The seminar is held once a month on Friday at 2–4 pm in the Faculty Hall (Faculty of Theology, Fabianinkatu 33, 4th floor). The seminar is organised together with Prof. Filipe Pereira da Silva’s academy research project Augustinian Natural Philosophy at Oxford and Paris ca. 1277 (University of Helsinki) and Dr. Juhana Toivanen’s academy research project Vicious, Antisocial and Sinful (University of Jyväskylä. The contact person is Ritva Palmén (


DIES MEDIEVALES 7–9 March, 2024 (Helsinki)
Session title: Limits of Necessity in Moral and Societal Discourses from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period

Siiri Toiviainen Rø: The Appeal to Necessity in Ancient Forensic Rhetoric and Beyond
While the origins of the maxim of extreme necessity (”necessity knows no law”) are typically associated with the revival of canon law in the 12th century, the notion that necessity could be used as a mitigating or exculpatory factor was well known in antiquity. In this paper, I will turn to the rich discussion concerning necessity and exculpation in the rhetorical literature of the late Roman republic and the imperial period. I will first introduce the notion of necessity as an exculpatory factor in ancient manuals of forensic rhetoric, such as Cicero’s De inventione and the anonymous Ad Herennium. I will then show that ancient authors held varying views as to the legitimacy and reach of this principle. Furthermore, since virtually all aristocratic men studied rhetoric, the idea spread far beyond the legal sphere and can be found in a number of different contexts, from early Christian biblical interpretation to a philosophical treatise on vegetarianism. Despite differences, all these examples suggest that the general principle was well-known, even to the point of becoming a literary commonplace that had little to do with law and its operation. Finally, I will draw attention to the enduring popularity of ancient rhetoric in medieval education and suggest that it may provide an overlooked avenue through which the appeal to necessity, both as a concise maxim and a broader discourse, found its way to medieval usage.

Mia Korpiola: Necessity in Swedish Medieval Law
My presentation will investigate to what extent the concept of necessity can be found in Swedish medieval laws (ca. 1200–1500). I will analyse the laws in order to determine the instances in which necessity or similar need was implied or stated as justification for exceptions from ordinary rules and practices.The presentation will discuss examples from Swedish medieval criminal law (reasons of exculpation), ”fundamental law”, family law and procedural law that reflect extreme and unforeseen circumstances and necessity. I will also investigate to what extent these can be interpreted to derive from medieval learned law and which may have a more traditional background in commonsensical approaches or customary law.

Virpi Mäkinen: From Extreme Necessity to Serious Necessity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Discourse
In this paper, I argue that the maxim of necessitas non habet legem played a significant role in the early development of subsistence rights in the late medieval and early modern moral and social discourse. By subsistence rights I understand primarily a moral or pre-institutional right to those material provisions such as water, food, and shelter needed for survival which in modern societies are basic rights under the protection of the state. In previous research, such rights have been thought to have arisen much later. I will firstly present how late 13th and early 14th-century theologians reconceptualized the maxim as an inalienable right to self-preservation which everyone has in urgent need. Unlike the more theoretical medieval discussion, theologians of the 15th and 16th century suggested that the right of necessity could respond to the existing problems of vagrant population. Secondly, I will show how their novel idea of a twofold right of necessity which distinguished between extreme necessity and serious necessity contributed to the emergence of subsistence rights. The former, extreme necessity was understood as a narrow emergency concept in accordance with the traditional interpretation. The latter, serious necessity, was taken as a wider concept regarding need caused by living at the margins (e.g. unemployment, lack of feudal patronage, or poverty-related prostitution). As they argued, serious necessity gave rise to a right to ask for and to live off the goods of the city in the sense of common good (bonum commune).

Session title: “Hätä ei lue lakia”: eettisiä, oikeudellisia ja poliittisia näkökulmia äärimmäiseen hätään

Ritva Palmén: Palkkasotilainen käyttö ja äärimmäinen hätä
Virpi Mäkinen: Köyhän oikeus ruokaan ja toimentuloon
Katja Tikka: Äärimmäisen hädän ilmentymiä 1400–1600-lukujen tuomiokirjoissa
Heikki Haara: Välttämättömyyden periaate, oikeus säilyä hengissä ja omistusoikeudet 1600-luvun luonnonoikeusajattelussa

Session title: The Development and Uses of Extreme Necessity in Medieval Canon Law and Political Discourse

Siiri Toiviainen Rø: Plucking Grain on the Sabbath: Biblical Interpretation, Legal Discourse, and the Early Christian History of the Maxim of Extreme Necessity

In his survey of the origins of the canonical maxim necessitas non habet legem, Franck Roumy identifies a passage from Bede’s In Marci evangelium expositio as the first text that directly prefigures the formulation of the maxim in the realm of canon law. Here, Bede comments on the story of the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–28; also Matt. 12:1–8; Luke 6:1–5). In this paper, I will argue that we can cast more light on the earliest roots of the maxim by reading Bede’s exegesis in tandem with the broader early Christian reception of the biblical story. By indicating close parallels to Bede’s account, I will show that already third and fourth-century authors interpreted the story as an example of a necessity-based legal exception. I will then consider the impact of both Roman and Jewish legal discourse on these interpretations.

Mia Korpiola: “Si summa necessitas exigat:” The Use of Necessity in Synodal Statutes ca. 1170-1520

The paper examines the use of the concept of necessity (necessitas) in high and later medieval synodal statutes (ca. 1150-1520). By using the database Corpus synodalium, the paper will investigate in what types of cases and circumstances synodal statutes suggest that exceptions to canon law rules could be licitly made when extraordinary circumstances were at hand. The possible attributes to necessity indicating its strength and urgency will also be analysed (e.g. evidens/urgens/magna/summa/ardua/manifesta necessitas). In addition, the paper will investigate whether the terminology became more standardized in the course of the period so that statutes started predominantly to use the same expressions as in the Liber extra.

Virpi Mäkinen: The Application of the Canon Law Maxim “necessitas non habet legem” in Late Medieval Political Discourse

As Brian Tierney has argued, twelfth-century canon lawyers played a formative role in the early history of individual rights. One of their innovative questions was whether a poor in an immediate need had an individual right that obliged others. It was generally thought that people had an obligation to give their surplus to the poor and the poor had an obligation to pray for the soul of the donor. Thus, the question of the rights of the poor was a novel one. Two canon law maxims, necessitas non habet legem and communis omnium possessio, became to be important legal principles by which the canon lawyers could meet the need of the poor and the expectations of justice. In this paper, I am especially interested in the development of necessity rights in late medieval rights discourse. As my main sources, I use the political works of Franciscan theologian William Ockham, who is known to have used canon law sources extensively. I will show how he applied the maxim of extreme necessity and constructed his arguments out of canon law to demonstrate the individual rights of each person. For him, the powerful value of the legal maxim was based on its theological and political application rather than its self-evident nature.