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The Papal Papers

Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives

by Owen Chadwick
Cambridge University Press, 174 pp., $13.95

The professional historiography of modern times begins in the nineteenth century, for it was only then that the central archives of European governments were opened to historians. Before 1800 modern historians had occasionally made licensed raids into national archives, but usually they had to be content with private or corporate papers which had been published, or made available, by the owners, or had leaked through the salesrooms. The national archives were generally closed, and the few historians who penetrated them found them in deterrent disorder. It was not until after the Napoleonic Wars that archives of state were generally opened; and they were opened, in part, as a result of those wars. After 1815, the ancien régime seemed very ancient, and its secrets of state no longer seemed to need the old protection.

The same wars that helped to open the archives also helped to make the professional historians who would use them. As Leopold von Ranke, the acknowledged founder of professional history, would afterward write, the German school of historians—his school—was created in reaction against Napoleonic ideas. It was the arrogant French conquest, and the arrogant claim of “progress” behind it, that inspired the great German historians to study the past “objectively,” in its own context, from its own documents, not from the universal ideas, or prejudices, of modern philosophers. Ranke himself began his work in the archives of Venice: a republic which, being now extinct, had no reason, or power, to protect the once jealously guarded secrets of its “reason of state.”

In the first half of the nineteenth century, government after government, its old defenses being thus weakened, yielded to the pressure of historians and opened its archives. New repositories were built, documents were sorted and calendared, even published. Scholars were subsidized to visit foreign archives and transcribe documents to fill gaps in national collections. Thus the British government built the new Public Record Office, sponsored a series of documentary publications, and secured those transcripts of foreign diplomatic papers which still save many a journey to the Continent. Similar programs were carried out by other governments. Berlin, the capital of the new historiography, was the most ambitious, and the most successful. The cult of the archives was to become an obsession with some historians, inhibiting publication; for the archives were always found to be far more copious than anyone had thought. In the end they would also prove less final. Lord Acton, who preached the cult and was himself inhibited by it, would confess, at the end of his life, that “the dust of archives blots out ideas.”

To one European government the idea of opening its archives was very unwelcome. The papal monarchy in Rome was not like the republic of Venice. It was not extinct—though it had been a damned close-run thing. It did not feel, after 1815, that it had shed its past or could allow historians to look freely on its arcana imperii. It was an unchanging Church; and since the rest of the world had “progressed,” or at least changed, it was now very much on the defensive. Its archives were still instruments of government, secrets of state, engines of ideological war. And that ideological war was still raging. Napoleon I, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour were a constant threat. European Liberals, German Protestants, Italian nationalists bayed around the Church, denouncing, and thereby increasing, its “reactionary” claims. In 1809 Pius VII was kidnapped and carried prisoner to France and the papal monarchy was replaced by the Napoleonic kingdom of Rome. In 1848 Pius IX had to flee to Gaeta while the Italian Liberals set up the Roman Republic. In 1870 the army of the new King of Italy forced its way into Rome and the independent Papal State was extinguished. Naturally the Vatican was not eager to open its doors to its enemies and invite them in. All through the nineteenth century an inscription over the door of the papal archive threatened excommunication to anyone (other than the staff) who entered. It was not removed until 1920.

By that time, things had changed. It was not because the defeat of 1870 was accepted as final, or because the Pope renounced his ancien régime. The official attitude of the Vatican, after the completion of the kingdom of Italy, was not of surrender but of defiant martyrdom. The aged Pius IX was “the prisoner of the Vatican.” But in 1878 there was a change of persons, and of tactics. Pius IX was succeeded by Leo XIII, and Leo XIII, though not himself interested in history, decided that historians must no longer be kept at bay, as enemies: they must be enlisted as allies. Just as Germany, conquered and insulted by Napoleon I, had appealed to history—objective history—to vindicate its distinct, autonomous, legitimate traditions, so the Papacy, conquered and insulted by “liberal” Europe, must turn to objective history to validate its legitimate authority.

The Papacy, said the liberals, had been the head of an obscurantist system which, throughout the ages, had resisted progress, science, liberty, enlightenment, and the unity of Italy. It had burned Bruno, threatened Galileo with torture, forbidden streetlighting, opposed the Risorgimento. Recently it had condemned liberalism in the Syllabus of Errors and declared itself infallible at the Vatican Council. This they could prove from its own evidence, wrenched piecemeal from its reluctant hands.

To this Leo XIII had an answer. The Papacy, he believed, had preserved Italy from barbarian invasion at the end of the Roman Empire. It had defended it against German emperors in the Middle Ages and from Ottoman conquest there-after. It had resisted Napoleon. Historically, if the evidence were seen in toto, in context, it would be shown “not as the enemy of Italian liberty, Italian culture or Italian nationality, but as their chief creator.”

Leo XIII’s “opening of the archives” is dated from his “Letter to the Three Cardinals” of August 18, 1883. Behind that important initiative lay two episodes. First, in 1882, the city of Palermo had celebrated the sixth centenary of the Sicilian Vespers: the massacre of the French who, with papal support, had taken over the kingdom of Naples. The aged Garibaldi, unable to attend himself, had sent an inflammatory manifesto preaching undying hatred of Rome as the eternal corrupter of nations. To the Pope, this showed that the old enemy was still exploiting history—partisan history. Secondly, in April 1883, the Pope had seen the historical work of Theodor Sickel, the head of the Austrian Institute in Rome. Sickel was a Protestant, but his “objective” study of a controversial document alleged to be a papal forgery had vindicated the Catholic case. The first of these two episodes convinced the Pope that history must not be left to the enemy. The second showed that it could be safely entrusted to historians—to real historians: that the Church, though (like all institutions) it might have skeletons in its cupboards, need not fear the full light of day.

So the archives were opened. Not fully or enthusiastically perhaps: there were obstructionists in the Curia and the skeletons were not willingly exposed. But Leo XIII did not waver, and his successors did not reverse his policy. In the twentieth century, liberated from the incubus of the Temporal Power, and recovering confidence as the liberal tide receded, the Papacy caught up with the other governments of Europe. It organized its ancient archives, freed them from its spiritual penalties, welcomed scholars, published its diplomatic dispatches. Its reward was historical justification. Once again, the historians came mainly from the German school: dissidents from the teaching but beneficiaries of the method of Ranke. The greatest of them was Ludwig Pastor, whose huge History of the Popes began to appear in 1886, and who ended (since there was no chair for him in Bismarckian or Wilhelmine Germany) as head of the Austrian Institute in Rome. In 1921, when the threat of excommunication had been removed, he was—with one curious exception to whom we shall come—the first person who, not being an archivist, was allowed “to visit all the rooms of the Vatican Secret Archives, and to see with surprise the beauty of the frescoes, dating from the early seventeenth century, which so few eyes had been permitted to see.”

Those frescoes can now be seen indirectly, in black and white, on the dustjacket of Dr. Owen Chadwick’s book. Dr. Chadwick is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, and the text of his book is the Herbert Hensley Henson Lectures which he delivered at Oxford in 1976. There are five chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. Rarely can so much abstruse and delightful erudition have been compressed into so short a space. In fewer than 150 pages Dr. Chadwick tells the story of the struggle for the opening of the Vatican archives from the Napoleonic Wars until 1920. He tells it with elegance and good sense, and with a sharp eye for significant or entertaining detail, and he brings to life the archivists, scholars, and clerical politicians who contended for and against freedom of access to the most controversial documents in a divided Christendom.

The story begins in 1809, when Napoleon I seized the Pope and ordered the removal of the papal archives to Paris. As part of his New Order in Europe, Napoleon intended to concentrate the art, the culture, and the history of the Continent in its new capital, and as he looted the museums and galleries, palaces and churches of conquered nations for the benefit of the Louvre and the Bibliothèque Nationale, so he planned a central archive to house its documents of state which now, in the new age, would have only historical interest. In 1810-1811, 3,239 chests of papal archives arrived in the Palais Soubise, to be kept there until the new imperial Record Office could be built. There they were consulted by historians, exploited, and sometimes published, by anticlericals. Then, in 1814, the victorious allies entered Paris and ordered their immediate restitution to Rome. When Napoleon returned from Elba, the process was reversed again, but not for long. After Waterloo, the Allies were adamant. There must be a general restoration. As after 1945, pictures, treasures, documents—all must go back to their previous and legal owners.

So the great restitution was set in motion. But there were difficulties. Funds were low, and costs were high. The officials, both French and Roman, despairing of the task, lightened it by getting rid of as many papers as they could. Some, to the French, were worth stealing; others, to the Romans, worth losing. Some 2,600 volumes of Inquisition records, whose publication might have proved embarrassing, were shredded, soaked in water, and sold to a Parisian cardboard manufacturer. Others were lent, thrown away, or just lost. The records of the trial of Galileo, which Napoleon had intended to publish, were now found to be missing. All kinds of rumors were nourished by this untimely (or timely) disappearance. Then, in 1843, they surfaced in Prague. A Bourbon minister had appropriated them, and had carried them with him into exile there after the revolution of 1830. After his death, his widow found them and returned them to Rome. Other interesting documents, like the trials which led to the suppression of the Templars, were permanently lost. Altogether, only two-thirds of the archives stolen by Napoleon found their way back to Rome, and it was not until the 1880s that they recovered their former order.

The archivist who had to cope with the return of the documents from Paris, and who so prudently destroyed some of them, was Marino Marini, who, in customary papal fashion, had succeeded his more famous uncle Gaetano Marini. Back in Rome, he had to cope with the foreigners who, by now, had acquired a taste for his archives. Once again, his task was not easy. The rules, as summarized by one of his successors, were simple: “no one comes in and nothing goes out.” The only solution was for the archivist himself, for a fee, to copy individual documents requested by accredited agents of foreign governments. These agents had to be personally acceptable. They were not allowed to see the catalogues (such as they were), or to take notes themselves, and they had to be very discreet. But Marini was cooperative. In 1822 he began copying for the Germans. Later, he extended his activity.

As he put it, “he thought England, being the richest country, would pay him best.” The British government took the hint. Other governments followed suit. Unfortunately Marini’s transcripts did not inspire confidence, and they could not be checked. But it was a beginning. Then came the Roman revolution of 1848 and Mazzini’s brief republic, after which the Pope, Pius IX, became more conservative and Marini more cautious. It looked as if the archives, so narrowly opened, would be shut again.

However, little by little, the cracks in the wall reopened. Marini’s successor was a German, Augustin Theiner, and Theiner, though at first cagey, gradually became more liberal. In 1866 he allowed a French scholar to use the documents of Galileo’s trial, which had been so fortuitously recovered, “on the understanding that he would clear the Church of responsibility.” He also tried to persuade the Pope to publish the minutes of the Council of Trent.

This had been an old project. Already, at the close of the Council in 1563, Pius IV had intended to publish these documents, but his successor had blocked the project. Surely now, after three centuries, thought Theiner, they could be let out, and so vindicate the Papacy against the infamous Venetian Paolo Sarpi, author of that European classic, the anti-papal History of the Council of Trent. Unfortunately the Papacy had already been vindicated against Sarpi in 1656, by the Jesuit Pallavicino, and the Jesuits now feared that the original documents, if published, might devalue their champion. The Jesuits anyway did not like Theiner; he had once been a Protestant and he had written a laudatory biography of Pope Clement XIV, who had dissolved the Jesuit order. They saw to it that he was not allowed to publish his edition of the minutes.

They were wise in their generation. Only four years later the Pope summoned a new General Council—the Vatican Council of 1870, which was to declare him infallible. As this was the first General Council since the Council of Trent, the intervening three hundred years suddenly shrank and the minutes of the previous council assumed a new relevance. The opposition bishops—a strong and learned party—wanted to see those minutes. Theiner was ordered by the Pope on no account to let them be seen. When it became clear that the opposition bishops had got a copy, Theiner was accused—perhaps wrongly—of having leaked the documents. He fell into disgrace, and from then on was forbidden to enter his own archives. The keys were taken away from him and the access from his room walled up. Theiner thereupon planned revenge. He took his edition of the minutes out of cold storage and sent it to Zagreb to be published. He then followed it himself, to supervise the printing. Zagreb was in the diocese of the most formidable of the opposition bishops, Dr. Strossmayer, who secretly financed the publication.

It was the old story. Once again, after a temporary surrender, reaction had set in, and Theiner was the victim of the reaction. To make things worse, he was a friend of the dreadful Lord Acton, who of course approved of his publication of documents, but was shocked to find that he sometimes cooked them too. As a Jesuit said in 1870, “Theiner is the only survivor from the early entourage of Pius IX. He must be got rid of.” Monsignor Talbot, we may remember, said much the same of Newman.

And yet, even in the period of reaction between the Vatican Council of 1870 and the accession of Leo XIII in 1878, there were moments of liberalism. The most extraordinary episode in this fascinating book is the story of the “exception” which I have already mentioned: the only nonarchivist who, before 1920, actually got past the threats of excommunication and into the archives themselves. This man was Joseph Stevenson, and he got in in spite of the fact that he was a foreigner, the agent of a Protestant government, and arrived as a protégé of the Catholic most feared and hated in Rome: Lord Acton.

Stevenson was a remarkable man. A devoted antiquary, he had worked for many years in the British Museum and he was the force behind the publication of dozens of volumes of British records. He was also a clergyman. Originally he had been intended for the Presbyterian ministry. For thirteen years he was an Anglican vicar. He then became a Roman Catholic. He would end as a Jesuit. In 1866 Acton, having made friends with Theiner, had suggested to the Master of the Rolls (the head of the British Record Office) that permission be sought for a British scholar to research in the Vatican. In 1872—Acton and Theiner both being now in disgrace at Rome—Stevenson was sent out. Within a few months he was mysteriously informed that “on the express authority of the Pope” he was to be admitted to the archives. “He received every courtesy, was shown the catalogues, allowed to ask for whatever documents he needed, and to make copies.” In 1874 almost all the officials concerned with the archives changed; but surprisingly Stevenson was not disturbed. When he resigned from the employment of the Record Office, the Vatican would not admit an official successor, and Stevenson, as a private researcher, retained, for a time, his unique privilege.

Pope Leo XIII is, I think, Dr. Chadwick’s hero. He at last changed the rules and let the scholars in. He is therefore a very suitable hero for a Regius Professor, who must go by the rules. But the hero of the research student must surely be Joseph Stevenson. He got in, and stayed in, in spite of the rules. In retrospect, we can see him as one of those lone explorers—a Mungo Park or a Livingstone—who penetrated a dark continent so that, long afterward, the organized forces of exploitation could comfortably move in.

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