HST6067: Church, Life, and Law in the Central Middle Ages

HST6067 Image - Gregory IX issuing the Decretals in 1234

15 credits (Semester 2019-20: Spring)

Module Leader: Dr Danica Summerlin


Module Summary

'In around 1189, a bishop and lawyer stated that "the science of law is truly a most sacred thing". Building on these intertwined ideas of the scientific and sacred elements of law, this module investigates the practical aspects of the legal revolution of the twelfth century from the perspective of ecclesiastical law. Its focus is on the problems faced when understanding the practice of law, and how law functioned at the time and on questions surrounding the role of the popes, cardinals, and clergy at the time.' Dr Danica Summerlin

In the central Middle Ages, the papacy re-emerged as a power in Europe at the same time as a monk-bishop in Italy produced a new collection of texts relating to church law. Despite a series of charismatic but divisive popes, the papacy’s zenith would not have been reached had it not been for that collection, Gratian’s Decretum, which provoked a new, vibrant, and creative era in the Latin Church and which lingered for centuries: used wherever Latin Christianity travelled, it was revised, reorganised, and expanded over the years and only replaced in 1917. This module introduces you to the key sources and concepts that underpinned medieval canon law, both the Decretum and its predecessors and successors, and their use – and abuse – by lawyers, popes, kings, clerics, and scholars during the period. Covering topics from marriage to politics, and using contemporary cases, treatises and manuscripts, this module asks how church law established itself, developed, and was employed at a time of change and ‘Reform’, and looks to the influence that that law exerted over Christian Europe.

Module aims

This module aims to introduce you to medieval church law (known as canon law), and how it mutated or evolved over the Central Middle Ages. It uses a combination of translated sources – available online and in print – and manuscripts available via online digital libraries to provide a thorough grounding of the possibilities and difficulties present in using medieval legal sources and a detailed awareness of the ways in which legal sources infiltrated and influenced other areas of medieval life away from the church courts, including politics and theology. You will be consider fundamental concepts of the separation between the ecclesiastical and secular spheres, as well as using real court cases, especially concerning marriage, to investigate how medieval canon law functioned, what areas of life it covered and its influence, and how it co-existed with other types of law.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Articulate and critically evaluate the changes in medieval church law from around 1100 to around 1300, their causes, impacts, and ramifications;
  2. Identify and analyse the sources and concepts that underpinned church law in the period and their contents, rationale, and - in the case of manuscript evidence - structure;
  3. Engage with ideas, both medieval and modern, concerning those concepts and sources, and produce thoughtful and considered historical analysis;
  4. Participate in class discussions and to present their own perspectives and ideas on key scholarly arguments clearly and coherently;
  5. Construct persuasive and well-considered arguments from this primary and secondary material and employ them in writing.


Learning hours
Seminars Tutorials Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in 5 two-hour seminars. The first will provide an overview of the sources and authorities present in twelfth- and thirteenth-century canon law, with the following four providing examples of how canon law was used in four different environments in the period: when it was taught in the law schools, in practice in church courts, in interactions with secular powers, and in theological treatises and works (LOs 1, 2). Classes will be based on discussion of key questions and concepts, and will provide an environment in which you can discuss your ideas on the sources and scholarly narratives (LOs 2, 3, 4). You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your chosen topic for the written work (LO5).



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will be assessed by a 3,000 word essay written on a topic of your own choice that falls within the scope of the module. In this essay, you will be expected to engage with scholarly debates, demonstrate independence of thought and, wherever possible, employ primary sources (LOs 1, 2, 3, 5). You will have tutorial support for this essay, especially concerning the choice of topic.


Selected reading

  • Kriston Rennie and Jason Taliodoros, ‘Why study medieval canon law?’, History Compass, 12 (2014), 133-49
  • James Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (London and New York, 1992)
  • R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, various edns)
  • Colin Morris, The papal Monarchy (Oxford, 1989)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.