Da Magister in artibus a legum doctor

Studies over the last century and a half have tended to confirm Odofredo († 1265), the learned thirteenth-century Bolognese jurist, when he described Irnerio as having first been a master of liberal arts, and then a teacher of law.
Alma Mater Studiorum

This ties up with the fact that, as late as the transition from Early to Late Middle Ages, the Law Studium came under the Arts of the trivium. Only later - Burcardo di Biberach’s chronicle would have it – and at the behest of Countess Matilde di Canossa, did Irnerio turn to the studium and teaching of the law, which he clearly knew well and had a natural bent for.

Maybe that is why the Countess addressed to him her petitio to renovare libros legum, which, Cortese argues, means a simple request for a critical edition of Justinian’s texts, and not as Besta had maintained, an official seal of appointment to teach law. Likewise, in his famous inaugural address to the University’s eighth-centenary celebrations, Carducci was to stress the spontaneous origins of the Bologna Studium.

The traditional view that Irnerio simply worked on the Digest that would be lost in the centuries of the late Middle Ages is now much revised by recent historians who see him engaged in painstaking philological reconstruction, not just of the long-neglected collection of iura, but of the more familiar Codes, Institutions and Novels whose texts had tended to be abridged and corrupted.

In Odofredo’s version it is Irnerio himself who set up the Bologna Studium in the first place. Its attention to philology tends, indeed, to cast it as a theoretical rather than practical school of grammarians of Justinian law – a far cry from Pepo’s school which “de scientia sua nullius nomine fuit”, as one commentator had it. This judgment has now been somewhat revised, following discovery of the Moralia Regum (1179-1189) penned by English master Rudolph the Black, who describes Pepo as the aurora surgens of juridical science.

In calling Irnerio lucerna iuris, Odofredo’s point is that he stood out from his predecessors by his scientific teaching method: for the first time law became a science in its own right, not just one of the liberal arts, and for the first time the whole Justinian corpus was studied, including the Digest which former teachers had ignored.

After reconstructing and comprehending the Justinian texts, Irnerio set about reading and explaining them in the School which is perhaps wrongly called Scola glossatorum, taking the name from the ‘gloss’ which was its chief literary genre.

An attempt has been made to see Irnerio as a practitioner of procedure, going by Odofredo once again, who said he drew up a whole notary’s formulary. But this is now agreed to be wide of the mark (see Cencetti’s studies on the origins of notaryship). All that is certain is that the formula for emphyteusis is owed to Irnerio.

The Bolognese master’s life was varied and intense. With studying he combined lawcourt practice, issues of politics, and notaryship. There are nowadays grounds for thinking that he took an interest in theological and moral issues (see Mazzanti for the critical edition of the Liber Divinarum Sententiarum).

A multi-layered existence, reflected in his teaching, which was a mixture of theory and practice, though more of the former than the latter.


Text curated by Professor Nicoletta Sarti - President of the School of Law and Dr Alessia Legnani Annichini – tenured researcher at the Department of Juridical Science, Bologna University.