The testimony of no cleric… no, scratch that: of no *layman*.

Just yesterday I came across this manuscript, and thought it so exciting to deserve a quick blog post (this one’s a bit more ‘technical’ than the last couple of posts – you’ve been warned!). The manuscript’s now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Ms lat. 4281), and you can see the whole thing for free courtesy of the marvellous Gallica. As far as I can tell, it’s a composite manuscript, mostly of canon law from c. 900.

What interests me however is a folio that was written a bit later, and added into the manuscript – folio 65, from around the year 1000. The folio’s text is mostly a liturgical instruction for how to hold a church council (Schneider’s Ordo 2a, for those of you keen on that sort of thing). But the folio begins with an extract from the so-called Constitution of Sylvester. Now, this is a text in the name of the legendary pope who baptised Constantine in the fourth century, but in reality it was probably faked in the sixth, as part of a campaign by the embattled Pope Symmachus, and it has a section setting out rules for how clerics can be accused. The text was copied into Pseudo-Isidore’s notorious canon law collection in the ninth century – itself a forgery, in that it claimed to be something it wasn’t – through which knowledge of the Constitution of Sylvester subsequently spread (you can read it here).

Whoever wrote this folio copied out just that section about accusing clerics. That’s very interesting in its own right. But what’s more, someone later reader has subsequently made a subtle – but for me very important – alteration. A key sentence (probably) originally read “Testimonium clerici adversus laicum nemo recipiat”, ie “That no one should accept the testimony of a cleric against a layman”. The intention in the sixth century was to firm up the legal boundaries between secular and clerical. But for the corrector, working after 1000, that wasn’t good enough. As is clear just from looking at the manuscript, s/he has erased and rewritten words in order to swap around the clerics and the laymen. So now the text reads “Testimonium laicorum adversus clericum non recipiatur”, ie That no one should accept the testimony of laymen against clerics”: a beautifully clear, and much more powerful, statement of clerical privilege.

Who might have done this, when, and why? I don’t yet know, but hope to find out more soon (the manuscript was probably in Limoges at the time, which is a starting point). For the moment, though, it’s just a fascinating illustration of how sixth-century texts were still important enough to be not just copied but amended five hundred years later: and of how a Late Antique forgery was given life in the ninth century through another forgery, only to be altered in the eleventh century: a forged reforged forgery, in other words. More soon, I hope.

4 thoughts on “The testimony of no cleric… no, scratch that: of no *layman*.”

  1. Super interesting, Charles. What gets me is that someone actually respected the textual authority enough to copy it, but not actually enough to copy it verbatim. You would’ve though that if they were going to make stuff up that they wouldn’t go to so much effort…

    On the other hand, I suppose that there are a few cases which could make this an ‘honest mistake’; e.g. the scribe thinking ‘no, that can’t be right, the [i]other guy[/i] must have made a mistake’. With so much human error floating about, you’re going to have a tricky time parsing actual fraudulent intent from earnest copying. It still happens today, of course – academics will ‘correct’ the written work of their students if they encounter an archaism or unfamiliar term/usage they’re not familiar with, believing it to be a mistake on the student’s part when in fact no mistake was made. Perhaps this is what your extract copier was doing? Or he may just have been a dastardly scoundrel…

    1. Very sorry for not seeing this earlier – for some reason I don’t get a notification when you post a comment! You’re quite right, of course – the corrector might not be a dastardly scoundrel, but simply an over-zealous person who assumed the copyist had made a mistake (over-correction as common then as it is now). Actually, the copyist might have been the dastardly scoundrel, since the original text in the ms also included a very strange clause about the impossibility of putting monks on trial, which I’ve not seen anywhere else. All these layers of complexity. And unfortunately the ms comes from an area (Limoges) where the sources are thin from the period, so it’ll be diffiult to contextualise. But I’ll definitely have a go!

  2. You might like to know that a version of the corrected text is found nearby in the Bibliotheque Nationale. On the verso of folio 10 of MS lat. 4283 we read that ‘Testimonium laicorum adversus presbiterum aut diaconum sive clericum nemo recipiat’. Also, I think your transcription of the corrected text needs some amending: ‘clericorum’ should be ‘clericum’, ‘nemo’ should, I think, be ‘non’, and recipiat’ should be ‘recipiatur’, a reading which helps explain why the corrector substituted ‘nemo’ with ‘non’. It is also worth noting that the corrector’s changes made the sentence immediately following ‘Testimonium’, ‘nemo enim clericum quemlibet in publico examinet, nisi aecclesia’, nonsensical. Interestingly, this explanatory passage actually shows that the original reading of ‘Testimonium’ had more to do with clerical privilege than the corrector realised.

    1. Thanks very much for pointing my sloppy transcription: blog in haste, repent in leisure… I’ve updated the transcription now. And I’ll look into Paris 4283 , which seems an interesting ms – thanks for bringing that to my attention.

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