The Hunt for the King 31) The Formal Composition of the Fieschi Letter

In this post we follow Stefano Castagneto as he examines the formal composition of the Fieschi Letter, and what it tells us about the author of the document. What is particularly interesting is the comparison with other contemporary documents, even though it was extremely difficult to find documents ‘similar’ to the Fieschi Letter – after all, it is entirely unique. What emerges is that the Feischi Letter is written with great lawyerly skill, matches other documents of the time and of a similar context, and even shows familiarity with the specific customs of the English in letter writing. This all contributes to give a definitely positive answer to the question posed in our last post – was the Fieschi Letter written by a lawyer? Ed.


The formal composition of the document known as the Fieschi Letter presents certain epistolary characteristics in common with 14th-century notarial instrumenta. Indeed, the letter is a document having a ‘dual’ aspect, epistolary and notarial.

Epistolary aspect
The document as a whole is characterized by its epistolary qualities, as underscored by the denomination ‘letter’, attributed originally by Germain (1), who discovered it. One individual addresses another in the text, indicating – the form of the subscription suggests the application of the author’s seal – that it is a document to be delivered to a certain illustrious person. It is thus a missive.

Notarial aspect
The elements of a notarial nature include the incipit (
In nomine domini… …intimari curavi.), which contains notarial formulas, the initial part of the subscription (In quorum testimonium…), and the general organization of the text into protocol, narratio, and eschatocol, the narratio being subdivided into several formal sections. Other elements that one might expect in an instrumentum are lacking, such as date, place and witnesses. Nevertheless, as we shall see, their absence is neither exceptional nor inexplicable. More generally, reading the text, we have the strong impression of a notarial language.

Public trust and notaries
The impression that the Fieschi Letter is the declaration of a notary is supported by the title the author uses when signing: “
domini pape notarius” [notary of the Lord Pope, Ed.]. In the period prior to his election as Bishop of Vercelli, Manuele Fieschi held other prestigious titles, including one that certainly bound him more intimately to England and the Crown (and thus to the addressee of the letter, Edward III): Manuele Fieschi was a canon of York, England’s second most important cathedral. Many papal letters so identify him, in spite of the fact that at the same time he held the office of papal notary (3). The choice of title in the subscription is certainly not insignificant: Manuele Fieschi underlines the fact that he is a notary, a figure of unimpeachable trustworthiness and credibility, a public servant who may not make any false statements. We recall that in his time, a notary guilty of falsehoods was removed from office, and even risked having a hand severed. The very high trust placed in notaries (and Fieschi was a notary of Christianity’s highest authority, i.e. the Papal court) is made clear in the Statutes of Genoa, Fieschi’s native city: “Omnes fidem superat et est humanorum negotiorum et in vita et in morte ac post mortem certum testimonium cui imperatores, reges, principes, comunitates ac dominatus cunctosque obnoxios esse oportet” [He (the notary) surpasses all others in trust and is certain testimony of human negotiations in life and death and after death, of whom emperors, kings, princes, societies, dominators and dominated all are in need, Ed.] (4).


In functional terms, the Fieschi Letter is a unique case, somewhere between a private letter, a diplomatic letter and a testimonial declaration, written under extraordinary circumstances: indeed, such a letter may have been written only once in history. The author did not have the option of opening a manual to find a template suiting his purposes, for such purposes had never been contemplated before. He seems to have made do by adapting the instrumentum [the standard notarial document of the time, Ed.] and the epistle, both private and diplomatic, to his needs. Therefore, in analysing the formal composition of the Fieschi Letter we have examined many coeval texts, seeking (where possible) texts that are comparable with the Fieschi Letter in terms of both the time and context in which they were written, and their function.

In addition to public instrumenta from ecclesiastic contexts and the many documents drawn up for Manuele Fieschi himself, kept in the Biella City Archives and in the Capitulary Archives of Vercelli, we have paid particular attention to the ‘Prague Letters’ addressed to Cardinal Luca Fieschi (1), a contemporary of Manuele and from the same family, and the letters of the Bishop of Salisbury, Roger Martival (2), also a contemporary, in which Manuele Fieschi himself is frequently mentioned (he was the holder of two benefices in the Salisbury diocese).


The protocol (
In nomine domini…intimari curavi) exhibits the notarial rather than epistolary characteristics of the letter. Private letters of this period normally begin by naming the sender and recipient in decreasing order of social rank. If the letter were purely epistolary, it would have begun with the name of Edward III, recipient of higher rank, with title and salutation, followed by the name of Manuele Fieschi, sender of lower rank, with his title (5). There is no salutatio, and thus no element of captatio benevolentiae [literally ‘capturing of goodwill’, this refers to the terms of flattery with which letters often began, Ed.], which would have contrasted with the objectivity and reserve proper to a notarial text. There may be two reasons why the names of the sender and recipient are missing: they were written on the verso of the original and thus, as is seen in a number of noted cases of diplomatic correspondence, not reproduced within the body of the letter (6); or they were omitted for reasons of prudence, given the extremely private, particular and sensitive nature of the document.

In place of the
salutatio, the formula “In nomine domini, amen” is of clear notarial origin, one very often found in the openings of notarial instrumenta of the period, and particularly in acts of donation, investiture and confessiones drafted in the name of Manuele Fieschi as Bishop of Vercelli and/or in the name of his vicar, Papiniano Fieschi, in the period 1343-1348 (these documents are found in the Biella City Archives and in the Capitulary Archives of Vercelli).

The formula ea quae audivi… …manu mea propria scripsi… …intimari provides assurance, and also belongs to the notarial aspect of the letter. It is a sort of arenga with a corresponding element in the eschatocol “in quorum testimonium sigillum… …apponendum duxi”. The expression “manu mea propria scripsi” [by my own hand I wrote, Ed.], or similar, is normally found in the subscription to public notarial deeds of the period, together with the names of the witnesses. Its presence in the protocol can easily be explained by the fact that, given its epistolary form, the letter does not have a notarial subscription but rather that of a missive, and thus this important assurance and invocation of the publica fides by the notary author was moved to the protocol.

In this
arenga we find a fundamental term: “ex confessione”. Then as now, ‘confession’ had a number of meanings: a) a literary autobiographical narrative (the Confessions of St. Augustine being the forebear); b) the vocal acknowledgement of one’s sins before a priest; c) a legal confession before witnesses and notary, a category that includes both the admission of guilt in a penal proceeding, and the admission of some self-prejudicial fact in a civil matter (7). The fact that the letter is an autobiographical narrative cannot be denied: the author could not have chosen better word than ‘confession’ to describe what he had heard.

Corroborative examples of the formulas and terms contained in the protocol of the Fieschi Letter are to be found in an instrumentum dated 12 January 1299, and drafted in the cathedral of Sainte-Croix d’Orléans. This document is an excellent term of comparison for the Fieschi Letter. Firstly, it is an example of notarial writing within the ecclesiastic domain. Like the Fieschi Letter, it contains autobiographical testimony of a series of past events. Just as in the Fieschi Letter, this testimony is referred to as a ‘confession’, and it is explicitly stated that it was heard by a public notary: “reverendus pater confessus fuit et asseruit coram me publico notario … Confessione hujusmodi facta et recitata…[The reverend father confessed and stated in the presence of myself, public notary … The confession thus made and recited…] . This clearly shows that one of the functions of a notary working in a similar environment and period to Manuele Fieschi was indeed to record such ‘confessions’, or testimonial statements. Lastly, in the subscription, we read “hoc instrumentum publicum inde confectum propria manu scripsi[this public instrumentum in this place composed, by my own hand I wrote, Ed.], an assurance that is almost word-for-word the same as that of the Fieschi Letter, “manu mea propria scripsi.


The narratio is the most substantial part of the letter (Primo dicit… …pro vobis et aliis peccatoribus orando). We will limit ourselves here to observing that the account it contains is organized using adverbs such as primo, postea and also finaliter, an erudite, notarial adverb used since the 11th century, in place of the more common demum or tandem. The explicit of the narratio, which, as customary, evokes the divine – “agendo penitenciam et Deum pro vobis et altri peccatori orando” – would not be out of place in a juridical notarial instrumentum of the time, but is also fitting in a private letter, especially if written by a member of the Curia (5).

The opening formula of the subscription, “
In quorum testimonium sigillum contemplatione vestre dominationis duxi apponendum” [In testimony of which I caused my seal to be affixed for Your Lordship’s contemplation, Ed.] evokes identical and frequently used formulas in official ecclesiastic letters of the period. We mention in this regard the letters of Roger Martival, Bishop of Salisbury in the period 1315-1330, thus a close reference both in terms of chronology and regarding rank and ambit. His letters often end with these formulas, especially when they convey the contents of previous letters and/or conversations, and/or bear testimony to some fact or event. An example is the eschatocol of the letter of 21 March 1327, in which Martival writes to Pope John XXII to complain of the fact that all the benefices available in his diocese were given to foreign beneficiaries “by grace of the Pope”, leaving the bishop without any benefices to remunerate his own priests and clerics. Among others, the letter lists Manuele Fieschi, holder of the benefices of Paulsholt and Netherhaven. The bishop ends the letter with “in quorum omnium testimonium atque fidem has litteras nostras patentes sigilli nostri impressione fecimus comuniri” [In testimony of all of which and of (my) faith, I made these letters patent, protected with the impression of my seal, Ed.]In the second part of the subscription of the Fieschi Letter, “Vester Manuel de Flisco, domini pape notarius, devotus servitor vester” [Your Manuele Fieschi, notary of the Lord Pope, your devoted servant, Ed.], the “vester” is typical of Franco-English diplomatic dispatches of the time, both in Latin and in Anglo-Norman. For example, when writing to the Pope, the kings of England used the formula “devotus filius vester” [your devoted son, Ed.] (6) in the subscription.

On the contrary, neither of the above subscription formulas are found in the formal or intimate letters addressed to Cardinal Luca Fieschi between 1319 and 1336 (the ‘Prague Letters’) (1). All of these letters come from the Mediterranean area or Near East and generally end with wishes for good health and long life (for example, the letter sent by Leonardo Rainaldi of Genoa, canon of Bologna, on 16 February 1320 or 1321, wishes the cardinal Creator omnium bonorum vos conservet in suo servicio per tempora longiora” [May the creator of all good conserve you in his service for many years to come, Ed.). Similarly, all the letters addressed to Cardinal Luca Fieschi bear the seal of the sender, but no verbal formula that refers to the seal.

Thus, the subscription of the Fieschi Letter makes use of formulas proper to French-English epistles of the time, suggesting an author familiar with the diplomatic and epistolary customs of England, just as we would expect of Manuele Fieschi, canon of York and beneficiary of many English benefices.

Lastly, the lack of date or actum in both the protocol and the eschatocol should not be surprising: this is completely normal in private correspondence during this period, as shown both by the letters addressed to Cardinal Luca Fieschi, i.e. the ‘Prague Letters’, and by the diplomatic letters of the English Crown (6) (1).


We may characterize the Fieschi Letter as a letter bearing a testimonial declaration made before a notary. In its formal composition, the letter possesses all the characteristics one would expect of a document of this nature written during the period in question (even though it is quite unique in terms of the nature of its content). It appears to have been specifically created in keeping with the English epistolary customs of the time, by an author with experience writing in the manner of notaries, and who appeals to the high trust placed in notaries.

In sum, the formal composition of the letter lacks any element that would lead us to think it was written by anyone other than Manuele Fieschi; indeed, everything indicates him as the true author of the text.

(1) Zdeňka Hledíková, Raccolta praghese di scritti di Luca Fieschi, Univerzita Karlova, Prague, 1985.

(2) Kathleen Edwards (ed.), The Registers of Roger Martival, Bishop of Salisbury, 1315-1330, Oxford, 1959.
(3) The Curial, common and secret letters of Pope John XXII, and Pope Benedict XII. See: Guillaume Mollat,
Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877 and Georges Daumet, Benoit XII (1334-1342); Lettres closes, patentes et curiales se rapportant а la France, Paris, 1899-1922.
(4) G. Costamagna,
Il Notaio a Genova tra Prestigio e Potere, Rome, 1970, p. 70.
(5) Fulvio delle Donne, “
Le formule del saluto nella pratica epistolare medievale”, in Filologia Mediolatina IX, Florence 2002.
(6) Pierre Chaplaise,
English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages, London, pp 124-126.
(7) Egidio Forcellini,
Totius Lexicon Latinitatis, 1775.




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