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Seminar on Records and Archives in Society

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Past Readings

Silvia Hansman, Hist 0647, Spring1999


The Vatican Secret Archives

Catholicism and History, The Opening of the Vatican Secret Archives, by Owen Chadwick, Cambridge university press, 1978. 161 pages. ISBN 0 521 21708 3. Includes bibliography and index.


Main Thesis

During the first half of the XIX century history become a science. In the same generation nationality become a key word in politics. A quest for national histories developed in Europe and historians began to press upon the doors of every important archive that could have documents of the origins of nations.

By this time the Holy See possessed a private archive known as The Archivio Segreto Vaticano. The name Archivio Segreto implies private rather than secret, meaning the area of the library that held working documents and was open only to officials. This archives accounted for the history of the Church, the behavior of its leaders including their role in Galileo trial, the Inquisition and the Trent Council, but also illuminated the history of western culture, the history of colonization and the evolution of modern state in Europe.

In the process of researching the history of their own nations, various countries sent commissions to Rome or established national historical institutes there. This institutes searched for documents generating a pressure over the archive.

The author suggest that, in general, the Secret Archives were open because public opinion made impossible to keep them shut. But he is aware that The Church has had motives of its own and the relation between Church and history did not begin with modern history.

For the Catholic Church, history was a necessity as source of dogma, continuity and authority. But it was also a threaten as source of critique, especially since reformation. The gradual opening of the archives, then, must be study in the tensions between to internal approaches: that of the ecclesiastical statesman and that of the ecclesiastical historian:

The first argue for expediency: we have enemies. If we open our archives, we let in not only scholars that want to understand, but antagonists seeking to stir up dirt. Such hostile enquiry, especially if misused, will hurt not only the Church but all the people this institution serves. So public may be best served by keeping archives shut.

The second argue for truth: The Church has nothing to be afraid of. The Church wants to know what really happened and the opening of archives is necessary to find the truth. We must take the risk that some fanatics misuse the documents. Because we are committed to historical enquiry, is it our duty to allow free access to private archives.

The history of the opening of the archives begins with the french occupation of italy and the ambition of Napoleon of building a central archive for he's empire. In 1810 he order to send the whole archives of the Popes to Paris. The removal of the records to Paris swung the attention of the learned world to the historical importance of the Archives. Until then no one has known exactly what they contained. The french archivists made lists that became the first guides available to anyone. With the defeat of Napoleon, the new authorities passed the custody back to Rome.

The Cost of transportation was to high so the Roman Archivist in charge of the operation decided to eliminate a third of the bulk of paper. The selection was an opportunity not only to destroy "useless documents" but also to remove papers "that one day might hurt the church".

After the archives were back to Rome scholars began to ask permission to consult the documents. The first were the German followed by the Prussian. Some sectors in the Roman Curia realized that Rome may become a center of European scholarship in an age when scholarship became powerful. The use of the archives was still limited to copies or excerpts made by the archivist upon application from the historians. In 1853 the "entry to the archives is forbidden to everyone under pain of excommunication".

The second face in the opening of the archives took place when Papacy had lost his power after the Italian revolution of 1870 . It started with new restrictions imposed as consequence of insecurity.

In Garibaldi's messages Popes were depicted as pro-french, enemies of italian freedom and italian prosperity.

Pope Leo XIII saw in publication of historical documents a way to show Italians what they owe to papacy. He was convinced that Historical enquire based on authentic documents wold even prove the right of the temporal power of the church. He argued that opening the archives will be the Church's best defense against the charges of its critics.

After 1879 Cardinal Hergenröther, was appointed Archivist. The Pope Leo XIII wanted the archives to take their place with other European archives of similar stature, and to make access easier. Hergenröther was asked to draft a scheme for a better organization within six month. On January 1881 the Pope Leo XIII opened the archive to research use. Scholars still had no access to inventories and had to relay on the assistance of archivists but since then accessibility was a right, not favor granted by the Church.


Other important points:

From the book we can also track, even if it is not addressed in depth, the evolution of the archival profession. First Popes kept did not have a permanent residence, but since 649 a collection of letters and acts was kept at the Lateran. Innocent III (1198-1216) was the firs Pope to recognize the need for a record keeping system. He started the Vatican Registers were copies of letters sent where entered by hand. During the middle ages Popes moved the documents many times. For example In 1245 Innocent IV took part of his archives to use them in the Council of Lyon and the records remained in the monastery of Cluny. During the Great Schism the archives remained in Avignon and some of them did not return to Rome until 1783.

But the main reason why the archives are incomplete lays in the family nature of papal archives. Nominally until 1692 but actually until later popes used their nephews as archivists. When a pope died the nephew had to leave office and in many cases the papers he administrate went with him to his family archive.

In the course of the XVII century Papacy ceased to be a family business and become more like a civil service, then the secretary of estate become more important. The creation of a central archive was intended to make administration more efficient and give to the Pope control over secretary of estate. The centralization of different congregational and departmental archives in one general collection was initiated in 1611 by Pope Paul V Burguese. This phenomena of centralization is related to the processes described by Duchein as the birth of the administrative monarchies in europe. The same process that brought the need of new management systems, to the separation of archivist and librarian professions, and regulation of use. The Archivist was instructed to "let no one whatever, on any excuse, to consult these books in searching for bulls or other documents".

Chadwick describe a conflict very relevant to the history of the profession stating that the work of the historian started to be incompatible with the work of archivist. In the XIX century european scholars thought of archivists as man who arranged and made documents easily accessible. In fact Vatican archivists were historians. But Thenier was fully engaged in research and did nothing about the disorder. Pietro Wanzel, archivist under the direction of Hergenröther, was the first who had no desire for original work and start establishing order.


Questions not addressed:

The changes in the internal order of documents are not addressed by the book. Perhaps a study of this changes may explain not only management approaches nor developments on the self perception of Papacy structure as suggested by Maria Luisa Ambrosini for the division of "Internal" and "Foreign" sections after the Napoleonic Era.

Even if it is not in the scope of this book, the study of the Cardinal-nephew institution and its relation to the archivist-nephew may be an interesting issue in relation to the archival profession. Cardinal-nephew may be understood as a channel of communication between the Pope and the way of thinking of the lay man. The combination of archivist and cardinal may point to a need in combining the functions of record management with information management.


Other publications on the field:

Due to the lack of guides, much of the literature on the subject aims to survey the holdings. Many guides concentrate on medieval and renaissance records, the contents of the original "armaria" or special collections. The guide of Francis Blouin, a join work of archivists and historians, is organized around the bureaucratic structure of the Holy See, emphasizing the principle of provenance.

Overall assessment:

Catholicism and History is organized in seven sections. The introduction presents the thesis and outlines the evolution of the archive until the french revolution. The internal structure of the rest of the book is chronological but intricate. Each chapter describes several episodes in the process of opening the archives. Each chapter covers simultaneously the motives of Popes, the interaction of archivists and researchers, and the meaning that a particular collection had for them. The author describes not only he's own historical version of the events, but also report on what people believed or suspected. This is especially interesting and also convey much of the climate in which the archives evolved. But for that reason the prose goes back and forth in time making somewhat difficult to follow the development of the thesis. I found Chadwick's style very sophisticate. He uses the doubt expressed by others as a way to soothe the strength of he's own critic to the Church. Some times to reverent toward church motives, the author qualify to the category of "scholars that want to understand".

Chadwick is very convincing about the role of public opinion in the opening of the archives. I did not find enough evidence and no example of a case were policies were changed based on a pure internal ecclesiastical debate.

As a reading for the class, it may be include with the Modern Europe foundations of archival theory but the main thesis is more tuned with the development of Historical consciousness and the role of historical societies showing this process from an European perspective.

Reading room (cLeonard Von Matt)
Circular room at Castel Sant' Angelo (cPaolo di Paolo)
Shelves of the Archives (cLeonard Von Matt)

This pictures appered in "The secret Archives of the Vatican" by Maria Luisa Ambrosini with Mary Willis