As the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope led one of the most powerful institutions of the Middle Ages, making laws that were enforced in Church courts throughout western Christendom. Letters written by medieval popes and bishops on the subject of Church law were compiled in collections known as the Decretals, or litterae decretales (‘letters pertaining to decrees’). One of these was made under Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303) in 1328. In a copy made in the legal centre of Bologna, the text of the Decretals is written in the centre of the page, with the outer and lower margins occupied by a commentary or gloss in a more compact handwriting especially designed for the purpose.
The book’s only illustration (image no. 1) appears on the opening page of the manuscript and shows Boniface consulting his cardinals, who assisted him in the governance of the Church and advised him on matters of faith and discipline. Scribes of the papal chancery (the office responsible for the production of official documents) are shown recording the proceedings.