12.09.16, Fosi, Papal Justice

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Miles Pattenden

The Medieval Review 12.09.16

Fosi, Irene. Papal Justice: Subjects and Courts in the Papal State, 1500-1750. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 271. ISBN: 9780813218588.

Reviewed by:
Miles Pattenden
Oxford University

This book is a new edition of Fosi's La Giustizia del Papa: sudditi e tribunal nello Stato Pontificio in età moderna, published previously in Italian in 2007. Tom Cohen has updated and expanded the references (especially to Anglophone scholarship) in a lively, if occasionally quixotic, translation. Fosi's basic argument is that the claim to dispense justice was the key assertion that early modern states used to justify their activities but that, in the case of Rome, this was not always carried out as efficiently or effectively as popes and their officials seem to have wished. She begins by offering a comprehensive survey of the complex and conflicting range of courts that comprised Rome's idiosyncratic judicial apparatus and a thorough examination of the form that their procedures took. We learn of the attempts by the tribunal of the governor to supplant that of the Senatore, previously the main vehicle for justice in the medieval commune, and of the boundary disputes between both and those of the Vicario (the ecclesiastical court of the pope as bishop) and the Auditor Camerae (a court with competence over members of the Roman curia). Determined to dominate all these was the Roman Inquisition, established by Paul III in 1542, which with the help of the inquisitor-popes Paul IV (1555-59) and Pius V (1566-72) began to impose its own unique brand of spiritual as well as physical punishment on the Roman population.

From there, the majority of the book is dedicated to a series of entertaining but essentially anecdotal accounts of the interactions between the system of justice and different groups within society. The conflicts and compromises between papal officials and the "restless nobility" are laid out at length as are the often less than successful attempts by the former to intervene in intra-familial disputes and to discipline the more exuberant members of Rome's general population and her often wayward clergy (the cardinal nephew discussed here should not be "Ippolito del Monte" but "Innocenzo"--one of several small errors carried over from the Italian edition). Some of the stories Fosi tells, like those involving the bumbling and incompetent birri (police), have great comic potential, but elsewhere the exasperation of those caught up in this web of arbitrary and frequently corrupt activity is powerfully conveyed (for example in the disturbing case of Cristina Giunti, who petitioned the bishop of Pesaro to be freed from her abusive husband only to be met by the patronizing response that it was not for her to pronounce what was or was not a sin). Throughout the text, however, Fosi balances such evidence of papal justice's often dysfunctional nature with reminders that, for all its shortcomings, it seems to have been preferable to its alternatives for many Romans and the expansion of its scope in these centuries took place only because of their participation and collusion.

The most successful and invaluable aspect of the study, and which secures its position as an important contribution to the field, is how Fosi traces the gradual colonization of the provinces of the Papal State by the Roman courts throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. Here, as elsewhere, however, the treatment of material is far from systematic and we are left to accept Fosi's reassurances as to the chronological and geographical trajectory without any quantificational support (in part this is a problem of the sources themselves, rather than of Fosi's own making, but it might have been helpful had this been addressed more clearly). Hampered by this, the book struggles to establish how Fosi's observations impact upon debates about the nature of centralization that have often been discussed in the context of the Papal States. This is a pity for, reading between the lines, this is a serious intervention on the subject that provides a plethora of evidence for the organic, even chaotic, nature of the expansion of the state in these centuries and also of the potentially surprising degree of collaboration by local communities with centralizing officials.

In the final reckoning, Fosi has produced a lively and very readable survey of the machinery of justice in Rome as well as the frustrations and inconsistencies that it threw up and the social histories that it reveals. It will prove an important and accessible first point of reference on the subject for both undergraduates and more advanced scholars. There is also, however, a sense of missed opportunity in that this is a book that describes more than it explains and makes little attempt to move beyond stories of how to questions of why. Though Fosi aspires to frame her material within the popular concepts of state-building and social disciplining it remains unclear how the example of Roman justice as she lays it out advances either paradigm. A lengthy treatment of popes claims to buon governo, for example, dismisses such statements as utopian but ineffective propaganda but does not address relevant lines of inquiry as to how far those who promulgated them were aware of this, what they tried to do about it, or what other purposes such claims might have served. If the subject is to be taken further, these and other similar points have to be considered in more detail than Fosi's present structure allows. Only then will the importance of the material that Fosi has uncovered become immediately apparent to those engaged in broader fields of research.

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Miles Pattenden

Oxford University