal collections sections dealing with the forging of papal letters. Lucius III, Urban III, Celestine III, and Innocent III are known to have been concerned with this problem. Decretist commentators likewise dealt with the question, throwing incidental light on the circumstances of the issue and composition of decretals. Huguccio on this point refers to the chancery records, the bullation, parchment, thread, script and so forth, indicating lines of detection of decretal forgeries.
Place in History. The importance of decretals in the history of canonical collections and in the science of Canon Law is self-evident. Not only were the significance and authority of the individual letters recognized from very early times, but canonical interest in their codification was hardly less ancient. The collection of diony sius exiguus in the early sixth century was among the first, and exercised wide and lasting influence on later works, including the Dionysio-Hadriana in the Carolingian Empire and the Pseudo-Isidorian collection of Frankish provenance in the mid-ninth century (see false decretals). The pseudo-Isidorian collection included many supposititious decretals from the earliest Christian centuries and established an important canonical tradition stressing papal authority and clerical privilege; many of its decretals were transmitted through the great collections of later times and of the Gregorian Reform, into Gratian's Decretum. It was in the post-Gratian period, above all, that decretals both individually and collectively rose to a position of dominance in canonical evolution. Starting from very rudimentary beginnings in the mid-1170s the compilators swiftly transformed their decretal collections into a highly systematic pattern of composition best expressed in Bernard of Pavia's Breviarium extravagantium (c. 1192). Bernard's work was the culmination of a creative and individualistic phase of decretal codification, but it also formed a classical model for most later works (see quinque compilationes an tiquae).
The rise to importance of decretal collections coincided with the scientific evolution of Canon Law, and both factors were interlocking elements of a single whole. The individual decretals provided the principal instrument whereby the papacy controlled the development of doctrinal, moral, jurisdictional, and administrative policies, while the decretal collections provided a continuously revised corpus of law both for legal administration and academic instruction. Contemporaneously with the growth of the collections, decretists, at least from the time of simon of bisignano (c. 1177–79), drew on the most recent decretals to illustrate their expositions. In due course the main focus of glossatorial interest was transferred from the Decretum to the now more important decretal collections, until from the mid-13th century the collections and their commentaries provided almost the total bulk of canonical sources (see corpus iuris canonici).
Bibliography: s. kuttner, Repertorium der Kanonistik (Rome 1937). a. van hove, Commentatium Lovaniense in Codicem iuris canonici 1 (Mechlin 1928–) v.1. c. duggan, Twelfth-Century Decretal Collections and Their Importance in English History (London 1963). r. l. poole, Lectures on the History of the Papal Chancery to the Time of Innocent III (Cambridge, Eng.1915). h. bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, ed. h. w. klewitz, 2 v. (2d ed. Leipzig 1912–31). innocent iii, Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England, ed. c. r. cheney and w. h. semple (London 1953). e. c. babut, La plus ancienne décrétale (Paris 1904). h. wurm, Studien und Texte zur Dekretalensammlung des Dionysius Exiguus (Bonn 1939). g. le bras et al., eds., Histoire du droit et des institutions de L'Église en Occident (Paris 1955–), v.7 L'Age classique, 1140–1378: Sources et théorie du droit (1965).