Ancient collections of church council canons and acts

In the ancient period, bishops often assembled in councils.  There are famous cases, like Nicaea, where they did so in order to rule on some point of doctrine that had suddenly become a “hot button” issue.  In this case, they would issue a creed which clarified the point.  But they also held councils in order to reach agreement on administrative matters; things like whether disputes could be appealed to Rome, how the collection money should be handled, and so on.  These were not matters of belief and faith, but practical matters.  In this case the bishops would put out a set of canons, with their decisions on the questions.  A council might well do both, as Nicaea did.

The record of their administrative decisions might be published, as a list of decisions (“canons”), and perhaps a summary of the discussion (the “acts” of the council), some prefatory material, any letters to or from the council, and so on.  In the beginning this material sometimes contained doctrinal matters, but from the 6th century onwards it became entirely administrative.

Inevitably such items from authoritative councils – not every council was accepted! – were gathered into collections, and, in time, reorganised by subject matter.  These are transmitted to us in the medieval manuscripts, and it is in this form that the output from a council usually reach us.

The material was orginally arranged in historico-chronological order, but this changes to subject-matter order (“systematic” order) in the early 6th century, influenced by the structure of Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law, issued in 534.

The ancient collections are all given by Lotte Kéry, Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages (Ca. 400–1140): A Bibliographical Guide to Manuscripts and Literature, CUA (1999).  This lists them in chronological order.  But few have access to this, and it is probably too detailed for the newcomer.  So here is a sketch of the major collections.

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Greek collections

The process of collection started in the East in the fourth century.

  1. The “Corpus Antiochenum” (lost). 193 canons. Antioch in the time of Melitius, after 379.    It was also used by Dionysius Exiguus who translated material from it into Latin for his own collection.  The canons are numbered, and as it grew, additional canons were added in numerical order at the back.  It begins with the canons of Nicaea (325), and includes the canons of the councils at Ancyra, Neocaesarea, with the canons of Antioch (328) and Gangra (343) and a collection from Laodicea.  It was later enlarged to add the canons of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451).
  2. The “Collectio LX titulorum” (“Sixty Titles”), (lost). This replaced the “Corpus Antiochenum”. It appeared soon after the publication of Justinian’s legal code in 534, and, like the code of Justinian, was arranged in subject order.
  3. The “Collectio L titulorum” (“Fifty titles”) is extant and was compiled by John Scholasticus around 550 AD from the Sixty Titles. It is in subject-matter order. It was translated into Old Slavonic and became the basis for the canon law of Methodius.

The subsequent Greek collections are not important to us here.

Translations of the Greek Material

The “Corpus Antiochenum” collection of Greek canons was translated shortly after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 into both Latin and Syriac.  The early Latin translations are:

  1. The “Collectio Hispana” or “Collectio Isidoriana” is so-called because it was inserted in the later Collectio Dionysio-Hispana.
  2. The “Collectio Itala” or “Collectio Prisca” or “Prisca Versio” is mentioned by Dionysius Exiguus, who said that his own translations were an improvement. This is preserved best in the Collectio Ingilrami in cod. Vat. Reg. 1997, and in the MS of Justel (Bodleian, Mus.100–102).

Edition: G. Voellus and H. Justel, eds. Bibliotheca iuris canonici veteris, 2 v. (Paris 1661) 1:277–320; reprint PL 56:747–816.

The same corpus was translated into Syriac around the same time.  This was used by most of the oriental churches, and so survives in that form.

African Source Materials

Four major chunks of material originated in Africa.  This then made its way into the collections.

1. The “Breviarium Hipponense” was a summary of the decisions of the council of Hippo in 393. It was created at the Council of Carthage in 397, during the first session on 13 August 397, and modified and confirmed at the full council on 28 August. Both versions still exist.  Material from it was used by Dionysius Exiguus in his second edition.  CCL 149. 28–44.

2. The “Gesta de nomine Apiarii” or “Codex Apiarii causae”, the “Dossier of the Apiarius affair”, refers to a bogus appeal by a deposed priest named Apiarius over the head of his bishop to Pope Zosimus.  It exists to show that the African church was independent of Rome.  It contains the documents: the council in 419, all the documents proving that the Pope had no jurisdiction, and a letter from the council of 424 to Pope Celestine when Apiarius tried it on again.      This material ended up in several later collections which are preserved.  CCL 149. 89–172.

3.  The “Registri ecclesiae Carthaginensis excerpta” or “Codex canonum ecclesiae Africanae” (= “African code”) is a bunch of excerpts from African councils from Hippo in 393 to Carthage in 418, starting with the “Breviarium Hipponense”.  A big chunk of this has survived, interpolated by Dionysius Exiguus into the middle of the second edition of his collection.  CCL 149. 182–247.  First used in Coll.Dion.II, where they are numbered 34–133 following CCAR.419, and go under the rubric ‘Recitata sunt etiam in ista synodo diuersa concilia uniuersae prouinciae Africae transactis temporibus Aurelii Carthaginensis episcopi celebrata’.

4.  The “Breviatio canonum” of Fulgentius Ferrandus, deacon of Carthage, composed around 546. This followed the new eastern practice of placing material in subject order.  It consists of 232 abbreviated canons from the usual list, including African canons from Carthage 348 to Juncense 523. CCL 149. 287–306.

Latin Collections

These are the main collections of council material that circulated in the west.

1. The “Collectio Quesnelliana”, so named after its first publisher, is perhaps the earliest medieval collection, originating either in Gaul or in Rome. It was probably compiled around 494 under Pope Gelasius I. It contains canons and other historical documents focused on the Acacian schism.  Chapters 1-5 contain a Latin translation of canons from the major 4th century Greek councils, in the so-called “Isidorian” translation; together with canons from African councils.

The standard edition is that of the Ballerini brothers, Sancti Leonis Magni…. opera, vol. 3, cols. 13-472 (1757), reprinted in PL 56, cols 359A-746C.  Online here:

2. The “Collectio Dionysiana” was compiled in Rome ca. 514. Dionysius Exiguus produced two editions of a mega-collection of canons, translating Greek material very accurately, at the request of Stephen, bishop of Salona. Only the preface survives of a third edition commissioned by Pope Hormisdas.  The work is divided into two books, the liber canonum and the liber decretalium.  The second book was a collection of 41 papal decretals, essentially papal letters.  An official canon book did not exist until the 13th century, but the Collectio Dionysiana was very influential.  34 manuscripts of it are known.  The African council material is ascribed to a “Concilium Africanum”.

2.1. The first edition contained a Latin translation of the first fifty of the canons of the Apostles and the canons of Nicaea, Ancyra, Neocaesarea, Gangra, Antioch, Laodicea, and Constantinople, followed by the canons of Serdica, Carthage 419, and other materials concerning the affair of Apiarius, and finally the first twenty-seven of the canons of Chalcedon.

Modern edition: A. STREWE, Die Canonessammlung des Dionysius Exiguus in der ersten Redaktion, Berlin, 1931.

2.2. The second edition began with the canons of the Apostles, followed by the canons from Nicaea to Constantinople in continuous numeration from 1 to 165, plus the canons of Chalcedon and Serdica together with a larger body of African material from the Registri ecclesiae Carthaginensis excerpta.  Each of the three latter groups numbered separately.

Edition: Christophe Justel, “Codex canonum ecclesiasticorum Dionysii Exigui”, Paris 1628 and 1643.  Reprinted PL 67, cols 139–230. 1628:; 1643:

3. The “Collectio (Dionysio-)Hadriana” is the Dionysian collection with some additions. The prefaces of Dionysius are replaced by an epistle in verse from Hadrian to Charlemagne.  The canons of Carthage are in two groups.  It was sent to Charlemagne at Easter 774 by Pope Hadrian, and was officialy received as the code of the Frankish church in 802.  At least 100 manuscripts are known.  There is no complete edition.

Manuscripts: 2 online at the Bodleian: Also see Ms. Cologne, Dombibl. 115, 116, 117.  Online somewhere at

4. The “Collectio Hispana” or “Collectio Isidoriana” is also the Dionysian collection, but with Spanish material added. It circulated almost exclusively in Spain and remained important until the 12th century. It dates from the first half of the seventh century. The author is sometimes thought to be Isidore of Seville.  It exists in two versions.  The original “Hispana chronologica” was reworked with additional documents into subject order around 700 AD – the “Hispana systematica”.  The African material appears as the canons of eight councils (the material from the “fourth” is bogus, tho: really a 6th century document from Arles).

Modern critical edition: G. MARTÍNEZ DÍEZ, ed., La colección canónica Hispana, 5 vols, Madrid, 1966-1992.

The following collections are less important to us.

5. In the fifth or sixth century Cresconius created his Concordia canonum conciliorium (Concord of conciliar canons). This was arranged by subject (“systematically”).  It is mainly from ecumenical councils and papal decretals but includes some African canons.

Edition: K. Zechiel-Eckes, Die Concordia canonum des Cresconius, Berlin: Peter Lang (1992). Manuscript: Köln, Dombibliothek 120.

6. The “Collectio Sanblasiana” made use of Dionysius for the conciliar material, but not for the decretals. Compiled in the early 6th century, probably in Italy.

There is no edition: the text must be consulted in manuscript.  Source, manuscripts, contents:

7. In Gaul the “Collectio vetus Gallica” was compiled in the early 7th century, probably near Lyon, and possibly by Bp. Etherius of Lyon. This was in subject order and circulated north of the Alps.

8. In Ireland around 700 the “Collectio Hibernensis”, including local Irish synods. Very abbreviated, often false ascriptions.  It circulated where Irish missionaries went in Europe.

Manuscript: Köln, Dombibliothek 210

9. Around 850 an unknown author near Reims created the pseudo-Isidorian collection, complete with the Forged Decretals. It is an enlarged version of an interpolated Hispana.  It contains a chronologically arranged collection of decretals (of 29 popes before Constantine) and conciliar canons.  154 manuscripts.

Sources:;;; Horst Fuhrmann, “The Pseudo-Isidorian Forgeries,” in Detlev Jasper and Horst Fuhrmann, Papal Letters in the Early Middle Ages (Washington D.C., 2001), 137–195.

The later medieval collections are not our concern here.

It should always be remembered that, as well as the material included in the collections, there are other pieces of literature preserved from the councils, as stray bits of text in miscellaneous manuscripts.  This means that canons can sometimes be discovered, transmitted some other way.

General bibliography

  • Maassen, Geschichte der Quellen und der Literatur des kanonischen Rechts im Abendlande bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters (Graz, 1870). This is in brief numbered sections, and quite readable.

The following two books are organised in much the same way as this post, but in much more detail.

Other sources

Some manuscripts are listed here.


3 thoughts on “Ancient collections of church council canons and acts

  1. In the Orthodox East the standardization of what councils are accepted and what are not was by the Quintisext Ecumenical Council. From what I remember only two council were from the Latin West and both of them from Africa, so it might be the two you were interested. The collection of that council is considered canon law in the Orthodox East

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