Papal diplomatics

Papal diplomatics

Papal diplomatics is the scholarly study of the official documents of the Papacy.



The authenticity of papal Bulls, alongside royal charters, and other legal instruments, was already a live issue in the Middle Ages. The papal Chancery saw control of documents and precautions taken against forgery. Pope Gregory VII refrained even from attaching the usual leaden seal to a Bull for fear it should fall into unscrupulous hands and be used for fraudulent purposes[1]; while Pope Innocent III issued instructions with a view to the detection of forgeries[2]. An ecclesiastic of the standing of Lanfranc has been seriously accused of conniving at the fabrication of Bulls[3], 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 Pope Alexander III[4]. 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. Diplomatics dates, in fact, only from the Benedictine Mabillon (1632–1707), whose fundamental work, De Re Diplomaticâ (Paris, 1681), was written to correct the principles advocated in the criticism of ancient documents by the Bollandist Father Papenbroeck (Papebroch).

Scholars including Barthélemy Germon (1663–1718) and Hardouin in France, and, in less degree, George Hickes in England, rejected Mabillon's criteria; but 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, Thierry Ruinart. 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 Maurists, 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). It was a small advance on Mabillon's own treatise, but was widely used; and was presented in a more summary form by François Jean de Vaines, and others.

With the exception of some useful works specially consecrated to particular countries[5], as also the treatise of Luigi Gaetano Marini on papyrus documents[6], 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 Maximilien Quantin, which forms part of Migne's "Encyclopedia", is a digest of older works, and the sumptuous "Eléments de paléographie" of de Wailly (2 vols., 4to, 1838) has little independent merit.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the field was active, with the names of Léopold Delisle, the chief librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, M. de Mas-Latrie, professor at the Ecole de Chartres, and Julius von Pflugk-Harttung, the editor of a series of facsimiles of papal Bulls. A calendar of early papal Bulls began appearing from 1902, the results of researches of P. Kehr, A. Brackmann, and W. Wiederhold, in Nachrichten der Göttingen Gesellsehaft der Wissenschaften. Papal regesta were published, especially by members of the Ecole Française de Rome.


Officials who are concerned in the preparation of the documents collectively formed 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. The procedure of the Chancery is 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 there arose 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[7], 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 notes (or shorthand), which are of not infrequent occurrence in primitive Urkunden, both papal and imperial.[8] A special section in any comprehensive study of diplomatics is also likely to be devoted to spurious documents: the number is surprisingly great.


  1. ^ Dubitavimus hic sigillum plumbeum ponere ne si illud inimici caperent de eo falsitatem aliquam facerent. - Jaffé-Löwenfeld, "Regesta", no. 5225; cf. no. 5242.
  2. ^ See Migne, Patrologia Latina, CCXIV, 202, 322, etc.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ See his comments on two pretended privileges of Popes Zacharias and Leo, Jaffé-Löwenfeld, "Regesta", no. 11,896.
  5. ^ e.g. Maffei, "Istoria diplomatica", Mantua, 1727, unfinished; and Muratori, "De Diplomatibus Antiquis", included in his "Antiquitates Italicæ", 1740, vol. III.
  6. ^ I papiri diplomatici, Rome, 1805.
  7. ^ Formulæ Merovingici et Karolini ævi, Hanover, 1886.
  8. ^ See Tangl, "Die tironischen Noten", in "Archiv für Urkundenforschung", 1907, I, 87-166.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). "Papal Diplomatics". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.  The entry cites:
    • GIRY, Manuel de Diplomatique (Paris, 1894);
    • BRESSLAU, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre (Leipzig, 1889), I. *Practica Cancellariœ Apostolicœ, ed. SCHMITZ-KALLENBERG (Munich, 1904), the working of the Chancery at the close of the fifteenth century, valuable for the indirect light thrown on other periods.
    • TANGL, Die päpstlichen Kanzlei-Ordnungen von 1200-1500 (Innsbruck, 1894);
    • ERBEN, Urkundenlehre (Munich, 1907);
    • ROSEMUND, Die Fortschritte der Diplomatik seit Mabillon (Munich, 1897), these last two books having little directly to do with papal documents.
    • A. MEISTER, Die Anfänge der modernen diplomatischen Geheimschrift (Paderborn, 1902), on early ciphers, but the papal Chancery is hardly mentioned (see, however, p. 34). *SCHMITZ-KALLENBERG, Grundriss der Geschichtswissenschaft (Leipzig, 1906). vol. I, pp. 172–230, a summary account of papal diplomatics

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