The Medieval Review 10.02.17

Salonen, Kirsi and Ludwig Schmugge. A Sip from the "Well of Grace": Medieval Texts from the Apostolic Penitentiary. Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law, Vol. 7. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 196. . $ 29.95 ISBN 978-0-8132-1535-8.

Reviewed by:

Anders Winroth
Yale University

When the pope in 1983 opened the archives of the Penitentiary in Rome for research, a wealth of new sources from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries became available. Scholars from all around the world have flocked to Rome to examine the many volumes of registers now available. Each of them contains thousands of notices on individual cases handled by the Apostolic Penitentiary.

The Penitentiary dealt with cases when individual Christians either had acted against canon law or wanted to do so. Marriage cases are most common among the latter. For example, couples who wanted to get married despite being related within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity or affinity asked the pope for an exception from the rule, as a grace. The Penitentiary handled such cases on behalf of the pope and would, if appropriate, issue a document giving the couple permission to get married, the strict letter of canon law notwithstanding. In most of the cases, a Christian had already broken the law and asked for the pope's forgiveness through the Penitentiary. This could be a couple who had gotten married despite some canonical impediment, which they may or may not have known. Another very common category concerns clerics who had become irregular, and thus suspended from their offices, by participating in the spilling of blood in some way, however remote. Canon law had very strict rules against any clerics causing blood to be spilt, even if their involvement was only to serve as the chaplain of some king or nobleman who went out in war or only to read out aloud a judicial condemnation to death. In either case, the cleric needed the pope's forgiveness before he could again function as a cleric and gain his salary. Thousands of penitent Christians flocked to the Apostolic Penitentiary, whose archives thus provide a rich portrait of European life in the late middle ages.

Since the opening of the archives (long closed because of the in fact ungrounded fear that matters that should remain under the seal of confession might be revealed in the registers), many European countries have financed work to extract notices concerning that country from the large material. For example, Sweden and Finland (until 1809 one country) published in 2008 a complete edition of 453 notices concerning Swedes and Finns: Sara Risberg and Kirsi Salonen, Auctoritate pape, Svenskt diplomatarium: Acta poenitentiariae (Stockholm 2008). For a larger country, like Germany, it is impractical to attempt to edit every document, so the German Historical Institute in Rome is instead putting out a collection of thousands of calendar entries under the editorship of Ludwig Schmugge: Repertorium Poenitentiariae Germanicum: Verzeichnis der in den Supplikenregistern der Pnitentiarie vorkommenden Personen, Kirchen und Orte des Deutschen Reiches (so far 7 vols., Tbingen 1996- 2008). Scholars from other countries are also working on putting out similar collections (what has been published is listed on p. 190 of the book here reviewed, inexplicably leaving out the Swedish-Finnish edition). Unfortunately, not much seems to be happening in the Mediterranean countries, for which the number of notices is even greater than for Germany.

The present book was written by two experienced researchers in the Penitentiary archives. After having cobbled together thousands of calendar entries for the German calendar work over more than two decades, Ludwig Schmugge is without doubt the scholar who knows this material most intimately. He has also published many historical studies based on Penitentiary sources. For this book, he has teamed up with Kirsi Salonen, who was half of the editorial team for the Swedish-Finnish volume and who has also produced many studies based on the same sources. Together they have produced a pearl of a book, which serves as a handbook for researchers in the Penitentiary archives and as a textbook for teaching the materials. It is a model for such books.

A Sip from the "Well of Grace" consists of two parts. The first part gives a detailed overview of the role of the Penitentiary in the church, how it functioned and in what manner it kept a record of its decisions. This is a very welcome survey, since nothing similar is readily available. It is particularly interesting that the authors are able to give statistics for the more than 115,000 cases handled by the Penitentiary between 1455 and 1492. Marriage cases make up the largest category, with more than 42,000 cases, more than 20,000 of which were filed by Italian couples.

The second part is a veritable treasure trove. Here the authors include 20 documents, in Latin edition, in English translation, and in (small) black and white reproductions. A CD which comes with the book contains (mostly) high-quality color photographs of the same documents. They have been selected to illustrate a variety of cases and different kinds of sources. There are several examples of the original decisions issued by the Penitentiary, which have happened to be preserved--as originals or in copy--in various local archives around Europe. The authors put those beautifully executed original charters next to the more workmanlike register entries for the same case, making for instructive comparisons. They also show a preserved supplication, including the probably autograph decision of the major Penitentiary (no. 2). Such supplications are extremely seldom preserved. Fortunately, this one may also be compared with the relevant entry in the registers (no. 3).

In other words, the second part of the book constitutes a kind of practical diplomatics of Penitentiary sources, while a section of the first part presenting the theory. The reader learns about the formulas used in Penitentiary supplications and decisions, and how they were abbreviated in the registers. The layout of the registers, with their marginal annotations, is made clear, at the same time as the interested student may practice reading the highly abbreviated cursive gothic script used there.

In sum, this book is highly recommended. We should be grateful to Ludwig Schmugge and Kirsi Salonen for sharing their many years of experience with these sources in such a splendid way. Generations of scholars will now use this book as a gateway to the Penitentiary material.