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 Projet Volterra II

Law and the End of Empire



Introduction to the Projet Volterra II: Law and the End of Empire

The Projet Volterra II comprises a two phase research project (2005-2010, 2011-2015) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and currently based in the History Department of University College London. The co-directors of the project are Dr Benet Salway and Professor Michael Crawford, previously also Dr Magnus Ryan (2005-2010), and the principal researcher is Dr Simon Corcoran.

Fostered by the institutional continuity of the Roman state in the East, the transmission and development of Roman law from late antiquity to the middle Byzantine Hellenophone compilations follows a relatively straightforward trajectory. In contrast, the legal history of the period between the end of the Roman Empire in the west and the Latin world of the twelfth century has tended to be seen as discontinuous: ‘barbarisation’ and ‘decline’ in the production of normative codes of law by secular and church authorities followed, after a prolonged hiatus, by a new impetus to codification of canon law and simultaneous revival of secular jurisprudence, based on Justinian’s corpus, in the nascent universities (Vinogradoff, Roman Law in Mediaeval Europe 1909). For much of the last century, as far as scholars of legal history were concerned, the products of the preceding period could be dismissed merely as ‘vulgar law’, of no consequence for later legal history (e.g. Levy, Pauli Sententiae 1945). However, it is clear that the impressive developments of the eleventh/twelfth centuries did not emerge from nowhere and, although in recent years scholars have been keen to move away from the rhetoric of ‘decline’ and ‘barbarisation’, no consensus has emerged as to what kind of explanatory framework should replace this interpretation. So our problem is to establish what constituted the ‘totality of the law’ (i.e. decisions, jurisprudence, custom as well as statutes, decrees, etc., cf. Cicero’s influential work, the Topica) for the populations of those successor kingdoms that retained an element of Roman civil society in order to understand the context of the ‘revival’ of classical Roman law in late medieval Italy.

The Projet Volterra aims, ultimately, to rewrite the history of Roman law between the end of the Roman Empire in the west and the early twelfth century. Such an ambitious scheme cannot be quickly achieved. The first phase of Volterra II had the more limited aim, within a self-contained project of 5 years, of determining what the totality of the law was in the Carolingian period (i.e. in the ninth century), when much of the surviving Latin world was re-united under a single political umbrella for the first time since the disintegration of the Roman empire in the West. This involved tracing the history of the law down to the Carolingian period in order to establish what constituted the law in all its facets in the Carolingian realm (principally Francia and Italy). The second phase will continue the story down to c.1100.

Disentangling the history of law after the end of the Roman Empire in the West is crucial to understanding the transformation of that world, because the law is one of the principal features that provided a link between the administrations of the successor kingdoms, the Roman populations that they ruled, the territories ruled from Constantinople, and the early administration of the papacy and the church; a clear conception of the legal sources (Roman, Germanic, canon) then recognised as authoritative is the essential counterpart to the examination of the developing patterns of dispute settlement, since it is unsatisfactory to try to analyse this without analysing the rules that were taken to govern it. Both these stories need to be told.

It is our aim to bridge the disciplinary divides that have separated scholars of socio-political history, legal history, and canon law in order to provide both a new insight into this crucial development and a starting point for further research. However, it is also important to note that this is already a vibrant area of study, as exemplified by the work of Detlef Liebs on later Roman/early medieval jurisprudence in Italy, Gaul and Africa (1987, 2002, 2005), the magisterial book by Wolfgang Kaiser on the Epitome Iuliani (2004) and the important History of Medieval Canon Law series edited by Wilfrid Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington.

The out-puts envisaged are two multi-authored monographs, the first on the history and nature of the law in the Carolingian period (due to be published in 2012), which reflects the first phase of the project, while the second volume will similarly reflect the second phase, covering the period down to 1100. In addition to these volumes, and subject to continuous up-dating and supplementation, there will be an internet portal to existing electronic resources, our own on-line database providing a key to surviving manuscripts and documents containing legal material, and additional on-line editions and/or translations of texts not currently available in accessible electronic form elsewhere.

A series of three colloquia took place during the first phase of the project. These were held at UCL in September 2007, September 2008, and July 2010. Three further colloquia and two public lectures are planned to take place during the second phase of the project. The first Volterra lecture will take place on 29 February 2012.



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Last updated 31 January 2012
Acknowledgements: Thanks to H. & A. Brooke, Simon Renton, Diana Burton and Ashley Van Haeften.