Vocabula Mira: “Glossator”

Gregory DiPippo

Since yesterday we looked at the Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, today we turn to the foundational role which this text played in the intellectual life of the medieval West.

During the reign of Justinian (527-65), the Eastern Roman Empire (as historians now call it) regained control of most of Italy, which it had lost with the “fall” of the Western Empire in 476. Thus, when the various parts of the Corpus Juris Civilis were promulgated, their use became mandatory also at the school of law in Rome, which was later moved to the new capital of Byzantium’s Italian possessions, Ravenna. The province formed by these possessions, known as the Exarchate of Ravenna, collapsed in 751, when Ravenna was taken by the Lombard kingdom. With Byzantine influence thus greatly diminished, and the Corpus itself now over two centuries old, and in many respects either obsolete or impossible to apply, it was mostly forgotten in the West. The Germanic kingdoms that emerged from the ashes of Rome based their law codes on their own traditions, and where they were influenced by Roman law, they tended to draw from the older and more widely known Code of Theodosius.

In the mid-11th century, the Church in western Europe, led by the Roman pontiffs, was undergoing one of the most important reform movements in its long history, sometimes called “the Gregorian reform” after one of its most significant leaders, Pope St Gregory VII (1073-85). Like many movements of its kind, it looked upon the past not as a mere historical record of long-lost beliefs and customs, but as a role model by which the Church could recover what was best about itself.

Early on in the course of the reform, the texts of the Corpus Juris Civilis were rediscovered; the details of exactly how and where this happened are a matter of scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that before the end of the 11th century, a new school for the study of ancient Roman law had emerged in the city of Bologna, the beginnings of the world’s first university. The jurists of this school are called “glossators” from their manner of teaching; they would first read a sentence from the part of Justinian’s Corpus that was being studied, then offer their own explanations and comments on the text, or “glosses”, from the Greek word “glossa”, meaning “tongue” or “language.” From this practice derive the medieval Latin verb “glossare”, and the nouns “glossator” and “glossatio”, etc.

(The tombs of three of the famous glossators of the University of Bologna, outside the church of St Francis; that of Accursius, who is named below, is the one on the left. Other tombs similar to these can be seen in various parts of the city. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Polickap, CC BY-SA 4.0

Just as the Catholic Faith was intertwined with every aspect of medieval society, so also medieval civil law was intertwined with canon law, such that that it was often said, “Ecclesia vivit lege Romana – the Church lives by Roman law.” The newly rediscovered Roman law provided the model by which canon law could be applied to effect the necessary reforms in the Church, and each step in the development of the study of civil law is paralleled by similar developments in the study of canon law.

It was the first teacher of law at Bologna, Irnerius, who invented the practice of “glossing”; he was followed by a group known as the Four Doctors, who dominated the field in the 12th century; then by Peter of Piacenza (or “Placentinus”), who in 1160 founded a school at Montpellier in France that would come to rival the prestige of Bologna; and Azo of Bologna, whose commentaries on the whole of Justinian’s legal corpus were considered authoritative for centuries.

In the 13th century, a pupil of Azo called Accursius then did for the written bodies of glosses what Justinian had done for Roman law, namely, he produced a digest and synthesis of them which itself became a definitive reference point, replacing many earlier such compilations. This corpus, which contains over 100,000 separate entries, was called either the “glossa ordinaria” or “glossa magistralis.”

Both of these terms are, however, more broadly used outside the field of law. A similar procedure of commentary and interpretation was also applied to the Bible, and over time, an authoritative corpus of such glosses emerged, and was generally called “glossa ordinaria”. This became one of the standard textbooks of the high medieval universities. Outside the field of law, “glossa magistralis” is commonly applied to a commentary on the Psalms by Peter Lombard, who was to theology in the 12th century what the glossators of Bologna were to law.

(A page of an early (1495) printed edition of Justinian’s Digest with Accursius’ Glossa Ordinaria around it. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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