We do not know where or when Manuele Fieschi was born. We can, however, assume that he was born either in Genoa or in Lavagna, the ancestral home of the Fieschi Family, or in one of their territories in the Republic of Genoa, a state which roughly corresponded to what is now the Italian region of Liguria, with the addition of a number of territories along the eastern French riviera.
The first document we possess that refers to Manuele Fieschi (or Manuel de Flisco as he is called in the documents) is dated 04/12/1316. (1) It is a papal letter conferring on him the right to a canonry and prebend (ecclesiastic income) in the diocese of Arras (now in northern France) in the archdiocese of Rheims. The letter is one of forty consecutive papal letters which, on the same day, confer church benefices on members of Cardinal Luca Fieschi’s household and family, and indeed Manuele Fieschi is qualified in the letter as ‘nepos’ (nephew) of Cardinal Luca. This is not in the literal sense, as they were in fact distant cousins. In these papal letters every member of the Fieschi family, bearing the surname ‘Fieschi’, is referred to as Cardinal Luca’s ‘nepos’, without distinction. The letter also specifies that, in 1316, Manuele was already provost (praepositus) of the church of San Salvatore di Lavagna in the diocese of Genoa. This celebrated church is known today as ‘San Salvatore of the Fieschi’. It was erected by the first Fieschi pope, Innocent IV (Sinibaldo Fieschi) in the 13th century, in the territory of Lavagna.
At this time many career churchmen who entered the clergy through family connections, just like Manuele, were awarded their first benefices when very young. We know, for example, that Cardinal Luca Fieschi was already subdeacon, papal chaplain, canon of Lichfield in England and canon of Paris by the age of twenty (2). Perhaps it is reasonable to assume therefore that Manuele was born around the year 1300, but we cannot be sure.
A papal letter dated 29.01.1317 (3) confers on Manuele the right to a canonry and prebend in the diocese of Genoa. Another, dated 12.07.1319 (4), confers on him the right to expect a church benefice in the diocese of Salisbury to the value of 30 marks per annum. Another papal letter issued the same day sees Manuele actually receiving a church benefice, not just the right to one. He receives archdeaconship of the diocese of Genoa upon the death of Gotifredo Spinola, former holder. A further papal letter, dated 09.02.1327 (5) confers on him the benefice in Salisbury, the right to which he had been given in the letter dated 12.07.1319. This letter states that the prebend (annual earnings generated from the cathedral of Salisbury’s posessions) had become vacant due to the marriage of Hector de Flisco, implying that this benefice in the diocese of Salisbury was swapped from one family member to another. In reality, the benefice that Manuele received was almost certainly the prebend of Netheravon. (6) However, the prior holder of this benefice was Gilbert de Middleton. (6) Does this mean that there was a ‘re-shuffle’ of prebends at this time? We do not know. A papal letter dated 14.11.1327 (7) confers on Manuele provision for a canonry and prebend in the diocese of Maastricht, now in the Netherlands.
A fundamental moment in the life of Manuele Fieschi is represented by a papal letter dated 13.12.1327 (8), in which he is named executor to a church benefice granted to one Mathaeus Voguoni de Tropharello, cleric of the diocese of Turin. This letter refers to him for the first time as papal notary, the title used in the signature of the Fieschi Letter. From this moment onwards it is safe to assume that he was resident at the papal court of Avignon, though he may nevertheless have travelled in between duties.
We are still only at the beginning of Manuele’s story, but we will pause for an important digression: what exactly was a papal notary?
In Latin, the title is either notarius domini papae, (notary of the Lord Pope) or protonotarius apostolicus (protonotary apostolic, the title still in use today). At the time of Manuele Fieschi’s notaryship (during the reigns of Pope John XXII and Pope Benedict XII), these were the highest ranking members of the Papal Chancery, the offices responsible for the creation of official documents for the papal see. Lower ranks included abbreviatores (responsible for the creation of drafts) and scriptores (copyists), whose work was supervised and revised by the papal notaries and by the auditores, who literally listened while the drafts of certain types of document were read aloud (a process called audentia) by lectores, (readers, who were in fact scriptores in another role) and made criticisms and corrections to points of law (no connection with modern ‘auditors’). (8) We see from this that there was a complex and articulated structure within the papal chancery, responsible for creating dozens of documents daily, pertaining to thousands of church benefices and other appointments around Europe, and the notaries were at the top of this structure. They were seven in number, of which one was the Chancellor, a cardinal responsible for the Chancery’s workings, thus effectively there were really six notaries carrying out regular duties. (9) In rank, they were the highest non-episcopal members of the Curia. This might imply that the ‘next step up’ in their careers was that of bishop. Indeed, this was the case for Manuele Fieschi, who later became Bishop of Vercelli. However, in reality, papal notaries were very often elevated directly to the rank of cardinal, from which they could then become pope themselves. This had already happened in the case of Benedetto Caetani, a papal notary who became cardinal and then Pope Boniface VIII. This was later to happen in the case of Rodrigo Borgia, who was papal notary at the age of twelve, Chancellor for no less than 35 years, before becoming Pope Alexander VI. (10) In short, becoming a papal notary was a superb career move.
What did a papal notary actually do? Well, apart from supervising and revising the work of others, they were expected to create only certain types of documents personally: the investitures of bishops and archbishops, and of the abbots of the largest and most important abbeys and monasteries. In the middle ages, bishops, archbishops and abbots were men of great standing, who were not only spiritual leaders, but held great temporal power and wealth in their hands, due to the extensive lands their sees and abbeys owned. Another duty of the notaries was the correction (together with their staff of abbreviatores) of the litterae de iustitia (literally, ‘letters of justice’, these were mandates or commissions, normally relating to church benefices). (11) Yet another important role of the papal notaries was assisting the pope create his political correspondence, in other words, diplomatic letters relating to international affairs, normally addressed to heads of state or to the papal legates sent to negotiate with heads of state. These letters were clearly confidential in nature, and were in fact called litterae secretae, or ‘secret letters’. It was during the career of Manuele Fieschi that, for the first time a new figure in the chancery emerged, due to a leak that compromised the peace negotiations between France and England in November/December 1338 at the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. This was the secretarius (literally ‘secret-keeper’). The most sensitive correspondence was afterwards entrusted to this close associate of the pope, whose title is the origin of our word ‘secretary’ today (incidentally, this is the first time the term appears in history). (12) In other words, until December 1338 the papal notaries were privy to the secrets of international papal diplomacy.
The papal notaries did not receive a fixed salary at this time, and were remunerated in two ways. Firstly, there was a fee for every document they created or corrected, paid by the person benefiting from the document (i.e., the new bishop or abbot, or the person receiving the benefice). Secondly, they were awarded church benefices, particularly canonry, carrying handsome annual earnings. (13) As we have seen, just one of Manuele’s benefices (in the diocese of Salisbury) carried annual earnings of 30 marks, or 18 pounds. Given that an annual revenue of 40 pounds entitled a person to the rank of knight in England, (14) and that Manuele at any one time enjoyed several such benefices, and furthermore received payment for every document he created, and furthermore was a scion of an immensely wealthy family, we can see that he was not a poor man. Of course, he was not the richest person in the Curia either, but he was certainly well off, and as we have said, papal notary was a position to be aspired to.
Let’s relate all this back to the Fieschi Letter. In 1331, when Edward II (according to the story told in the Letter) is most likely to have been a the papal court, Manuele Fieschi as papal notary was still privy to the secret diplomatic correspondence of the pope. Thus, when the Fieschi Letter claims that Edward II reached Avignon, and spent 15 days with the pope, and ‘discussed everything’ in great detail, it is entirely reasonable that Manuele should have been privy to these discussions, thus having the chance to record Edward II’s story up to that point, and entirely reasonable that he could have written a letter to a king (the Fieschi Letter to King Edward III) dealing with secret matters. In fact, he regularly wrote such letters in his work. As simple as that. Lastly, relating this back to our Verdale Hypothesis (see here and here and here), it is entirely reasonable that Manuele could have been privy to, and a part of, secret negotiations with the Emperor in September and Autumn 1338. The only doubt can be that after the creation of the role of secretarius, he was no longer privy to papal secrets, though this is not certain, and it seems plausible that, if he was already involved in such a matter, he may have seen it through to the end. Is it a coincidence that the leak causing Pope Benedict XII to create the new role of ‘secret-keeper’ happened at about the same time? We cannot know.
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(1) Guillaume Mollat, Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877, No. 2140
(2) Hledìkova Zdenka, Raccolta praghese di scritti di Luca Fieschi, Prague, 1985
(3) Guillaume Mollat, Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877, No. 2644
(4) Guillaume Mollat, Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877, No. 9747
(5) Guillaume Mollat, Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877, No. 27824
(6) Helena M. Chew, Hemingby’s Register, Salisbury 1962, pp 198-199 (original manuscript also consulted)
(7) Guillaume Mollat, Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877, No. 30403
(8) Guillaume Mollat, Lettres Communes, Jean XXII, Paris, 1877, No. 30740
(9) Harry Bresslau, Manuale di diplomatica per la Germania e l’Italia, Rome, 1998, pages 262-264
(10) see the respective entries in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiano (Treccani)
(11) Harry Bresslau, Manuale di diplomatica per la Germania e l’Italia, Rome, 1998, pages 264-265
(12) Michael Tangl, Die päpstlichen Kanzleiordnungen von 1200-1500, Innsbruck 1894, ND Aalen, 1959 page 845
(13) Harry Bresslau, Manuale di diplomatica per la Germania e l’Italia, Rome, 1998, pages 293-308
(14) Kathryn Warner, Isabella of France, the Rebel Queen, Amberley Press, 2016