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).

Katharina Tucher Uses the Bible (Part 2)

Don't forget to read Part 1 of this post here.

The collection of books that Nuremberg widow Katharina Tucher donated to her new convent around 1440 offer a stunning snapshot of one woman’s religious literary interests. Tucher’s books included the sorts of works one would expect to see in the library of a wealthy fifteenth-century reader: prayer books, Henry Suso’s Büchlein der ewigen Weisheit, hagiographies of popular female saints. One particularly noteworthy feature of her collection, however, transcends any one text or genre: the sheer amount of biblical and biblically-derived material.

Her most straightforwardly biblical books, mentioned in the previous post, are also distinguished by their utility: one text meant for use at Mass, a second turned into such, a book for praying. But we also find the reverse situation—texts from popular genres have a Scripture-based parallel in Tucher’s collection. She owned prophecies of the Sibyl and Birgitta of Sweden—and a collection gathered from the Old Testament. Of the devotional poem Christus und die minnende Seele, which scholars have demonstrated had a deep influence on the Offenbarungen, what accompanied Tucher to St. Katherine’s was an excerpt glossing the Book of Esther. [12] For moral instruction, she had treatises on the traditional categories of virtue and vice like Von der Keuschenheit—but also two copies of Marquard’s treatise on the increasingly popular way to structure moral teaching instead, the Ten Commandments. [13]

Perhaps most intriguing of all is Tucher’s portion of MS Strasbourg, Bibliotheque Nationale et Universitaire, cod. 2195. She herself wrote 104v and 138v-148v. Of these, 139r-142r and 147r-148v match the contents of an unrelated manuscript in the Nuremberg city library. These folios contain a smattering of spiritual advice attributed to authors like Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, along with some German prose versions of hymns like Veni spiritus sancti. [14]

104v and 142v-146v, however, were either added by Tucher when she copied an exemplar, or subtracted by the other scribe when they copied hers. The texts that Tucher felt were necessary to include, that the other author did not? From 104v, an excerpt from the letter to the Colossians (Col 3:1-4). From 142v-146v, a short text attributed to Bernard, and three more hymns modified into German prose. Those hymns were the Magnificat from Luke and two passages of the praise of Wisdom from Sirach. [15]

As with the examples in other genres, the Bible-based hymn variations that Tucher included in cod. 2195 matched non-biblical material in her library, in this case, in the same manuscript. They stand out not in their message but in their origin.

There are two key points here. First, the biblical material in Tucher’s personal library was useful. From a historiated Bible marked out for reference according to use in the liturgy to framing her sins and successes with the Ten Commandment, Scripture was present as a means rather than an end. Second, much of the Bible’s shadow over her book collection is in fact “biblical material,” rather than full Bibles or narrative equivalents. The distinction of these texts from their non-biblical partners was clear in the Middle Ages as today—the nuns of St. Katherine’s, for example, categorized didactic texts based on the Ten Commandments and other biblical structures (B) immediately after Bibles (A). [16] Biblical material did not necessarily add new teachings to the devotional life of its readers. It did, however, offer a different foundation for those teachings. And as the rising prominence of the Decalogue in moral teaching shows, this particular foundation was more and more important as the fifteenth century progressed.

Recent scholarship has finally grown more comfortable discussing the perfectly orthodox presence of vernacular Scripture in the fifteenth century, including in lay readers’ hands. The “Holy Writ and Lay Readers” project, although it does not at present cover southern Germany, has proven especially helpful in emphasizing the different formats that the “Bible” could take. Leaders Sandra Corbellini, Mart van Duijn, Suzan Folkerts, and Margriet Hoogvliet write:

The focus on the “completeness” of the text does not take into account the specific practice of diffusion of the biblical text…often delivered…in the form of passages and pericopes. Moreover, the stress on “complete Bibles” does not fully acknowledge the importance of the connection with the liturgy in the approach of lay people to the biblical text. In fact, the participation in the liturgy and the reading of biblical pericopes following the liturgical calendar…offer the most important and valuable means of access to the Scriptures.

The selection of biblical texts and liturgical rearrangements should be taken as…an indication of a specific use and approach, determined by the needs and the interests of the readers. [17]

To frame lay reading of the Bible as “functional,” as Corbellini et al. describe with respect to liturgical use, indicates an active and conscious engagement with peri-biblical text as Scripture. In this light, Katharina Tucher’s book collection suggests that our understanding of “the vernacular Bible” in the fifteenth century might be broadened even further. The pericope and marked-up historiated Bible in her library were useful. So were her Psalter, moral instruction organized according to the Ten Commandments, and biblical hymns presented as prayer. These texts, in their functionality, also represent an active and conscious engagement with the Bible.

Only by studying the many forms of the Bible’s presence in Tucher’s library, therefore, can we begin to understand its place in her spiritual life. I have described her reading interests as “comprehensively typical,” but at the same time, she added biblical material to a miscellany where another scribe omitted it. How “typical,” then, was she? By casting the same wider gaze over biblical material in fifteenth-century literary culture, we can better understand how a lay person interacted with the religious world of their day—a pressing question for Tucher’s era in particular. And indeed, only by accounting for all dimensions of biblical material can we grasp the changing place of the Bible in fifteenth-century religious culture.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[12] On Tucher’s use of Christus und die minnende Seele, see most comprehensively Amy Gebauer, ‘Christus und die minnende Seele’: An Analysis of Circulation, Text and Iconography (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2010).

[13] On the Decalogue’s gradual replacement of the seven deadly sins as the foremost means to teach morality, see Robert Bast, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of a Patriarchal Ideology in Germany, 1400-1600 (Leiden: Brill, 1997); John Bossy, “Seven Sins into Ten Commandments,” in Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe, ed. Edmund Leites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 214-234.

[14] Williams and Williams-Krapp, “Introduction,” 18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ehrenschwendtner, 126.

[17] Corbellini et al., 177-178.

Katharina Tucher Uses the Bible (Part 1)

Medieval women visionary authors are generally known for their evocative poetry and prose, prophetic missions of reform, and intimate relationship with Christ. Can we imagine a visionary who might be better known for…reading the Bible?

For about four years, starting around 1417, a Nuremberg lay woman named Katharina Tucher recorded a spiritual journal of sorts. It consists of ninety-four entries, most of which are visions or auditory lessons from Christ. [1] The abrupt end to the journal in 1421–without announcement, warning signals, or codicological signs of missing folios—continues to puzzle scholars. The cessation of the Offenbarungen, as the text is known today, is even more curious in light of the evidence for the ongoing strength of Tucher’s spiritual life. She accumulated a prodigious library of religious texts, copied some of them herself, and ended her days as a (probably) lay sister in the prestigious Dominican convent of St. Katherine’s in Nuremberg. [2]

It’s possible Tucher hid her Offenbarungen from her sisters, but she certainly did not hide her library. She brought her books to a bookish convent, and the nuns’ desire to read, use, and copy their books is why we know about her book collection in the first place. In 1455, Sister Kunigunde Niklasin embarked on a project to catalogue the convent library’s vernacular holdings, using an alphanumeric scheme to identify books by type and subject matter. [3] By the end of the century, the catalogue counted off 352 codices (out of an estimated 500-600 in the convent library total). Twenty-six of these contained exclusively or primarily texts that Tucher donated, sixteen of which survive today. The contents of the others are known through the nuns’ notations in the library catalogue. [4]

Scholars who include Tucher’s personal book collection in their analyses of monastic or lay literary culture have typically focused on three things. First, of course, its unusual size—twenty-six books is the single largest donation to St. Katherine’s by any one person—and her own involvement as scribe of some of those. Second, for two of its most surprising contents. Tucher’s Schwabenspiegel was one of just a handful of non-religious works listed in the convent catalogue. [5] She also brought with her a German translation of William of St. Thierry’s Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei, a guide to monastic life that includes instruction on how to read for spiritual advancement. [6] While its relevance to her recipients is clear, Tucher’s copy is the only one surviving with definite lay provenance.

The third characteristic frequently described by scholars, in contrast to the last point, is just how comprehensively typical the spread of books is. [7] If Tucher’s library were songs (and in fact, it includes a number of hymns), it could be a late-night infomercial “Golden Hits of the Late Middle Ages” 3-disc set. Many of the manuscripts are miscellanies that mix together prayers, sermons, short didactic works, and excerpts from longer texts. She had five prayer books plus a Psalter–possibly the most popular genre in lay ownership, if the number of monks and nuns who brought a personal prayer book with them to their convent is any guide. [8]

Tucher donated no complete Bible or Testament. But the holy book was well represented in its most popular late medieval devotional forms.[9] She brought with her an Old Testament of a historiated (narrative) Bible with the parallel readings for Sundays marked off, two Gospel harmonies to represent the New Testament, and the Psalter mentioned earlier. She also had a pericope containing the liturgical readings from the Gospels and epistles in German, a genre that many fifteenth-century laity used to follow along with the readings at Mass. [10]

When it came to longer didactic texts, she owned works like Henry Suso’s Little Book of Eternal Wisdom (plus an additional excerpt from it as an Ars moriendi text), Rudolf Merswin’s Neunfelsenbuch, and Otto von Passau’s Die 24 Alten. Marquard von Lindau, whose importance for late medieval literary culture has recently been illuminated by Stephen Mossman, was a favorite author—Tucher had two copies of his Dekalogstraktat as well as one each of his commentary on Job and teachings on the Eucharist. [11] The hagiographies are well situated in her southern German context: Elisabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Siena, a collection of antique saints from the area around Nuremberg.

For the most part, then, Tucher owned books that we might expect a wealthy, devout fifteenth-century woman to own. To focus on categories of genre, however, overlooks one of the most important patterns in her reading interests: regardless of specific texts’ focus, how persistently biblical her overall spiritual and literary orientation were.

Looking for Part 2? Find it here.

Cait Stevenson, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] Katharina Tucher, Die Offenbarungen, ed. Ulla Williams and Werner Williams-Krapp

[2] The most comprehensive biographical account of Tucher is found in the introduction to Williams and Williams-Krapp’s critical edition. See Williams and Williams-Krapp, introduction to Die ‘Offenbarungen’ der Katharina Tucher (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998), 1-27.

[3] On the library of St. Katherine’s, see Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner, “A Library Collected by and for the Use of the Nuns: St. Catherins’ Convent, Nuremberg,” in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H.M. Taylor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 123-132. Karin Schneider, “Die Bibliothek des Katharinenklosters in Nürnberg und die städtische Gesellschaft,” in Studien zum städtischen Bildungsgewesen des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Bernd Moeller et al. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), 70-82, discusses how Tucher’s selection of books fits in with the convent library overall, and compares her donation to that of other prominent sisters.

[4] A list of codices and contents, including the catalogue entries of the lost manuscripts, can be found in Williams and Williams-Krapp, “Introduction.”

[5] This was first brought to scholarly attention by Volker Honemann, Die ,Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei’ des Wilhelm von Saint-Thierry: Lateinische Überlieferung und mittelalterliche Übersetzungen (Zürich: Artemis, 1978), 121, and discussed further in Schneider, 74.

[6] Cynthia Cyrus, The Scribes for Women’s Convents in Late Medieval Germany (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 112.

[7] See, for example, Schneider, 73-75.

[8] Thomas Lentes, “Prayer Books,” in Transforming the Medieval World: Uses of Pragmatic Literacy in the Middle Ages, ed. Franz-Josef Arlinghaus et al., (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006) 242-243.

[9] Sandra Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” Church History and Religious Culture 93 (2013): 171-188.

[10] Ibid., 177-178

[11] Stephen Mossman, Marquard von Lindau and the Challenges of Religious Life in Late Medieval Germany: The Passion, the Eucharist, and the Virgin Mary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).