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Parker Garcia
Parker Garcia

What You Need to Know About the Smithfield Decretals, the Most Famous Illuminated Manuscript of Canon Law



The Smithfield Decretals: What are they and why are they important?




If you are interested in medieval manuscripts, you may have heard of the Smithfield Decretals. They are one of the most famous and fascinating examples of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. But what are they exactly, and why are they so important? In this article, we will explore the origin, content, significance, illustrations, and challenges of studying this remarkable manuscript.




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The origin and history of the Smithfield Decretals




The Smithfield Decretals are a collection of papal letters (or decretals) that deal with various aspects of canon law (the law of the Catholic Church). They were compiled by Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) in the 13th century as a way to unify and update the legal system of the Church. The decretals cover topics such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, clerical discipline, heresy, excommunication, crusades, indulgences, and more.


The manuscript that we know as the Smithfield Decretals is not the original copy made by Pope Gregory IX, but a later version that was produced in France around 1300. It was acquired by a French bishop named Guy de la Charité (or Guy de Muisit), who added some additional texts to it. He also commissioned a team of English artists to illuminate (or decorate) the manuscript with hundreds of colorful images.


The manuscript got its name from Smithfield, a district in London where it was owned by a canon lawyer named Richard de Bury in the 14th century. He was also a bibliophile (a lover of books) who wrote a treatise on book collecting called Philobiblon. He donated his library to Durham Cathedral after his death in 1345.


The manuscript remained in Durham until 1669, when it was given to John Cosin, the bishop of Durham at that time. He transferred it to his library in London, which later became part of the British Library. The manuscript is now known as Royal MS 10 E IV and is one of the treasures of the British Library. You can view it online or in person at the library's exhibition gallery.


The content and structure of the Smithfield Decretals




The Smithfield Decretals contain over 1,800 papal letters that span from the 4th to the 13th century. They are arranged in five books, each with a different topic and a different number of titles (or chapters). The first four books follow the order of Pope Gregory IX's original compilation, while the fifth book contains additional texts added by Guy de la Charité.


The content of the decretals reflects the diverse and complex issues that faced the medieval Church and society. They deal with matters such as ecclesiastical hierarchy, jurisdiction, administration, liturgy, sacraments, doctrine, morality, justice, and more. They also reveal the political, historical, and cultural context of the time, such as the conflicts between the papacy and the secular rulers, the crusades against the Muslims and the heretics, and the rise of new religious movements and orders.


The structure of the manuscript is not only logical but also artistic. The manuscript is divided into four parts, each with a different function and style. The first part contains the prologue and the table of contents, which are written in red and black ink and decorated with simple initials and borders. The second part contains the main text of the decretals, which are written in black ink and decorated with elaborate initials and marginal illustrations. The third part contains the gloss (or commentary) on the decretals, which are written in smaller red ink and decorated with smaller initials and marginal illustrations. The fourth part contains the appendices (or supplementary texts), which are written in black ink and decorated with simple initials and borders.


The significance and influence of the Smithfield Decretals




The Smithfield Decretals are not only a valuable source of legal information but also a remarkable example of medieval art and culture. They show how the medieval Church tried to regulate and reform its own affairs as well as those of society at large. They also show how the medieval people expressed their faith, imagination, creativity, humor, and curiosity through their writings and images.


The significance of the decretals lies in their role as a comprehensive and authoritative guide to canon law. They were widely used and consulted by lawyers, judges, clerics, scholars, and rulers throughout Europe. They helped to shape the development of law, theology, philosophy, history, literature, and more. They also influenced other legal collections and codifications that followed them.


The influence of the manuscript lies in its impact on later artists, scholars, and collectors. The manuscript is one of the finest examples of English illumination from the 14th century. It showcases a variety of styles, techniques, motifs, and themes that demonstrate the skill and creativity of the artists. It also features a rich diversity of subjects, characters, scenes, stories, symbols, and messages that appeal to different audiences and interests. The manuscript inspired other illuminated manuscripts as well as paintings, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass windows, and more. It also attracted the attention and admiration of many book lovers who sought to acquire it or study it.


The illustrations and decorations of the Smithfield Decretals




The Smithfield Decretals are famous for their stunning illustrations and decorations that adorn almost every page of the manuscript. There are over 1,200 images in total, ranging from large initials that introduce each title to small drawings that fill the margins around the text. The images are colorful, detailed, expressive, and sometimes humorous or bizarre.


The illustrations of the decretals depict various scenes from the Bible (such as Noah's ark), history (such as Charlemagne's coronation), legend (such as King Arthur's round table), fable (such as Aesop's animals), romance (such as Tristan and Isolde), satire (such as Reynard the fox), morality (such as death's dance), fantasy (such as dragons), astronomy (such as zodiac signs), geography (such as maps), botany (such as flowers), zoology (such as birds), anatomy (such as skeletons), medicine (such as bloodletting), music (such as instruments), sports (such as hunting), games (such as chess), crafts (such as weaving), daily life (such as farming), courtly life (such as feasting), religious life (such as praying), monastic life (such as reading), clerical life (such as preaching), judicial life (such as judging), military life (such as fighting), etc.


The decorations of the manuscript enhance see the manuscript in person at the exhibition gallery. You can also view the manuscript online at the library's website, where you can browse, zoom, and download high-quality images of every page. You can also read more about the manuscript at the library's blog, where you can find articles, videos, podcasts, and more. You can also explore the manuscript interactively at the library's app, where you can play games, solve puzzles, and create your own images.


Whichever option you choose, we hope that you will enjoy and appreciate the Smithfield Decretals as much as we do. They are a wonderful example of medieval law, art, and culture that deserve to be seen and studied by everyone.


FAQs




Here are some frequently asked questions about the Smithfield Decretals:



  • What are decretals?



Decretals are papal letters that deal with various aspects of canon law (the law of the Catholic Church). They were compiled by Pope Gregory IX in the 13th century as a way to unify and update the legal system of the Church.


  • Who illuminated the Smithfield Decretals?



The Smithfield Decretals were illuminated by a team of English artists who were commissioned by a French bishop named Guy de la Charité in the early 14th century. They added hundreds of colorful images to the manuscript that depict various scenes from the Bible, history, legend, fable, romance, satire, morality, fantasy, astronomy, geography, botany, zoology, anatomy, medicine, music, sports, games, crafts, daily life, courtly life, religious life, monastic life, clerical life, judicial life, military life, etc.


  • Why are the Smithfield Decretals important?



The Smithfield Decretals are important because they are a valuable source of legal information and a remarkable example of medieval art and culture. They show how the medieval Church tried to regulate and reform its own affairs as well as those of society at large. They also show how the medieval people expressed their faith, imagination, creativity, humor, and curiosity through their writings and images.


  • How can I access the Smithfield Decretals?



where you can browse, zoom, and download high-quality images of every page. You can also read more about the manuscript at the library's blog, where you can find articles, videos, podcasts, and more. You can also explore the manuscript interactively at the library's app, where you can play games, solve puzzles, and create your own images.


  • What are some interesting facts about the Smithfield Decretals?



Here are some interesting facts about the Smithfield Decretals that you may not know:


  • The Smithfield Decretals are one of the largest and most lavishly illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. They contain over 1,800 papal letters and over 1,200 images on 689 pages.



  • The Smithfield Decretals are also one of the most diverse and heterogeneous manuscripts from the Middle Ages. They combine different texts, languages, sources, authors, dates, places, and purposes. They also integrate different images, styles, techniques, artists, patrons, functions, and meanings.



  • The Smithfield Decretals are also one of the most humorous and bizarre manuscripts from the Middle Ages. They contain many images that are funny, absurd, or grotesque. For example, they show a rabbit shooting a hunter with a bow and arrow, a monkey riding a goat while playing a harp, a man with a bird's head and wings, a woman giving birth to a dragon, and more.



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