Advertisement

“Those who give are not all generous”: Tips and Bribes at the Sixteenth-Century Papal Court

“Those who give are not all generous”: Tips and Bribes at the Sixteenth-Century Papal Court

By Catherine Fletcher

European University Institute working papers, 2011

Abstract: Ambassadors in early modern Europe were frequent disbursers of tips, rewards and bribes, and usually expected something in return for their liberality. This paper considers the conventions, both written and unwritten, that governed such activities in Renaissance Rome, setting them in the context of the extensive literature on gift-giving. While official, ceremonial gifts were often recorded in writing, the less licit payments with which this article is concerned were often not. However, there is enough of a paper trail to reconstruct at least some of the gift-giving practices at the papal court, and the essay considers diplomatic letters, trial records and prescriptive treatises in order to do so. Its first section examines the extent to which gift-giving at the papal court was subject to regulation, where the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate gifts lay, and what constituted ‘corruption’ in this period, drawing in particular on evidence about the tipping of lower-ranking officials. Its second section looks at the language used by diplomats to justify their gift-giving, in particular the concept of liberality and the reciprocal pair ‘reward’ and ‘service’. Here the discussion focuses on two instances in the course of negotiations over Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon when Henry’s diplomats offered gifts to cardinals but subsequently encountered problems, enabling a consideration of the ways that gifts might, as Natalie Zemon Davis has put it, ‘go wrong.’

Introduction: When Baldassarre Castiglione, a former resident ambassador in Rome, wrote in Il Cortegiano that ‘those who give are not all generous’, he might well have been thinking back to his experience as a diplomat. Ambassadors in early modern Europe were frequent disbursers of tips, rewards and bribes, and usually expected something in return for their liberality. This paper considers the conventions, both written and unwritten, that governed such activities in Renaissance Rome. In his handbook on ambassadors at the curia, written in the early years of the sixteenth century, the papal master-of-ceremonies Paride Grassi included a chapter headed: ‘How much ambassadors should give to papal officials, and who these officials are.’ It was not, he said, for him to set out how much ambassadors should give to jesters and musicians, but he went on to list those officials whom one was expected to tip, from himself, as master-of-ceremonies, to couriers, the gatekeeper and the man at the secret garden. In the case of those gratuities, the ambassador could expect advice from the ceremonial office on how to comport himself. For the most part, however, the protocol of gift-giving was uncodified.

In her life of Cardinal Soderini, Kate Lowe noted both the importance of ‘perquisites, gifts and backhanders’ at the papal court and the difficulty of finding evidence for them. There are obvious problems with sources in this field: while official, ceremonial gifts were often recorded in writing, the less licit payments with which this paper is concerned were often not. However, there is enough of a paper trail to reconstruct at least some of the gift-giving practices at the papal court, and this paper considers diplomatic letters, trial records and prescriptive treatises in order to do so. Its first section examines the extent to which gift-giving at the papal court was subject to regulation, where the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate gifts lay, and what constituted ‘corruption’ in this period, drawing in particular on evidence about the tipping of lower-ranking officials. Its second section looks at the language used by diplomats to justify their gift-giving, in particular the concept of liberality and the reciprocal pair ‘reward’ and ‘service’. Here the discussion focuses on two instances in the course of negotiations over Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon when Henry’s diplomats offered gifts to cardinals but subsequently encountered problems, enabling a consideration of the ways that gifts might, as Natalie Zemon Davis has put it, ‘go wrong’.

Click here to read this article from the Max Weber Programme

See also The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from Medievalists.net

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine