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Pope Urban II’s Council of Piacenza: March 1–7, 1095 by Robert Somerville (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 2, April 2013
pp. 338-339 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0132

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Robert Somerville began his scholarly career with a study of Pope Urban II’s game-changing council at Clermont in November 1095. Since that first study, Urban has never been far from his thoughts. He has published an extraordinarily thorough study of Urban’s Council of Melfi that took place in 1089 (New York, 1996) and has now published an equally splendid study of Urban’s council on Italian soil in spring 1095 that preceded his journey to Clermont.

The canons promulgated by the councils of the Latin Church until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 present varied and always difficult problems. For reasons that no one has yet explained and probably never will, the conciliar canons were not preserved and circulated in a papally approved and authenticated document. As Somerville has written in this and earlier books, the canons were usually—but not invariably, as far as we know—read out during the last session of the council. Was each canon delivered on an individual piece of parchment, or were all the canons written out on a single sheet? There is evidence for the first presumption that would explain why the transmission of the canons was so serendipitous. The participants did not have a neatly ordered set of canons to carry back home on a single page, but, if they were interested, a sheaf of canons that invited confusion, losses, and lack of uniformity.

The question is further complicated by the content of the canons. At the end of his study, Somerville discusses Urban’s last council in Rome in April 1099. The death of Adhémar of Le Puy, the papal legate in the Holy Land appointed by Urban to guide the crusade, raised great concerns about whether the crusade would be a success. The crusade became an issue for the council. Urban was a reformer, and he also wished to repeat his earlier reform canons that he had promulgated at Melfi and Piacenza. Somerville points out that Urban reissued canons 1–13 from Piacenza and 2, 3, 5, and 7 from Melfi again at Rome. One could imagine that the participants of those earlier councils would not have been interested in canons with which they were already familiar and would not have bothered to collect them. This repetition of previously issued canons at church councils was a common feature of conciliar work until the thirteenth century.

Somerville’s contribution to conciliar history in this book is his careful and detailed exploration of the manuscript tradition of Piacenza’s canons and his edition, translation, and commentary on them. In chapter 4 he lays out the rich manuscript tradition—thirty-six manuscripts contain canons from Piacenza—and also the canons’ transmission in the canonical collections where they lived on for centuries. Somerville points out that Gratian included almost all of the canons in his Decretum, and through Gratian they were normative texts of canon law until 1917. He writes, “With the extensive absorption into canon law collections . . . the fortuna of texts from Piacenza is a very impressive phenomenon.”

Somerville’s careful scholarship is even more impressive. He has meticulously edited the canons of Clermont, Melfi, and Piacenza. Unless new manuscripts are discovered, his work will definitive for a very long time. He has given Urban’s conciliar activity a firm and secure place in conciliar history.

Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Kenneth Pennington. "Pope Urban II’s Council of Piacenza: March 1–7, 1095 by Robert Somerville (review)." The Catholic Historical Review 99.2 (2013): 338-339. Project MUSE. Web. 17 Jun. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Pennington, K.(2013). Pope Urban II’s Council of Piacenza: March 1–7, 1095 by Robert Somerville (review). The Catholic Historical Review 99(2), 338-339. The Catholic University of America Press. Retrieved June 17, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
Kenneth Pennington. "Pope Urban II’s Council of Piacenza: March 1–7, 1095 by Robert Somerville (review)." The Catholic Historical Review 99, no. 2 (2013): 338-339. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed June 17, 2013).
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