Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Papal Diplomatics

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98706Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) — Papal DiplomaticsHerbert Thurston

The word diplomatics, following a Continental usage which long ago found recognition in Mabillon's "De Re Diplomaticâ", has of late come to denote also in English the science of ancient official documents, more especially of those emanating from the chanceries of popes, kings, emperors, and other authorities possessing a recognized jurisdiction. Etymologically diplomatics should mean the science of diplomas, and diploma, in its classical acceptation, signified only a permit to use the cursus publicus (i. e. the public posting-service), or else a discharge accorded to veteran soldiers and imparting certain privileges. But the scholars of the Renaissance erroneously supposed that diploma was the correct classical term for an sort of charter, and from them the word came into use among jurists and historians and obtained general currency.


There is abundant evidence that during the Middle Ages a certain watchfulness, necessitated unfortunately by the prevalence of forgeries of all kinds, was exercised over the authenticity of papal Bulls, royal charters, and other instruments. In this control of documents and in the precautions taken against forgery the Chancery of the Holy See set a good example. Thus we find Gregory VII refraining even from attaching the usual leaden seal to a Bull for fear it should fall into unscrupulous hands and be used for fraudulent purposes (Dubitavimus hic sigillum plumbeum ponere ne si illud inimici caperent de eo falsitatem aliquam facerent. - Jaffé-Löwenfeld, "Regesta", no. 5225; cf. no. 5242); while we owe to Innocent III various rudimentary instructions in the science of diplomatics with a view to the detection of forgeries (see Migne, P. L., CCXIV, 202, 322, etc.). Seeing that even an ecclesiastic of the standing of Lanfranc has been seriously accused of conniving at the fabrication of Bulls (H. Böhmer, "Die Fälschungen Erzbischof Lanfranks", 1902; cf. Liebermann's review in "Deutsche Literaturzeitung", 1902, p. 2798, and the defence of Lanfrane by L. Saltet in "Bulletin de litt. eccl.", Toulouse, 1907, 227 sqq.), the need of some system of tests is obvious. But the medieval criticism of documents was not very satisfactory even in the hands of a jurist like Alexander III (see his comments on two pretended privileges of Popes Zacharias and Leo, Jaffé-Löwenfeld, "Regesta", no. 11,896), and though Laurentius Valla, the humanist, was right in denouncing the Donation of Constantine, and though the Magdeburg Centuriator, Matthias Flacius, was right in attacking the Forged Decretals, their methods, in themselves, were often crude and inconclusive. The true science of diplomatics dates, in fact, only from the great Benedictine Mabillon (1632-1707), whose fundamental work, "De Re Diplomaticâ" (Paris, 1681), was written to correct the misleading principles advocated in the criticism of ancient documents by the Bollandist Father Papenbroeck (Papebroch). To the latter's credit be it said that he at once publicly recognized the value of his rival's work and adopted his system. Other scholars were not so discerning, and assailants, like Germon and Hardouin in France, and, in less degree, George Hickes in England, rejected Mabillon's criteria; but the verdict of posterity is entirely in his favour, so that M. Giry quotes with approval the words of Dom Toustain: "His system is the true one. Whoever follows any other road cannot fail to lose his way. Whoever seeks to build on any other foundation will build upon the sand." In point of fact., all that has been done since Mabillon's time has been to develop his methods and occasionally to modify his judgments upon some point of detail. After the issue of a "Supplement" in 1704, a second, enlarged and improved edition of the "De Re Diplomaticâ" was prepared by Mabillon himself and published in 1709, after his death, by his pupil, Dom Ruinart. Seeing, however, that this pioneer work had not extended to any documents later than the thirteenth century and had taken no account of certain classes of papers, such as the ordinary letters of the popes and privileges of a more private character, two other Benedictines of St-Maur, Dom Toustain and Dom Tassin, compiled a work in six large quarto volumes, with many facsimiles etc., known as the "Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique" (Paris, 1750-1765), which, though it marks but a small advance on Mabillon's own treatise, has been widely used, and has been presented in a more summary form by Dom Vaines and others.

With the exception of some useful works specially consecrated to particular countries (e.g. Maffei, "Istoria diplomatica", Mantua, 1727, unfinished; and Muratori, "De Diplomatibus Antiquis", included in his "Antiquitates Italicæ", 1740, vol. III), as also the treatise of G. Marini on papyrus documents (I papiri diplomatici, Rome, 1805), no great advance was made in the science for a century and a half after Mabillon's death. The "Dictionnaire raisonné de diplomatique chrétienne", by M. Quentin, which forms part of Migne's "Encyclopedia", is a rather unskilful digest of older works, and the sumptuous "Eléments de paléographie" of de Wailly (2 vols., 4to, 1838) has little independent merit. But within the last fifty years immense progress has been made in all diplomatic knowledge, and not least of all in the study of papal documents. In the bibliography appended to the articles BULLS AND BRIEFS and BULLARIUM, the reader will find references to the more important works. Amongst the pioneers of this revival the names of Léopold Delisle, the chief librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and of M. de Mas-Latrie, professor at the Ecole de Chartres, as well as that of Julius von Pflugk-Harttung, the editor of a magnificent series of facsimiles of papal Bulls, deserve to occupy a foremost place; but their work has been carried on in Germany and elsewhere, often by those who are not themselves Catholics. It must be obvious that the photographic reproductions of documents which can now be procured so easily and cheaply have enormously facilitated that process of minute comparison of documents which forms the basis of all palæographic studies. Further, the improvement in the cataloguing and the extension of facilities under Pope Leo XIII in such great libraries as that of the Vatican have made their contents much more accessible and have rendered possible such a calendar of early papal Bulls as has been appearing since 1902, being the results of the researches of Messrs. P. Kehr, A. Brackmann, and W. Wiederhold, in "Nachrichten der Göttingen Gesellsehaft der Wissenschaften". Of the series of papal regesta now being published by various scholars, especially by members of the Ecole Française de Rome, a sufficient account has been given in the second part of the article BULLARIUM. Still greater progress in the study of diplomatics is no doubt to be looked for from the facilities afforded by the recently founded journal, "Archiv für Urkundenforschung" (Leipzig, 1907), edited by Messrs. Karl Brandi, H. Bresslau, and M. Tangl, all acknowledged masters in this subject.


As this topic has already been treated in part in the article BULLS AND BRIEFS, it will be sufficient here to recall the principal elements in the process of expediting ancient papal documents, all of which need special attention. We have first of all the officials who are concerned in the preparation of such instruments and who collectively form the "Chancery". The constitution of the Chancery, which in the case of the Holy See seems to date back to a schola notariorum, with a primicerius at its head, of which we hear under Pope Julius I (337-352), varied from period to period, and the part played by the different officials composing it necessarily varied also. Besides the Holy See, each bishop also had some sort of chancery for the issue of his own episcopal Acts. An acquaintance with the procedure of the Chancery is clearly only a study preparatory to the examination of the document itself. Secondly, we have the text of the document. As the position of the Holy See became more fully recognized, the business of the Chancery increased, and we note a marked tendency to adhere strictly to the forms prescribed by traditional usage. Various collections of these formula, of which the "Liber Diurnus" is one of the most ancient, were compiled at an early date. Many others will be found in the "Receuil général des formules" by de Rozière (Paris, 1861-1871), though these, like the series published by Zeumer (Formulæ Merovingici et Karolini ævi, Hanover, 1886), are mainly secular in character. After the text of the document, which of course varies according to its nature, and in which not merely the wording but also the rhythm (the so-called cursus) has often to be considered, attention must be paid;

  • to the manner of dating,
  • to the signatures,
  • to the attestations of witnesses etc.,
  • to the seals and the attachment of the seals,
  • to the material upon which it is written and to the manner of folding, as well as
  • to the handwriting

Under this last heading the whole science of palæography may be said to be involved.

All these matters fall within the scope of diplomatics, and all offer different tests for the authenticity of any given document. There are other details which often need to be considered, for example the Tironian (or shorthand) notes, which are of not infrequent occurrence in primitive Urkunden, both papal and imperial, and which have only begun of late years to be adequately investigated (see Tangl, "Die tironischen Noten", in "Archiv für Urkundenforschung", 1907, I, 87-166). A special section in any comprehensive study of diplomatics is also likely to be devoted to spurious documents, of which, as already stated, the number is surprisingly great.

Besides the books referred to in the course of this article see the bibliography of the article BULLS AND BRIEFS. A larger selection of authorities may be found in such treatises as those of GIRY, Manuel de Diplomatique (Paris, 1894); and BRESSLAU, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre (Leipzig, 1889), I. One very useful work for the study of papal diplomatics, the Practica Cancellariœ Apostolicœ, ed. SCHMITZ-KALLENBERG (Munich, 1904), though confined to the working of the Chancery at the close of the fifteenth century, is valuable for the indirect light thrown on other periods. Consult also the important work of TANGL, Die päpstlichen Kanzlei-Ordnungen von 1200-1500 (Innsbruck, 1894); ERBEN, Urkundenlehre (Munich, 1907); and ROSEMUND, Die Fortschritte der Diplomatik seit Mabillon (Munich, 1897), though these last two books have little directly to do with papal documents. In A. MEISTER'S important work on early ciphers, Die Anfänge der modernen diplomatischen Geheimschrift (Paderborn, 1902), the papal Chancery is hardly mentioned (see, however, p. 34). Finally, the best summary account of papal diplomatics is to be found in the section contributed by SCHMITZ-KALLENBERG to the Grundriss der Geschichtswissenschaft (Leipzig, 1906). vol. I, pp. 172-230.