In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Councils and Synods of the Medieval Church

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Scholarly Journals
  • Collected Text Editions and Translations
  • Conciliar Theory, Liturgical Protocols, Iconography

Medieval Studies Councils and Synods of the Medieval Church
Edward Peters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0165


The words used to designate early Christian assemblies were the Greek σύνοδος, Latinized as synodus, and the Latin concilium. The two terms were generally interchangeable until the 12th century and on occasion later, when the terms “general” or “universal” councils were used for large assemblies convened by the papacy. The designation ecumenical council (world- or Roman Empire–wide) was first applied to the Council of Nicaea (325) and then to a number of later councils also convened by emperors to guarantee the council’s authority. In this article assemblies of ecclesiastical leaders from the 3rd century on are designated as councils or synods as writers at the time and contemporary scholarly literature commonly designate them. In some sections, clearly identified, the terms council and synod refer to superior and inferior assemblies aligned with the medieval ecclesiastical hierarchy (i.e., general, universal, or ecumenical councils convened by the popes or papal legates for all of Christian society, provincial councils called by archbishops for their provinces and episcopal synods presided over by bishops in their dioceses). Because medieval church councils and synods drew significantly on both the doctrine and the discipline of the early ecumenical councils of the 4th to the 6th centuries and regarded themselves as continuing in that early tradition, this article will deal briefly with the period of the early councils from their origins to 787. Stress is given to the period 400–1449 in the West, emphasizing those areas and periods in which the most important and extensive recent work has been done, including synodal activity. This entry will not consider the Greek conciliar tradition after the first seven ecumenical councils nor will it treat Western councils after 1449, which are generally considered to be councils of the Catholic Reformation. The best introduction to the subject is Norman Tanner’s The Councils of the Church: A Short History (see Tanner 2001, cited under Histories and Terminology of Councils). Most modern historiography focuses on the ecumenical councils.

Reference Works

No encyclopedic reference work in English for conciliar history is available, although specialized encyclopedias and general histories for the earlier and later Middle Ages, such as the New Catholic Encyclopedia and Luscombe and Riley-Smith 2004, include material on councils and synods. The Lexikon der Konzilien will appear (at least at first) in German. The works cited here, Naz 1935–1965, Avril 1994, and Kéry 1999, however, are extremely useful for research in the subject, since they all deal with topics of canon law and theology, both indispensable for conciliar history. The clearing house for current research on councils and synods is Konziliengeschichte. Tangl 1969 is the basic source for participating personnel.

  • Avril, J. “Les décisions des conciles et synodes.” In Identifier sources et citations. Edited by Jacques Berlioz, 177–189. L’Atelier du Médiéviste 1. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1994.

    This short essay is an excellent guide to the canons of church councils and synods during the Middle Ages.

  • Kéry, Lotte. Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages, ca. 400–1140: A Bibliographical Guide to the Manuscripts and Literature. History of Medieval Canon Law. Edited by Wilfried Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999.

    Kéry’s exhaustive listing of all canonical collections to 1140 is an excellent reference for the transmission of conciliar acts from the first age of ecumenical church councils in the 4th century to the age of classical canon law in the 12th century.

  • Konziliengeschichte. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1969–1984.

    This collective scholarly enterprise was founded by Walter Brandmüller in 1969 with the intention of replacing the great but outdated history of councils by Karl Joseph von Hefele and Henri Leclercq, Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux (Paris: Letourzey et Ané, 1906–1908), with a series of fifty-five individual volumes. The two parts of the series are Reihe A, Darstellung, consisting of studies of individual councils or periods (e.g., Joseph A. Fischer and Adolf Lumpe, Die Synoden von der Anfängen bis zu Vorabend des Nicaenums [Paterborn, Germany: F. Schöningh, 1997]), and Reihe B, Untersuchungen, consisting of studies of aspects of conciliar history (e.g., Sieben, 1969). It also publishes the scholarly journal Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum (AHC, cited under Scholarly Journals).

  • Luscombe, David, and Jonathan Riley-Smith, eds. New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 4, c. 1024–c. 1198. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    In Part 1, the essays by H. E. J. Cowdrey (pp. 229–267) and I. S. Robinson (pp. 268–334, pp. 368–460), and in Part 2 the essays by Uta-Renata Blumenthal (pp. 8–37) and I. S. Robinson (pp. 317–383) on the papacy and the church are excellent treatments of a turning point in the history and theory of councils and synods. Other essays in other volumes of this series are also very helpful.

  • Naz, Raoul, ed. Dictionnaire de droit canonique. 7 vols. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1935–1965.

    The DDC, as it is commonly cited, is a dictionary of canon law from apostolic times to the mid-20th century, featuring articles by many specialist collaborators. Much of its material on medieval canon law is now dated, but it is still the primary reference tool for the subject and is essential for understanding the role of councils in the making of canon law.

  • New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2d ed. 15 vols. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003.

    Several useful articles on councils are available in the new edition of a classic reference work, entered alphabetically according to the city in which each council was held. Also published in Washington, DC by the Catholic University of America (2003).

  • Tangl, Georgine. Die Teilnehmer an den allgemeinen Konzilien des Mittalalters. 2d ed. Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1969.

    This is the standard reference to the membership and participation in medieval church councils.

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