The history of the notary public is closely related to the early Catholic Church. Tiro, a secretary for the orator and statesman Cicero in Ancient Rome, developed a shorthand system named nota, used by the Roman notarius, or notary. The Romans used notaries in lands they conquered.
The Church developed its own system of notaries, especially following the decline of the Roman Empire.
Photo: St Peter’s Basilica church in the Vatican
Pope Clement I
Notaries were officers of the Catholic Church from an early time. Pope Clement I, the fourth Pope, appointed notaries in Rome to record the acts of any martyrs. Later, the Church claimed that papal notaries, appointed by the Pope, had international jurisdiction and could act in any country.
As the Roman Empire started to decline, near the end of the second century, the power of the Pope increased, and took the place of the Roman Emperors. The Church took over many functions previously performed by the government.
Pope Leo III and Charlemagne
During the eighth century, the Holy Roman Empire was created in central Europe. In 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the emperor. Charlemagne and emperors who followed claimed all the authority of the previous Roman emperors. This included the authority to appoint imperial notaries who had jurisdiction in any country that was once part of the Roman Empire. Bishops, abbots, and counts were required to have their own notaries.
For administrative convenience, the Pope frequently delegated the authority to appoint notaries to religious leaders, usually Archbishops, and other leaders.
Imperial and papal notaries in England did work for ecclesiastical courts and in commercial transactions with foreign countries. They added a unique graphic sign which identified the notary who prepared the document. Some also included an inscription using Tironian notes.
Notaries retained copies of documents they issued. If the originals were lost, notaries could reissue documents from their own records. In the 16th century, the creation of public notarial archives became popular as a central storage location.
Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V, became aware of record keeping methods used in several locations, including the Medici of Florence, and other states, including Spain. In 1588, he refashioned notarial record keeping practices. Well-ordered archives hindered fraud, protected commerce, and helped to guarantee justice and protect contracts, a mark of good and effective government.
Laws (bandi) were written requiring communities to provide proper document storage facilities, keep document inventory lists, and to choose an archivist. Income received by the archivist contributed to the community’s annual tribute to the papal treasury.
Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII, a devout Catholic, had a dispute with Pope Clement VII, and got Parliament to give the power to appoint bishops in England without the Pope’s permission. The Pope excommunicated the King.
In 1534, Henry VIII then got Parliament to make him the head of the Church of England, including the power to appoint notaries, which was delegated to the Court of Faculties, under the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Reformation reduced the power of ecclesiastical law, and common law became the supreme law in England.
There are ecclesiastical notaries in the Church today, who deal with religious matters under canon law.
1. Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome, by Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Medieval notary graphic, historical
3. Pope Sixtus V, photo of 1591 sculpture in Rome, Wikipedia, Public Domain
4. Coat of Arms, Holy See, Vatican, by F l a n k e r [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons