title.none: RESPONSE: Gill on Izbicki (Gill)

identifier.other: baj9928.0008.015 00.08.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X


publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000


type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medeival Review

The Medieval Review 00.08.15

Reviewed by:

A reply to Thomas Izbicki on Francis X. Blouin, Jr's Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See, TMR, 00.01.04

By Katherine Gill

Boston College

I would like to respond to a review published by TMR earlier this year: Francis X. Blouin, Jr., ed., Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) reviewed by Thomas M. Izbicki. I was the principal historian on the project. I spent a year working in the "stacks" of the Vatican Archive with archivists, and then six years preparing our findings for publication.

The review successfully and accurately evokes the complexity of the Archives and thus, indirectly, suggests the achievement that the book and database represent. However, the overall tone of the review very much works to devalue what the book offers scholars, particularly those working in the medieval and early modern fields. I, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate the author's frustration with the difficulties historians face in using the Archives, which in its current state consists of ten linear miles of materials that have accrued from many provenances over a long period of time. Nevertheless, I regret that the author's frustration with "the nature of the beast" seems to have spilled over into his assessment of our attempt to describe systematically "the nature of the beast."

Let me start with what the Izbicki, not all together accurately, states as his "one complaint."

One complaint: this volume makes no mention of a group of texts useful to medievalists with ecclesiastical interests, the so-called Fondo de Schismate, although it has been studied by several scholars, most recently by Howard Kaminsky in his work on Simon de Cramaud. Other reviewers may find other gaps in an otherwise formidable body of information.

There is no "Fondo de Schismate" in the Archive and if anyone should try to use this designation, either to call up volumes or to use the indexes in the Archive, they would likely receive baffled (or disdainful) looks from the staff. There are a group of "Libri de Schismate" which are part of the Armaria (Original Armaria of the ASV). The Armaria do comprise a "Fondo" properly speaking. The Libri are described, as part of Armarium LIV, with indications to some of the scholars who have used them, on page 338. One will certainly find many gaps if one turns to the Guide to find incorrectly cited material.

Izbicki also states, "This Chronological Index is impressive in its overview of the complexities of the records pertinent to the papacy, but it concludes with lists of record groups and agencies not represented in it." He neglects to add that these record groups and agencies do not appear because, as the Guide clearly states, we found no documents in the entire archive related to record groups or agencies. If, going shelf by shelf, box by box, we found nothing, how could we describe what was absent? The list offers clarification for those who might be using antiquated guides or references. It does not indicate work left undone.

The review, in fact, does not offer, as it claims, "just one complaint," but reads to me as an extended complaint. The author complains repeatedly that the Guide does "not answer all questions."

This approach, whether one uses the printed volume or the online resource, is useful for its guidance in recreating the institutional history of the papacy and for the insights it offers into the context in which any individual document was created. But it will not answer all the questions a researcher might have, especially about individual persons, even popes, represented in these extensive but complex records.

Even this formidable array of references, along with an extensive Bibliography, does not answer all questions. Nor do the indexes, one by agency name and one keyed to the century in which a group of records or the documents in a family collection begins.

Moreover, the researcher can go only so far in using these copious references before having to decide whether to travel to Rome and excavate personally in the Archives.

Izbicki is absolutely right. The Guide does not answer all questions and cannot replace a trip to Rome. Unfortunately, even all the sources in the Archives cannot answer all questions. Again, I sympathize with Izbicki's frustration. Nevertheless, the researcher is better armed than before.

Izbicki's rhetoric of disenchantment ends up avoiding the tedium of enumerating any precise praise that would come from comparison of the Guide to others, and unifies his review with a theme of personal weariness and disappointment. This is not altogether unforgivable, given as I said above, "the nature of the beast."

What I take issue with in the review is that Izbicki's frustration, which has more to do with the vastness and complexity of the Archives, suffuses the tone of the review and colors his presentation of the book. Nearly every statement of the Guide's value is undercut by a qualifying sentence or clause, which suggests deficiency even when it does not actually illustrate deficiency. The negative tone of the review, even when it is not addressed toward anything specific in the book itself, has the effect of discouraging use of both the Guide and the Archives. This does not seem to me to be a great service to scholarship.

Finally, I hope medievalists will not understand the following statement to mean that this new guide is not also indispensable to them:

Nonetheless, it will be of most use to those who are working on the later periods best represented in the Archives as they come down to us.

The new Guide will serve them well, especially when used with the fuller descriptions but less accurate citations (and occasionally series descriptions) provided by Leonard Boyle in his Guide to the Medieval Holdings, which did not benefit from full access to the stacks. In sum, I am grateful to Izbicki for doing the work to bring the Guide to the attention of medievalists. The book is by no means an easy read and requires that historians take some time to become familiar with archival principles of ordering description. Perhaps the mood this effort inspired in Izbicki indicates a need for a short version for medievalists. Nevertheless, I think the tone of Izbicki's review is misleading and it would be a shame if the book were not consulted because of it.