All the pope’s men

The papal bureaucracy of the eighth century was the most advanced and ‘modern’ government in all Europe. Unlike the hereditary kingdoms that surrounded the papal lands, the papacy was (and, for that matter, still is) ruled by an elected absolute monarch, albeit via a somewhat constricted electorate.

But no man is an island, and the pope required just as much help to run his kingdom as any other king or duke. He needed able men to assist in the performance of the papal duties, both secular and spiritual, and those men in turn required administrative staff to carry out the papal will. There were seven positions that were considered key in the papal government. Let’s take a look at the seven men who supported the pope.

Thomas Noble identifies the “primicerius and secundicerius of the notaries, primicerius of the defensors, sacellarius, and arcarius, vestararius, and nomenclator. In addition the vicedominus was an important official.”1.Noble, The Republic of St Peter, p.226. Noble gives a fuller outline of the administration of the early medieval church, which you can consult with much profit, pp.217-227. Noble further associates the seven leading men with “four major branches of activity: chancery, law, finance, household administration.”

No doubt this assignment of papal managers to functional domains will sound familiar to anyone who has worked for a government or corporation. While Max Weber may have only identified the key features of a bureaucracy in the early twentieth century, it makes sense that eighth century Rome would have had a highly functional bureaucracy. The popes trod the same streets as the many functionaries of the Roman Empire, a bureaucracy of imposing size and efficiency. The Roman ecclesiastical bureaucracy began in the third century, when the city was divided into seven zones, and a man responsible for certain functions was assigned to each zone.

Each zone got a deacon, a notary, and a defensor. The deacon, the first post to be created, had responsibility for charity in their district, for the spiritual and material well-being of their inhabitants. Over time the deacons came to control much of the material wealth of the church, and became the pope’s personal representative in each of the districts. In the eighth century the seven regional deacons became known as cardinal deacons, and were eligible to be elected pope.

A notary was originally responsible for writing down the acts of the martyrs. Over time this literary function evolved into more of a secretarial role, writing documents and and overseeing the archives. The work of a notary included compiling “records of ordinations, papal privileges, donations to the Church, patrimonial records, synodal acta, [and] correspondence.” As the number of notaries expanded, a hierarchy developed, and the primicerius of the notaries became the first of the pope’s men. Noble calls the role “the pope’s prime minister.” The secundicerius was, of course, his deputy.

The defensors were responsible for the legal guardianship of the persons within their city district, and thus complemented the duties of the deacons. “In time the defensors acquired a wide range of duties… They received and executed wills, dispensed alms, administered patrimonies, concluded contracts, judged legal cases, administered vacant bishoprics, supervised monastic discipline, and protected the lower clergy from arbitrary episcopal conduct.”2.Noble, p.222. Like the notaries, there was a senior and deputy defensor.

The sacellarius and the arcarius were the foremost financial officers of the church. The arcarius was the treasurer of the church, and employed revenue collectors. The sacellarius was the paymaster of the bureaucracy. Obviously any position where one collects or disburses money is going to be important. The sacellarius also received petitions addressed to the pope, and was used as an ambassador.

The vestararius, a position in the Lombard kingdom as well as the papacy, was responsible for the vestments or wardrobe of the monarch. His responsibilities extended to the ritual sacred vessels and precious objects owned by the church, and eventually included churches that were actually owned by the papacy. “In a sense, the vastaraius was in charge of a large part of the capital wealth and his office was, therefore, a highly responsible one.”3.Noble, p.226.

The position of the nomenclator is more obscure than the rest. He may have been a ‘master of ceremonies’ or the chief protocol officer. Like the sacellarius he also received petitions intended for the pope, and was used as an ambassador.

While not included with ‘the seven’, another important position was that of vicedominus, a bishop who acted as a sort of majordomo of the Lateran palace. While his duties did not extend outside the Lateran, his mastery and authority over the human machinery of the place would have made him an important figure.

If some of these positions seem inconsequential, how do we know that they were important? First, they are often mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis. For example, when Toto brought Constantine onto the papal throne by force,4.Liber Pontificalis, 96, Stephen II, ch.3, p.89. he compelled the vicedominus to administer the prayer that would make Constantine a cleric. Second, a late seventh century document called the Ordo Romanus I presents us with a picture of a papal procession: “Following the (pope’s) horse, these are they that are mounted: the vicedominus, vestiarius, nomenclator and sacellarius.”5.Cited by Raymond Davis, in the glossary of Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes, p.241.

Another interesting point is that these positions were not filled via inheritance, but rather through merit. Further, the papacy ran various schools which trained the nobles of Rome in various papal functions, and thus something close to a meritocracy arose. “They were the “nobles” of the Church, but their status derived in the first place from the offices they held and not from their social standing.”6.Noble, p.227.

This proto-meritocracy had the practical effect of putting the best men in the jobs for which they were best suited. Lateran personnel were professionals, “quite different from and far superior to the kinds of people who were available to execute the commands of, let us say, Charlemagne or Offa of Mercia.”7.Noble, p.228. The church and the papal lands, at that time a realm without much of an army, needed all the talent and wit it could muster if it was to survive.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Noble, The Republic of St Peter, p.226. Noble gives a fuller outline of the administration of the early medieval church, which you can consult with much profit, pp.217-227.
2. Noble, p.222.
3. Noble, p.226.
4. Liber Pontificalis, 96, Stephen II, ch.3, p.89.
5. Cited by Raymond Davis, in the glossary of Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes, p.241.
6. Noble, p.227.
7. Noble, p.228.

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