early medieval church councils and canon law (and bunnies)

remember when i wondered whether or not the regulations (canon laws) promulgated by regional or “national” church councils in the early medieval period would’ve been binding throughout christendom? well, i was right to wonder. and the answer is: no, they were not.

from Women in Medieval Western European Culture [pgs. 143-144 – link added by me]:

“In the Byzantine Empire, canon law was more or less combined with Roman law, since the church was a wing of the government. In contrast, canon law in western Europe developed amid the great diversity of legal systems which characterized the medieval European experience. From the early fourth century, prominent members of the church met in council to discuss the changing needs of the Christian community as it moved from a position of powerlessness to one of domination in the later Roman empire. The rules devised by these church councils, as well as regular pronouncements by the pope and rulings in various papal and diocesan courts, formed the basis for medieval canon law. However, this was a legal system with no uniformity. Each bishop, each kingdom, each region within each kingdom all had their own particular sets of rules and regulations under which the church was governed. This meant that there was a wide disparity in canon law precepts during the early Middle Ages….

“The period between the late tenth and early twelfth centuries — that is, the great age of clerical reform in the West — was also a period of centralization of the authority of the church in the hands of the papacy. Along with the triumph of Benedictine monasticism over regional forms and the (partial) triumph of the papacy over the governing of the clergy came the triumph of a centralized system of canon law over regional variation. This development culminated in the work of an Italian legalist from Bologna named Gratian who, around the year 1140, compiled, collated, and organized the welter of canon law enactments into his ‘Concordance of Discordant Canons.’ After Gratian, all subsequent compilations of canon law (all integrated roughly into the system called the *corpus iuris canonici* — the body of canon law) began with his text and moved on from there. By the end of the thirteenth century, the canon law of the western church was a complex but relatively coherent body of law complete with extensive annotation and analysis.”

so, no, there was no — or little — rhyme or reason to all of the canon laws regarding impediments to marriage in the early medieval period. the first ban on cousin marriage in western europe of which i am aware came in 506 a.d., but that ban was issued by a regional church council in southern france (provence), and it very much didn’t apply elsewhere. a bishop in a diocese in italy or north africa could’ve ignored this regulation — in fact, perhaps they wouldn’t have heard about its issuance at all.

however, this idea to ban cousin marriage does seem to have crept northward from provence into the germanic kingdoms during the 500s. the council of epaone was held in the burgundian kingdom eleven years later in 517. from “To the limits of kinship: anti-incest legislation in the early medieval west (500-900)” [pg. 38 – pdf]:

“In 517 a gathering of bishops in Epaon decreed that sexual intercourse was forbidden with a brother’s widow, a wife’s sister, a stepmother, a first or second cousin, the widow of a paternal or maternal uncle, or stepdaughter….”

another council, the third national council of orleans held another twenty-one years later in 538, also dealt with impediments to marriage, but i haven’t been able to find out if cousin marriage was banned by that council.

however, de jong in “To the limits of kinship” says [pg. 39 – pdf]:

“[T]he real growth of the Frankish campaign against incest dates from the eighth century, when relations with Rome were strengthened by the Carolingian rulers. Papal decrees and letters began to circulate in the north; these also influenced legislation about incest.”

this would fit with what i blogged earlier this year about mating patterns among the early medieval franks:

“it sounds as though the franks may still have, in actuality, been regularly marrying close cousins into the early 700s….”

but…

“‘By the ninth century, a marriage in the third *generatio* [i.e. second cousins – h.chick] had become scandalous….'”

so, there seems to have been some delay in the adoption by the franks of the cousin marriage bans that had originated in neighboring kingdoms (which were eventually incorpated into francia) further to the south. how well the bans were ever enforced in provence or burgundy in the 500s, i have no idea.

to conclude, afaict, the earliest church ban on cousin marriage in western europe happened in southern france in 506 with bishop caesarius and his crew, but the ban would only have applied locally. we can trace a direct line between caesarius and st. augustine who had had strong ideas about the importance of encouraging the populace to marry out in order to create a good, christian society here on earth. and st. augustine seems to have gotten his ideas from st. ambrose — who was originally a gallo-roman. meanwhile, ambrose may have picked up the idea of avoiding cousin marriage from the romans. more on that another day.

all of this reminds me of the bunnies. yes, the bunnies. remember this?:

“Genetic changes transformed wild rabbits into tame bunnies, DNA study reveals”

“When humans domesticated wild rabbits and turned them into pet store favorites, they also changed their genome, a study has found…. The domestication of rabbits happened much more recently than that of cattle, sheep, pigs and dogs, which happened between about 15,000 and 9,000 years ago. Monks in monasteries in the south of France first domesticated northwestern europeans rabbits around 1,400 years ago….

so…religious dudes in the south of france were occupied with creating a better human society by tweaking people’s mating patterns right around the same time that some other religious dudes in the south of france were busy tweaking the nature of bunnies? presumably via artificial selection? is this a coincidence? did these monks and bishops hang out with each other and discuss…breeding practices? bunny eugenics perhaps? what did these guys know or think about domestication processes? i have no idea. maybe they didn’t know a thing. but i’d sure like to find out!

previously: happy council of agde day! and mating patterns of the medieval franks

(note: comments do not require an email. bunnies!)

Advertisements

10 Comments

  1. The monasteries were the most likely place to find agricultural information in Europe: orchards, weather, plows, animal husbandry. They also corresponded with others of their orders in other countries, spreading the knowledge. Whether this was from some general drive to study and teach, a feeling of stewardship, or some other reasons I can’t say.

    Reply

  2. ditto AVI

    “Monks in monasteries”

    I think monasticism may have played a very significant part in all of this (both in Europe and Tibet). In particular there appears to be a mystery over where exactly the heavy plow came from and when. I wonder about a monastery somewhere.

    Reply

  3. I only wish this information would get through the people in charge of selecting immigrants in Europe. They persist in think that very tribal people are perfectly capable of integrating. Here is a news story from Denmark: four municipalities are trying to stop further Chechynan and Roma (both very clannish). It is unlikely they will succeed.

    http://cphpost.dk/news/municipalities-deem-certain-ethnicities-as-undesirable.11747.html

    By the time those in charge realize what has happened it will too late to reverse the process.

    Reply

  4. Variation in canonical precepts is the equivalent of mutation in physical evolution. The religious strictures that endured were the ones that worked, i.e. over extended time, they contributed to a society’s success and procreation.

    Reply

  5. Fascinating idea. But I wonder, do dysgenic phenotypes appear among bunnies in second-cousin matings?

    Also, from my knowledge of the Egyptian pharaohs and their defects, there must have been some folk-wisdom about incest among scribes.

    Reply

  6. @ efalken

    If your comment was an attempt at humor, I suggest that you go back to using your left hand for that purpose.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s