Kriston Rennie on Writing Medieval Canon Law

  1. What is your book about?

My book is about the early medieval origins and development of canon law. What differs is my approach. I apply a slightly different interpretive lens, tackling the subject through a social-history framework. What this means in practice is a big part of the story. Concentrating on the law’s formative centuries (ca. 400-1140) presents the opportunity to understand the ancient traditions, norms, customs, and rationale of the Roman Church in shaping legislative procedure. It also provides a chance for treating the canon law as a living and breathing organism; as an integrated and pervasive aspect of medieval life and society, before the emergence of professional lawyers, law schools, courtrooms, and universities.

  1. Why write another book on this subject?

It took some convincing at first. The field of medieval canon law is steeped in tradition. There are so many great and influential works, whose eloquent and comprehensive analyses fuel a rich historiographical legacy. That was one initial reservation. I also wondered about the genuine need for another book on this subject, its potential audience, what my contribution might be, and whether I was the right person for the job. I’ve always felt like an interloper into the world of canon law, an imposter coming to the field from a different background, with different historical interests and questions.

Ultimately, I decided to turn this experience to my advantage. The Past Imperfect book series provided a creative space for another perspective – something accessible, dynamic, and provocative. There’s an obvious attraction to a book of this nature, whose framework, conception, and production are refreshingly different from the traditional academic monograph. The chance to write something succinct, punchy, and colloquial was extremely appealing. So, too, was the opportunity to shed some of the stricter conventions, which can often weigh down a History book. There is something to be said for this approach to research and writing, which I found extremely rewarding.

I suppose that answers the personal aspect of the question. The intellectual justification for writing another book on this subject is slightly different, though it relates in part to the series’ objectives. I wanted to produce a short book that: made sense of an important subject, highlighted contemporary advances and methodologies, and fostered an appreciation for the field among specialist and non-specialists alike. It took me a long time to realise that canon law is not separate from the political, social, religious, theological, or intellectual traditions of the Middle Ages. As I argue in my book, it both informs and shapes this world. It’s a core and unavoidable component, which demands a better understanding. So, for these reasons, I had to write this book!

  1. What is your particular approach?

My particular approach began with a question I’ve been asking myself all along: why does canon law matter? Or, as Jason Taliadoros and I once enquired: ‘Why study medieval canon law?’

My approach was framed by a desire to explain the law’s formulation in the simplest and clearest way possible. That is, its fundamental purpose, its reason for existence and proliferation, even the methods for its creation and collection. I introduce the subject of medieval canon law as an invention: ‘an evolutionary story of human industry, ingenuity, and change.’ From this vantage, my ultimate aim was to explain how the medieval Church and society were influenced and controlled, how the law actually functioned. I wanted to make the subject tangible in some way. On one level, this meant cutting through the rich historiography and textual tradition, which is exactly what the Past Imperfect series allowed me to do. I don’t mean ignoring this foundational work, but rather harnessing it into a more digestible package.

  1. What do you hope that readers will gain from your book?

Medieval canon law is too often treated in isolation, as an esoteric and highly specialised sub-field of History. There is some truth to this view, as I suggest in my book. But the reality is far more engrossing. While I spend some time explaining the master narrative of canon law, its structure, collections, and rationale, the crux of my book arrives with a chapter on ‘Practice (Reality)’. I wanted to find a way to write about the law as more than a product of textual criticism, but rather as something that was made and enacted; something that influenced everyday lives; as an instrument of authority, clarification, and defense.

By adopting this unique vision and interpretive framework, I hope that my readers will develop a richer appreciation of the canon law’s influence on medieval European society. I’ve positioned the subject as a bountiful source and object of historical study, the engine of a rich cultural, intellectual, political, social, and religious tradition. I hope that my book serves as a ‘call-to-arms’ of sorts, inviting and challenging a budding generation of historians to dip their toes in the canonical waters.

by Kriston Rennie