A Short Interview with Professor Christopher Korten

Christopher Korten is a professor of history at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He specializes in the history of the Church and the life of Pope Gregory XVI, on which he has published a number of articles. We are honored that Professor Korten has taken the time out of his schedule to discuss his forthcoming article in the March issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, “Pope Gregory XVI’s chocolate enterprise: how some Italian clerics survived financially during the Napoleonic era.”

How did you come across the topic of your article?
I suppose I had a rather unorthodox approach to research. I started first in the archives and gathered documents about Pope Gregory XVI (d. 1846). I knew the historiography had not said much about him or it was rather disparate in nature, so most everything I found would be new. I started to collate all the various documents and manuscripts from the archives – about 2,000 letters relating to Pope Gregory XVI prior to his pontificate in 1831. As I was cataloguing all of this, I looked for trends and began putting the pieces together a little bit like a detective. This was especially true of this article. There was no one piece of evidence that said, “I am selling chocolate to survive during the Napoleonic years in Italy.” But when you looked at the evidence as a whole you got a good sense that this was taking place. That is to say, these monks were producing and selling chocolate in order to earn money during the Napoleonic years. This is interesting because it is unusual, and it is unexpected from a Pope with such an austere and conservative reputation as Pope Gregory XVI, and hopefully it will be interesting for the readers.

What inspired you to write this article?
If you look at the Catholic Church in Italy during the Napoleonic years and during the Restoration (1814/15 – 1830), there is a lot of history based on official documentation.  We know about the legislative acts that were issued. We know about the general fate of many monasteries. But the history on the ground has not been told in any great detail. What these very wonderful, disparate manuscripts that I have located relating to Gregory and his order reveal is a very fascinating history that has not been told.

Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
There was one really interesting letter I found which provided the basis for an article that I published in the Harvard Theological Review in 2016. I came across a letter from Pope Gregory XVI’s thesis supervisor while in seminary. It was anonymously written, and the writer later asked that the letter be burnt after it was read because he didn’t want problems. Even as a seminarian Gregory XVI was quite popular and esteemed as a promising young intellect. In that letter, the thesis supervisor issued a stinging critique of his weaknesses as a scholar and theologian that corresponded to what I was sensing from other sources. That particular letter was in the manuscript section of the National Library of Rome.

Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
Most of the archival documents have been taken from the Camaldolese order’s main archive repository in Camaldoli (Tuscany) and from the National library in Rome.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about this article?
I’d like to say that I really enjoyed writing this particular article. When I first started contemplating the role chocolate played in the life of these monks during the Napoleonic years, there was precious little in the historiography to rely on. This was something rather new. And there is always the danger that when it’s so new, there is not enough traction to actually form something substantive. What I found interesting was how this story evolved and developed, the more research I did. At one point I realized that there was in fact a viable story here given the number of references to chocolate sales between 1800 and 1809. It was more than just a coincidence. It was a mode of financial survival.

Abstract of “Pope Gregory XVI’s chocolate enterprise: how some Italian clerics survived financially during the Napoleonic era.”
Chocolate has early associations in the West with Spanish Catholic missionaries to America. From the middle of the sixteenth century, chocolate was employed in many useful ways, including economic. However, till now, there have been no associations with the liquid drink and financial survival during and after periods of war or revolution. Yet for Italian monks during the Napoleonic years (1798-1814), chocolate was employed to support certain impoverished clerics during the leanest years of this period. Leading one of these initiatives was Mauro Cappellari, the future Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831-1846), who, along with others in his Camaldolese order, produced and retailed the chocolate throughout Italian lands. This article draws on Italian archival materials in Rome and Camaldoli in order to piece together this hitherto overlooked food enterprise. In addition, this article will also reveal much about the chocolate trade and production in general in Italian lands.

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