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Ecclesiastical archives may be described as a collection of documents, records, muniments, and memorials, pertaining to the origin, foundation, growth, history, rights, privileges, and constitutions of a diocese, parish, monastery, or religious community under the jurisdiction of the Church ; the term is also applied to the place or depository where such records and documents are kept.
The word archive is derived from the Latin archium, archivum , post-classical terms. Cicero uses tabularium , and Pliny tablinum. Pomponius Mela (A.D.37-54) seems among the first to adopt archium in the sense of archives (De orbis situ, lib. III). Archivum appears twice in Tertullian (A.D. 150-230). Archium ( archivum ) is a transliteration of the Greek Archeion , used among the Greeks to express the senate-house, the council-house; the college of magistrates convened therein; the place reserved for state papers; the documents themselves; and, finally, applied to many sanctuaries, which became the depositories of documents important enough to hand down to posterity. Not only Greece, but also the ancient civilizations of Israel, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Rome appreciated the value of preserving important records and usually reserved for the archives a part of the temple, the sacredness of the holy place guaranteeing, as far as possible, immunity from violation. Christian Rome, impressed with the reverence and importance attached by Jew and Gentile to such depositories, and recognizing the need of proper and safe custody of the sacred vessels and the Holy Scripture , sought out for this purpose, in the beginning, the home of some worthy Christian family , and later, during the persecutions, some secret chamber in the catacombs. In these primitive archives the early Church placed the Acts of the martyrs. St. Clement (A.D. 93), the fourth of the Roman Pontiffs, appointed for Rome seven notaries to record for future ages the sayings and sufferings of the saints who went to martyrdom. Pope Anterus (235-236) displayed such zeal for the keeping of these records of the martyrs as to win for himself a martyr's crown after but one month in the Chair of Peter ; and tradition tells of the existence, even in his day, of archives in the Lateran Basilica.
In the development of the polity of the Church, as the first councils determined the relation of clergy to bishop, and of bishop to bishop, it became necessary to assign to a special official, in a place separate from the depository for the sacred vessels, the duty of registering ordinations, the issuing of dimissory letters, the recording of synodal and conciliar decrees, and the safe keeping of documents pertaining to the administration and temporalities of the church. This official keeper of the archives, who became the registrar of the medieval cathedral, was called in Rome tabularius , and in Constantinople chartophylax . The Council of Nicæa (325), judging from its sixteenth canon, felt the need of such a church official. The Council of Mileve (402), in Africa, prescribed matricula , or archives, for records of ordination, to prevent disputes about seniority among the bishops. The famous canonist, Van Espen , commenting on the ninth canon of the Second Council of Nicæa (787) writes that in the palace of the patriarch of Constantinople were kept the archives, called the chartophylacium , in which the episcopal laws and documents containing the privileges and rights of the church were laid up. Frequently, important State papers and valuable manuscripts of profane literature were preserved in the archives of the church; the Code of Justinian was therein deposited by order of the Emperor. The monasteries were quick to follow the example of the episcopal cities in the keeping of archives. Monastic archives owe much to the introduction of the scriptorium ( manuscript room) with its armaria (book-chests) into Monte Cassino by St. Benedict (529) and into the monastery of Viviers by its famous abbot, Cassiodorus (531). The preservation of the fragments of Greek and Roman classics now extant is largely due to the monasteries, which for twelve centuries from the fall of the Western Empire were the custodians, not only of sacred codices but also of manuscripts of the ancient Greek philosophers and the Latin rhetoricians. A medieval monastery was often rich in archives, containing rare manuscripts, beautiful chirographs, paintings, precious metal-ware, and documents pertaining to the rights of a people, the privileges of kings, and treaties between nations. The universities of the thirteenth century, as Bologna and Paris, products of the episcopal schools, maintained valuable archives.
In 1587, Pope Sixtus V conceived the idea of erecting in Rome a general ecclesiastical depository to serve for archives for all Italy ; the plan, however, was not found practicable, and the Pontiff then decreed that each diocese and religious community should establish and maintain its own local archives. The most detailed legislation with regard to the erection, the arrangement, and the safe custody of archives is embodied in the Constitution "Maxima Vigilantia" of Benedict XIII (1727), the norm for the present discipline in this matter. As a result of mandatory decrees of provincial and synodal councils, archives are now found in every well organized centre. Besides the Vatican archives and those of the various Roman Congregations , there are:
- the archiepiscopal, or metropolitan, archives, wherein are preserved the acts of provincial councils ; documents concerning suffragan sees ; records of consecrations of bishops ; minutes of ecclesiastical trials, of appeals, and of matrimonial processes before the metropolitan curia, or court;
- the episcopal, or diocesan archives, containing acts of synods, documents from the Holy See, the minutes of the episcopal curia, records of ordinations and matrimonial dispensations, deeds of diocesan property, and reports of the spiritual and financial condition of every parish in the diocese ;
- the parochial archives, maintained in each parish for safely and securely keeping all documents pertaining to the origin and history of the parish, mandates and pastorals of the bishop, registers for an accurate record of baptisms, confirmations, marriages and deaths, and of the spiritual condition of souls visited in the parish ; also the books pertaining to the administration of the finances of the parish, with detailed inventory of all church property. The civil law usually considers parish registers as authentic public records.
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