Why Papal Documents? Post #2

As the first phase of my project of updating the Papal Documents: A Finding Aid is approaching the end, I discovered many possibilities of making this document a more elaborate and helpful tool for papal documents historians, European history scholars and all medievalists. However, before summarizing my work during the second phase of my project at DHC and discussing the possibilities for the next phase, I would like to talk about why papal documents deserve attention and close studies from scholars and students.

Briefly speaking, papal documents are one of the key lenses for investigating the history of papacy, which, as a governmental institution, has been playing a vital role on the stage of Western European history for nearly two millennia, especially during the Middle Ages. These documents, issued from the Roman Curia as Apostolic letters under the order of Roman pontiffs, carry invaluable information that covers various sorts of ecclesiastical, imperial and social affairs. These affairs comprise, but are not limited to, convocations of general councils, appointments and deprivations of episcopal orders, canonical constitutions for licit marriage, grants of indulgences and provisions, excommunications of criminals and numerous conflicts between Roman pontiffs, local bishops, emperors, kings, religious groups and communities all across the Europe. Medieval Christendom cannot be sufficiently mapped without tracing the contacts of the Apostolic See from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, nor can the political, economic and cultural transitions on the European lands be fully understood without taking into consideration the official pronouncements from the highest authority of the Status Pontificius. For scholars of political and church history, the political implications of the Walk to Canossa have to be detected and analyzed appropriately with reference to the correspondence between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV. For paleographers and researchers of medieval documents, Pope Innocent III’s letter to the Archbishop of Milan on the techniques identifying forged papal bulls – including the examination of the formula of the writing – provides an indispensable image of the production of both genuine and faked documents during the High Middle Ages. For scholars of Western European legal history, especially the history of medieval canon law, papal decretals have been one of the principal resources for canonical compilations and legal studies. For medievalists who are interested in material culture, the papyrus rolls, parchments, lead seals (bullae) and different kinds of threads used by the Papal Chancery can also serve as crucial instruments for examining medieval manuscript culture.

Creating an up-to-date, easy-to-use guide to help scholars and students search for and learn to use papal documents for their own studies, therefore, has been my goal in updating the existing Libraries’ Papal Documents Finding Aid.


Over the past several weeks, I finished replacing all the outdated entries in the Finding Aid with their most recent editions. Further, other useful reference books and important introductory articles, such as Christopher R. Cheney’s The Study of the Medieval Papal Chancery: the Second Edwards Lecture delivered within the University of Glasgow on 7th December, 1964, which was published in 1964, have been added. Together with these works, entries of paramount collections such as Harald Zimmermann’s Papsturkunden, 896-1046 and Dietrich Lohrmann’s Das Register Papst Johannes’ VIII, as well as online databases of papal documents such as Thomas Frenz’s Materialien zur Apostolischen Kanzlei were also added to the Finding Aid.

Further, every entry in the Finding Aid now has a link that directs researchers to the exact CLIO page, which will be especially helpful for the searching of articles that do not have their own CLIO page but are located in particular volumes of research journals.  Moreover, I have found that some important existing entries for monographic works, such as Johannes Ramackers’ Papsturkunden in den Niederlanden: Belgien, Luxemburg, Holland und Französisch-Flandern, cannot be found through CLIO due to Columbia’s cataloging system, even though they are actually in the stacks. These entries are now provided with detailed Call Numbers that can point researchers to their precise location in the libraries.

Moreover, I have made two supplementary lists in the process of updating the Finding Aid: one, a list of collections that Columbia libraries currently do not hold, and another list of duplicate entries in CLIO that should ideally be brought together in a single record. These lists help enrich Columbia’s collection of important works on papal documents and avoid confusions in case researchers encounter redundant entries of the works they are looking for in CLIO.

My next step in this project will further strengthen the usability of this document, by 1) adding a glossary of the terminology commonly used in the field of papal documents, 2) attaching brief annotations for every entry, and 3) strategically re-arranging the entries to build up a systematic, user-friendly guide that is not only informative for scholars and researchers in this specific area, but also easy-to-access for all interested medievalists and students. I also plan to provide pointers to the digitized manuscript images of individual papal registers located the Digital Humanities Center to make this useful resource more readily accessible to Columbia scholars.

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