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The Annotated Reforms of the Dutch Pope

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor adrian vi
Portrait of Pope Adrian VI (Wikimedia Commons)

After the death of Pope Leo X (December 1, 1521) an extraordinarily long conclave followed: the college of cardinals could not reach a decision about the successor. Eventually they decided to choose a pope outside the college: Adrian VI, born in 1459 as Adriaan Floriszoon Boeyens in Utrecht. Adrian is (until now) the only Dutch pope and the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II (1978).

The pope was accepted with great reluctance by the Roman people: what was this Northern barbarian doing in Rome? As pope, he proclaimed a sober way of life and tried to reform the Catholic Church from the inside out. Not everyone could appreciate it: after a pontificate of only one and a half year, Adrian died under suspicious circumstances on September 14, 1523.

The Statuta urbis Romae and the KNIR copy

In spite of his brief pontificate, Adrian’s reforms nevertheless left a significant mark on European history, as a forerunner of the Counter Reformation. In Rome, he exerted his influence not only on the spiritual life and the curia, but also on the secular jurisdiction of the city. He decided to reaffirm and expand the reforms and legal provisions of the city, and bundled these as the Statuta et novae reformationes urbis Romae (Statutes and new reforms of the city of Rome). This work was printed with Adrianus’ consent during his pontificate and published shortly before his death (June 29, 1523).

The KNIR holds a copy of the reprint of the Statuta from 1558, published in Rome by Valerius Doricus. The book was in the private collection of the Dutch literary historian J.F.M. Sterck (1859-1941) until he donated it to the KNIR in 1928. On the pastedown, we find his ex libris (see fig. 2b): a sitting monk, reading a book, accompanied by the intertwined initials ‘JFMS’ and four lines of self-imitated Middle Dutch: ‘Wildi orbaerlick wat leeren oft begheeren te weten so minne onbekent te sijn ende niet geacht te sijn.’ (“If you really want to learn something or have the desire to know, then love to be unknown and unheeded.”)

The content of the Statuta has been of modern interest sporadically, often in relation to the urban statutes of Rome from other periods (for example, the years 1363, 1580, and 1831). The following functions as a first exploration of this fascinating KNIR copy of the Statuta. As we will see, this copy owes its extraordinariness to its usage history. Not only is its frequent use revealed by the battered state of the book, we can also read multiple Latin annotations written between the lines of the printed text and in the margins. These notes are terribly interesting: they can help us to get a better understanding of the content of the Statuta and the problems of when, how, why, and by whom this book was used.

An arsenal of annotations

The large folio format gives the Statuta its stately legal allure. However, it is anything but a coffee table book: besides the title pages (three in total) and some initials, it does not contain any further illustrations. As the page spread leaves much marginal space, it allows the book’s user to utilise it extensively. And that is exactly what happened in this copy. Throughout the whole work, we find different types of annotations: short remarks, abbreviated notes, or extensive commentary. They are all written in a rather small and cursive script by, what seems to be, the same hand.

Let us take leaf E1r as an example, since it immediately stands out in how fiercely it is annotated. A closer observation tells us that the annotations do not occur randomly or without structure (see fig. 3a). They are carefully organised around the text, and presented in the simple format ‘lemma from the main text] comment’. The commentated words are themselves underlined in the printed text. The annotations contain semantic explanations of certain words or text passages, general considerations, and references to other sections of the book or different legal texts. The annotator points to matters that he considers important with the words nota (‘beware!’) or vide (‘see/compare…’).

For example, we read in the first line of the lower annotations (see fig. 3b): Maritus autem] Vide Affl: Decis: 61 nu: 4. Here, the annotator is commenting on the lemma Maritus autem (‘a married man however’, line 4) by referring to a judicial work: Decisiones sacri regii consilii Neapolitani (Decisions of the Holy Royal Council of Naples) of the 15th/16th-century Neapolitan jurist Matthaeus de Afflictis.

That annotating is a continuous process is indicated by the various sizes of the annotations, the different shades of ink, and, in particular, by the crossed out passage in the lower annotations: they all show how the annotator is adding or altering his commentary in different stages of time.

This leads to the difficult question: for whom were the annotations intended? Purely for the annotator as study notes? This explains the small size and abbreviated style of the annotations. Or was it meant for a larger audience (who was familiar with the content of the text and this annotation system)? Although this question must remain unanswered here, it is clear that the annotations are written by a learned person. Someone who was familiar with and interested in urban law (perhaps a jurist), given the many (abbreviated) references to other legal texts. Someone who was, nevertheless, in need of explaining the text as the Statuta was not self-explanatory in the time the annotator was writing.

The mysterious annotator

Finally, we reach the exciting question: who wrote these annotations? It turns out to be a rather mysterious problem. The annotations seem to have been written by one hand. Since Sterck made no mention of any annotations (see his article from 1927), we could assume he himself supplied us with all this handwriting. However, this does not explain why the annotations – in my opinion, in a rather 16th- or 17th-century handwriting – are partly cut off, as appears to be the case with the annotations in the right margin (see fig. 4). Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that book blocks were (regardless the annotations) frequently cut off in the 18th and 19th century when the owner wanted to rebind the book.

Figure 4: Cut-off annotations in the right margin (on E1r)

Alternatively, can we attribute the annotations to another previous owner or user of the book? An indication for this appears when we leaf through to the end of the book. Right under the imprint of the sixth book of the Statuta, we find a handwritten name: ‘Christof Hans’ (see fig. 5). Who is he? Why is his name written down here? Did he contribute to the writing of these annotations? Then, what happened with the book, and how did it end up in Sterck’s collection?

Figure 5: Written name (on H4v): ‘Christof Hans’ (?)

These kinds of questions are worth asking, but require extensive research. A future, more detailed, analysis of the content of the Statuta and the annotations in the KNIR copy could provide us with great insight into the usage of this text and, furthermore, the social and economic life in Rome under the administration of the Popes, from the end of the Middle Ages onwards.

Thom van Leuveren (1994) is a research master student Classics and Ancient Civilizations at Leiden University. He is particularly interested in the late medieval period, Neo-Latin literature, and incunables.

Book description

KNIR SIGNATURE: Pregiato Folio DR120

SHORT TITLE: Statuta et novæ reformationes urbis Romæ. Rome: Valerius Doricus, 1558

SIZE: 31 x 22 cm

TITLE: S.P.Q.R. Statuta et novæ reformationes urbis Romæ, eiusdemq. varia privilegia a diversis romanis pontificibus emanata in sex libros divisa novissime compilata. Cum gratia et privilegio.

COLLATION: 2°: A-G6 H8 AA-PP6 QQ10 RR8 (RR8 omitted) a-c6 d4 a6 B6 C4 A-G6 H4

DESCRIPTION: bound in vellum with marbled plates. On pastedown ex libris of J.F.M. Sterck. Impressum of Valerius Doricus on H4v. Several marginal and intratextual Latin annotations in ink throughout the book. Furthermore, the text contains corrections, underlined words, and some damages.


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Nijland, J.A., ‘In Memoriam Dr. J. F. M. Sterck’. Vondelkroniek, 12, 1941: 150-151.

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