The charters issued by the papal "chancery" were the most important medium to express the popes' will. The output of papal charters both in quantity and in quality excels those of all other secular and spiritual dignitaries.
The papal "chancery" was the most efficient institution of its kind in the Middle Ages: Towards the end of the 12th century, several thousand charters per year were issued. Overall, it is estimated that there were about 30,000 letters and charters from the beginnings until 1198, of which, however, a large number has not been preserved (deperdita). The charters are distributed very irregularly over these 1,200 years. During the second half of the 12th century, the number of documents increases rapidly: There are as many regesta for the four years of Pope Gregory VIII (1187–1191) as there are for the first 500 years of papal history.
For a long time, charters were written onto papyrus, which is why there are only very few of the oldest originals left. The earliest preserved charter dates from 819. Parchment was only used for papal charters from the beginning of the 11th century onwards; the last charter written on papyrus dates from 1057. From then on, papal documents were exclusively written on parchment.
Not only the quantity of papal charters was exceptional, they also stood out because of their quality. Several graphic symbols did not only create a unique recognizability, but also expressed the popes' self-conception. Under the reforming popes the pool of designs used became more and more standardised, homogenising the documents and influencing the production of charters all over Europe.
The most prominent items are the round rota (with the name and the motto of the respective pope) and the Benevalete monogram in the lower part of the charter, which frame the pope's signature. Additionally, signatures of cardinals witnessed the legal act on privileges. On those, the first line was emphasised by decorated writing (Elongata), containing especially the name of the sender and the addressee. The increasingly accurate execution with straight lines and flush side margins also contributed to the high quality of the documents, which was exceptional for this time. The charters were completed by a bull: the lead used there was exclusively reserved to the popes, showing on one side the faces of the apostles St Peter and St Paul, on the back side the name of the respective pope. From the beginning of the 12th century onwards more diverse types of charters developed in order to cope with the increased need of papal documents.
The popes' growing influence led to an increased demand of their decrees, which resulted in this explosion of charters issued. Most commonly, petents accessed the pope, not only in order to decide on questions of right faith or liturgy, but also in order to decide on legal issues or to confirm old privileges. The people demanding a papal charter were mostly, but by no means exclusively, ecclesiastical dignitaries and institutions.
The regesta collected in the database do not only base on the popes' charters: letters (which are different from charters because they do not contain any legal decisions, although especially in the first centuries these genres often overlap) are included as well. Moreover, many documents now lost can be retraced from younger charters or from historiography. From these sources, information about the popes' elections, consecrations, deaths, travels and meetings, as well as donations and foundations by them is also included.
The time analysed by the project ends with the beginning of Pope Innocence III's pontificate in the year 1198. From then on, relatively complete registers are preserved at the papal curia, allowing to retrace their contacts. There had been registers before, but only three of them are (partially) preserved (of Gregory I, John VIII, and Gregory VII). Therefore, papal charters issued before 1198 have to be searched in the recipients' archives spread all over Europe and beyond. The Göttinger Papsturkundenwerk dedicated itself to this task.