What is it about?

Legal scholars developed in the late Middle Ages many forms of legal literature to explain the subtleties of civil and canon law. These included the genre called summaria (‘summaries’) whose aim was to encapsulate the very reason of the related source text. These summaries were later added to longer texts such as vast commentaries to legal sources. The source which was pivotal for canon law of the time was the collection of papal decretals and ancient laws promulgated by Pope Gregory IX in 1234 (it was called the Decretals or Liber extra). Also within commentaries to this authoritative source canon law scholars started to add the summaries. Against this background the article examines how these summaries were transferred from the legal commentaries (the scholarly works) to the printed editions of the Decretals (the legal sources). The summaries were not part of the authoritative source, yet they were commonly added to the Decretals in the form which indicated they were closely related to the sources. This practice has been largely overlooked in legal history. To examine when the summaries were added to the printed editions of the Decretals it was necessary to study the incunabula, the earliest of the old printed books. The summaries were for the first time incorporated to the printed Decretals in 1489 by Girolamo Chiari, a cannon lawyer. He was hired by Battista Torti, a Venetian printer, to prepare the new editions of legal sources, enriched with various additions taken from the scholarly literature. This novelty was introduced to attract the attention of students and other potential purchasers and was found useful enough to be reiterated by almost all later editors of the Decretals. The addition of summaries was so popular that it is sometimes erroneously claimed that these paratexts were part of the Decretals as they were promulgated in the 13th century. For this reason it was also studied how legal scholars and legal historians perceived the nature and relevance of the summaries. The scholars of 16th-20th centuries did not elaborate on summaria. From their scarce accounts we can learn that summaries did not have the same authoritative value as the legal sources but were mostly seen as the interpretative tools which eased understanding and memorisation of the particular chapters of the Decretals, and may be used to study how these chapters were interpreted by the late medieval scholars who authored the summaries.

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Why is it important?

The article sheds light on the dynamics of the late medieval and early modern scholarly literature by examining the transfer of the summaries from commentaries to source texts editions. It shows how printed editions of the Decretals changed significantly within a couple of decades and why there is a need for the research on the legal incunabula. What is the most inspiring outcome of the article is the proof of how efficient the collaboration between the scholars and the printers was and how these two groups of actors at the turn of 16th century jointly influenced the legal sources available in print for the broader audience. Last but not least, the article also indicates what the potential role of the printed summaries for the legal doctrine in the early modern and modern period was.


This article opens a field for new questions concerning the dynamics of relations between manuscript tradition and the invention of print, the development of early legal books, the collaboration between early printers and legal scholars, the various redactions of the summaries. Moreover, it offers an insight into the common practice of summarising law in the past, which may serve as the inspiration for research on summarising in contemporary legal studies and beyond.

Dr. Piotr Alexandrowicz
The Poznań Society for the Advancement of Arts and Sciences

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The history and normative significance of summaria in the Liber extra, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis / Revue d Histoire du Droit / The Legal History Review, May 2022, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/15718190-20220010.
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