De profundis: the letters and archives of Pelagius I of Rome (556–561)

Bronwen Neil*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Almost all letters by bishops of Rome from beginning of the fifth century (Innocent I) up to 590 (Gregory I) are preserved only in mediaeval letter-collections. Due to the nature of the canon law-collections and the rationale behind their compilation, that of providing authorities on questions of clerical discipline and doctrinal error, the content of papal letters that survive is remarkably homogeneous. This, together with a preference for letters addressed to important figures such as members of the imperial family, and other well-known bishops, has meant that questions of the collator’s intention are thus generally removed from the contemporary sphere to mediaeval concerns with providing epistolary precedents for canon law. The letters of Pelagius I are an exception to the rule. The production and preservation of ninety-six letters from his pontificate merit scholarly attention. The content of these letters covers much the same ground as the Registrum of Gregory the Great (590–604): defence of doctrine, management of papal property and revenues, care for the poor and needy, especially clergy, involvement in disputed episcopal elections and clerical discipline. In this broad focus, we can see a distinct change from previous papal collections, and an often-overlooked precursor to Pope Gregory I. First let us consider the Pelagian collection in the context of papal archive production in the fifth and sixth century, before turning to the mediaeval transmission of the collection, and its highly varied contents. Papal archives from the fifth and sixth centuries Two of the largest Latin corpora of episcopal letters before Gregory’s were produced by Leo the Great (440–61) and Gelasius (492–96). The third largest was that of Pelagius I (556–61). The survival of so many letters from Pelagius I casts doubt on Noble’s assertion that the papal archives before Gregory I do not survive ‘in even fragmentary form’. Pelagius’ father, John, was a vicarianus, either a deputy to the praetorian prefect of a civil diocese, or a civil servant on the staff of a vicarius.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCollecting early Christian letters
Subtitle of host publicationfrom the apostle Paul to late antiquity
EditorsBronwen Neil, Pauline Allen
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781316135655
ISBN (Print)9781107091863
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015
Externally publishedYes


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