Since the early Middle Ages, cathedral communities and religious houses maintained ecclesiastical inventories, that is, itemized lists of the objects, books, vestments, and accrued “stuff” stored in the institution’s treasury or sacristy. According to de Mely, the earliest surviving ecclesiastical inventory is that from the abbey of St.-Riquier in Picardy.✱
The inventories vary in what they record, but most list or briefly detail the relics, books, liturgical objects, and vestments collected and preserved, and often recorded the names of associated donors as the objects passed from the secular world into the sacred. Indeed, since the church is an institution that does not die, objects in ecclesiastical collections were preserved over generations, in many cases surviving from the medieval period into the modern context.
The greatest threats to ecclesiastical objects were debts encumbered by institutions, which often used their treasure or plate as pawnable items, and religious wars or conflicts over reform including the German Wars of Religion, the Huguenot campaigns of destruction, the English Reformation, and the French Revolution. Moments of debt and war also provided the context for inventorying or re-evaluating an institution’s treasured collections.
Over the years, the lists became longer and more detailed reflecting accumulated gifts but also indicative of a greater attention to detail and distinction within the descriptions of objects. By the seventeenth century, some inventories could span dozens of paper pages, producing descriptions that reflect antiquarian taste for detail, categorization, and material significance. Because religious institutions continued to exist even after the individuals charged with their care had died, it is often possible to track the same objects through the years, as they appear and reappear in successive inventories of the institutional holdings.
Ecclesiastical inventories also offer a robust and largely consistent vocabulary of description, measuring gold, silver, and gilt work in marks or pounds; referencing a vast array of liturgical vessels, books, and portable objects; and indexing in tantalizing detail countless varieties of cloth, vestiture, and reworked materials. Most ecclesiastical inventories were written in Latin and as texts held a para- or quasi-liturgical status as they were kept or stored in the sacristy or treasury and sometimes read from during specific ceremonies or offices. The vocabulary, in turn, tends to be more regular with fewer vernacular insertions or inconsistencies.
Starting in the late nineteenth century, many local historians, archivists, and antiquarians published inventories from churches and religious institutions situated throughout Europe. The first contributions to this collection come largely from the printed versions of these texts that initially appeared in local, regional, and antiquarian journals. The collection contains several inventories from France, with a focus on those dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as a selection from institutions in the northern part of the Italian peninsula.
Because relic collection and an interest in inventorying sacred objects increased in the years when crusading and papal reform came together, the focus here has been to collect and analyze inventories from the major cathedral centers and monastic houses whose treasuries grew exponentially during the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We have begun by analyzing the treasuries of Amiens cathedral, Chartres, Langres, and the collections of Clairvaux, among others.
Goals and Prospects
Since hundreds of inventories already appear in print, the possibilities for the growth of the collection are myriad. Future contributions will include manuscript images to accompany the printed versions, or manuscript originals of inventories that remain unpublished. Our goal is also to display and understand the mentality of inventorying and the organizational principles involved as it may reflect community use, value, and sacrality, as well as principles of memory, commemoration, and historical construction.
Of particular interest are the inventories of chapels or churches owned or patronized by individuals, such as those sponsored by the Vicount of Valerne in the late fourteenth century, or the Lucchese merchants in Paris at the community of Saint-Sepulcre. These lists provide a glimpse into the personal practices of piety and the enormous wealth of the most elite members of medieval society. Also of interest are the relics found in many cathedrals or important monastic houses that were brought into Europe during the period of the crusades, were associated with crusader families and regimes of memory, specifically those translated in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade of 1204.
The inventories that form the basis for this section of the DALME project are part of the ongoing analysis undertaken by the two principle investigators. Anne E. Lester is completing a book, Fragments of Devotion: Relics and Remembrance in the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, that draws from many of the inventories described above. She is also publishing an article-length study of the treasure inventories of the abbey of Clairvaux, titled “Helen’s Treasures in the Abbey of Clairvaux: Eastern Relics, Material Devotion, and the Inventory as Archival Practice,” and has given several talks on the subject.
Owner and contributors
This collected is owned by Laura Morreale and Anne Lester. It includes inventories that have been transcribed and contributed by Paolo Buffo, Riccardo Rao, Lise Saussus, and Daniel Lord Smail.