Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.