Irnerius (Irnerio)

Judge, professor of liberal arts and Roman law (second half of the 11 century – first quarter of the 12th century).

A scholar and teacher of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, Irnerius was part of the generation around which the Bologna schools of Roman law – the precursors of universities – spontaneously formed.

IrnerioLittle is known of the man commonly considered the founder of the University of Bologna.

Scholars only began studying him at the end of the 19th century, their research bringing to light about fifteen pertinent documents.

Some historians think that Wernerius, as he was also known, had Germanic origins and that he served at the imperial court of Henry IV

In 1113, he was at the side of Matilda of Canossa, countess of Tuscany and supporter of the papal cause during the Investiture Controversy. Matilda was probably behind his interest in Roman law and the compilation of a critical edition of the Justinian texts.

As reported by Odofredus, a famous Bolognese jurist from the 13th century, Irnerius had been a teacher of liberal arts (Trivio) before concentrating exclusively on teaching law, becoming, in the words of Odofredus, a “lucerna Iuris”. He was the first to take a scientific and philological approach to the Corpus Iuris Civilis  (534), incorporating the Digesto, until then exclusively used in teaching the liberal arts, into his method for teaching law.

When Matilda of Canossa died in 1115, the people of Bologna razed her imperial fortress to the ground (the site of the Museo Civico Medievale today) and declared themselves free from foreign rule.

Irnerius, hired by the emperor Henry V, was able to mediate between the two and save the city from reprisals. Again thanks to Irnerius, Bologna officially became a commune in 1116, a process first begun about a half a century earlier.

In 1118, the jurist supported the election of the antipope Gregory VIII, for which he was punished with excommunication and, in all likelihood, forced to abandon Italy with the emperor.

He is last documented in 1125,

in a fictionalised account of his death modelled on the death of Aristotle as narrated by Aulus Gellius and passed down by a judge from Lodi, Ottone Morena (12th century). Surrounded by his four favourite students, when one of them asks who shall inherit his post, the teacher replies:

Bulgarus os aureum, Martinus copia legum,
Mens legum est Ugo, Jacopus id quod ego.

In English:

Bulgaro has a golden tongue, Martino knows all the laws,
Ugo interprets their spirit, Jacopo is another me.

Even if fictionalised, this account expresses the real family-like bonds that formed between Irnerius and his colleagues and their students, who were often welcomed into their homes like sons.

Their students indeed built the foundations of the University of Bologna on their teachings through their glosses and notes, which in turn formed the basis for the renowned school of Glossators.