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A notary’s view of the Master of the Scriveners Company’s trip to Bologna in May 2017

Was the Italian city of Bologna where the Italian Renaissance started? Conventionally the great artistic and cultural flowering at the end of the mediaeval period in the 1300’s and 1400’s is seen as starting in Florence and then spreading to the other Italian city states, particularly Rome and Venice.

But there is a different perspective: the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was followed by the Dark Ages. One of the most notable aspects of the Dark Ages was the collapse in literacy. Poetry, histories and the writing of legal documents all dramatically declined. Pockets of learning survived in monasteries but even there the knowledge of the Greek and Roman classical authors was greatly reduced. St Augustine and especially St. Jerome were deeply hostile to the classical authors, who were termed the “pagan” authors.

What happens in the early Middle Ages is the revival of interest in the classical authors and in the theories about how to express oneself in words: the study of Rhetoric. Two figures from the classical world stand out as the subjects of study, Aristotle and above all Cicero. Rhetoric for them and other writers following them was not merely the science or art of speaking, but included also thinking and the expression of thought, particularly writing. So in ancient Greece the concept of logos included both the thing thought and the expression of thought.

The revived study of Rhetoric can be traced to Alberic at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino south of Rome in the 1080’s. From there the centre for the study of Rhetoric moved decisively in the early 1100’s to Bologna and where crucially the study was pursued by several lay writers, not just the clergy, and the study of Rhetoric was combined with the study of the newly re-discovered Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian I, the code of Roman civil law. It was at Bologna that Alberic’s work on the ars dictaminis, the rules for producing written documents including legal documents, were developed. And it was at Bologna that a scholar named Irnerius initiated the teaching and commentary on the Roman Civil Code.

These two elements, the re-discovery of Rhetoric and of the Roman Civil Code, were central to the foundation of the University of Bologna in about 1088, as Bologna became not just the first university in Europe but also the pre-eminent international centre for the study of law, attracting students from France (such as Peter of Blois), Germany and England (including Thomas à Becket around 1150, who attended when he was a lay clerk, specialising in the material administration of Church property, before he became a priest and then Archbishop, then martyr). The centrality of the study of Law in the foundation of the University is captured in the University’s motto: Petrus ubique pater legum Bononia mater / St. Peter is the father of all places and Bologna the mother of the Law.

A major concern of the jurists and of their contemporary world was how to avoid the chaos of the unlettered past, how to avoid the Dark Ages and how prudently to manage the present, increasingly prosperous material world. Their answer was to build on and expand the Roman law institution of notaries or tabelliones (learned scribes), to establish rules for the training of notaries who would draft and authenticate the execution of legal documents which would then become probative and reliable as judgments of a court. Thus as the study of Law developed, so too did the study of notarial practice. By 1250 the faculty of notaria at the University of Bologna had been established and Rolandino de’ Passaggeri (1215-1300) wrote and taught from his great work on notarial practice, Summa Totius Artis Notariae.

The notarial doctrines developed at Bologna had great intellectual and practical success. Soon these notarial ideas and practices were copied throughout Italy and spread to Germany, France, Spain and onwards, where they largely continue today.

It is against this background that when in 1279 Pope Nicholas III granted the Archbishop of Canterbury the faculty of appointing notaries, the Archbishop summoned John of Bononia (the Latin name of Bologna) to come to England to instruct English clerks in notarial skills.

So Bologna is particularly interesting to us both as the great centre for the rediscovery of classical learning – the true Renaissance- and as the home of the modern notarial tradition. The Scriveners Company, with its first ordinances granted 1373 and its role in the education of notaries, follows in the footsteps of the University of Bologna.

Richard Saville
Scrivener Notary and Notarial Deputy

Sources include:
Charles Haskins The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century
James J. Murphy Rhetoric in the Middle Ages
Nigel Ready Brooke’s Notary