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Judicial Power in Medieval Byzantium

Posted On December 15, 2020 | 11:44 am | by mayw | Permalink
Romain Goudjil studies the relationship between ecclesiastical and imperial power in medieval Byzantium

Romain Goudjil, PhD candidate in medieval studies at Sorbonne Université, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “Imperial Justice, Ecclesiastical Justice: Issues of Jurisdiction in Byzantium, Tenth–Fifteenth Centuries,” analyzed the relationship between the church and imperial authority through Byzantine legal compilations and judicial rulings.


Q&A with Romain Goudjil

How do the terms “jurisdiction” and “competence” apply to the Byzantine judiciary?

In Byzantine law, “jurisdiction” was solely the power to judge and enforce the law, though nowadays we might also think it includes the limits within which this power may be exercised. This other meaning is synonymous with the modern legal concept of “competence,” which refers to topics or people a judge is legally allowed to exert their jurisdiction on, defining the boundaries of their judicial power. Though the exact term “competence” wasn’t clearly defined in Byzantine law, there were limits to a judge’s legal power: some officials only had authority in a certain geographic area, and some courts could only judge certain kinds of cases, such as marriage, wills, or criminal law. Likewise, the church was the sole judge for clerics and monks, and aristocrats could only be judged by the emperor, not by an ordinary court. 

I am studying who had the right to judge whom and in what kinds of lawsuits, trying to find out how the Byzantine judiciary was structured and operated, especially the relationship between the ecclesiastical and imperial courts. Modern historians have characterized a dynamic of the church’s power growing over imperial authority in the thirteenth to fifteenth century as the empire shrank significantly. In the tenth century the empire extended from south Italy to Armenia, but by the fifteenth century it had shrunk to just Constantinople and the surrounding areas, so Byzantine imperial authority appeared to decline over time. Meanwhile, the patriarchate of Constantinople ruled over the entire Eastern Orthodox Church, which included Byzantines as well as Serbians, Bulgarians, and Russians. I am studying the impact of this dynamic on the Byzantine judiciary: as the empire declined, did the church have growing power in the Byzantine judiciary? Were there new competences of ecclesiastical courts at the end of the period due to the atrophy of the imperial administration?


What do archives like the register of the patriarchate of Constantinople reveal about this dynamic?

The patriarch of Constantinople headed the Byzantine church, so he was the second most important person in the empire after the emperor. Among other responsibilities, he adjudicated ecclesiastical matters with the synod, the governing assembly of the church. The register of the patriarchate contains 749 documents, over a hundred of which are records of lawsuits adjudicated by the patriarch and the synod in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I am analyzing these rulings to understand who the litigants were and what the different topics adjudicated by the church were. The perception of the church’s growing power comes from the numerous lawsuits concerning laypeople brought to the ecclesiastical courts, when theoretically laypeople had to be adjudicated by civil courts. But the church’s competences show ecclesiastical courts could legally judge cases concerning marriage, inheritance, dowry, etc., and the majority of the lawsuits in the register involving laypeople were in fact within the church’s thematic competences. There were few cases outside their competences, so even though the church’s power appears to have grown as the empire’s declined, church courts were still exercising their jurisdiction within their established judicial competences.

Archives like the register are invaluable because most Byzantine administrative archives were destroyed after the fall of the empire. Many monasteries preserved administrative documents, however, because they had to prove ownership of their estates to Ottoman or other foreign authorities. For example, Mount Athos in Greece—now a monastic republic of twenty main monasteries that were founded during the Byzantine Empire—has large archives with many documents pertaining to lawsuits between monasteries or involving laypeople, which helps show the legal history of the Byzantine Empire.


How does your study reshape our understanding of the relationship between church and imperial authority in this time?

This research report gave me the opportunity to have very helpful and stimulating conversations on my subject with other Byzantinists, especially [Visiting Scholar] Dimiter Angelov, who has worked on the same time period and the relationship between the church and imperial authority.

My study tries to bring a new legal approach that I think needs to be united with our traditional historical approach to fully understand the big picture of this time period. This combined approach first shows that the judicial power of the church was not growing at the end of the Byzantine Empire and that it stayed within the boundaries stated by Byzantine law. Secondly, I am trying to demonstrate the link between Byzantine legal practice and written law. Modern historians have often said Byzantine law was mainly theoretical and disconnected from the reality of legal practice in Byzantium, and I want to show that the legal practice of the church, for example, did abide by written Byzantine law.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.