Vatican gives a glimpse into its archives

When I think of the Vatican Secret Archives, I pretty much have in mind the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. (If anyone has the Ark of the Covenant hidden away in a box in the basement, it’s going to be them.)

So when news came that the Archives has recently published a book with reproductions of more than 100 of its documents — 19 of which have never been seen by the public before — you know there’s going to be some fun stuff in there. Some examples:

In a letter dated 1246 from Grand Khan Guyuk to Pope Innocent IV, Genghis Khan’s grandson demands that the pontiff travel to central Asia in person – with all of his “kings” in tow – to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission”, threatening that otherwise “you shall be our enemy”. 

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Cute. More:

Other letters in the archive are more personal. In a 1550 note, Michelangelo demands payment from the papacy which was three months late, and complains that a papal conclave had interrupted his work on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. 

I’ve seen the Agony and the Ecstasy, and I get the sense that Michelangelo wasn’t exactly a peach to work with. But perhaps the most unusual:

. . . is a letter written on birch bark in 1887 by the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario, Canada, to Pope Leo XIII. The letter, written in May but datelined “where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers”, addresses the pontiff as “the Great Master of Prayer” and offers thanks to the Vatican for having sent a “custodian of prayer” (a bishop) to preach to them. 

Very cool. And if you happen to have an extra $100 lying around, you can pick up a copy of the book on Amazon



  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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