15.04.20, Clarke and Zutshi, eds., Supplications from England and Wales in the Registers of the Apostolic Penitentiary

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Torstein Jørgensen

The Medieval Review 15.04.20

Clarke, Peter D., and Patrick N. R. Zutshi, eds. Supplications from England and Wales in the Registers of the Apostolic Penitentiary, 1410-1503, Volume II: 1464-1492. The Canterbury and York Society, 104. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014. pp. xvi, 438. ISBN: 9780907239772 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Torstein Jørgensen
School of Mission and Theology

Supplications from England and Wales in the Registers of the Apostolic Penitentiary 1410-1503, edited by Peter D. Clarke and Patrick N. R. Zutshi, is projected as a three-volume edition of petitions submitted to the office of the Papal Penitentiary from the church provinces of Canterbury and York in the course of the indicated period. With the present volume, covering the years 1462-1492--i.e. the papacies of Paul II (1464-1471), Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Innocent VIII (1484-1492)--two of altogether three of these valuable source collections are now made easily available for research. It is simply an impressive achievement of the two editors to be able to present the second volume only two years after the publication of the first one in 2012.

The historical registers of the Apostolic Penitentiary were, with some restrictions, only opened to researchers as late as in 1983, despite the fact that the source unit had already been rediscovered in 1913. A thorough presentation of the structure and special mandates of the Apostolic Penitentiary, as well as its ways of proceedings, is included in the introduction to volume I. In short, one can say that the mission of this office was by delegation from the pope to grant absolutions, dispensations, licenses and particular letters of declaration in a series of specified matters that the papacy had lifted out of the hands of local prelates such as archbishops, bishops and abbots and reserved for itself to resolve. Some main categories of such cases were marriages in forbidden degrees of consanguinity or affinity, killings and violence perpetrated by or against the clergy, clerical careers in cases of illegitimate birth, bodily defects or underage, permissions to resign from monastic orders and reliefs in the rules of fasting. Supplications of this kind were submitted to the Apostolic Penitentiary from all across Western Christendom from about the year 1200 until the Reformation. However, surviving registers of penitentiary petitions have been preserved only from 1409 onwards, sporadically from the former half of the 15th century, and then regular annual volumes from around 1450.

Several years' study, notably in the holdings of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, but also in English and Welsh archives, underlie the published texts by Clarke and Zutshi. Both editors have over the years contributed substantially with articles and conference papers on an arena of joint focus on the penitentiary text material shared by researchers from different countries. For the network of Clarke's and Zutshi's colleagues working on the same kind of penitentiary supplications in Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Italy, Hungary, the Balkans and elsewhere the more than 3000 entries published in the two first volumes of the English/Welsh texts represent a most valuable addition to already published material from other countries both for comparison and statistics. But the text material in Clarke's and Zutshi's books offers insights into a number of different aspects and fields of medieval history which should also be of interest for a wider circle of medieval scholars and students.

In the penitentiary registers there is some variation in the way the different petitions were recorded. Some of the entries are short and formulaic, others are longer and more individually set up, often also containing a shorter or longer narrative paragraph. The editors have solved this problem by adopting two different formats for the presentation of the two categories of supplications in their books. The formulaic entries, which are the more numerous, are calendared briefly by date (according to the modern calendar), a summary of the supplication in English with name(s) of the petitioner(s), diocese to which they belong, the matter of their case and the kind of grace they ask from the papacy, and finally--in exact Latin wording--the response of the penitentiary with signature and register- and folio-references. In order for the reader to understand some of the abbreviated texts, cross-references are given to texts with similar wording.

The longer and more comprehensive texts are, on the other hand, printed in extenso. Whereas the calendared texts are informative on a limited number of points such as the consanguinity problem of a couple or birth defect of a priest student, the full text entries render pieces of information on a much wider spectrum of matters and concerns. A representative example of such a longer petition is given in entry 2221 on pp. 205f. The sender of this supplication was one John Whelpdale, priest and rector of Rayleigh parish church in the diocese of London, who during his studies in Cambridge ended up in a fight with a layman, with the result that the layman died one day after the fight. A typical characteristic of these supplications is the good glimpse that the texts give into an episode--often quite dramatic, as in this case, and with a brief account of the course of events. In this petition, for instance, we find John in a group of fellow students on the way back to their house on the premises of the university when a layman suddenly appeared and started to attack them with a stick, and continued to do so despite the repeated appeals by the students for him to stop. John then took the lead in the situation, grabbed a small stick from one of his companions and fought back against the attacker by giving him a small blow on his forehead. The following day the layman died, as the text says, "...not from the said blow, but from excessive drunkenness or some other reason..." (206).

In addition to the insights these texts give into aspects and phenomena of actual late medieval life, such as information about weapons, tools, food, clothing, means of transport and ways of social life, the longer petitions also present good exemplifications of the actual practice of canon law. On the last point also the longer texts consist of formulaic constructions which, however, render good illustrations as to how different paragraphs of canon law were applied to specific circumstances of the actual cases. The supplication itself would naturally emphasize mitigating circumstances or other matters in favour of the petitioner, but these are normally balanced in the response formulas of the penitentiary leaving the cases to be tried legally by the auditor of the penitentiary and for investigation of the facts of the case by the ordinary of the supplicant. Both the wording of the supplication and the response demonstrate the involvement of qualified proctors and doctors of canon law.

The fact that these longer texts are printed in full adds particular value to them. Of course, it is a challenge for many readers that they are printed in Latin. But for scholarly research, in the meticulously professional way they are transcribed and presented by the two editors, the three books appear as a most valuable new source book. For readers who do not understand Latin, the longer texts are also introduced by a summary in English.

The altogether 2208 entries published in volume two are printed in chronological order, but grouped according to the original subjects as found in the register protocols.

When reading the penitentiary supplications, it is important to keep in mind that the main object for the supplicants was to obtain a grace from the papacy, and not the result of having undergone an ordinary legal process, although such processes often had taken place. Thus, the matters dealt with in the penitentiary texts give a most illustrative example of how law and theology were interconnected in the life of the late medieval church.

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