220. Caroline Humfress on the Roots of Medieval Law

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A discussion about Roman law and its reception in the medieval period, with ancient law expert Caroline Humfress.



Further Reading

• C. Humfress and P. Garnsey, The Evolution of the Late Antique World (Cambridge: 2001).

• C. Humfress, Orthodoxy and the Courts in Late Antiquity (Oxford: 2007).

• C. Humfress, “Bishops and Lawcourts in Late Antiquity: How Not to Make Sense of the Legal Evidence”, Journal of Early Christian Studies 19 (2011), 375-400.

•  C. Humfress, “Laws’ Empire: Roman Universalism and Legal Practice” in P.J. du Plessis (ed.), New Frontiers: Law and Society in the Roman World (Edinburgh: 2013).

• C. Humfress, “Law and Custom under Rome” in Rio, A. (ed.) Custom in the Middle Ages (London: 2012), 23-47.

• J. Duindam, J. Harries, C. Humfress, and N. Hurvitz, N. (eds), Law and Empire (Leiden: Brill, 2013).


Guy of Jerusalem on 30 March 2021

Roman law as a source for modern political philosophy

This was a fascinating piece.

With regard to the sources of modern political philosophy, if the ancients are acknowledged then we tend to talk much about our debts to Greek philosophy, but my impression is that the debt we have to Roman law is rarely discussed. Maybe I am just not sufficiently familiar with the relevant authors... In any event, how it influenced us via medieval jurisprudence seems to be the next step, after understanding how Roman law was received in the medieval period... it is a complicated story and thank you Prof. Adamson and Prof. Humfress for shedding light on it. 

In reply to by Guy of Jerusalem

Matěj Cepl on 12 May 2024

Looking back, is the law one real gap in this podcast?

Yes, I am a lawyer by education (not by profession), so I am biased, but it seems to me that Peter struggles with the topic of law a lot. Am I right that this is so far (we are now in the Catholic Reformation in Spain) the last episode addressing the topic of law directly (there are some indirect mentions of law when discussing the relationship between emperors and popes, natural law is mentioned in relation to Thomas Aquinas, and Marsilius of Padua with his ideas, but nothing addresses the law directly)?

And yet, it would be for example very interesting to know (I am honestly not sure myself) what was the relation of lawyers to the renaissance and humanism (or even the Reformation). On the one hand, they started their ad fontes movement much earlier (see this episode), but given their innate conservatism, lawyers in Renaissance might have a harder time to reject all medieval thinking, and they just cannot return straight to the pure humanist Roman Law, because they didn’t have any power to change existing law (although, Cicero was a lawyer foremost). I know for fact that Bartolus de Saxoferrato (one name which is quite certainly missing) was attacked by Lorenzo Valla, because of his atrocious medieval legal Latin.

In reply to by Matěj Cepl

Peter Adamson on 13 May 2024

The law

Since you're a lawyer you'll enjoy my being able to appeal to the record which shows that Bartolus was mentioned once (ok, only once and in passing) in the episode on Republicanism and Civic Humanism. More generally episodes where I talk about law are gathered under this theme:


And actually I have an episode coming up soon on theories of law in Spanish scholasticism, which is probably why you've found it lacking so far in this series - just saving it for later.

And yet I think you are still kind of right! In general I noticed that my coverage of political and legal philosophy was the sketchiest part of the podcast, theme-wise, until I hit maybe the Latin medieval period. It has never been that big a part of my own research so it may be a bit of a blind spot for me, though I do feel like I've been doing better on this since the Medieval series.


In reply to by Peter Adamson

Matěj Cepl on 13 May 2024

Re: The Law

Yes, I should emphasize, I was talking just about the main European podcast. You covered law pretty decently in the Arabian podcast (obviously, without the law there is almost no Muslim philosophy, or actually the Jewish one for that matter) and I haven’t following much other smaller ones.

Bartolus was also mentioned by Professor Humfress (once and in passing), who certainly know about him very well.

And yes, looking forward to the episode on the Salamanca school, because in my opinion that is (together with the mysticism of Great Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross) the biggest contribution of Spaniards to the European philosophy altogether.

I am still not certain what was the relationship between lawyers and the Italian humanism. Oh well, an interesting topic for the independent research.

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