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Lux in Arcana

This is exciting. The event in question is a selection of items and documents from the Vatican Secret Archives which will be on display at a museum in Rome until September.

The word “secret” here doesn’t mean secret as we commonly use today, rather the original meaning of “something private” is what applies. There are more than 35,000 volumes, covering 1200 years of history, with some items being far older. If there is one thing the catholic church does better than anyone else, it’s record keeping. An estimated 52 miles of shelving hold them all.

Now you can’t just stroll in and poke around, the church keeps a grip on that, but anyone with a reason can request specific documents and be allowed to study them. Historians, clerics and  scientists all make regular requests and about 1000 per year are granted. You may not have to actually go to get documents, there are some that have been digitized, and if you are persuasive enough, you may be able to get them to scan a particular page or pages and have them sent to you. I was able to get copies on 2 occasions in school, with the help of my bishop.

The big question for many people is, “so what?” or, “who cares?. Well, it’s one of the largest repositories of historical documents on earth, holding many one of a kind documents. Some of the things that will be on display are:

  • Martin Luther’s excommunication
  • A letter from American Indians written on birch bark
  • Galileo’s conviction
  • One of Henry’s (Henry VIII) appeals to the Pope asking for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon
  • A book detailing everything from the finances to feuds of one noble family, it weighs over 100 pounds
  • Documents about the Gregorian calender’s adoption.
  • Lot’s of other stuff

So, far being from secret as we mean it today, anyone can use the archive and the wealth of knowledge and history available is simply staggering. So many of the exciting and important parts of Europe’s history are documented with unparalleled detail and care. The Vatican has a unique role that it has played for centuries, and still does today. Acting as the hub around which all of Europe rotated, the Holy See has been at least a peripheral party to almost every western historical event, and they never threw anything away.

I’d kill for just a few hours to browse, but alas, it isn’t allowed. Hopefully the bulk of the archives will someday be available online, but oh well.

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