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Medieval Sourcebook:
Justinian, Novel 137,
Regulating Church Ritual


[Bernard and Hodges]
The concept of a free and independent Church was unacceptable to Justinian. He regarded himself as head of the Church and insisted on his right and duty not to regulate the smallest details of discipline but also to dictate the theological opinions of the Church. Samples of his ecclesiastical legislation follow.

If for the general welfare, We have taken measures to render the civil laws more effective, with whose execution, God, through His good will towards men, has entrusted Us, bow much more reason is there not for Us to compel the observance of the sacred canons, and Divine Laws, which have been promulgated for the safety of Our souls? For those who observe the sacred canons become worthy of the assistance of Our Lord God, while those who disobey them render themselves liable to be punished by Him. Therefore, the most holy bishops who are charged with the enforcement of these laws are liable to severe penalties when they allow any breaches of them to remain unpunished. And, indeed, as the sacred canons have not been, up to this time, strictly observed, various complaints have been made to Us of clerks, monks, and certain bishops, on the ground that they do not live in accordance with the divine canons; and indeed there are even some among them who are either ignorant of, or do not perform the holy service of the mass, or of the ceremony of baptism.

Therefore We, conceding the authority of the sacred canons, do promulgate the present law, by which We decree that every time it may be necessary to consecrate a bishop in any city, the clergy and principal citizens of the said city shall assemble, and issue proclamations by which they nominate three persons, and then make oath on the Holy Gospels, in conformity with the Scriptures. This oath, inserted in the proclamations, shall be worded as follows: "That they did not select the three persons whom they have nominated in consideration of any gifts or promises made to them; nor through friendship, nor induced by any affection whatsoever, but for the reason that they knew that the candidates whom they have chosen are steadfast in the Catholic Faith, and of honorable life; that they have passed the age of thirty years, and have neither wives nor children; and that they have had neither concubines nor natural children, nor have any at present; and if any of them formerly had a wife, be had but one, and she was neither a widow, nor separated from her husband, and that his marriage with her was not prohibited, either by the sacred canons, or by secular laws; that neither of the three candidates is charged with the duties of any public office. . . .

As what is laid down in the canons relating to the episcopal synods, which should be held in every province, is not observed, this is the first thing that should be remedied. . . We order that one synod shall assemble in each province in the month of June or September. .. . We desire that ecclesiastical questions having reference to the Faith, to canonical points, and such as relate to the administration of church property; . . . and . . . to all matters which have need of correction, shall be debated and examined in each synod, and We desire that abuses shall be disposed of in accordance with Our laws and the sacred canons.

We order all bishops and priests to repeat the divine service and the prayer, when baptism is performed, not in an undertone, but in a loud voice which can be beard by the faithful people, in such a way that the minds of the listeners may be induced to manifest greater devotion, and a higher appreciation of the praises and blessings of God. . . . We notify all ecclesiastics that if they should violate any of these provisions, they must render an account of their conduct on the terrible judgment Day of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; and that We, when informed of these matters, shall not disregard them, and leave them unpunished.

We also order that if the Governors of provinces should ascertain that any of the rules which We have promulgated are not observed, they shall first compel the metropolitans and other bishops to call the synods together, and do what We have just prescribed; and when the bishops do not immediately obey, the Governors must notify Us of the fact, in order to enable Us to promptly punish those who refuse to convoke the synods; and We hereby warn the Governors, as well as their courts, that if they do not see that what We have decreed is executed, they shall be put to death.

From Justinian, Novella, CXXXVII, translated by S.P. Scott in The Civil Law (Cincinnati, Ohio: 1932), Vol. XVII, pp. 152-156. Reprinted in Leon Bernard and Theodore B. Hodges, eds. Readings in European History, (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 57-58.


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall June 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu