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This map is an experiment.

We tried to mark on a digital map where the manuscripts carrying ten representative legal work of the twelfth century are preserved today and (if known) where they were written or preserved in the past.

The works we have selected are:

  • BulgarusDe regulis iuris (including also the version written by Bertrandus Metensis)
  • Bulgarus, Stemma Bulgaricum (the earliest gathering of Quaestiones from the Bologna school)
  • Geraudus the Provençal, De natura actionum
  • Geraudus, Summa Codicis (Trecensis)
  • Ioannes BassianusSumma « Quicumque vult » (on actions)
  • Lo Codi (including French, Occitan, Castilian and Latin versions)
  • Ordo iudiciorum “Ulpianus de edendo
  • PlacentinusSumma “Cum essem Mantue” (on actions)
  • Perpendiculum
  • Quaestiones de iuris subtilitatibus

In our work on the CLCLCL project, we dealt with Italian, Anglo-Norman, and Southern French legal literature. We wondered if the current perception of legal development, which describes the diffusion of the learned legal literature as originating in Northern Italy and quickly spreading northward, was still reliable, or if it was too influenced by the classic view of the historical school. Following in the steps of Savigny, the historians of medieval legal literature have privileged in their descriptions the literary works that followed the text of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, i.e. glosses, regularly gathered in apparatuses; summae; lecturae; and commentaries. For the historical school, the compilation of Justinian was the main character in the narrative of western legal history; accordingly, the history of legal literature was mainly conceived of as the history of the different forms of commentary on this compilation. This is why we use a distinction between a school of the “glossators” and a school of the “commentators,” focusing on the change in the form of the commentaries. To put it simply: for the historical school and many legal historians, the history of legal literature in Roman law was the history of the progressive efforts to understand the text of Justinian. We could call this type of writing “exegetical literature”: it was felt to be of primary importance in the continental European tradition of legal history, so much so that the main attitude of medieval legal scholarship has been often described as “exegesis.”

This image of medieval legal literature was largely influenced by the choices made by early-modern publishers, who picked from the vast production of the medieval jurists those works they presumed to be the most acceptable to the new market of buyers of printed books. The early editors making their selection in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were mainly focused on their business: they had no interest in mirroring the legal literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which consisted of many different genres, often gathered in mixed manuscripts, according to the needs and the taste of their age. Those little writings could not be sold successfully on the market of the early modern era. And so, the editors chose to publish exegetical works, i.e. works that explained the texts of Justinian. A large number of other writings, which circulated largely in the manuscripts of the twelfth century, were not selected by the printers and remained hidden in the manuscripts. Only a small number of them have been edited critically by later legal philologists.

This is the ground on which the legal history of the last two centuries has built its narrative. And even when the interest of historians has focused strongly on manuscripts, the exegetical writings continued to attract the greatest attention, perpetuating the same perception of the legal literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries mirrored in the printings of the Renaissance.

This map aims at exploring whether, if we follow the path of the non-exegetical literature, we get an unexpected picture of the spreading and diffusion of legal literature in Europe. Moreover, by analysing every manuscript that contains a copy of some representative legal writing, we always thereby find a number of other writings that were gathered together by a writer or an owner, and those other writings reflect a large range of interests, much more diverse than it is currently believed. Along with the legal writings we have selected for our experiment (which are mainly in the field of Roman Law), we find a large number of other similar non-exegetical writings in Canon Law, Lombard Law, Theology, Grammar, Artes Dictaminis, Chronicles, Logic, Physics.

This is amazing: following the very limited path marked by our ten legal writings, we walked through a door that led us into an unexpected intellectual environment, where the borders between disciplines are much more permeable than we used to think. Canon Law and Roman Law seem to be part of the very same library, along with other knowledge that was part of the blossoming scholasticism.

The map also reveals a revised geography of the spreading of learned law through Europe. The traditional narrative told about the lucky rediscovery of the Digest and the other parts of the Corpus of Justinian in Italy; of the beginning of legal studies at Bologna, and of the journey of the new legal knowledge across the Alps, earlier in southern France and later all over Europe. Now, the places of origin, of temporary holding, and of the actual preservation of our manuscripts appear much more uniformly distributed all over the European space, including today’s England, Northern France, Eastern Spain, Germany, Belgium, Low Countries, Switzerland and Austria. Take the example of Perpendiculum: originating in England, soon received in Northern France and in the Rhineland, arrived in Sicily and on to the Holy Land (Sidon); it was received by Italian scholarship and became the model for new collections of brocards by Pillius and finally Azo. A long journey that had Bologna not as a starting point, but as a final destination.

We think that our experiment confirms what the late Peter Landau observed in an essay of 2008 (Von Halle nach Harvard, RG 13, p. 157): The researches of Kuttner and Gouron “lead to a completely new image of the legal “revival” of the twelfth century, with law schools in Provence, Paris, Reims, Cologne, Lincoln in England and perhaps even in Ireland.” The map shows that Landau was right and that the image offered by current handbooks is “surely outdated.”


Emanuele Conte, David De Concilio, Ingrid Ivarsen, Attilio Stella, Sarah White.

12 October 2020