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Christianity is essentially an ethical religion; and, although its moral principles were meant directly for the elevation of the individual, still they could not fail to exercise a powerful influence on such a public institution as law, the crystallized rule of human conduct. The law of Rome escaped this influence to a large extent, because much of it was compiled before Christianity was recognized by the public authorities. But the leges barbarorum were more completely interpenetrated, as it were, by Christian influences; they received their definite form only after the several nations had submitted to the gentle yoke of Christ. This influence of the Church is particularly noticeable in the following matters:

(1) Slavery

The condition of the slaves was most pitiable in the ages of antiquity. According to Roman law and usage a slave was considered, not as a human being, but as a chattel, over which the master had the most absolute control, up to the point of inflicting death. Gradually, the spirit of Christianity restricted these inhuman rights. From the time of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-61) a master was punished if he killed his slave without reason, or even practiced on him excessive cruelty (Instit. Just., lib. I, tit. 8; Dig., lib. I, tit. 6, leges 1, 2). The emperor Constantine (306-37) made it homicide to kill a slave with malice aforethought, and described certain modes of barbarous punishment by which, if death followed, the guilt of homicide was incurred (Cod. Just., lib. IV, tit. 14). A further relief consisted in facilitating the manumission or liberation of slaves. According to several laws of Constantine the ordinary formalities could be dispensed with if the manumission took place in the church, before the people and the sacred ministers. The clergy were permitted to bestow freedom on their slaves in their last will, or even by simple word of mouth (Cod. Just., lib. I, tit. 13, leges 1, 2). The Emperor Justinian I (527-65) gave to freed persons the full rank and rights of Roman citizens, and abolished the penalty of condemnation to servitude (Cod. Just., lib. VII, tit. 6; Nov., VII, cap. viii; Nov. LVIII, praef. capp. i, iu). Similar provisions were found in the Barbarian codes. According to the Burgundian and Visigothic laws the murder of a slave was punished; emancipation in the church and before the priest was permitted and encouraged. In one point they were ahead of the Roman law ; they recognized the legality of the marriage between slaves. in the Lombardic law, on the authority of the Scriptural sentence : "Whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." The Church could not directly abolish slavery ; she was satisfied with admitting the slaves within her pale on a footing of equality with others, with counselling patience and submission on the part of the slave, forbearance and moderation on that of the master. Otherwise she concurred in the civil legislation, or even went beyond it in some cases. Thus, the killing of a slave was severely punished (Counc. of Elvira, D. 300, Can. v; Counc. of Epaon, A.D. 517, Can. xxviv); a fugitive slave who had taken refuge in the church was to be restored to his master only on the latter's promise of remitting the punishment (Counc. of Orléans, A.D. 511, Can. iii, c. vi, X, lib. III, tit. 49); marriage between slaves was recognized as valid (Counc. of Châlons, A.D. 813; Can. xxx; c. i, X, lib. IV, tit. 9); and even the marriage between a free person and a slave was ratified, provided it had been contracted with full knowledge (Counc. of Compiegne, A.D. 757, Can. viii).

(2) Paternal Authority (Potestas Paterna)

According to the Roman law the power of the father over his children was as absolute as that of the master over his slaves : it extended to their freedom and life. The harsher features of this usage were gradually eliminated. Thus, according to the laws of different emperors, the killing of a child either by the father or by the mother was declared to be one of the greatest crimes (Cod. Theod., lib. IX, tit. 14, 15; Cod. Just., lib. IX, tit. 17; Dig., lib. XLVIII, tit. 9, lex 1). Cruel treatment of children was forbidden, such as the jus liberos notice dandi , i.e., the right of handing children over to the power of someone injured by them (Instit. Just., lib. IV, tit. 8); children could not be sold or given away to the power of others (Cod. Just., lib. IV, tit. 43, lex 1); children that were sold by their father on account of poverty were to be set free (Cod. Theod., lib. III, tit. 3, lex 1); finally, all children exposed by their parents and fallen into servitude were to become free without exception (Cod. Just., lib. VIII, tit. 52, lex 3). The son of a family was entitled to dispose in his last will of the possessions acquired either in military service ( peculium castrense ), or in the exercise of an office ( peculium quasi castrense ), or in any other way (In stit. Just., Jib. II, tit. 11; c. iv, VI, lib. III, tit. 12). The children could not be disinherited at the simple wish of the father, but only for certain specified reasons based on ingratitude (Nov. CXV. cc. iii sqq.).

(3) Marriage

In the ancient law of Rome the wife was, like the rest of the family, the property of the husband, who could dispose of her at will. Christianity rescued woman from this degrading condition by attributing to her equal rights, and by making her the companion of the husband. This equality was in part recognized by imperial laws which gave to women the right of controlling their property, and to mothers the right of guardianship (Cod. Theod., lib. II, tit. 17, lex 1; lib. III, tit. 17, lex 4). The boundless liberty of divorce, which had obtained since the time of Augustus, was restricted to a certain number of cases. The legislation of the Emperors Constantine and Justinian on this subject did not come up to the standard of Christianity, but it approached it and imposed a salutary check on the free desire of husband or wife for separation (Cod. Theod., lib. III, tit. 16, lex 1; Cod. Just., lib. V, tit. 17, leg. 8, 10, 11). Woman was highly respected among the barbarian nations; and with some, like the Visigoths, divorce was forbidden except for adultery.

(4) Wills and Testaments

The canon law introduced various modifications in the regulations of the civil law concerning last wills and testaments; among them there is one which enforced a particular fairness in favour of the necessary heirs, such as children. According to the Roman law , one who became heir or legates with the condition of a fideicommissum (i.e., of transmitting his inheritance or legacy to another after his death) had the right of deducting the fourth part from the inheritance or legacy, which was not transmitted; this fourth part being known as the Trebellian quarter. Again, the necessary heirs, such as children, had a claim on a certain part of the inheritance. If it happened that the share of the necessary heir was burdened with a fideicommissum , then the necessary heir was entitled only to deduct the part coming to him as a necessary heir, but not the Trebellian quarter (Cod. Just., lib. VI, tit. 49, lex 6). The canon law modified this provision by enjoining that the necessary heir in such a case was entitled first to the deduction of his natural share and then also to the deduction of the Trebellian quarter from the rest of the inheritance (cc. 16, 18, X, lib. III, tit. 26).

(5) Property Rights

According to a provision in the Roman law, a man who was forcibly ejected from his property could, in order to recover it, apply the process known as the interdictum under vi against the one who ejected him directly or indirectly, i.e., against him who perpetrated the act of ejection or who counselled it. But he could take action against the heirs of those who ejected him only in so far as they were enriched by the spoliation, and none against a third owner, who meanwhile had obtained possession of his former property (Dig., lib., VLVIII, tit. 16, lex 1. tit. 17, lex 3). The canon law modified this unfair measure by decreeing that he who was despoiled of his property could insist first on being reinstated; if the matter were brought to the courts, he could allege the exceptio spolii , or the fact of spoliation; and, finally, he was permitted to have recourse to the law against a third owner who had acquired the property with the knowledge of its unjust origin (c. 18, X, lib. II, tit. 13; c. 1, VI, lib. II, tit. 5).

(6) Contracts

The Roman law distinguished between pacts ( pacta nuda ) and contracts. The former could not be enforced by law or a civil action, while the latter, being clothed in special judicial solemnities, were binding before the law and the civil courts. Against this distinction the canon law insists on the obligation incurred by any agreement of whatever form, or in whatever manner it may have been contracted (c. 1, 3, X, lib. I, tit. 35).

(7) Prescriptions

The Roman law admitted the right of prescription in favour of him who had been in good faith only at the beginning of his possession, and it abstracted altogether from the good or bad faith in either party to a civil action, if it were terminated by prescription. The canon law required the good faith in him who prescribed for all the time of his possession; and it refused to acknowledge prescription in the case of a civil action against a possessor of bad faith (cc. 5, 20, X, lib. II, tit. 26: c. 2, VI, lib. V, tit. 12, De Reg. Jur.). (See PRESCRIPTION.)

(8) Legal Procedure

The spirit of Christianity made itself felt in the treatment of criminals and prisoners. Thus prisoners were not to be subjected to in human maltreatment before their trial (Cod. Theod., lib. IX, tit. 3, lex 1); criminals already sentenced were not to be branded on the forehead (Cod. Theod. lib. IX, tit. 40, lex 2); the bishops received the right of interceding for prisoners detained for lighter offenses, and to obtain their freedom on the feast of Easter ; they were likewise empowered to visit the prisons on Wednesdays or Fridays in order to see that the magistrates heaped no extra afflictions on the prisoners (Cod. Theod., lib. IX, tit. 38, leges 3,4,6-8; Cod. Just., lib. I, tit. 4, leges 3,9,22,23). To all this may be added the recognition of the right of asylum in the churches, which prevented a hasty and vindictive administra tion of justice (Cod. Theod., lib. IX, tit. 15, lex 4). A great evil among the Germanic nations was the trial by ordeals, or judgments of God. The Church was unable for some time to suppress them, but at least she tried to control them, placed them under the direction of the priests, and gave to them a Christian appearance by prescribing special blessings and ceremonies for such occasions. The popes, however were always opposed to the ordeals as implying a tempting of God ; decrees to that effect were enacted by Nicholas I (858-67), Stephen V (885-91), Alexander II (1061-73), Celestine III (1191-98), Innocent III (1198-1216), and Honorius III (1216-27) (cc. 22, 20, 7, C. II, q. 5; cc. 1, 3, X, lib. V, tit. 35; c. 9, X, lib. III, tit. 50). Another evil consisted in the feuds or sanguinary conflicts between private persons in revenge for injuries or murders. The Church could not stop them altogether, owing to the conditions of anarchy and barbarism prevailing among the nations in the Middle Ages ; but she succeeded at least in restricting them to certain periods of the year, and certain days of the week, by what is known as the treuga Dei or "Truce of God". By this institution private feuds were forbidden from Advent to the Octave of Epiphany, from Septuagesima Sunday until the Octave of Pentecost, and from sunset of Wednesday until sunrise of Monday. Laws to that effect were enacted as early as the middle of the eleventh century in nearly all countries of Western Europe -- in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, England. The canon law insisted on certain principles of fairness: thus, it acknowledged that a civil action might extend sometimes over three years, against the ordinary rule (c. 20, X, lib. II, tit. 1); connected questions, such as disputes about possessions and the right of property, were to be submitted to the same court (c. 1, X, lib. II, tit. 12; c. 1, X, lib. II, tit. 17); a suspected judge could not be refused, unless the reasons were manifested and proved (c. 61, X, lib. II, tit. 28); of two contradictory sentences rendered by different judges the one favouring the accused was to prevail (c. 26, X, lib. II, tit. 27); the intention of appealing could be manifested outside of the court in the presence of good men, if anyone entertained fear of the judge (c. 73, X, lib. II, tit. 28).

(9) Legislation, Government, and Administration of Justice

The Church was allowed to exercise a wide influence on civil law by the fact that her ministers, chiefly the bishops and abbots, had a large share in framing the leges barbarorum . Practically all the laws of the barbarian nations were written under Christian influences; and the illiterate barbarians willingly accepted the aid of the literate clergy to reduce to writing the institutes of their forefathers. The cooperation of the clergy is not expressly mentioned in all the codes of this kind: in some only the learned in the law, or, again, the proceres , or nobles, are spoken of; but the ecclesiastics were, as a rule, the only learned men, and the higher clergy, bishops and abbots, belonged to the class of the nobles. Ecclesiastics -- priests or bishops -- were certainly employed in the composition of the "Lex Romana Visigothorum" or "Breviarium Alarici", the "Lex Visigothorum" of Spain, the "Lex Alamannorum", the "Lex Bajuwariorurn", the Anglo-Saxon laws and the capitularies of the Frankish kings. The bishops and abbots also had a great share in the government of states in the Middle Ages . They took a leading part in the great assemblies common to most of the Germanic nations; they had a voice in the election of the kings; they performed the coronation of the kings; they lived much at the Court, and were the chief advisors of the kings. The office of chancellor in England and in the medieval German Empire was the highest in the State (for the chancellor was the prime minister of the king or emperor, and responsible for all his public acts, it was the chancellor who annulled iniquitous decrees of the king or emperor, and righted all that was wrong); and this office was usually entrusted to an ecclesiastic, in Germany generally to a distinguished bishop. The bishops also had a great share in the administration of justice. As in the East so also in the West, they had a general superintendence over the courts of justice. They always had a seat in the highest tribunal; to them the injured parties could appeal in default of justice ; and they had the power to punish subordinate judges for injustice in the absence of the king. In Spain they had a special charge to keep continual watch over the administration of justice, and were summoned on all great occasions to instruct the judges to act with piety and justice. What is more, they often acted directly as judges in temporal matters. By a law of the Emperor Constantine (321) the parties to a litigation could, by mutual consent, appeal to the bishop in any stage of their judicial controversy, and by a further enactment (331) either party could do so even without the consent of the other. This second part, however, was again abrogated by subsequent legislation.

In the Middle Ages the bishops acted likewise as judges, both in civil and in criminal matters. In civil matters the Church drew to its jurisdiction all things of a mixed character -- the causae spirituali annexae , which were partly temporal and partly ecclesiastical. Criminal matters were brought before the bishap's court, which was held usually in connection with the episcopal visitation throughout the diocese. The methods employed by the ecclesiastical or episcopal courts in a judicial process were such that they served as a model for secular courts. At the beginning the proceedings were very simple; the bishop decided the case presented to him with the advice of the body of presbyters, but without any definite formalities. After the twelfth century the Church elaborated her own method of procedure, with such comparative perfection that it was imitated to a large extent by modern courts. Several principles prevailed in this regard: first, all essential parts of a trial were to be recorded in writing -- such as the presentation of the complaint, the citation of the defendant, the proofs, the deposition of witnesses, the defence, and the sentence ; secondly, both parties were entitled to a full opportunity of presenting all material relating to the accusation or to the defence; thirdly, the parties in a litigation had the right of appealing to a higher court after the lapse of the ordinary term for a trial (which was two years), the party dissatisfied with the decision was permitted to appeal within ten days after the rendering of the sentence.

(10) Sacred Scripture in Legislation

A last instance of the influence of Christianity on legislation is found in the appeal to the books of Sacred Scripture in support of civil laws. In the Roman law there is hardly any reference to Scripture. And that is not surprising, since the spirit of Roman legislation, even under the Christian emperors, was heathen, and the emperor -- the principle voluntas -- was conceived of as the supreme and ultimate source of legislation. On the contrary, the codes of the barbarian nations are replete with quotations from Scripture. In the prologue to several of them reference is made to the leftist ration given by Moses to the Jewish people. Mention has been made above of a Lombardic law which recognizes the legality of marriages among slaves on the authority of the Scriptural text: "whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder" ( Matthew 19:6 ; Mark 10:9 ). Many other examples may be found, e.g., in the "Leges Visigothorum" and in the Capitularies of the Frankish kings, where almost every book of the Old and New Testament is resorted to for argument or illustration.


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Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

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