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W. H. Bliss (editor)

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'Preface', Petitions to the Pope: 1342-1419 (1896), pp. V-XI. URL: Date accessed: 17 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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I have prepared the text of this volume at Rome, as a complement to the Calendar of Papal Letters, of which two volumes have been already published, and a third is in the press. The reading of doubtful proper names has in some cases been determined at the Public Record Office.

The Index has been made by Mr. C. Johnson, M.A. of the Public Record Office, and he has also drawn up the following account of the sources of the Calendar.

W. H. B.

The Register of Petitions to the Pope, with which the present calendar deals, forms a distinct series of more than 8,600 volumes in the Archivio Segreto of the Vatican, to which it was transferred from the Dataria Apostolica.

The earlier volumes are in large folio, about 16½″ × 12¾″, but some of those of later date are a little smaller. All are written on paper, and they comprehend the period from the accession of Clement VI. in 1342 to about the year 1815, during the reign of Pius VII.

The principal interest of this register, as distinguished from the register of bulls, lies in the fact that the petitions which it records often contain details of more or less value, which are not recited in the bulls issued in answer to them. For example, the rules of the Chancery excluded from the bull all mention of any person, not the object of the grace, at whose instance the petition was granted, except in the case of kings, queens, cardinals, and, under certain circumstances, bishops and abbots (fn. 1) ; and although in other respects the recitative portion of the bull is usually full, details of some interest are occasionally omitted.

The traditional history of the register is that it was begun by order of Benedict XII. as an additional protection against the forgers of papal letters, and with this the date of the first extant volume agrees very well. To explain the part which it played in the machinery of the papal administration, and how it came into the possession of the Dataria, it will be necessary to give a very rough sketch of the constitution of the Papal Chancery about the time at which it begins. (fn. 2)

The papal administration was at this period divided into three great offices, the Chancery, the Penitentiary, and the Camera Apostolica. There was also a partially independent office called the Rota. This division has subsisted, with some modifications, until the present day.

Each of these offices had its own staff of clerks and its own seal. The Penitentiary dealt with cases arising in the administration of penance, while the Camera was concerned with the worldly goods of the Church. The Rota, which was partially dependent on the Chancery, served for the trial of contested cases. The remaining business fell chiefly to the share of the Chancery, which may accordingly be described as the office of Grace and Justice, though it had naturally other duties as well.

The head of the Chancery was the vice-chancellor, usually a cardinal; next to him came six or seven notaries apostolic, below whom were the abbreviators, after them the writers, and then couriers and other attendants. Besides all these there were the persons who appended the leaden seals known as bullæ, the registrars, taxers of letters, a corrector, and certain auditors of disputed letters.

There was also an official called the ‘Datary,’ with whom we are more particularly concerned, and who had probably a small staff of his own. His duty in later times was to present the petitions for the Pope's signature, and afterwards affix the date. Though we do not know when he acquired the name of Datary, and whether he was originally a separate official or only one of the papal notaries, it is certain that his department grew into an independent office which still exists for the purpose of dealing with all matters of grace, and of which the Register of Petitions is a record.

To obtain a grace it was necessary to draw up and present a petition, either in person or by a proctor. The former was the traditional method, and encouraged by the rules of the Chancery. (fn. 3) That it was common is sufficiently proved by the number of benefices vacated by the death of their incumbents at the papal court, as also from the fact that there was an hospitium for petitioners. (fn. 4) A further illustration may be found in the following bull of Clement VI. (Reg. vol. 157. Littere de Curia.)

“Clement, bishop, servant of the servants of God, for a perpetual remembrance.

“Whereas certain persons, as we have frequently learned from experience, casting from them their regard for decent manners, and the reverence due to Ourselves, have presumptuously dared, and still do dare, when We are in consistory, and at other times when We are riding, to cast before Us, and sometimes upon Us, their petitions, in which they even wrap up stones, to Our perturbation: We, with intent to restrain by suitable measures the unbridled audacity of such persons and promote due modesty, do by these presents strictly forbid all and singular, of whatsoever condition, in anywise to dare henceforth in such manner to cast down any petitions in Our sight, in consistory or elsewhere, unless We shall demand them from them or order them to be demanded or received. Moreover, those who shall presume to the contrary, if they be clerks, We render incapable of holding ecclesiastical benefices, but if they be laymen We will that they thereby incur sentence of excommunication. Let no man, therefore, infringe or contravene this Our prohibition, inhabilitation, and will. And if any presume, &c. Given at Avignon on the 5th day before the Kalends of September, in the second year of Our pontificate.”

The presentation of petitions through a proctor was on the other hand at first the privilege of distinguished persons and powerful religious bodies. (fn. 5) But they permitted their friends to make use of their proctors, and so the custom grew more and more general. By the pontificate of John XXII. there appear to have been already resident proctors who rarely left Avignon. Such a person was Andrew Sapiti, the proctor of Edward III. who is mentioned from time to time in the Patent Bolls, and appears to have conducted much of the English business at the papal court. A private register kept by him, which contains petitions of an earlier date than those in the present register, is preserved in the Barberini library. (fn. 6)

The petitions thus presented were drawn up or sewed together in rolls, (fn. 7) and given to the Datary or to one of the notaries to be read to the Pope, who signed each petition granted, with the first letter of his Christian name (or occasionally of his surname) in the form Fiat R. with such additional remarks as he might think necessary. (fn. 8) The notaries, however, had apparently ceased to perform this duty in the time of Clement VI. since a bull dated 8 Id. April, in his sixth year, does not enumerate it amongst those from which he excuses his notary, Francis Orsini. (fn. 9) As the number of notaries appears to have varied between six and seven, it may be possible that this duty fell to one of them who became the officer afterwards known as the Datary.

The notary or Datary then, as the case may be, affixed the date at the foot of the roll and had the petitions registered in the Register of Petitions.

The petitions were not, however, registered in full, since we find in the Rules of the Chancery (fn. 10) that when a petitioner for a benefice had lost his original petition, and the corresponding bull had to be drafted from the entry in the register, his word was to be taken with regard to the other benefices which he held; that is to say, the names of these benefices, though stated in the petition, did not appear in the register, as may be seen by a comparison of many entries in the present volume with corresponding entries in the Register of Papal Letters.

The original petitions appear to have been restored at this point to the petitioners or their proctors. They were then taken back to the Chancery, and minutes of the bulls were written by the abbreviators and returned to the petitioners. (fn. 11) These minutes were taken back to the writers (scriptores) who ingrossed them. They were then read again, and if disputed were read publicly before an auditor literarum contradictarum, after which they were taxed, sealed, registered in the register of the Chancery, and returned to the petitioner.

Whether or not it was necessary at this date, at a later period at all events (fn. 12) lists (rubricelle) of the names of the petitioners and what they wanted were publicly posted up to facilitate opposition. In such cases the petition or letters might be subsequently cancelled, of which there are some instances in the present volume.

In some cases the letters based on the petitions will be found inconsistent with the text of the petitions themselves. This is due to what is called the ‘Style of the Chancery.’ (fn. 13) This phrase represents both the traditional manner of expression employed in the papal letters, (fn. 14) and also the rules which governed the abbreviates in interpreting the petition and the Pope's answer to it. These rules, so frequently cited above, explain what could and what could not be granted under an ordinary papal signature, and also what clauses must be added to it to give force to the grant. To take a simple instance, the rule was that a petitioner for reservation of a benefice in England up to the value of a specified number of pounds should have one reserved to him up to the same number of marks only. In such cases, when the letters granted were not of a nature to satisfy the petitioner, a further petition had to be made, and the whole process repeated.

The foregoing account is necessarily very slight, and probably open to correction. However, it must serve until we can refer to a sound text-book on the Papal Chancery, written in English. For the present we must be content to say that the best treatises on the subject are to be found in scattered papers in German historical magazines. When the importance of administrative machinery has been thoroughly realised, and the natural relations of historical documents have been made a guide to the valuation of their contents, a step in historical palæography, equivalent to the recognition in classical palæography of the existence of families of manuscripts: then, perhaps, these fragmentary studies will be gathered together and made accessible to English readers. But we must surely look first for a natural history of our own administrative system, and the appearance of that, we may hope, is not far off.

Two points in the present volume demand explanation. At p. 304 the regular series of the register is interrupted by a volume relating to the accounts of the collectors of first fruits. This does not seem to have any proper place in the series, but rather to be part of the registers of the camera which has been placed here to fill up a gap. But as the dates overlap, it will be found that many grants of benefices have two entries relating to them.

Again, the latter part of the volume relates almost exclusively to Scotland, because that country adhered to the Avignon popes in the schism of 1378; and it is their register which remains to us. The few other entries probably relate to English, Irish, and Welsh rebels, who would naturally accept the anti-pope: accordingly the entries on pp. 623–4 appear to be due to Glendower's rebellion.


1 Ottenthal, Regulæ Cancellariæ Apostolicæ, Innsbruck, 1888. Jo. XXII. No. 2.
2 For more complete and accurate information, see the treatises of Ottenthal, Diekamp, Merckel, Erler and others, published in the Mitthelungen des Institutes für Oesterreichischer Geschichtsforschung, and elsewhere.
3 Ottenthal, Reg. Canc. Apost. Urb. V. No. 11.
4 See below, p. 329.
5 Diekamp in Mitth. 4. 526.
6 MS. Barb. XXXI. 11. A short account of it, with transcripts of a few of the more important documents by Kirsch, will be found in Historisches Jahrbuch der Gorres Gesellschaft, Vol. XIV. p. 582. It is being copied for the Public Record Office.
7 Dickamp in Mitth. 4. 506. who quotes Merkel in Archivio Storico Italiano, 1847, V. 146. See also p. 447, etc. of the present volume.
8 The signature was sometimes commits to a cardinal in the form per concessum. See Ottenthal, Reg. Cane. Apost. Urb. V. No. 35.
9 Reg. Vat., Vol. 166, f. 282.
10 Ottenthal, Reg. Cane. Apost. Greg. XI. No. 59.
11 Ottenthal, as above, John XXII. No. 25. Compare also Diekamp Mitth. 4. 506 n.
12 Arch. Vat. Cameralia, Vol. III. f. 135.
13 See pp. 87, 88, 336, etc. below.
14 On which see Giry, Manuel de Diplomatique, p. 454.

Papal Chronology