The Social Life of Early Medieval Normative Texts

Historians studying the early and high Middle Ages are acutely aware of the problematic nature of their sources. Like the sources of many other periods and regions, many of the surviving medieval western texts are written by (or at the behest of) members of the elite or clergy. As a result, they tend to paint us a picture that shows us a restricted and distorted image of the ideas and mentalities of ordinary people. Using collections of canon law (i.e. ecclesiastical or religious normative texts), the project SOLEMNE nevertheless aims to explore how ideas about social norms spread throughout medieval Western Europe (approx. 500-1200 CE). For this research, SOLEMNE approaches canonical collections as assortments of ideas.

Canonical collections are in essence compendia of rearranged ‘authoritative statements’ (canones) drawn from a large body of authoritative texts. Works of canon law survive in varying degrees of sophistication and in a vast number of medieval manuscripts. They address not only religious and churchly concerns, but also social, moral, political, and economic issues. As Kriston Rennie noted, this is a genre that ‘intersects with every aspect of medieval life and society’. In addition to the well-known ‘grand’ canonical collections, SOLEMNE includes mostly overlooked canonical florilegia in its analysis. These are particularly interesting, as they are more likely to have been (meant to be) used in local settings with a mostly lay population.

SOLEMNE builds on the premise that it is through the (re)arrangement of authoritative statements that medieval scholars articulated the changing medieval attitudes about social norms and societal ideals. The project will focus on the combinations (or 'clusters') of canons, as expressions of ideas on social issues, for example economic disparity, dispute settlement, murder and theft, sexual conduct and gender relations, social hierarchies, and notions of property rights. SOLEMNE will track the composition, spread, and alteration of these clusters of canons, using a flexible and comprehensive database with an integrated tool to compare canonical collections on the basis, not of individual canons, but of clusters of canons.

By employing canonical sources for a history of social ideas and mentalities, this project aims to attract more historians to this specific corpus of texts and expand our understanding of medieval society.


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