Collectiones canonum Dionysianae

Collectiones canonum Dionysianae

Folio 2r from Kassel, Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek, MS 4° theol. 1, showing the beginning of the Collectio conciliorum Dionysiana I
Audience Catholic clergy
Language early medieval Latin
Date ca. 500
Genre canon law collection
Subject Catholic doctrine; ecclesiastical and lay discipline
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The Conciliar Collections

The several collections of canons prepared by the Scythian monk Dionysius 'the humble' (exiguus) are of the utmost importance to the development of the canon law tradition in the West. Shortly after the year 500, during the pontificate of Pope Symmachus (498–514), Dionysius collected and translated into Latin the canons of the major eastern councils, including the so-called Canones apostolorum, the decrees of the councils of Nicaea (325), Ancyra (314), Neocaesarea (314×320), Gangra (343/55), Antioch (ca. 328), Laodicaea (343×380), Constantinople (381), Sardica (343), Chalcedon (451), and the so-called Codex Apiarii causae, the last being a collection of dossiers that includes the canons, letters and acts pertaining to the council held in Carthage on 25 May, 419. Dionysius did this at the request of Stephen, bishop of Salona, and a certain 'dearest brother Laurence' (carissimus frater Laurentius) who (as we learn from Dionysius's preface to his collection) had been 'offended by the awkwardness of the older [priscae] translation'. It is not certain, but it may have been within the context of the Symmachan-Laurentian dispute that these requests were made of Dionysius. Eckhard Wirbelauer, reviving several older arguments, has recently argued that Dionysius's collection was meant to stand in direct opposition to the views of Pope Symmachus, and thus it was likely to have won neither the favour nor acceptance of that pope, nor possibly (at least at first) his immediate successor and strong supporter, Pope Hormisdas.[1]

Shortly after preparing his collection of conciliar canons (Collectio conciliorum Dionysiana I) Dionysius prepared a second recension of the same (Collectio conciliorum Dionysiana II), to which he made important changes. He updated his translations, altered rubrics, and, perhaps most importantly, introduced a system of numbering the canons in sequence (whereas the Dionysiana I had numbered the canons of each council separately). In the Dionysiana II the Canones apostolorum were still numbered separately from 1 to 50, but now the canons of Nicaea to Constantinople were numbered in sequence from I to CLXV, 'just' (Dionysius says) 'as is found in the Greek authority [auctoritate]', that is in Dionysius’s Greek exemplar. Dionysius also altered the position of Chalcedon, moving it from after the Codex Apiarii to before Sardica, and removed the versio Attici of the canons of Nicaea from Codex Apiarii (found there in the Dionysiana I appended to the rescript of Atticus of Constantinople). Finally, he added an important collection of African canons to his second recension. Known today as the Registri ecclesiae Carthaginensis excerpta, this 'large body of conciliar legislation from the earlier Aurelian councils'[2] was inserted by Dionysius into the middle of the Codex Apiarii ― that is between the canons and the letters of the 419 Council of Carthage ― with the fabricated prefatory statement: 'and in that very synod [i.e. Carthage 419] were recited the various councils of the African province that had been celebrated in bygone days of Bishop Aurelius' (Recitata sunt etiam in ista Synodo diuersa Concilia vniuersæ prouinciæ Africæ, transactis temporibus Aurelii Carthaginensis Episcopi celebrata). Thus, the 137 'African' canons that make up Registri ecclesiae Carthaginensis excerpta in the Dionysiana II are actually a concoction of Dionysius's, a conflation of two earlier canonical collections of the African church.

The existence of a third bilingual (Greek-Latin) collection of conciliar canons, in which Dionysius removed the spurious Canones apostolorum along with the 'African' canons and the problematic canons of Sardica, can be deduced from a preface now extant in Novara, Biblioteca Capitolare, XXX (66) (written end of ninth century in northern Italy). Unfortunately, no copies of the text of this recension have survived. The fact that Pope Hormisdas, noted supporter of the previous pope Symmachus, commissioned this collection from Dionysius is significant for several of reasons. First, it indicates that Hormisdas was interested in commissioning something like an authoritative collection of Greek canons for use in the West. Second, it also poses a problem for the theory that Dionysius was a staunch supporter of Laurence's camp in the Symmachan-Laurentian conflict several years previous. Wirbelauer has attempted to explain, however, how an initially sour relationship between Dionysius and Hormisdas could have improved over time through Dionysius's eventual capitulation to the views of the victorious Symmachan faction.[3]

The Decretal Collection

Sometime after preparing his collections of conciliar canons (but still during the pontificate of Symmachus), Dionysius compiled a collection of papal decretals (Collectio decretalium Dionysiana) that he dedicated to one 'Priest Julian' (Iulianus presbyter). Whether Dionysius composed this collection at Julianus's request or on his own initiative is not known, as his preface is ambiguous on this point. The collection includes 38 decretals written by popes Siricius, Innocent I, Zosimus, Boniface I, Celestine I, Leo I, Gelasius, and Anastasius II. By far the greater number of decretals were from Innocent I; the reason for this is not certain, but it is possibly explained on the theory that Dionysius had access to a collection of Innocent’s letters that was not found in the papal archives and that had not been available to previous compilers of decretal collections.[4] While Dionysius's decretal collection would come to be the most important vehicle in the dissemination of late antique papal decretals throughout the early Middle Ages, by no means was it the first nor, at least in Dionysius's lifetime, the most influential. Rather, in the earliest days of the development of decretal collections, several relatively mysterious collections known as the Canones urbanici, the Epistolae decretales, and a third unnamed collection ― one that served as the common source for the collectiones Corbeiensis and Pithouensis―were in circulation. Dionysius would have been familiar with these collections, and indeed drew on some of them. But the fact that he felt compelled to compile his own collection of papal decretals speaks to his being unhappy with the quality and coverage of other such collections that were available at the time.

So far as can be known, Dionysius did not package his conciliar and decretal collections together, nor is there any evidence that he intended them to combined. In fact, given the many differences between the collections in terms of genre, themes, tone, style, chronological and geographical coverage, and possibly even jurisdiction — his decretal collection was, after all, 'less oecumenical in its conception than the collection of conciliar decrees'[5] — in all likelihood he viewed their creation as entirely separate enterprises with entirely separate end products, intended for dissemination in separate contexts for entirely different uses. Nevertheless, the two collections were eventually joined together by Dionysius's readers to form a combined collection of conciliar and papal decrees. This combined collection of conciliar and decretal canons went on to become widely popular and served as the bedrock for many subsequent variations on Dionysius’s original collections; and it is to versions of such combined collections (rather than the three/four originally separate collections) that modern scholars typically refer when they use the title 'Collectio Dionysiana'.

Influence and Importance

The Dionysian collections exerted considerable influence on the development of canon law both within Italy and in other parts of Western Europe. In fact, no other Italian collection achieved as much success outside of Italy than did Dionysius's. As mentioned, the collection in its combined form was soon and continually supplemented and augmented, and by the eighth century numerous modified forms could be found throughout the West.


Collectio conciliorum Dionysiana I

Siglum Manuscript Contents
K Kassel, Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek, MS 4° theol. 1 (written first third of ninth century in the Main River region, perhaps Fulda) Collectio conciliorum Dionysiana I (without preface).
M Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. Lat. 577 (written end of the eighth century in the Main River region, perhaps Hersfeld, Fulda or Mainz) Collectio conciliorum Dionysiana I (with shorter preface).


  1. E. Wirbelauer, Zwei Päpste in Rom: der Konflikt zwischen Laurentius und Symmachus (498–514). Studien und Texte, Quellen und Forschungen zur antiken Welt 16 (Munich, 1993), pp. 132–34. See also N.J. Richards, The Popes and the papacy in the early Middle Ages, 476– 752 (London, 1979), pp. 86–87, 109, 116. For criticism of the view that Dionysius compiled his collection in response to the Symmachan-Laurentian dispute ― a view that seems to have originated ultimately with Caspar and Schwartz in 1933 ― see H. Wurm, Studien und Texte zur Dekretalensammlung des Dionysius Exiguus, Kanonistische Studien und Texte 16 (Bonn, 1939), pp. 2 and 16–20, and A. Firey, 'The Collectio Dionysiana', published online in 2008 on the Carolingian Canon Law Web site (, nn. 34–5.
  2. F.L. Cross, 'History and fiction in the African canons', The journal of theological studies 12 (1961), 227– 47, at p. 235.
  3. Wirbelauer, Zwei Päpste, p. 121.
  4. D. Jasper, 'The beginning of the decretal tradition: papal letters from the origin of the genre through the pontificate of Stephen V', in Papal letters in the early Middle Ages, eds. Horst Fuhrmann and Detlev Jasper (Washington, D.C., 2001), pp. 3–133, at pp. 35–6.
  5. Firey, 'Collectio Dionysiana', who notes a further distinction: 'The [conciliar collection] represented a finite body of law, for the few councils after Chalcedon considered oecumenical did not issue disciplinary canons until the late eighth century; the [decretal collection], as the additions to the Dionysian collection show, was a more readily expanded and clearly continuing source of legal opinion.'
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