The Oldest Manuscript In The Vatican Archives Might Surprise You

One of the most secretive and inaccessible places in the world is not a supervillain’s lair carved into an active volcano, or a hidden chamber where black magic and other nefarious rituals take place. Rather, it’s a … well, it’s a library. A church library. The Vatican Archive, according to Mental Floss, is, on the surface at least, a place where the personal records of the pope can be archived and stored. However, it’s also a repository of so many documents that the shelves alone, if laid end to end, would stretch 50 miles.

The Vatican has been extremely cagey about what’s inside those documents, although over the centuries, it’s revealed a bit about what’s in there. While those hoping for documented proof that, say, aliens built the pyramids, are going to be disappointed, there are some priceless historical treasures contained within, such as the papal bull excommunicating Martin Luther, and letters from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to Pope Pius IX.

The oldest document — that we know of — in the Vatican Archive may also be its most mundane. It’s in no way connected to any major historical event, and is instead a routine record of a rather commonplace activity.

A 1,200-year-old receipt

The oldest (known) document in the Vatican Archive, according to Mental Floss, is a single, loose-leaf of parchment paper detailing a donation to an unspecified church in Venice in 809. That church is doubtless long gone, as the oldest extant church in that particular Italian city — the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto — probably didn’t exist before 1097, according to Atlas Obscura, although local tradition holds that it dates to the very founding of the city, in 421.

If you’re interested in seeing the document yourself, well, good luck. The process for getting approved to see anything in the Vatican Archive is complicated, to put it mildly. You have to be a scholar, according to History, so journalists and curiosity-seekers need not apply. You have to be at least 75 years old, and being Catholic is likely a plus, too. Furthermore, you won’t be able to borrow anything, according to Mental Floss, and you’ll only be allowed to peruse three documents per day. And since the cataloging system in the archive can best be described as “haphazard,” you may not be able to find what you’re looking for at all.

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