The Hunt for the King 27) The dangerous life of documents at the outbreak of the Hundred Years War

[Here continues Elena Corbellini’s analysis of the Fieschi Letter. In today’s post we have the discussion arising from the analysis of the hand-made corrections we posted last week. Our strong suspicion concerning the involvement of Bishop of Maguelone Arnauld de Verdale finds ever greater confirmation, and we even discover the origin of the word ‘secretary’ – but I think I’ll do a special post on that soon, it’s so curious! Ed.]

C. Considering that, following the perentorious orders of Bishop Arnauld and, later, Gaucelm de Deux, the transcriptions in all of the Chartulary were to be very precise, thorough and well ordered, it is possible in my opinion that the Fieschi Letter as we know it today is an ‘imitative copy’, so to speak, which in other words reproduces the text it was derived from also in its material form, with the corrections and expunctions present in it.

– What might the antigraph [the text copied, Ed.] have been? Not a definitive, final version, but a near-final draft (minuta) containing last-minute corrections and variants.

– We know that drafts of acts were made in large numbers, and that copies were also made of drafts and not just of the definitive versions, to be preserved and used as ‘back-up’ of the authenticated final versions. Above all when there hadn’t been time or the chance to make spare copies of the definitive document. And in any case, authenticated, official documents [then as now, Ed.] were to be kept safe from any risk of damage, during journeys and missions.

– Furthermore, precisely during the papal reign of Benedict XII, there was an increase in the use of ‘near-final’ drafts of the secretae [confidential documents, Ed.], which were transcribed directly into parchment registers when necessary to save time. Often, indeed, documents were sent out very quickly, and there was little time to make extra copies… Drafts were therefore not always eliminated. Therefore, we may suppose that, in those years of extremely intense diplomatic activity [due to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the ongoing unease between Emperor and Papacy, Ed.], there was a proliferation not just of unregistered authenticated documents but of drafts and of copies made from drafts, such as, probably, this version of the Fieschi Letter.

– From the papal letters, as well as from other documents, there emerges a situation of considerable agitation and of diplomatic incidents in France, in the years 1338-1339, above all around Avignon. Pope Benedict XII expressed his disappointment about one such unfortunate episode on November 23, 1338. Secret instructions for the two cardinals sent as legates to negotiate with England (Peter, cardinal of Santa Prassede and Bertrand, cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Aquiro) had been leaked to outsiders with grave consequences. The inquest demonstrated that a member of the Curia was to blame for the leak. The Pope therefore decided that letters for legates, or at least the most confidential parts of these letters, from then on would be communicated to no-one outside the circle of his scriptor [scribe, Ed.] and fideles secretarii [faithful secretaries – where ‘secretary’ literally derives from ‘secret’, see note, Ed.] (1)

In a letter of May 1339, edited by Fierens, the Pope ordered Robert de Pomayo, castellan of Beaucaire (and seneschal of the king of France) to free Robert de Licelburs, a messenger of King Edward III of England, who had been returning from the Curia carrying a letter from the Pope when he was waylaid and robbed of his horses and the letter. Robert Swinfen and Egidius de Brabante were prisoners with him. There must have been considerable comings and goings of messengers in the area around Montpellier, as revealed by the many documents of the Chartulary of Maguelone. (2)

– Among the Papal letters, therefore, the letter from Benedict XII to Arnaud de Verdale, legate at the court of the emperor, dated January 23, 1339 (see the transcription and translation) stands out. In it are mentioned two texts marked A and B to be presented to Emperor Ludwig IV. Also mentioned are secret letters written shortly beforehand by Master Arnauld, and examined by the Pope together with his trusted brothers. As we mentioned before, in other documents from the same period there are often cryptic allusions to other letters sent or received, and others that were stolen, or had otherwise disappeared.

With the originals lost, the copies became important – even copies made from drafts…

– If an accessorial copy (made from a draft) was entered into Register A of Maguelone, in whose possession might it have been, if not someone who had used it for a diplomatic mission in those years? Arnaud de Verdale, for his mission to the Imperial court – the definitive, authenticated copy/copies having been delivered to either Edward III, or Ludwig IV, or both…?

Cardinals Peter and Bertrand in during this period seem to have been engaged in negotiations between France and England. In early April, 1339, in a letter in which Arnauld de Verdale is referred to as electus magalonensis, and is therefore already bishop of Maguelone, he receives orders to give King Philip of France information too secret to commit to writing… On April 19, 1339 the Pope received the conditions proffered by Richard de Bury on behalf of King Edward III of England, and found them acceptable and opportune. He exhorted cardinals Peter and Bertrand to work towards a truce and convince the king of France to accept.

– In my opinion the crucial period to confront for any hypotheses must be summer 1338 to summer 1339.

I anxiously await from readers any objections, suggestions and hypotheses to discuss.


(1) Introd. ed. Fierens cit. 1910, p.XIII. A curiosity: secretarius, a term which has had continuations in many languages, including non-romance tongues, occurs for the first time here. Ivan reported to me that he found this fact discussed even earler by Michael Tangl, Die paplischen Register von Benedikt XII, 1898, p.85. It was a delicate diplomatic negotiation, featuring secret information and instructions. This is surely another line of research to follow (has Ian Mortimer written of it?). The Cardinal Bertrand in question was almost certainly Bertrand du Pouget, once right-hand-man of Pope John XXII and for some gossips – including Giovanni Villani and Petrarch – not his nephew but his son. He was famous for the hatred he nurtured towards Dante, and was highly active in northern Italy in the years preceding 1338.

(2) The bishops and the canons of Maguelone were well connected with the Pope, who often had to intervene in order to curb abuses of power and invasions perpetrated by the seneschals of the king of France and by the counts of Provence. There was a kind of Avignon-Montpellier-Maguelone axis. There is no space here to speak of it, but what with the kings of Aragon and Majorca, the House of Anjou, the kings of France, the emissaries of the English, Genoese merchants with their monopolies and privileges and the great families of the Spinola, Doria, Fieschi, …. the situation was extremely complex in the area. To be discussed another time.


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