Canon Law and the Judicial System in Late Medieval Society

Initial Q: David Before Saul (detail) from a psalter, after 1205, Master of the Ingeborg Psalter. Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment, 12 3/16 x 8 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 66 (99.MK.48), fol. 55. / Getty Images

Canon law may be said to be at the heart of exchanges and transformations in medieval Europe since it stood at the crossroads of religion and justice.

By Dr. Leo Carruthers / 05.15.2015
Professor Emeritus of Medieval History
Université de Paris-Sorbonne


Canon law may be said to be at the heart of exchanges and transformations in medieval Europe since it stands at the crossroads of religion and justice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rules governing excommunication—the great curse, as the author of Jacob’s Well calls it.[1] The great curse is mentioned as early as chapter 2 of this very long treatise, a sermon entitled “Exhortation against the articles of the sentence of major excommunication” (5/22). Canon law is not limited, of course, to excommunication, and there is much else that could be said about the subject. But the importance of excommunication in the medieval period becomes evident when we examine a vernacular treatise like Jacob’s Well, an early fifteenth-century penitential sermon series aimed at a combined lay and clerical audience. As we shall see, the writer makes extensive use of canon law and holds out the threat of excommunication to all and sundry, for an endless list of offences which may often appear trivial to modern eyes. While there is no certainty about the status of the anonymous author of Jacob’s Well, he was probably either a parish priest or an Austin canon like John Mirk. Indications in the text leave no doubt as to his interest in parish life and the rights of parish priests, which would be compatible with the work of a regular canon since Mirk himself wrote at least two manuals in English for the clergy.[2]

Codifying Canon Law

Statue of Æthelberht, King of Kent, Interior of Rochester Cathedral / Photo by Polylerus, Wikimedia Commons

The origins of canon law go hand in hand with the development of ecclesiastical institutions, a full examination of which need not be attempted here.[3] But a brief account must be given of how canon law grew to a point that codification became necessary in the twelfth century, a process with which the name of Gratian is particularly associated. The expression “canon law” comes from the Greek kanon, “rule, measure”, which refers to the laws passed by the ecumenical councils of the early Church which all Christians were supposed to obey. In the Latin Church, papal decrees were likewise accorded the force of law. The Church had also inherited secular Roman Law, which affected not only former provinces of the Empire but also the converted barbarian kingdoms. And this concerned more than the formulation of religious regulations: for as the Celtic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon kings came into contact with the legal traditions of Rome, they too were encouraged to give written expression to their law codes, which frequently followed the Roman model. The Anglo-Saxons were converted during the course of the seventh century, and within a very short time we see evidence of their respect for Roman tradition not only in matters of faith and doctrine, but also in secular life. It is noteworthy that the first Anglo-Saxon law code was issued by England’s first Christian monarch, Æthelberht, King of Kent (c. 580-616) not long after the arrival of St Augustine (597-604).[4]

As soon as they were converted it became customary for rulers to found monasteries and churches, bringing bishops and abbots into the political process by inviting them to participate in royal councils—and conversely, allowing kings a role in Church affairs. In the Historia Ecclesiastica (731), the Venerable Bede gives a detailed account of the local ruler’s involvement in the Synod of Whitby in 664, which marked, in England, the victory of the universal rules of the Roman Church over the local customs of Celtic monks who had influenced many English Christians up to then. All over Europe, both in Latin-speaking regions and in the barbarian kingdoms, civil and religious laws thus gradually became intertwined, inextricably so as the centuries passed and the Church, growing in power and complexity, entered the political arena as a rival to secular authority. One of the earliest popes who sought to unravel the two types of law was Gregory VII (1073-85), to whom is attributed the Gregorian Reform which attempted to settle the matter of lay investiture—the process by which kings tried to impose their choice of bishops.[5] In England, both William II (1087-1100) and his brother Henry I (1100-35) clashed with the Archbishop of Canterbury over this issue. Similar confusion led to the murder of another archbishop, Thomas Becket, in 1170 because of what he saw as the defence of ecclesiastical rights and prerogatives against royal tyranny.[6] Change was indeed slow to take root, and it was only from the mid-twelfth century onwards that the need arose to clarify the distinction between civil and religious law. The birth of canon law was thus an attempt to codify the Church’s rules going back to the earliest ecumenical councils, in order to make it clear in what areas of social and religious life the Church considered its authority to be independent of that of kings, and furthermore, to define what was binding on Christians in the Church’s own terms.

The credit for attempting to tidy up the confusion goes to one man, Gratian, author of the Decretum (c. 1140), who became known as the “father” of canon law. Surprisingly, not much is known about his life and career. Gratian, who died c.1160, appears to have been a monk and a papal lawyer who was gifted with a clear and methodical mind. His book, the Decretum, is the first systematic compilation of ecclesiastical rules and regulations; the precise date of composition is uncertain, but it is thought to be c. 1140 as it includes the decisions of the second Lateran Council of April 1139.[7] The original title of his work was the Concordantia Discordantium Canonum, which contains nearly four thousand canonical texts going back to the Patristic Age and all the early ecumenical councils, organised in a framework designed to clarify what was obscure and to resolve contradictions, real or apparent. It is not known if Gratian acted on his own initiative or if the work was undertaken at the request of Pope Innocent II (1130-43), though the latter’s involvement seems highly likely in view of his interest in reform and legal clarification (he was responsible for calling the Lateran Council of 1139).[8]

One way or the other, it is clear that Gratian’s book was quickly recognised as an authority. Before the end of the twelfth century it was well established in the schools of Bologna, Paris and Oxford, where it became the basic text for law students, who called it by the shorter name of Decretum Gratianum, a title by which it is still commonly known. Adopted for use by the papal Curia (many of whose members were graduates of these very schools), it was the first volume of what would later be called Corpus Iuris Canonici, “the body of canon law”; this remained in force all through the later Middle Ages and well into the modern period, down to the Roman reform of canon law in 1917.[9] Consequently, Gratian is frequently quoted in late medieval literature, in both Latin and in the vernacular, in religious and secular texts, by writers who display any interest at all in legal questions. How this applies in practice will now be discussed in relation to the anonymous fifteenth century allegorical English sermon series, Jacob’s Well.

Canon Law in ‘Jacob’s Well’

“Jacobs Well at Shechem April 17th 1839”, by David Roberts / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

The unknown priest and preacher who wrote Jacob’s Well was clearly very familiar with canon law. He frequently quotes the Corpus Juris Canonici, not only from the Decretum Gratianum but also from the other large volumes of legal documents which were compiled on the same lines over a period of nearly two centuries following Gratian.[10] Briefly, these collections were as follows: the Decretales Gregorii IX composed by Raymond of Pennafort (1234), the Liber Sextus Decretalium of Boniface VIII (1298), and the Constitutiones Clementinae (1313). Issued by the Roman Curia, these essential texts are all used and mentioned in Jacob’s Well. The latter, however, also makes use of specifically English legal documents. In order for Roman rules to be promulgated in a particular diocese or kingdom, it was necessary for the bishops of that country to pass edicts at their own local synods. The writer makes frequent use of the decrees of English synods, particularly in sermons 3 to 9 which cover the articles of excommunication, the payment of tithes and matrimonial regulations; he also refers to them in the section on the Seven Deadly Sins.[11] An example of this is the quotation from the Constitutions of Archbishop Peckham, proclaimed at Reading in 1279,[12] mentioned in the sermon on baptism (chapter 71):

Chylderyn born wythin 8 dayes aforn Estern day & aforn Wyt Soneday owyn to be kept unbaptysed tyl þe Satyrdayes aforn Estern & Pentecost 3if it mowen [= may] be kept wythoutyn peryle & on Estern evyn & Wyt Soneday evyn be baptysed (f. 164r).

Obligations of this kind, in both liturgical and sacramental contexts, are often mentioned, with an attention to correct times and places. In chapter 69, “The Works of Faith” (f. 158v), respect for the Church is to be shown by paying one’s Easter dues (the tithe), not at the end of the Mass but at the proper liturgical moment which is the Offertory. The canonical obligation to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, on Easter Sunday, is mentioned twice in successive sermons on the sacraments, chapters 71 (f. 165r) and 72 (f. 166v). In the second case the author also insists that this should be preceded by a yearly confession, preferably made during Lent to one’s own parish priest, i.e. not by going to a distant parish where the penitent would be unknown, or to friars who were reputed to be more lenient in confession; and he reminds his flock that the Easter Eucharist should also be received from the hand of one’s own parish priest.

Since these rules were laid down for the laity by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, about two hundred years before Jacob’s Well was first composed (the surviving manuscript of c. 1440 is a copy of a lost exemplar), they could be heard in any parish in Europe and do not in themselves indicate a pastor with a particularly legalistic frame of mind. However, since he is not merely giving general teaching about Church discipline, but also writing a treatise of vices and virtues in the framework of a sermon series, there are passages where one can perceive the more direct influence of canon law on his way of thinking. His treatment of sexual morality in chapter 24, for example, divides sins of this type into fourteen categories (160/7-162/30). With the exception of sodomy, where the act itself is condemned, the moralist is quite indifferent to the nature of the acts involved, being interested only in the canonical and marital status of the persons concerned. Are they single, married, or related through baptism (even in the absence of a blood relationship, sex between godparents and their godchildren was judged to be a type of incest)? Are they priests, monks or nuns? Legal questions seem here to be forefront in the preacher’s mind rather than what the modern world—including the modern Church—would see more in terms of human relationships. On the other hand, two of the fourteen divisions concern married persons (160/23 adultery, 161/19 lechery within marriage), and as these two are rather longer than the other sections on sexuality, they may indicate that the preacher has in mind a confessor in frequent contact with lay people. Such a confessor could imply the author himself as a parish priest, and it could also include his readers in a religious house who were in training for pastoral work, since the perceived audience of this complex text is of a mixed type, both clerical and lay.[13]

The Articles of Excommunication

‘Speculum Vitae’ and ‘The Lay Folks’ Catechism’ (WLC/LM/9) / University of Nottingham, Creative Commons

The first chapter of Jacob’s Well traces the outlines of the work’s overall allegorical structure: the cleaning out of a dirty well which is to be transformed into a spring of pure water, each detail of the allegory being applied to some aspect of Christian doctrine, faith and morals. The question of excommunication is given a very prominent place, since it is brought in at chapter 2, the first one to give the allegory a concrete application. In this case the dirty water—the first thing one sees upon looking into the well—represents the articles of the great curse, or excommunication. This topic comes straight from canon law and is unique in medieval English vernacular texts; it is not found in any of the English sources of Jacob’s Well, of which the main one, at least for the doctrinal elements, is the Speculum Vitae.[14] Right through chapters 3 to 9 (pages 13-64, or 50 pages of the printed text), the author gives an exhaustive list of sins and canonically unacceptable situations liable to excommunication. And the sentence of excommunication itself is to be pronounced against the condemned person in a liturgical context, which is mentioned in the third sermon (13/18).

Citing once more the Council of Oxford (1222) as his authority, the preacher says that the articles of excommunication are to be read out by the parish priest four times a year; no one, therefore, could plead ignorance, since regular churchgoing was the social norm. While it may be done more often if necessary, he is to read them out at least once in each quarter, on specific days which are mentioned at 13/11-19 (I have added the precise dates):

  1. Either the Sunday after St Michael’s Day (29 September), or the first Sunday of Advent (between 27 November and 3 December).

  2. The first or the third Sunday in Lent (these two days could fall between 8 February and 28 March, depending on the date of Easter which ranges from 22 March to 25 April).

  3. The first Sunday after Pentecost (Whit Sunday can occur from 10 May to 13 June).

  4. Taking as an example the twelve months ending in August 2010, these dates fell as follows: (1) 4 O (…)[15]

The reading is to be done with appropriate liturgical solemnity, “wyth cros standyng, wyth bellys ryngynge, wyth candelys brennynge, & after-ward quenchyd” (13/21-23). The formal declaration of the great curse is then announced in English (13/26-14/21). The long list of sins and offences which follows, extending through seven chapters, is daunting. Possibly entertaining if heard on rare occasions, especially by those above reproach, it could hardly make for pleasant listening four times a year. The preacher himself, fully aware that this section of Jacob’s Well is not going to be the most compelling, makes several appeals to listeners not to leave the church but to bear with him to the end:

þou aw3tyst no3t to hatyn þi curate, but þou aw3tyst for to louyn hym al þi lyif, and aw3tyst gretly to desyre to heryn his warning & his techyng … þerfore, whanne I schewe to 3ou an-oþer day þe artycles of þe sentencys, beeth no3t euyl payed [= discontented] wyth me, but beeth glad to here hem (8/6-9, 16-18).
Whanne þi curat schewyth to þe [= thee] þe artycles of þe curse, go no3t out of þe cherche, tyl þey be schewyd, for no cause, but here hem wyth full wyll (11/22-24).

The liturgical ritual with the cross, the bells and the candles is repeated at the end of chapter 9, thus marking off the conclusion of the articles of excommunication:

Alle personys gylty in ony of þise artycles aforseyd, we denounce hem acursed in þe gret curs be all þe auctoryte of holy cherche, in slepyng, wakyng; in stondynge, syttyng; in lying, goyng; in spekyng, in sylence; in etyng, drynkynge, & in all here werkyng, wyth all solemnyte þat longyth þer-to be þe ordenaunce of holy cherche; we schewyn hem acursyd, wyth crosse standyng, wyth bellys ryngyng, with candele brennynge! & as þe candele schal departe fro his ly3t, so þei are departyd fro þe ly3t of saluacyoun to therknes [= darkness] of dampnacyoun, tyl þei come to dampnacyoun! ffiat! ffiat! Amen (62/36-63/9).

It is easy to picture the devastating effect of this dire curse on the medieval congregation. And from the literary point of view, passages like these reinforce the impression of a “live” text, one written for public use in church rather than for private reading or as a teaching manual, though of course it could also be used in each of those ways as was the case with many medieval treatises.[16]

Ecclesiastical Rights and Tithing

The traditional social stratification of the Occident in the 15th century / Wikimedia Commons

An important aspect of Jacob’s Well lies in its criticism of social abuses at all levels, in particular social injustice involving the misuse of power and position. The preacher is no revolutionary however, since he also underlines the need for respect of civil and ecclesiastical authority; nevertheless, high and low are targeted alike, whatever forms of exploitation or dishonesty they practise (this is the whole point of a manual of vices and virtues). Church laws on tithing are frequently mentioned here, with long lists of rules about regular payment or the contribution of goods such as agricultural produce (for example, 41/15-27). Dishonesty or recalcitrance in this respect—the medieval equivalent of tax evasion—appears to have been rampant, understandably so when one recalls that everyone was supposed to contribute one tenth of his or her income to the upkeep of the Church and the support of the clergy, whether in money or in kind, crops or animals, not an easy thing to do in a bad year.

The articles of excommunication, far from being relegated to arcane spiritual matters, are firmly rooted in down-to-earth social and legal affairs. It must be remembered that canon law applied to many aspects of daily life and family matters that in the modern secular State are mainly handled by the civil authorities, from marriage and childbirth to death and the proving of wills. With so many legal and financial issues at stake, the ecclesiastical courts were constantly involved in litigation. Among those who could be punished with excommunication, for example, were lords who prevented the payment of their deceased tenants’ debts and legacies, or who deprived widows and orphans of their inheritance. The piquancy of this becomes clearer when we recall that if a tenant died without leaving a will the Church was responsible for settling the succession, which of course meant financial gain for the canon lawyers; consequently a landowner who falsified a tenant’s account with the aim of recovering more than his rightful goods was robbing not only the dead man’s heirs but also the Church. The punishment for this crime was excommunication, which was therefore used as a weapon to maintain ecclesiastical rights and property (20/23-34).

Other articles of the great curse apply to people who hinder Church representatives or their employees in the pursuit of their lawful duties. This includes tithe-collectors, whom one may easily imagine were greatly disliked by most people; but anyone who injured them, or in any way interfered with tithe-collecting (by physical violence, or by refusing to grant access to their farmlands), was liable to excommunication. Likewise anyone who refused to pay, or who held tithes back, or who stole goods that had been set aside for tithe payment. Parish priests and bishops depended on the tithing of agricultural produce for much of their livelihood; if they were obliged to engage in legal action against a parishioner in order to force him to pay, and if they were subsequently threatened or persecuted by the guilty party, the perpetrator could be excommunicated (24/6-17). And care was taken to ensure that no legal form of redress would be available to the recalcitrant. Should the parishioner consider himself to be a victim of episcopal greed, and if he were to make the mistake of accusing the bishop of extortion, of arresting or imprisoning the bishop, or of forcing him to appear before the civil courts, that too was liable to excommunication (25/15-19).

Abuses of the Judicial System

The Infidel before the Judge / Creative Commons

All of this indicates a radical separation of civil and religious authority, with the medieval Church placing itself outside and above the civil courts as far as possible. Tension between the two must have been inevitable, as the previous paragraph suggests. But in spite of all his defence of the rights of the Church, the author of Jacob’s Well is not blind to the human failings of the institution he belongs to. He knows full well that the administration of ecclesiastical property leaves the clergy and its agents open to the danger of corruption. He does not hesitate, in the section on robbery, to point a finger at prelates who oblige the faithful to pay outrageous taxes, and deans who encourage extortion by the chapter of their cathedral, “for þei haue more affecyoun to gadere syluer þan to don correccyoun” (129/24). And though encouraging all social classes to practise justice, he recalls that the poor suffer more than the rich from this kind of abuse, because they are weak and unable to resist the exactions of the summoners and beadles, lay officials employed by the prelates. In this respect, he says, ecclesiastical officers are no better than the civil authorities, to whom criminals or defaulters are handed over for punishment when the bishop’s court has done its job. Thus, he goes on, sheriffs and bailiffs often put honest men into great distress, casting them into the debtors’ prison until they have paid a fine and a ransom—which of course the poor are unable to do, so they are treated like common thieves (129/19-35).

A lengthy passage on lying and corruption in court gives rise to a virulent attack on the legal profession and its clients, especially those who abuse both civil and canon law (130/32-131/29). The language here makes considerable use of legal vocabulary: specialist terms employed include chalange (a claim in court), pleyntyf, mootyn (to moot= sue), defendaunt, cysourys (assizers, jurymen), queste (jury), advocatys (lawyers), plee, procuratour, atourne (attorney), notarye (solicitor), iuge (judge), clerk of þe kynges crowne, etc. The author is certainly not fooled by the cleverness of those who use the law for their own ends; the people mentioned are mainly of good education and social standing. Unjust litigation by dishonest plaintiffs is criticised as much as lying defendants who try to delay the judgement; perjury, or bearing false witness after swearing on the Bible, is naturally condemned. But no one in the system, it seems, can escape criticism, since the whole legal process from start to finish appears to be rife with corruption. In Jacob’s Well, witnesses are false, juries are corrupt, lawyers hypocritical, procurators wily; solicitors forge acts and letters, court secretaries wilfully alter the records, and finally, even judges are condemned for taking bribes from both sides and giving favourable judgement to the one who pays most.

It is clear that the author of Jacob’s Well is very familiar with the legal system, and that he is in no doubt as to the forms of corruption that it can generate. He could well be a canon lawyer, as might be guessed from expressions like “But I putte this case” (174/7, 30), introducing a fine distinction in a way that seems to come straight from the courtroom; and if not a lawyer himself, he has certainly been in court and heard such language used. But it should be recalled that he is writing a work of morality designed both to guide confessors and to move the faithful to repent and confess their misdeeds. Although the impression created is quite realistic, he does not actually say in so many words that he is speaking from personal experience; he does not even say that these things happen frequently, only that they are sins requiring confession, which is the main thrust of his argument. As usual in such cases, the focus is on evil, not on good, and there is so much criticism of what is wrong that nothing seems to be right; but a one-sided opinion of the lawcourts would no doubt be unfair, just as much then as it would be today.

The Other Face of Justice: The Court of Mercy

A page from the Macro Manuscript showing a staging plan for The Castle of Perseverance. The text at the bottom explains the position and costume of the Four Daughters of God. / Folger Shakespeare Library, Wikimedia Commons

In spite of being a stickler for the letter of the law, the preacher has not forgotten that according to the precepts of Christian charity, mercy is greater than justice (249/26-31). One of the features of this book, making it more like a series of sermons and less like the treatises of vices and virtues on which it is ultimately based, is the consistent use of exempla, sometimes quite long, which end each chapter. A good example which is relevant to the present subject occurs in chapter 41, “Friendship” (brotherly love): the exemplum itself, the Court of Mercy, is quite short (one page), but it gives rise to a complex allegory of the type favoured by Jacob’s Well, itself an extended allegory. The Court of Mercy is a version of the “Four Daughters of God” topos known elsewhere, i.e. the debate between Justice, Truth, Peace and Mercy over a condemned sinner (pp. 255-56).[17] Briefly, the exemplum in the present case explains how a sinful student from Bologna dreams that he is caught in a storm; he seeks refuge in three successive houses, but is turned away by the occupants, three ladies who are Justice, Truth and Peace; the latter advises him to try Mercy, her kind sister, who does indeed help him providing he will serve her in future by being merciful to his enemies.

Then follows the allegorical development which extends to over three pages, much longer than the exemplum on which it is based. The theme is Justice and Mercy, once again drawing heavily on legal language and showing familiarity with the judicial system, and establishing an interesting contrast between the civil and ecclesiastical courts. The following is a brief summary. First of all the preacher exhorts his listeners, who have likewise been condemned by Divine Law (= they are sinners), to make an appeal to the judge for mercy, i.e. by making a good confession to the priest. Then he develops the allegory in the person of a convicted murderer (= a sinner, guilty of murdering his own soul and that of others), who is condemned by the civil courts (Justice, Truth and Peace) but appeals to the ecclesiastical court (Mercy) and is sent to the bishop’s prison (Purgatory). This leads to a further exhortation to sinners to do penance for forty days, allegorically by seeking sanctuary in a church and remaining there throughout Lent, which leads to spiritual renewal through the sacrament of penance. The fortieth day is the Easter Vigil. The coroner (priest) then places a cross (penitence) in his hands (good works) and sends him off on the royal road (the Ten Commandments). Although pursued by his enemy (Satan), he keeps to the straight path, looking neither left nor right (the world and the flesh), holding high the cross (an allusion to Matt. 10:38). The metaphor in this chapter is completely different from the overall allegory of Jacob’s Well—which is all about cleaning out dirty mud and water, i.e. purifying the conscience of sin—but it aptly complements the general theme which is spiritual regeneration through the sacrament of penance with all its parts (contrition, confession, satisfaction, restitution).


Just as the medieval Church was ubiquitous in daily life, canon law too played an important role in society—a role bearing little comparison to the modern situation, even within the Roman Catholic Church which remains heavily regulated by canon law. With the exception of people seeking a marriage annulment, few ordinary Catholics today ever have recourse to canon law, or have any direct contact with it. It can hardly be said to affect the day-to-day lives of most modern Catholics, nor are they much conscious of being concerned by it despite a recent surge in media interest in the relationship between canon law and civil law.[18] Unless they happen to enter into open conflict with ecclesiastical authority, who among them, today, is aware of the conditions necessary for excommunication, or indeed worries about it even when they know of the risk? The contrast with medieval society could hardly be greater, when, as we have seen, the causes of excommunication were very numerous, and the consequences, both social and political, were grave for rich and poor alike. English monarchs from John (1199-1216) to Elizabeth I (1558-1603) were disturbed by the political consequences of excommunication, which technically dispensed their Catholic subjects from obedience in civil as well as religious affairs.

Needless to say, both the Age of Enlightenment and the growth of modern secularism have radically changed this mode of thinking, but we need to keep it in mind when we try to understand the medieval perspective. It would seem inevitable that faith and law belong together in the medieval mindset. In a monotheistic culture, belief in God as the Creator of the Universe, and of life itself, underlies social relations. Such a belief could not exist in a vacuum but has transformative power. It may be born in the heart of the individual, but it must be shared with others; it then becomes a two-way affair, seen as the foundation of law (a way of regulating social exchanges), but in turn it becomes subject to human judgement and action.

Interestingly enough, while the anonymous author of Jacob’s Well appears to promote a hierarchical society and a rigid legal system, he nevertheless demonstrates his awareness of the serious abuses to which it could give rise; indeed, as the examples cited have shown, he is highly critical of the law and its agents, whether of the canonical or the civil variety, because of the way they could be corrupted. He certainly does not paint a pretty picture of medieval life and law, though perhaps not much has changed in this respect in the modern age, at least if we take into consideration the way abuse of the judicial system is often represented in popular television drama. Plus ça change…!


  1. Jacob’s Well, ed. Arthur Brandeis, London: Kegan Paul, 1900 (EETS OS 115); an edition of about half of the text (50 sermons out of 95) in ms. Salisbury Cathedral 103. Citation by page/line refers to this edition; folio quotations in the present article are taken from the unedited part of the unique manuscript.
  2. John Myrc, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, London, 1868, rev. 1902; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1981 (EETS OS 31). Also in a new edition by Gillis Kristensson, Lund: Gleerup, 1974 (Lund Studies in English, 49). His second work is the Festial, a collection of sermons for liturgical feast-days: John Mirk’s Festial, vol. I, ed. Susan Powell, Oxford: OUP, 2009 (EETS OS 334).
  3. See article on Canon Law in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, Oxford: OUP, 3rd ed. 1997, 277-8, with bibliography.
  4. Many other law codes were issued by later Anglo-Saxon kings. The laws of Æthelbert and other Kentish kings are available in Lisi Oliver (ed. & trans.), The Beginnings of English Law, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002 (a good introduction to the topic giving texts, translations, commentary and an extensive bibliography).
  5. See article on Gregory VII in John N. D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford: OUP, 1986, 154-6.
  6. The reign of Henry II (1154-89) is now seen as a crucial period for the development of English common law, which was strongly influenced by the processes of both canon law and Roman civil law. See Anne Duggan, “Roman, canon and common law in twelfth-century England: the council of Northampton (1164) re-examined”, Historical Research, vol. 83, no. 221 (August 2010), 379-408.
  7. See article on Gratian in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 700-1.
  8. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes 167-9, credits Innocent II with having steered the Church away from arid juridical conflicts with the secular authorities. Since Innocent had had to deal with two antipopes, Anacletus II (1130-38) and Victor IV (briefly in 1138), he was certainly anxious to establish clear-cut rules and regulations about all aspects of canon law. One of the purposes of the Lateran Council of 1139 was to annul all decisions and acts which Anacletus II had promulgated.
  9. The classic edition of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, before the 1917 reform, is that of Aemilius [= Emil] Friedberg, Leipzig, 1879, whose first volume contains the Decretum Gratianum.
  10. In his introduction to the edition of Jacob’s Well, vii, Brandeis names the four great collections of the Corpus Juris Canonici, or CJC (beginning with Gratian). Using Friedberg, he identifies most of the articles of canon law quoted in the Middle English text.
  11. For details Brandeis relied on David Wilkins, Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, London: Gosling et al., 1737 (first mentioned by Brandeis at 13, this work covers Church councils held in Britain and Ireland from 446 to 1717). Wilkins has now been superseded for the English councils (but not for Brandeis’s references to the CJC), by Sir Frederick M. Powicke and Christopher R. Cheney, eds., Councils & Synods, with other documents relating to the English Church, 2 vols., Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1964.
  12. Brandeis, 17 (n.1) gives the reference: Ex const. Redyng (these are the Peckham Constitutions).
  13. For a more detailed discussion of this topic see Leo Carruthers, “Know Thyself: Criticism, Reform and the Audience of Jacob’s Well“, in Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University, ed. Jacqueline Hamesse et al., Louvain-la-Neuve: FIDEM, 1998, 219-40.
  14. Speculum Vitae. A Reading Edition, ed. Ralph Hanna, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 2 vols. (EETS OS 331-2). The subtitle, “a reading edition”, somewhat unusual for an EETS volume, arises from the fact that this edition is based on only five of the forty known manuscripts of this popular verse text.
  15. Taking as an example the twelve months ending in August 2010, these dates fell as follows: (1) 4 October or 29 November. (2) 21 February or 7 March. (3) 30 May. (4) 8 August.
  16. For an example of a short treatise giving an outline of the basic points of doctrine which the Church required the faithful to know and practise, see The Lay Folks’ Catechism, also known as Dan John Gaytryge’s Sermon, dating from 1357 but still popular in the fifteenth century. Jean-Paul Débax provides a modern English translation in Everyman: lectures critiques et documents, ed. Florence Bourgne, Paris: AMAES no. 30, 2009, 182-91.
  17. See Hope Traver, The Four Daughters of God: a study of the versions of this allegory, with special reference to those in Latin, French, and English, Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr College Monographs, 1907. The biblical source of the image is Ps. 85 (84): 10, ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other’ (Revised Standard Version).
  18. In the wake of news stories about clerical sexual abuse, there has been some public revival of interest in the importance of canon law and its relation to civil law. For example, on 25 May 2010 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canon Law Society of America sponsored a daylong seminar on this subject for media representatives in Washington, DC: see <>.


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Carruthers, Leo, “Know Thyself: Criticism, Reform and the Audience of Jacob’s Well”, in Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University, ed. Jacqueline Hamesse et al., Louvain-la-Neuve : FIDEM, 1998, 219-40.

Cross, F.L., and E.A. Livingstone, eds,. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford: OUP, 3rd ed. 1997.

Débax, Jean-Paul, trans., The Lay Folks’ Catechism, in Everyman : lectures critiques et documents, ed. Florence Bourgne, Paris: AMAES no. 30, 2009, 182-91.

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Friedberg, Aemilius, ed., Corpus Iuris Canonici, Leipzig, 1879 (see vol. I for the Decretum Gratianum).

Hanna, Ralph, ed., Speculum Vitae. A Reading Edition, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 2 vols. (EETS OS 331-2).

Kelly, John N. D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Kristensson, Gillis, ed., John Mirk. Instructions for Parish Priests, Lund: Gleerup, 1974 (Lund Studies in English, 49).

Oliver, Lisi, ed. & trans., The Beginnings of English Law, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Peacock, Edward, ed., John Myrc. Instructions for Parish Priests, London, 1868, rev. 1902; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1981 (EETS OS 31).

Powell, S., ed., John Mirk’s Festial, vol. I, Oxford: OUP, 2009 (EETS OS 334).

Powicke, Sir Frederick M., and Christopher R. Cheney, eds., Councils & Synods, with other documents relating to the English Church, 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Traver, Hope, The Four Daughters of God: a study of the versions of this allegory, with special reference to those in Latin, French, and English, Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr College Monographs, 1907.

Wilkins, David, ed. Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, London: Gosling et al., 1737.

Originally published by Caliban 29 (2011, 45-60), republished by OpenEdition Journals under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.