Mark S. Weiner

The Internationalism of Particularism

In Books and libraries, Europe, Spain on August 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Yesterday, I began to discuss an illuminated medieval manuscript in the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Vidal Mayor of thirteenth-century Aragon. Today, I want to share a few thoughts about why the manuscript is so interesting.

The Getty’s copy of the Vidal Mayor is in fact not the original Latin work of about 1247 but rather a translation into Navarro-Aragonese created in about 1290-1310 by the scribe Michael Lupi de Çandiu. This is a gorgeous manuscript, and I can’t resist including another one of its decorated initials here:

From Vidal Mayor

That’s James I, King of Aragon, supervising a law court, under the arch of a large N. The letter opens a manuscript page discussing trial practice, at the beginning of a section of the Vidal Mayor about legal procedure.

One of the many things I love about this manuscript is its international flavor. I know that’s a strange thing to say.

After all, we’re talking about a manuscript that most people would consider about as cosmopolitan as the manual of Supreme Court trial practice of Wisconsin. It’s a text that was translated into a language that few can read today. And it was created in a kingdom whose name most people confuse with an awesome character from Peter Jackson’s film of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (that would be Aragorn, son of Arathorn).

Most important, one of the characteristic features of the legal landscape of thirteenth-century Iberia was its particularism. As part of the reconquest, kings encouraged Christian resettlement by granting a great many local charters called fueros. These instruments furnished the people of a town or region with a defined set of legal privileges, usually in the area of what we would now call public law—for example, exempting residents from paying certain taxes or from military service.

Fueros differed greatly across Iberia in the privileges they offered, so much so that they were the source of jealousy between people of different regions. Most notably, kings made towns that were meant to be bulwarks against the Moors especially appealing for Christian relocation by affording them a congenial legal environment. In nineteenth-century America, the federal government encouraged white settlement of the west by giving away land. In thirteenth-century Spain, kings encouraged Christian resettlement by giving away legal advantages.

So why do I love the Vidal Mayor for its internationalism?

One reason is because of the man who wrote it—or, more precisely, who was responsible for its redaction of laws, fueros, and customs. This man was Bishop Vidal de Canellas, who lived from about 1190 to about 1252.

Vidal de CanellasWhen Vidal was in his late twenties or early thirties, he traveled to Bologna to study law. About a hundred years earlier, the Italian city had become the most important center of legal learning in Europe. It was the epicenter of the intellectual rediscovery of the Code of Justinian, the great sixth-century codification of Roman law, whose influence on modern European legal ideas is incalculable.

Studying law at Bologna then was a bit like studying law at Harvard today. Among Vidal’s contemporaries there (one might say one of his law school classmates) was Raymond of Penafort. To you and me, that’s Saint Raymond, the patron saint of lawyers.

One of the great stories of Spanish legal development in the middle ages is its “reception” of Roman legal ideas and methods. Vidal brought his Bolognese legal training with him to his work back in Spain on the Vidal Mayor.

But the internationalism of the Vidal Mayor lies not only in its legal ideas—it also lies in its artistry. It draws on a tradition of illumination that was characteristic of the manuscripts of Roman and canon law. Here is an image from an manuscript of Gratian’s Decretum, a text of canon law, illuminated between 1170-1180:

From Gratian's Decretum

And here is the full page.

In addition, the particular style Michael Lupi de Çandiu used clearly shows the influence of French styles of manuscript illumination—demonstrating, as the Getty puts it, “the increased movement of both artists and manuscripts from one European court to another.”

Finally, the Getty Vidal Mayor tells an international story about art collecting in its modern provenance, its history of ownership.


In the nineteenth century, it was the treasure of lawyer and politician Don Luis Franco y López (1818-1896), Baron of Mora—a scholar of Aragonese civil law.

It then passed to Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), an English art connoisseur associated with the Pre-Raphaelites.

From Murray, the manuscript passed to English philanthropist Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864-1958), grandson of Willam Henry Perrins, the co-creator of Worcestershire sauce. (Which just goes to show how much depends on sauces.)

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Swedish philologist Gunnar Tilander tracked the manuscript to Perrins’s private library, translated it, and created a critical edition published in 1956.

It then migrated to the collection of the greatest—and, predictably, most controversial—modern German art collecting couple, Irene and Peter Ludwig (1925-1996).

And, finally, it was acquired by the Getty in Los Angeles in 1983.

More about this very international, very particularist legal manuscript next week. For now, I’m off to tend my very local garden.

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