The legal legacy of Pope Gregory I: in life and in letters.

AuthorStapleton, Caitlin


Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, had a profound influence on the medieval Catholic Church. Gregory was famous for his views on papal supremacy, his import of monastic principles into canon law (indeed, he was the first monk to ascend to the throne of St. Peter), and his pursuit of extensive anti-corruption reform within the Church. His taste for reorganization and improvement caused numerous changes in the Catholic Liturgy, and his vigorous promotion of Church missionary work in northern Europe resulted in the conversion of many of the Anglo-Saxon territories. Gregory's theological as well as organizational work in this regard was central in establishing his place as a "doctor" of the Church and as one of its four Latin fathers.

Moreover, Gregory's careful "balancing act" between the Emperor in the East and the Frankish and Merovingian Kings in the West--as well as his famous response to the invasion of Lombard forces from the North--reveal a great deal about Gregory's political acumen. As his letters show, Gregory possessed some diplomatic skill, which he appeared to use to further the goals of the Church and of Rome.

Much of what we know about Gregory comes from several hundred letters that he wrote during his time as Pope. His correspondents were many and varied--they included emperors and empresses, queens and kings, archbishops and bishops, deacons and subdeacons, patricians, praetors, physicians, notaries, abbots, and exarchs. In his letters, we see not only the contours of Gregory's theological and political edicts, but also the unique nature of his legal legacy. Frequently, these letters find Gregory acting as a supreme arbiter of what are essentially legal disputes (arising from Roman and canon law alike).

Topics addressed in Gregory's correspondence include the question of necessary qualifications for leadership positions, (1) questions of the Church's "divine and temporal" jurisdiction, (2) Gregory's annulment of a legal decree made by a bishop, (3) "separation of powers" between the public and ecclesiastical administrations, (4) and other subjects. And though the idea of "equal rights" as we know it was still far from being realized, it is still possible to say that Gregory's writings at times evoked a rather Jeffersonian understanding of human rights: "Omnes namque homines natura aequales sunt," he wrote---"by nature all men are equal." (5)

In this paper, I am primarily interested in Gregory's opinions, beliefs, and correspondence insofar as they relate to legal and equitable matters. Gregory addresses numerous disputes in his letters that I believe can be characterized as legal ones. For example,

Gregory deals in his letters with due process requirements for Church hearings, questions of inheritance and trusts with respect to Church and non-Church property, issues relating to monastic property ownership, property issues arising from slave ownership, the proper formation of wills and testaments, and more.

The purpose of this paper is to describe Gregory's legal legacy generally. This Article includes remarks on the context in which his legal opinions were formed and offered, as well as references to his letters for additional evidence of those views.


    Gregory the Great, also known as Gregory the Dialogist in the eastern tradition, was born around 540 A.D. to a wealthy patrician family in Rome. (6) In 546, when Gregory was only six years old, the Goth warlord Totila led his forces to Rome in their second siege of the city. (7) During that siege, the city's grain supplies were exhausted, and its occupants--including, presumably, Gregory--were forced to eat nettles in order to survive. (8) Scholar Stephen Mitchell also notes that Rusticiana, a patrician's daughter who is mentioned in Gregory's letters, (9) was "reduced to begging from door to door" during Totila's siege. (10)

    The city finally fell to the Goths in mid-December 546, but was subsequently abandoned by them. (11) Between 546 and 552, the city was briefly recovered by the Byzantine general Belisarius, again besieged by the Goths, and then again recovered, this time by the Byzantine general Narses. (12) As scholar Margaret Deanesly put it, "The Rome of [Gregory's] boyhood was a beggared Rome, wasted by the Gothic wars." (13)

    Frederick Homes Dudden, in his 1905 two-volume biography of Gregory, suggests that Gregory's father Gordianus and mother Silvia moved the family away from Rome to their Sicilian estate after Totila's second siege of Rome in 549. (14) It is clear from Gregory's letters that his time in Sicily had a considerable impact on him: Nearly eighty of his letters relate to matters in Sicily, and many of them suggest a deep knowledge on his part of the island's history and culture. (15)

    As a young man, Gregory took courses in Latin literature, dialectic, and rhetoric. (16) Whether Gregory at any point studied law is unclear, though some scholars strongly suggest that he did receive legal training. Jeffrey Richards, for one, notes that Gregory was educated in Rome, "the centre for legal studies," and suggests that "on the evidence of Gregory's legalistic outlook and fluency with imperial law it seems likely that he studied law too as preparation for a career in public life," (17) Carole Straw, similarly, hypothesizes that Gregory had some kind of legal education before he began work in public office. (18)

    John R. C. Martyn suggests that after his boyhood and education in Rome and Sicily, it is likely that Gregory worked in public offices before ascending to the rank of Rome's chief legal officer (praetor urbanus). (19) Dudden and Martyn both conclude that Gregory then became the city's prefect (praefectus urbis Romanae) in approximately 573, after his time as its head legal officer. (20) Others, it should be noted, dispute this conclusion. (21) The prefect was the city's highest-ranked civil officer, whose duties would have included "the nominal presidency of the senate: supreme civil jurisdiction within [one hundred] miles of the capital: the provision of grain supplies: the care of aqueducts, sewers, and the bed of the Tiber: the leadership of such officials ar [sic] remained in Rome, and a large financial authority." (22)

    After working as a prefect for some time, Gregory sold his patrimony, or landed estate, around 574. (23) The following year, he founded six monasteries in Sicily, (24) and a seventh near his family's home, which was dedicated to Saint Andrew. (25) At this point, Gregory's monastic life truly began. In Moralia, sire Expositio in lob ("Commentary on Job," also known as Magna Moralia), Gregory describes to Bishop Leander the circumstances under which he became a monk:

    When I knew you long since at Constantinople ... I then detailed in your ears all that displeased me in myself, since for late and long I declined the grace of conversion, and ... I thought it better to be still shrouded in the secular habit.... I could not change my outward habit: and while my purpose [animus] still compelled me to engage in the service of this world as it were in semblance only, many influences began to spring up against me from caring for this same world.... At length being anxious to avoid all these inconveniences, I sought the haven of the monastery.... For as the vessel that is negligently moored, is very often (when the storm waxes violent) tossed by the water out of its shelter on the safest shore, so under the cloak of the Ecclesiastical office, I found myself plunged on a sudden in a sea of secular matters, and because I had not held fast the tranquility of the monastery when in possession, I learnt by losing it, how closely it should have been held. (26) Gregory spent only four years at St. Andrew's before Pope Benedict I selected him to serve as Deacon of Rome. The next year, Pelagius II succeeded Benedict I as Pope, and sent Gregory to Constantinople as his secretary, in order to ask the Emperor for aid against the Lombard invaders. (27) In a letter to his secretary, Pelagius told Gregory that "[t]he empire is in so critical a situation that unless God prevails on the heart of our most pious prince to show to his servants the pity he feels and to grant us a commander or general then we are lost." (28)

    Gregory remained in Constantinople as Pelagius' emissary, or apocrisarius, for seven years. He was not alone--other monks from St. Andrew's accompanied him during his travels. (29) While in Constantinople, Gregory read and prayed with these men, and gave a series of lectures on the Book of Job that would later become the Magna Moralia. (30) Little more is known of Gregory's work in Constantinople, except for letters sent from the Pope to Gregory in 584 and 585. In 585, the Pope informed Gregory of the particular threat of the Lombard invasion:

    The miseries and tribulations inflicted on us by the perfidy of the Lombards, in violation of their oath, are such as no one can describe. The Commonwealth in these parts is reduced to such straits that unless God inspires the heart of our Most Religious Prince to display his natural benevolence to his servants, and relieve our troubles by sending us one Master of the Soldiery or one Duke, we shall be utterly destitute and defenceless. For the district of Rome is more than any other left unguarded, and the Exarch writes that he cannot help us, as he protests that he cannot even protect the districts where he is himself. May God direct our Prince speedily to relieve our perils before the army of that...

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