Decretals, Collections of

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A decretal letter is a papal rescript of canonical significance, in contrast with privilegia and nonjuristic letters, on the one hand, and with conciliar canons and papal decrees, on the other. The earliest authentic decretals date from the late 4th century and are preserved in canonical collections, papal registers, episcopal archives, cartularies, chronicle records and many other sources. Original letters survive occasionally, but the extant decretals are mostly found in transcript only.

Collections before Gratian. Canonical collections antedate the first decretal letters: the Collectio Romana, containing the canons of the Councils of Nicaea and Sardica, was completed not later than 352; but the importance of papal decretals was soon attested by their inclusion in canonical collections, either those of decretal letters exclusively or of ecclesiastical laws of all kinds.

Early Collections. Among the earliest decretal collections were the Canones urbicani, dating probably from the pontificate of Sixtus III (43240), and the slightly later Epistolae decretales. The so-called quesnelliana collectio, comprising both decretals and conciliar canons, and the Collectio Frisingensis date from the closing years of the 5th century or from the beginning of the 6th. All these bear the imprint of Roman, or at least Italian, origins, though the Canones urbicani and the Quesnelliana were made possibly in Gaul.

Of outstanding importance were the translations and collections of the Scythian monk dionysius exiguus (d. post 525), whose canonical works, known collectively as the dionysiana collectio, included the Apostolic Canons; the canons of Greek councils and of Chalcedon, Sardica, and Carthage; and a group of 38 decretals, ranging in time from the pontificate of Siricius (38499) to that of Anastasius II (49698). The decretals, arranged in roughly chronological order, deal mostly with matters of ecclesiastical discipline, including also decisions on the date of Easter and on the precedence of Antioch in the Eastern Church. The collection was made at Rome about the end of the pontificate of Symmachus in 514. The Dionysiana achieved a widespread and lasting influence on canonical collections, passing through the principal lines of transmission down to the Decretum of Gratian in the mid-12th century.

The regional collections of Africa, Italy, and the Frankish kingdom revealed an assimilation of Dionysian material together with continuing fresh accessions. In Italy, collections were assembled of decretals solely, of decretals and conciliar canons, and exclusively of canons: the Collectio avellana (c. 555) and the early 7th-century Codex Mutinensis (including some apocryphal matter) are examples of the first; the 6th-century Colbertina, the Dionysiana Bobiensis (with decretals to Boniface IV, d. 615), and the celebrated hadriana collectio, sent by Adrian I to Charles the Great in 774, are examples of the second. Many collections made in Frankish lands, such as the Collectio Corbeiensis (post 524), incorporated large or small numbers of decretals, and the systematic Collectio Andegavensis (post c. 670), though composed primarily of canons, included some decretals. The hispana collectio of the late 6th century, associated with Isidore of Seville (d. 636), was the most important of the Spanish collections; it included 104 papal letters to the time of Gregory I (d. 604).

8th to 12th Century. The centralized direction of the Church reform in the Carolingian period had its canonical counterpart in the heightened importance attached to particular collections, above all in the tradition of the Dionysiana or the Hispana; the Hadriana Collectio, though lacking exclusive authority, became the liber canonum for the Frankish realm. But a point of departure was reached with the production of Pseudo-Isidore, the false decretals, assembled at Reims or Le Mans or in the royal chapel of Charles the Bald, between 847 and 852. Together with numerous perfectly genuine texts, the author or authors inserted 60 apocryphal papal letters for the period from Clement I (d. 97) to Melchiades (d. 314), and interpolated 30 or more false decretals for that from Sylvester I (d. 335) to Gregory II (d. 731). These spurious texts are uniquely significant in revealing the forger's motives, which were preeminently the preservation of clerical status and privilege in Christian society, the consolidation of papal authority and jurisdiction throughout the Church, and the curtailment of metropolitan powers over suffragan bishops. From the Pseudo-Isidorian collection, the false decretals, as well as the genuine texts, were transmitted into many of the most important later collections, until the mid-12th century, and thus played a vital part in sustaining the doctrines of clerical and papal superiority, which received an ever more confident expression.

The numerous well-known collections between the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals and Gratian's Decretum were rarely composed of decretal letters predominantly, but decretals formed a highly significant part of their content. Among these works must be mentioned the Italian anselmo dedicata collectio (88296), the Frankish Collectio Abbonis Floriacensis (98896), the German collection by Regino of Prüm (c. 906) and the Decretum of burchard of worms (c. 1012). The long-term effects of the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals are evident in the Italian collections of the Gregorian reform period and in their successors: the Diversorum sententiae Patrum (the Collection in seventy-four titles, c. 1050); the Collection of atto (ante-1084); the important collection of anselm of lucca (c. 1083); that of deusdedit (108387); Bonizo of Sutri's Liber de vita Christiana (108995); the Collectio Britannica (c. 1090), which included many papal letters; and Cardinal Gregory's polycarpus (110406). In France, the collections of ivo of chartres (d. 1116), bernold of constance (d. 1100), and alger of liÈge (d. 1131) played a distinguished part in the development of a scientific treatment of canonical codification, their works including numerous decretal letters. Alger's Liber de misericordia et iustitia contained 125 papal decretals and fragments of papal letters.

The Period of the Corpus Iuris Canonici. The Decretum of gratian, dating in its vulgate form from c. 1140 to 1141, marked a decisive turning point in the history of Canon Law. (see corpus iuris canonici.) It effected the transition from ius antiquum to ius novum, summarizing the best of existing traditions and expressing them in the new scholastic method; it became the standard text in the schools and the principal work of reference in the courts. It marks the end of the old style of collections, whose broad historical sweep in time and whose varied canonical sources it reflected; it provided a foundation for the classical period of decretal codification, whose origins can be traced from the mid-1170s in the pontificate of Alexander III (115981). Whereas Gratian's collection incorporated many decretals, genuine and apocryphal, from the earliest centuries down to the period of its own conception, intermingled with canones of all kinds, the dominant source of canonical compilation was now found in contemporary or nearly contemporary decretals, together with the canons of the most important recent councils. These new collections record the gradual accumulation and systematization of ecclesiastical case law, based on the most up-to-date authoritative rulings, and are known as libri extravagantium or libri decretalium. Beginning simply as brief appendices to Gratian's work, they swiftly grew in content and juristic maturity of style to become the most influential law books in their own right, achieving their final form in Bernard of Pavia's Breviarium extravagantium, or Compilatio Prima (c. 1192). (see quinque compilationes antiquae.)

Primitive Collections. More than 50 decretal collections survive from the closing decades of the 12th century, together incorporating more than 1,000 papal letters for the period from the pontificate of Alexander III to that of Celestine III (d. 1198). Numerous other collections have been lost, and many collections are still known in manuscript only. All these works are unofficial in character and can be classified as primitive or systematic according to technical style. The primitive group includes the most rudimentary collections, consisting in some instances of merely a few decretals transcribed in order of acquisition. But the best of this class, containing several hundred letters, are divided and subdivided on the basis of subject matter. The systematic collections reveal, in addition to subject classification, a juristic treatment of their contents: the dissection of individual long decretals dealing with several diverse topics within a single letter, the redistribution of the resulting component chapters, and the excision of nonjuridical matter. A majority of the extant primitive collections are of English provenance and make up the English, Bridlington, and Worcester families, spanning the years from c. 1175 to 1194 or later. The Continental primitive collections can be similarly grouped into the French, Italian, and Roman (or "Tortosa") families. A notable feature of the English collections is their dependence on the archives of English judges delegate, especially at Canterbury, Worcester, and Exeter. It is evident that they played a part in shaping many of the earliest collections assembled on the Continent. The influence of the Roman Curia in stimulating the evolution of decretal compilation has been much discussed, and excerpts from the papal registers can be identified in certain instances. There was undoubtedly a rapid exchange of material and expertise among the schools, whether English or Continental, by the late 1170s.

Systematic Collections. The systematic collections played the more significant part in the history of decretal codification; their influence can be traced from their earliest surviving exemplars in the Italian Parisiensis II (c. 1179) and in the Appendix Concilii Lateranensis (c. 118185), a most important collection, though not certainly of Anglo-Norman authorship. From the Appendix were derived several strands of development with many interconnections, most notably in the Bamberg-Leipzig group, including the Bamberg (118185), Amiens, Compiègne, Leipzig, and Cassel collections. The Appendix Bamberg transmission led finally to Compilatio Prima (c. 1192), with its fivefold division of material under the headings iudex, iudicium, clerus, connubium, and crimen, which set the pattern for all of the more important subsequent collections. Meanwhile, among the numerous systematic compilations of the period were the French Brugensis (c. 1191), the Anglo-Norman Tanner, and the members of the German "Frankfurt" family. The five most decisive collections before the publication of the official Decretales of Gregory IX in 1234 were the celebrated quinque compilationes antiquae; among them, Peter of Benevento's Compilatio Tertia (120910), composed of decretals of Innocent III, is remarkable for being the first officially promulgated collection of Canon Law. But the continuation of decretal codification was not confined to these famous works: there were also the Anglo-Norman St. Germain and Avranches collections; that of rainerius of pomposa (120102); those of the Englishmen gilbertus anglicus (120203) and alanus an glicus (1206 or shortly after); and the collection of bernard of compostella, the elder, composed of decretals from the first ten years of Innocent III's pontificate with a single addition from the 11th. The collections of Gilbert and Alan formed the basis of john of wales's Compilatio Secunda (121015). In practice the Quinque Compilationes effectively superseded all other decretal collections, as they themselves were to be superseded by the Gregorian collection of 1234.

It is clear that decretal codification had become the central interest of collectors by the late 12th century; and parallel with this development can be traced the literary expositions of Canon Law by the commentators, at first on the Decretum, from mid-12th century (see decret ists), and later on the decretals (see decretalists). Now the Gregorian Decretales, based in substance and style on the Quinque Compilationes with some recent supplements, rendered obsolete all previous collections, either authentic or private, and provided a definitive corpus of Canon Law. In the course of the following decades five further authentic collections were published: the constitutions from three authentic collections of Innocent IV (124354) were inserted in some manuscripts of the Decretals of gregory ix, but the collections of Gregory X (127176) and Nicholas III (127780) were simply appended to the Gregorian codices. Still further collections were made by Innocent IV, Alexander IV (125461), and Clement IV (126568) and during the pontificate of Boniface VIII (12941303); but these collections were not officially promulgated.

The liber sextus (1298) of Boniface VIII was designed to supplement the Decretals of Gregory IX, and therefore superseded the intervening collections: in addition to revising and correcting texts, it incorporated 108 decretals of the period from Gregory IX to Nicholas III, the canons of the Councils of Lyons (1245 and 1274), and 251 chapters of Boniface VIII. It was followed by the Constitutiones Clementinae of Clement V (130514), promulgated by John XXII (131634) in 1317. The Liber Sextus and the clementinae were designed on the same pattern as the Decretales, and these three works together complete the official corpus iuris canonici.

The extravagantes of John XXII, in 14 titles, and the Extravagantes communes of papal decisions for the period from Urban IV (126164) to Sixtus IV (147184), are conventionally included in editions of the Corpus Iuris; but they were never officially issued. The Liber septimus decretalium (1590) of Petrus Matthaeus had little influence; the Decretales Clementis VIII (1598) were not authenticated; and the various other attempts to supplement the official Corpus Iuris, down to the 19th century, were not of lasting importance.

Papal Registers. As mentioned above, canonical collections are not the only records of decretals: the papal registers provide a further important source of supply. Most of the registers before Innocent III's pontificate are lost; but transcripts, excerpts, or fragments survive from the registers of Gregory I (590604), John VIII (872882), Stephen V (885891), Gregory VII (107385), the antipope Anacletus II (113038), and Alexander III (115981). From and after the pontificate of Innocent III, the registers survive, though they do not record every letter. They are classified according to Curial or non-Curial subject matter from the time of Urban IV (126164), with further specialization from the reigns of Clement V and John XXII.

Papal letters are found also in the increasingly specialized departmental records of chancery, Apostolic Camera, papal secreta, and penitentiary. More precisely, the important accumulations of letters include: the Regesta Vaticana, from Innocent III to Pius V (156672), with some material to Clement VIII (15921605); the Regesta Avenionensia, from John XXII to the anti-pope Benedict XIII (13941423); the Regesta Lateranensia, from Boniface IX (13891404) to Pius VII (180023) and later material to Leo XIII (to 1897); and the Regesta Brevium, from Martin V (141731) to Gregory XV (162123).

Bibliography: p. fournier and g. lebras, Histoire des collections canoniques en occident depuis les fausses décrétales jusquau Décret de Gratien, 2 v. (Paris 193132). s. kuttner, Repertorium der Kanonistik (Rome 1937). h. wurm, Studien und Texte zur Dekretalensammlung des Dionysius Exiguus (Bonn 1939). a. van hove, Commentarium Lovaniense in Codicem iuris canonici 1, v.15 (Mechlin 1928); v.1, Prolegomena (2d ed.1945). w. holtzmann, "Über eine Ausgabe der päpstlichen Dekretalen des 12. Jahrhunderts," Nachrichten von der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, Phil.-hist. Klasse (1945) 1536; w. holtzmann and e. w. kemp, eds., Papal Decretals relating to the Diocese of Lincoln in the 12th Century (Hereford 1954). a. vetulani, "L'Origine des collections primitives de décrétales à la fin du XIIe siècle," Actes du Congrès de droit canonique médiéval, Louvain et Bruxelles, 1958 (Louvain 1959) 6472. c. duggan, Twelfth-Century Decretal Collections and Their Importance in English History (London 1963). g. le bras et al., L'Âge classique, 11401378. Sources et théorie du droit (Histoire du droit et des institutions de l'Église en Occident 7; Paris 1965). For additional bibliographies, see corpus iuris canonici; decretals; false decretals; quinque compilationes antiquae.

[c. duggan]