The Vatican Film Library of the Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections announces its current exhibition of medieval manuscripts, The Rule of Law: Righting Wrongs and Writing Rights in Medieval Europe, on display Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, running 12 February 2014–1 August 2014 in the Vatican Film Library (Rm. 105) of Pius XII Memorial Library.
Rights—Consent—Liberty—Equality. These words evoke strong feelings in the hearts of most Americans, and resonate in many constitutions of western democracies. When most of us think about the roots of these democracies, our minds leap from ancient Greece and perhaps the Roman Republic straight to the Enlightenment and the work of John Locke. Chances are that the Middle Ages lie forgotten in our picture of the democratic principles we enjoy. Yet modern notions of the equality of humankind, the necessity of liberty, the consent of the governed, and the self-evidence of human-rights were most fully elaborated not in classical Athens but in twelfth-century Italy, emerging from the studies of civil law (Roman law) and church law (canon law).
Medieval scholars and jurists wrestled with theory—the origin and interaction of laws, rights, and customs—as well as practice, as they suggested new interpretations for very old laws. Legal scholars commented on ancient texts, then commented on those comments, and even wrote stand-alone volumes of those commentaries. Meanwhile, students using these works scribbled their thoughts in the margins.
From the University of Bologna and other medieval scholarly centers, legal study became one of the most dominant fields of inquiry and helped foster a culture aware of the rights of individuals. The work of these students and scholars forged a vital step along the path that ultimately inspired the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This exhibit focuses attention on two aspects of the western legal tradition: theory and practice. In presenting the theory of law, the exhibition presents three representative texts: one examining Roman law; one looking at canon law; and the last demonstrating an effort to combine the first two fields into a grand, unified theory of all law. These works of theory address discrepancies in interpretation and precedent and attempt to evaluate, to find harmony, and to demonstrate that contradictions were more apparent than real. The second aspect presented, that of practice, illustrates specific ways in which law was used, challenged, and preserved. By means of contracts, official receipts, and court proceedings, we catch glimpses into how law was both utilized and valued. By examining these documents, laboriously hand-written in an age before print, we can come to understand the brilliance and variety of medieval legal thought, so often ignored in discussions of modern jurisprudence, and, by doing so, can more fully appreciate the depth of our legal heritage.
This exhibition is curated by Daniel Webb, doctoral student in the History Department and CMRS Research Assistant in the Vatican Film Library during academic year 2013–14. For further information, contact Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library, at 314-977-3084, firstname.lastname@example.org .