Confessional Life in the Late Middle Ages by the Numbers

The question of the theological efficacy and popularity of late medieval confession is one that has occupied a central role in narratives of the Reformation from its outset in the sixteenth century to present historical scholarship. Early Protestants decried morally corrupt and ignorant priests as a major need for ecclesiastical reform or reinvention. Modern scholars have in many ways contested, refuted, or reshaped historical understanding of the Reformation, but they have not done so regarding late medieval priests, and in particular, priests’ role as confessor.

Historians such as John Bossy and Thomas Tentler responded to the need for a reevaluation of late medieval confession and its massively influential role in late medieval religious life.[1] Both studied fifteenth-century, printed confessional manuals to show the theological robustness of medieval confession, as well as the large number of surviving copies of confessional manuals. Based upon both qualitative evaluations of theological shifts in confessional manuals and quantitative examinations of printed copies of confessional manuals, Bossy and Tentler demonstrated that late medieval confessional manuals were immensely popular and responded to major theological questions and objections of the day. Tentler notes that three confessional manuals, St. Antoninus’s Confessionale, Andreas de Escobar’s Modus Confitendi, and Guido de Monte Rocherii’s Manipulus Curatorum were some of the first international bestsellers of any printed works.[2] These best sellers survive in the dozens or, in rare cases, the hundreds. These manuals had multiple printings across the fifteenth and into the sixteenth centuries, itself an indicator of widespread popularity and steady demand for this type of theological work.

If confession itself was not to blame for the late medieval criticism surrounding the sacrament of penance, who then was the culprit? An understated, but explicit conclusion of Tentler and Bossy is that it was the role of the late medieval confessor who bore the blame for any dissatisfaction for the sacrament of penance. Both scholars suggest that enthusiasm for confessors’ authority and their dominion over personal life perhaps led to resentment or anger.

Here, I would like to offer an alternative to Tentler’s and Bossy’s estimation of the late medieval confessor, using a different set of quantitative sources, these drawn from the registers of the papal office known as the Apostolic Penitentiary. The Apostolic Penitentiary was a papal invention of the thirteenth century to oversee local religious life, specifically to arrogate the authority to forgive specific serious sins to the pope. By the fifteenth century, the office had grown to encompass the handling of requests for a new confessor. Parishioners could appeal to the papal office for their own personal confessor and altar, thereby approximating a personal parish within a late medieval household. The appointed confessor could travel with the household across diocesan lines, and such a religious right was popular with late medieval merchants and lesser nobles.

Records of these supplications survive for much of the fifteenth century, listed under the title of De Confessionalibus within the registers of the Apostolic Penitentiary. Two scholars, Kirsi Salonen and Ludwig Schmugge, have counted the entirety of these supplications for the fifteenth century across Western Europe[3]:

De Confessionalibus Amount Percent
British Isles 665 5
France 7,137 52
Germany 2,866 21
Spain and Portugal 841 6
Italy 1,257 9
Northern Europe 111 1
Unknown, Unlabeled 107 1
Total 13,662 100

Salonen and Schmugge’s count of supplications provides a startling new look into the enthusiasm behind late medieval parishioners’ desire for a personal confessor. A total of 13,662 supplications for a personal confessor exist for the fifteenth century, but that does not reflect the actual amount of people affected by these requests. In most supplications under De Confessionalibus, a husband and wife would both be included in the request, along with the assumption that any children they may have had were also under the jurisdiction of their newly appointed confessor. Based on this information, we could double or even triple the number of surviving requests to more accurately reflect the number of people involved in these supplications.

Arguing based on sheer amounts of surviving material is a tricky subject for any medievalist, we are all aware of the vicissitudes of medieval source material surviving into the modern era. Using the quantitative material of Tentler and Bossy leads us to one way of viewing late medieval confession and the confessor, Salonen and Schmugge’s data of the Apostolic Penitentiary draws us to a different conclusion of the confessor. Regardless of quantitative choice, it is clear that confession and confessors played a central and high demand role in the religious life of the Late Middle Ages.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

 

[1] John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Thomas Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

[2] Tentler, 49.

[3] Kirsi Salonen and Ludwig Schmugge, A Sip from the “Well of Grace”: medieval texts from the Apostolic Penitentiary, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2009).

Working in the Archives – The Vatican Secret Archives

This post continues an ongoing special series of the Notre Dame Medieval Studies Research Blog called “Working in the Archives.” This series focuses on practical knowledge for accessing archives across Europe and North Africa, for making each archival visit a productive one, and for enhancing the quality of life of the researcher during the visit.

This entry in the series will discuss how to navigate a trip to one of the most famous archives in the world: the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), or the Vatican Secret Archives.

Below, I will discuss what is needed to make an archival visit to the ASV productive. I take each archive in turn, explaining how to get to both archives from the various modes of transit in Rome (bus, metro, walking), what is needed to access the archive, how to search for material, how to request that material, and other essential information needed for a successful research trip.

How to Get There (ASV) Cortile del Belvedere – 00120 Città del Vaticano

Public transit is the most affordable way to get around Rome and to the Vatican unless staying near the archive. A bus will get you the closest to the ASV, with buses 32, 81, and 590 dropping off at the Piazza del Risorgimento, the stop nearest the Porta Sant’Anna, the entry to Vatican City on its eastern side. If you would like to take the metro, the nearest metro stop is the A-line stop, Ottaviano. There are three metro lines in Rome, with lines A and B intersecting at Roma Termini, Rome’s train station, and lines A and C connecting at stop San Giovanni. A weekly public transit ticket (7 calendar days) costs 24 euros. I found this method the most convenient, as the ticket allows access to both buses and the metro.

The ASV website does not say by which gate a researcher to the archive is supposed to enter. As mentioned just above, the gate is the Porta Sant’Anna, which is the gate by which cars enter the Vatican. Once at the gate, you must pass through multiple lines of security, beginning with the Swiss Guard watching the gate. Prepare yourself for an awkward first exchange, as you will not have your research card your first time entering the archive. You must collect it at the archive itself. Do not expect the guard to know English and be ready with a few prepared sentences or a piece of paper explaining the situation. After the first visit, it is a much less stressful experience.

After you pass through security, head up the Via Sant’Anna into the Belvedere Courtyard, then take a right. The ASV overlooks the adjacent courtyard, the Cortile della Bibliotecha sitting next to the Sistine Salon.

What You Need to Access the Archive

Of all the archives I have personally visited, accessing the Vatican Secret Archives is certainly the most complicated. Before visiting the archive, one must first fill out an application online: http://www.archiviosegretovaticano.va/content/archiviosegretovaticano/en/consultazione/admission-request.html. Before filling out the application, the researcher must have a detailed research plan—what holdings one plans to consult and the length and dates of the planned visit to the archive must be known before approval is granted. The application itself contains a Collection Index by which you can identify the desired collection, however, for those not confident in their Italian, navigating it will perhaps be difficult. I would recommend consulting Francis X. Blouin’s Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See as a supplement to the application process.[1] Finally, an affiliation with a university and a letter of introduction are also both required.

The approval process for access for an ASV card takes less than a week, and in my experience, was handled and approved on the same day.

Some Important Details of the ASV

After your research plan and topic have been approved, the ASV will prepare your card for pickup from the archival reception counter. The ASV does not send you your research card in the mail! You must first go to the archive to get the card, and subsequent visits pass much more smoothly. Additionally, while it is always nice to dress professionally while conducting archival research, there is an actual dress code for researchers in the Secret Archives and its subsidiaries. Dress clothes are required, and I personally wore a blazer, although it is not specifically mandated.

Be prepared for several barriers to effective archival research when working at the Vatican Secret Archives. First, you cannot take photos in the Secret Archive. While unsurprising considering the nature of the material, the ASV also does not allow consultation of more than 5 archival items per day (3 in the morning and 2 more in the afternoon). Furthermore, photocopies of archival material, digital or print, are extremely expensive. The archive charges a flat fee of 8 euros to scan any archival item. On top of this flat fee, the archive charges 2 euros per page for the first hundred pages scanned. After the first hundred pages, however, they cost .80 cents.  So, were I to request a single scanned page, it would cost me 10 euros. Two pages would cost me 12 euros, and so on. Scanning a page from two different archival units would cost 20 euros.

If applying for grants to research at the ASV, I strongly encourage you to factor in this cost into your grant applications.

As a final note, the ASV closes at the end of June and reopens in September, leaving no room for scholars or researchers planning to visit in the later summer months. This information is readily available, but it is still an important thing to consider in planning your trip.

Quality of Life

One of the nicest parts of conducting research in Rome is the abundance of good food and good coffee to be found almost anywhere in the center of the city. There are many little coffee shops and restaurants right next to the Porta Sant’Anna, although they are expensive and crowded. If you don’t mind a little walk, there are cheaper (but still good!) restaurants and coffee shops south of the Vatican, along the Via Aurelia and the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri.

Regarding places to stay, Air B&B and the like can be quite expensive in the center of Rome and near the Vatican, especially if you are traveling alone. A financially sensible alternative is to stay in one of the many monasteries located near the Vatican. Many of these are populated with practicing monks and nuns, providing a much different experience than a normal hotel or B&B. I stayed in the Santa Emilia De Vialar, about a 20-minute walk from the Vatican gates.

Sean Sapp
University of Notre Dame

[1] Francis X. Blouin, Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Noble Ambition: Requesting a New Confessor in the Late Middle Ages

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. 33 f. 270r

As the and papacy and its various offices grew in complexity throughout the Late Middle Ages, a plethora of new religious possibilities opened to non-elites across Western Europe. One such papal office, called the Apostolic Penitentiary, provided the opportunity for common parishioners to have the precious religious privileges that the medieval nobility had fought for two centuries to solidify and perpetuate. The Apostolic Penitentiary granted special dispensation for a variety of religious requests by parishioners across Western Europe, requests beyond the authority of their bishops to grant. Such requests could involve an approval of a marriage that was within four degrees of relationship through blood or marriage, approval for a portable altar so that the petitioner might be able to celebrate mass regardless of location, or an appeal by a supplicant for a new confessor outside of their parish priest. By the fifteenth century, a well-to-do townsperson in Ghent could enjoy many of the same personal religious privileges of the Duke of Burgundy in form, if not in grandeur.

Christians from every diocese in Western Europe could write to the Penitentiary via a special letter called a supplicatio, or a supplication. A supplication contained the name of the supplicant, perhaps some personal information about that person such as their profession or class, the diocese from which the request originated, and the date upon which the supplication was processed by the Penitentiary. Receipts of these supplications were collected by the Penitentiary and organized into yearly registers. One such example of a supplication for a new confessor can be seen below:

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. Mat. Div. 6, 28v

As with most supplications, the entry above is heavily abbreviated based on the sheer number of requests the Penitentiary received. It reads: Item Petro van der Ghert de Venrade et Helisabeth eius uxor laici et Gherardo Hermanni de Eyck et Helisabeth Montz eius uxor Leodiensis diocesis petunt litterae confessionalibus fiat de speciali. Datum 16 Maii 1456.

Translated: Peter van der Ghert of Venrade and his wife Elisabeth and Gerard Hermanni of Eyck and his wife Elisabeth Montz, laypeople of the diocese of Liege seek letters of confession (the right to choose a new confessor was called litterae confessionalibus). Granted under special papal mandate on the 16th of May 1456.

The most important part of this entry for our purposes here is the word laici, whereby the supplication indicates that the two couples from Venrade and Eyck were simple laypeople. They were not nobiles or clerici, nobles or clerics, two common appellations within the Penitentiary registers. All that was needed for a layperson to send a supplicatio from their diocese to the Apostolic Penitentiary was a fee. The exact cost of the fee varied, but it was certainly not prohibitively expensive, as many non-elites are represented in the records of the Penitentiary. Indeed, laici appear to have supplicated far more often to the Apostolic Penitentiary than to the similarly suited office, the Papal Chancery.

However, for many elites hoping to replicate their social superiors, they too had to go through the supplication process to the Penitentiary:

ASV, Penitenzieria Aposotolica, Reg. Mat. Div. 6, 16v

Transcription: Johannes Boyssel domicellus et perpetuus mareschallus ducatus Limburgen. Leodiensis diocesis.: petit litteras confessions de gratia speciali fiat de speciali D. s. t. 17 Julii 1456.

Translation: John Boyssel, young lord and ducal marshal in perpetuity of Limburg, in the diocese of Liege seeks a letter of confession…17th of July 1456.

Above we see John Boyssel, who is of a much higher social and political standing than the earlier entry in the supplications above. Boyssel is a perpetuus ducatus mareschallus, or a ducal marshal, and thus a lifetime appointee by either the Duke of Burgundy, or, more likely, the Duke of Limburg to this military position. Such a personage is a particularly striking inclusion in the registers of the Penitentiary. Boyssel’s appointment placed him among secular lords allowed to act in the stead of the dukes themselves. That Boyssel had to go through the same channels as commoners, possibly his own subjects, within the diocese of Liege, speaks to the social leveling effect of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography:

Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Penitenzieria Apostolica, Registrum 6, f. 16v, 28v.

Clarke, Peter D. “New evidence of noble and gentry piety in fifteenth-century England and Wales,” Journal of Medieval History 34 (2008): 23-35.