After the protonotaries left the sketching of the minutes to the abbreviators, those de Parco majori, who ranked as prelates, were the most important officers of the apostolic chancery. By the time of Pope Martin V their signature was made essential to the validity of the acts of the chancery; and they obtained in course of time many important privileges.
The scope of its labour, as well as the number of its officials, has varied with the times. Up to the twelfth or thirteenth century, the duty of the Apostolic - or Roman Chancery was to prepare and expedite the pontifical letters and writs for collation of church dignities and other matters of grave importance which were discussed and decided in Consistory. About the thirteenth or fourteenth century, the popes, then residing at Avignon in France, began to reserve the collation of a great many benefices, so that all the benefices, especially the greater ones, were to be conferred through the Roman Curia (Lega, Praelectiones Jur. Can., I, ii, 287). As a consequence, the labour was immensely augmented, and the number of Abbreviators necessarily increased. To regulate the proper expedition of these reserved benefices, Pope John XXII instituted the rules of chancery to determine the competency and mode of procedure of the Chancery. Afterwards the establishment of the Dataria and the Secretariate of Briefs lightened the work of the Chancery and led to a reduction in the number of Abbreviators.
According to Ciampini (Lib. de Abbreviatorum de parco majore etc., cap. i) the institution of curial abbreviators was very ancient, succeeding after the persecutions to the notaries who recorded the acts of the martyrs. Other authors reject this early institution and ascribe it to Pope John XXII (1316). It is certain that he uses the name Abbreviators, but speaks as if they had existed before his time, and had, by overtaxation for their labour, caused much complaint and protest. He (Extravag. Joan. tit. xiii, "Cum ad Sacrosanctae Romanae Ecclesiae") prescribes their work, determines how much they may charge for their labour, fixes a certain tax for an abstract or abridgment of twenty-five words, or their equivalent, 150 letters, forbids them to charge more, even though the abstract goes over twenty-five words but less than fifty words, enacts that the basis of the tax is the labour employed in writing, expediting, etc., the Bulls, and by no means the emoluments accruing to the recipient of the favour or benefice conferred by the Bull, and declares that whoever shall charge more than the tax fixed by him shall be suspended for six months from office, and upon a second violation of the law, shall be deprived of it altogether, and if the delinquent be an abbreviator, he shall be excommunicated. Should a large letter have to be rewritten, owing to the inexact copy of the abbreviator, the abbreviator and not the receiver of the Bull must pay the extra charge for the extra labour to the apostolic writer.
Whatever may be the date of the institution of the office of abbreviator, it is certain that it became of greater importance and more highly privileged upon its erection into a college of prelates. Pope Martin V (Constit. 3 "In Apostolicae", ii and v) fixed the manner for their examination and approbation and also the tax they should demand for their labour and the punishment for overcharge. He also assigned to them certain emoluments. The Abbreviators of the lower, or lesser, were to be promoted to the higher, or greater, bar or presidency. Their offices were compatible with other offices, i.e. they can hold two benefices or offices at one and the same time, some conferred by the Cardinal Vice-Chancellor, others by the Holy Father.
Pope Paul II suppressed this college; but Sixtus IV (Constitutio 16, "Divina") reestablished it. He appointed seventy-two abbreviators, of whom twelve were of the upper, or greater, and twenty-two of the lower, or lesser, presidency (Parco), and thirty-eight examiners on first appearance of letters. They were bound to be in attendance on certain days under penalty of fine, and sign letters and diplomas. Ciampini mentions a decree of the Vice-Chancellor by which absentees were mulcted in the loss of their share of the emoluments of the following chancery session. The same Pope also granted many privileges to the College of Abbreviators, but especially to the members of the greater presidency.
Pius VII suppressed many of the chancery offices, and so the Tribunal of Correctors and the Abbreviators of the lower presidency disappeared. Of the Tribunal of Correctors, a substitute-corrector alone remains. Bouix (Curia Romana, edit. 1859) chronicles the suppression of the lower presidency and puts the number of Abbreviators at that date at eleven. The present college consists of seventeen prelates, six substitutes, and one sub-substitute, all of whom, except the prelates, may be clerics or laymen. Although the duty of Abbreviators was originally to make abstracts and abridgments of the apostolic letters, diplomas, etc., using the legal abbreviations, clauses, and formularies, in course of time, as their office grew in importance they delegated that part of their office to their substitute and confined themselves to overseeing the proper expedition of the apostolic letters. Prior to the year 1878, all apostolic letters and briefs requiring for their validity the leaden seal were engrossed upon rough parchment and in Gothic characters (round letters, also called Gallicum and commonly Bollatico, but in Italy today Teutonic) without lines, or diphthongs, or marks of punctuation. Bulls engrossed on a different parchment, or in different characters with lines and punctuation marks, or without the accustomed abbreviations, clauses, and formularies, would be rejected as spurious. Pope Leo XIII (Constitutio Universae Eccles., 29 December 1878) ordained that they should be written henceforth in ordinary Latin characters upon ordinary parchment, and that no abbreviations should be used except those easily understood.
Pope Paul V, who in early manhood was a member of the College (Const. 2, "Romani"), made them Referendaries of Favours, and after three years of service, Referendaries of Justice, enjoying the privileges of Referendaries and permitting one to assist in the signatures before the Pope, giving all a right to a portion in the papal palace and exempting them from the registration of favours as required by Pius IV (Const., 98) with regard to matters pertaining to the Apostolic Chamber.
They followed immediately after the twelve voting members of the Signature in capella. Abbreviators of the greater presidency were permitted to wear the purple cassock and cappa, as also rochet in capella. Abbreviators of the lower presidency before their suppression were simple clerics, and according to permission granted by Sixtus IV (loc. cit.) might be even married men.
These offices becoming vacant by death of the Abbreviator, no matter where the death take place, are reserved in Curia. The prelates could resign their office in favour of others. Formerly these offices as well as those of the other chancery officers from the Regent down were occasions of venality, until popes, especially Benedict XIV and Pius VII, gradually abolish that. Pope Leo XIII (Motu Proprio, 4 July 1898) most solemnly decreed the abolition of all venality in the transfer or Collation of the said offices.
As domestic prelates, prelates of the Roman Court, they had personal preeminence in every diocese of the world. They were addressed as "Reverendissimus", "Right Reverend", and "Monsignor". As prelates, and therefore possessing the legal dignity, they were competent to receive and execute papal commands. Benedict XIV (Const. 3, "Maximo") granted prelates of the greater presidency the privilege of wearing a hat with purple band, which right they hold even after they have ceased to be abbreviators.