William of Æbelholt as a source for the early reception of canon law in Denmark

Research output: Contribution to conferenceUnpublished paper


William of Æbelholt was a French cleric at the monastery of St Genevieve, one of the early centres of learning in Paris. He emigrated to Denmark around 1165 when he was approximately forty years of age. According to a brief autobiographical note preserved in copies of a collection of his model letters he met with pope Alexander III in Senlis in 1162, and again, as an emissary of on two occasions in the later 1170s. We also know that he was an important actor in the marriage conflict between Philip II of France and his Danish wife, Ingeborg, possibly trained in canon law by Stephen of Tournai who had also trained a number of Danish students in Paris during the 1160s. Indeed, William was invited to Denmark by a former Danish student at St Genevieve, Absalon, bishop of Roskilde. William remained in Denmark until his death in 1203. He was canonised in 1228.
Sometime after the mid-1190s William or a later compiler started to collect William’s letters for use in teaching dictation. Many of these letters take the form of a correspondence between a Danish letter-writer and the reigning pope about canon law matters and contain the earliest examples of the transmission of canon law to Denmark.
The most recent edition of the letters (the Diplomatarium Danicum, 1977) suggests that the fons originalis of these letters is the sententiae of Peter Lombard. But the editors do not speculate about how the Lombard’s texts came to William’s attention. The proposed paper will investigate the collection’s first 23 letters (which either seek guidance or paraphrase recent canon law of marriage) in order to gauge the level of knowledge of canon law and to trace the route by which the most recent law was transmitted to the Danish kingdom. Whichever route these canons may have come to Denmark they represent the cutting-edge of legal scholarship at the time. It is an intriguing possibility that the fons materialis may have been Stephen of Tournai’s contemporary collection.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 6 Jul 2023
EventLeeds International Medieval Congress: 2023 - Leeds University, Leeds, United Kingdom
Duration: 3 Jul 20236 Jul 2023


ConferenceLeeds International Medieval Congress
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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