00.01.04, Blouin, ed., Vatican Archives

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Thomas Izbicki

The Medieval Review baj9928.0001.004


Blouin, Francis X., Jr., et. al.. Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xl, 588. ISBN: 0-195-09552-9.

Reviewed by:
Thomas Izbicki
Johns Hopkins University

A friend once described the Vatican Library as scholar's paradise and the Vatican Archives (or Archivio Segreto Vaticano) as scholar's purgatory. The Archives have a long and complex history, and this reflects -- in turn -- the complex history of the papacy itself. Moreover, the Archives serve as the home of other related resources, including the records of families or individuals prominent in the history of the Holy See and the records of other ecclesiastical institutions, including some monasteries and churches. Nor are all the records related to the various papal institutions housed in the Vatican complex. Some, like the records of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, are housed in other ecclesiastical structures within Rome. Yet others, especially those pertinent to the former Papal States, were taken over by Italy after the Risorgimento. The vicissitudes of past history have deprived us of most of the earliest documentation of the Roman see, especially that reflecting the centuries before the reign of Innocent III (1198-1216). Other items now are found outside of Rome itself. The seizure of the Archives by Napoleon I led to the loss or dispersal of many documents. Even when materials survive, they can be difficult to find. No one finding aid indexes all resources, not even those now open to researchers, that is, generated before January 22, 1922, the death date of Benedict XV.

Faced with this situation, the compilers of this volume have attempted to clarify the holdings of the Archivio Segreto by employing recognized archival principles. This volume is arranged according to the principle of provenance, identifying the agencies that produced the records. Nor does it stand alone. Much of this information also can be found in the RLIN RLG Union Catalog database under the Database ID Numbers included by the editors. (Select Advanced Search and rotate the list of search terms to ID Numbers.) 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.

The problems any researcher faces are illustrated in brief by the Table of Contents. The College of Cardinals, the principal body of papal advisers and electors, receives special mention as an institution; but its records illustrate only certain institutional aspects of the history of the Sacred College, particularly its role sede vacante, including the records of conclaves. The Papal Court, both the liturgical Capella and the Household or Famiglia, is distinguished from the Roman Curia. The Curia, the principal administrative apparatus of the Holy See, is divided, according to recent custom, into Congregations (e.g., De Propaganda), Offices (e.g., the Camera Apostolica), and Tribunals (e.g., the Rota Romana). These are distinguished, in turn, from the papacy's diplomatic representatives. Although most of its offices are long suppressed, the Papal States, whole and parts, are represented by a separate body of records, most of them purely secular in nature. Although these divisions cover most official aspects of the papacy, the substantial section on Miscellaneous Official Materials and Separate Collections illustrates the messy nature of reality. Some illustrate official acts not tidily contained under other headings (e.g., the diocese of Rome, the pope's see), records impossible to distribute according to their provenance, family records, and the records of religious institutions, including confraternities, orders, individual churches and various monastic establishments. Even these divisions do not suffice, and a section is provided for manuscripts not covered elsewhere in this inventory and for spogli papers of individual cardinals deposited in the Archives. Appendices list the offices involved in the administration of Vatican City and the contents of the original armadia of the Archivio Segreto, as well as an Inventory of the Numbered Indici in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano Index Room.

These are only indications of the complexity of the records. They represent bodies long suppressed, others still extant but no longer of highest importance, and those crucial to the administration of the Roman Catholic Church in the present day. For a medievalist, some of the most important, like the Datary, have ceased to exist. Others, however, including the Roman Rota, continue to flourish. Researchers should read the description of an agency carefully and then consult the bibliographic references provided for each of them. Many, such as the Datary, have been mined by well-known scholars; and this may provide clues to which might be worth investigating on a trip to Rome. Most agencies have identifiable series, like the Datary's Indulgentiae perpetuae. These have been assigned Database ID Numbers. They also have indications of Inclusive Dates and Bulk (by linear meters and volumes), Principles of Organization, further Bibliographic References, Scope, and Finding Aids (if any separate ones exist). Most of these remain unpublished. Location usually refers to the Archives, but -- as was noted above -- this is not always the case. 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. 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.

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.

All told, this volume is an ambitious one; and it succeeds to some extent in simplifying the process of beginning research on the papacy, the popes, and other persons represented in the Archives. 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. 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. Blouin and his team, historians and archivists, have given us a "leg up" in the use of the Archives; but more will need to be done before we medievalists can look upon that repository as a paradise.

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Author Biography

Thomas Izbicki

Johns Hopkins University