The Hunt for the King 23) the analysis of the Fieschi Letter continues…

Today we continue with Elena Corbellini’s diplomatic analysis of the Fieschi Letter, picking up where we left off, looking at the extrinsic characteristics of the document. We look at one further observation on the letter, and a relative hypothesis, and then comment on the presence of other documents of an intriguingly similar nature to the Fieschi Letter in the same chartulary of Maguelone.

The analysis continues

Observation c) The ‘irregular’ way in which the document was copied was made clear by the compilers of the codex themselves. Almost all of the documents in the chartulary feature a rubrication in the margins beside the beginning of the text, with references to the place and type of recognitio each text represents. I am not sure we can call this a true signum recognitionis, but in any case it seems to be a form of validation, meant to attest to the copy’s conformity to the original it was copied from – just as a ‘commissioner of oaths’ puts their stamp and signature on true copies of original documents today. The rubrication in the margins is, perhaps, in a different hand, and was logically added subsequent to the copying of the documents themselves, in a different coloured ink (see photograph 1). The page bearing the Fieschi Letter bears no such rubrication, and instead in the right margin, towards the top of the page, there is the word vacat, meaning ‘it is missing’, ‘it is vacant’. (see photograph 2).

Example of rubrication. Right hand margin of document 6.
Photograph 1: Example of rubrication. Right hand margin of document 6.
The word 'vacat', right hand margin of the Fieschi Letter page.
Photograph 2: The word ‘vacat’, right hand margin of the Fieschi Letter page.

I nurture some doubts as to the meaning of this word in this context. What is missing? Does it simply mean the date is missing? Or was the original missing? If the latter, it explains why the rubrication is not present: the copy of the Fieschi Letter that we know today could not be authenticated as a true and faithful copy, because it could not be compared with the original, as this was missing – vacat. As we shall consider later in the analysis, this leads us to the intriguing possibility that the Fieschi Letter was actually a copy of a copy.

There is another possible meaning of vacat, of which an example is to be found in the Registrum Magnum of the medieval Comune of Piacenza. Here, the word vacat is broken up into its two syllables, on either end of a vertical line in the margins of some documents (va- line –cat) to indicate when a document had been transcribed twice or more times within the same chartulary by mistake (1). The excess/extra copy might be in the immediate vicinity of the first copy of the document, or elsewhere in the compilation.

If this were the case of the Fieschi Letter, it would be necessary to check every last document contained within the six enormous volumes of the chartulary. Or at least start with those edited by Roquette and Villemagne, who state in the Preface of their enormous undertaking that many of the documents were, in fact, transcribed more than once.

As far as the originals of the documents are concerned, there is no possibility whatsoever to make a comparison, and this is true for the entire chartulary. This is due to the destruction of the ecclesiastical archives of Montpellier in 1566 and the following years, and then again in 1621 and 1623 (3).


A fact that I think is very interesting and should be born in mind is evident from three other documents in the chartulary and transcribed by Germain in his 1878 edition of the Fieschi Letter (p.7, note 1). This is the particular care shown by both Arnaud de Verdale and Pope Urban V that all documents pertaining to the diocese of Maguelone or its bishops should be sought out wherever they were, ordered and transcribed with the greatest possible diligence and fidelity to the originals.

Arnaud de Verdale even went so far as to threaten with excommunication whoever unrightfully withheld privilegia, letters, acts, proceedings, or any other documents, failing to consign them by a given peremptory deadline of 10 days. This was in an article of the Synodal Statutes of October 20th, 1339. The same is reiterated in a papal bull of May 15th 1367, and in a letter from Bishop Gaucelm de Deux to Pope Urban V in 1368 in which the compilation of the chartulary is declared to have been scrupulously completed, and all documents faithfully registered word for word (fecit de verbo ad verbum diligenter et fideliter registrari). (2)

Therefore it seems to me quite improbable that something ‘random’ or ‘unchecked’ could have occured in this compilation. Thus, some documents seem to us to be ‘foreign’ to the chartulary, but perhaps this is because we are not aware of certain connections between places and people that would explain their presence. Among those documents which appear foreign, in Register B we find (numbered 429) a text of May 14th 1340 relative to the kidnapping of Nicolinus Fieschi, Genoese ambassador to King Edward III of England (Photograph 3). Pope Benedict XII had launched a bull excommunicating those responsible for the crime.

Document 429 of Register B.
Photograph 3: Document 429 of Register B.

A. Germain also named a “set of important documents concerning the plan to liberate King Jean (II) of France … by means of an incursion into England, a coordinated effort that was backed by King Waldemar (III) of Denmark. Germain found these documents in the archives of Montpellier and published them in 1858 (4).

Though prudent, we cannot deny that there is some ‘kinship’ between these other ‘foreign’ documents and the Fieschi Letter!



(1) Il registrum Magnum del Comune di Piacenza, critical edition by E.Falconi and R.Peveri, Milan, 1984, Introd.pp.CXVIII- CXIX.

(2) Documents contained in registers B, F, and A del chartulary, respectively.

(3) M. Gouron, Rèpertoire numérique des Archives Dèpartèmentales … Hèrault, archives ecclésiastiques, Ser.G 1123*, Montpellier, 1970.

(4) A. Germain, Lettre inedite de M.F. , concernant les dernières années du roi d’Angleterre Eduard II, in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, 1877, vol.21, n.3, pp.282-288.


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