Researching the English and Scots Colleges in Rome, c. 1603-1707: Archive Use and the Pandemic

BSR Rome Fellow Karie Schultz (September 2020-June 2021) writes about her time spent researching in Rome. She will be giving a lecture entitled ‘Education and identity: the Scots and English Colleges in Rome, c. 1603–1707’, on Monday 17 May 2021. For more information and to register, click here.

In September 2020, I arrived at the British School at Rome with a great deal of uncertainty about starting a new research project during the pandemic. I had applied for a long-term fellowship before COVID-19 struck, hoping to research the studies, networks, and experiences of English and Scottish students who attended their national colleges in Rome during the seventeenth century. The universities in England and Scotland were Protestant in teaching at the time, and students had to subscribe a Confession of Faith to attend. This meant that Catholic students needed to travel to continental Europe for their education. In my project, I planned to examine how the ideas these students learned in Rome (and the experiences they had while living abroad) informed their responses to the crisis of the Catholic church back home. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic disrupted my project plans when COVID numbers in Italy took a turn for the worse throughout the autumn. Many of my archives closed, and those that remained open required appointments to be booked far in advance, quarantined documents regularly, and restricted the number of people allowed in each day.

A view of St Peter’s Basilica from my daily walk to the Propaganda Fide. Photo by the author.

Despite the logistical problems posed by the pandemic, I was able to complete some fascinating research, even if my project ended up looking different than I first anticipated. While I initially planned to only use the archives at the Scots and English Colleges, I quickly discovered that a wealth of material existed in other institutions throughout Rome. In March of this year, I therefore began a series of alternating archive visits to the Archivio Storico de Propaganda Fide and the Historical Archive of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana. The significant amount of previously unexamined material held in these two archives has become the foundation for my project. I have spent my time in the Propaganda Fide sifting through, transcribing, and translating ten volumes of material related to seventeenth-century English and Scottish missionaries, many of whom trained at English and Scots Colleges across Europe.

The entrance to the grounds of the Collegio Urbano where the Propaganda Fide archive is based. Photo by the author.

At the Gregorian University, I have focused on evidence of curriculum and teaching for English and Scottish students who took their courses at the Jesuit-run Collegio Romano. The archive includes lecture notes and manuscript treatises written by professors at the Roman College, in addition to philosophical theses which were defended publicly by students. Together, these sources have given me a better picture of the education and networks of students who came to Rome for their education and who sought to convert England and Scotland to Catholicism when they returned home.

The site of one of my main archives (the Historical Archive at the Pontifical Gregorian University). Photo by the author.

To my surprise, the easiest part of my archive trips has been navigating COVID restrictions and walking upwards of five miles each day to avoid public transport. Instead, my archival sources have caused me the greatest difficulty. Much of this material is uncatalogued, meaning that is always a surprise what you might find each day. While the potential for a new discovery is exciting, it also poses challenges. Often it means spending an entire day sorting through material that ends up being irrelevant to the project. Some of these sources are in poor physical condition, while others were written in a terrible and illegible hand.

One of the sources I have used includes the rules of the Scots College from 1615-1616. Photo by the author.

There is also no internet in the Propaganda Fide which makes translating multiple languages into English difficult. Finally, both archives do not allow researchers to take photographs, so I have spent most of my time simply transcribing over 30,000 words of material. As a result, I have to ensure that my transcriptions are flawless before I leave the archive since I cannot rely on photographs to help me out later! Nevertheless, I am so grateful to be able to enter an archive at all (a true novelty in pandemic times), and I am looking forward to spending the next month finishing up this project before I leave Rome. Although my experience at the BSR has certainly looked different to that of past Rome Fellows, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to start a new research project while living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

My lunchtime view over the Vatican from the grounds of the Propaganda Fide archive. Photo by the author.