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by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2002, A.S. XXXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
The Middle Ages is filled with documents reportedly to be written by authors long dead. This practice was tolerated for several reasons. The two key ones were first, proclaiming authorship was seen as an act of pride and thus a sin. Secondly, the more ancient and more prestigious author that can be attributed to the work the more authority it carried. Thus a major effort of medieval research involves separating the true works of the ancient authors from the medieval frauds. The most famous of these frauds is the Donation of Constantine which was uncovered during the Renaissance. This essay will go though how Lorenzo Valla came to his conclusion.
The Donation of Constantine is the document by which the Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly transferred secular authority of the western half of the Roman Empire to the Pope. And was the basis of the Pope’s claims of authority over the rulers of Europe. It is now known to have been written sometime in the last half of the eighth century in either Rome or the Frankish Empire. Its original purpose is unclear as there are several possible motives. The most likely was to justify the Donation of Pepin which officially created the Papal States. It could also have been to shore papal authority in relationship to the Byzantines which were in one of their periodic low points.
There are several sections to the Donation. After a longish opening there is a declaration of the Christian creed. Next tells how Constantine, suffering from leprosy, is visited by St. Peter and St. Paul, seeks out Pope Sylvester, is converted, and finally cured by baptism. It then declares that the Roman see have dominion over all other sees and churches. It confers the Lateran palace to the church. There is then a long list of imperial symbols authorized to be used by the pope. Other clergy is allowed the use of some imperial trappings of rank. Then comes the crucial section which gives Rome and the western half of the empire to the pope. The remainder of the empire would then be governed from a new city in the east. The Donation then ends with the declaration that these changes were meant to be permanent.
While during the Middle Ages doubts about the Donation were occasionally expressed, it was not challenged until 1440 by Lorenzo Valla. Valla wrote his criticism while in the employ of the King of Aragon, who as King of Naples was fighting with the Pope. Though the motivation was partisan, the criticisms remained valid. The issue did not die, however, until another 350 years passed.
Valla’s attack consisted of three parts. The first consisted of the unlikelihood that Constantine would conceive or act on such an idea. The second was the lack of any supporting evidence outside of the Donation that it really occurred. The third, and most famous, was the usage and inconsistencies within the Latin text.
In the first part, Valla argues that it is unnatural to expect that Constantine to give up half the empire, given the usual desire of rules to expand their domains. Nor that his family or the Roman Senate would countenance such an act. Nor would Pope Sylvester would have accepted such a thing based on a similar biblical event involving the prophet Elisha.
Valla next argues that there is no contemporary evidence that such a change in rulership took place. He mentions that none of the Latin histories mention it. That all the coins of the period carry Constantine’s image and not that of Christ or St. Peter as would be expected if the Pope ruled. He also cites sources which imply that Constantine was a lifelong Christian, thus his conversion to Christianity, which prompted the Donation, could not have occurred. This last point has not borne up well in subsequent research. His last point was not a part of Gratian’s Decretum, a compilation of Roman and canon law written around 1140. Not only was it not in the earliest known copies, but when it does appear, it appears out of place as it interrupts the flow of discourse.
Valla’s final arguments have to do with errors with the text itself. The first error he picks up is that it mentions Constantinople as a patriarchal see at a time before the town Byzantium became Constantinople. Another anachronism is a reference to the imperial diadem as though it was a golden crown when, in reality, it was a silken cloth. Another flaw is the closing which was appropriate for a letter but not a legal document. He also points out numerous lapses in classical grammar, vocabulary and style.
The Donation of Constantine in the large scheme of things was not a critical document. While used to support papal secular power, the power was not depended on it, and lasted long after it was shown to be forgery. Its importance lies more in the fact it was exposed as a demonstration of the growing scholarship of the Renaissance. While not the first medieval forgery to be exposed, it spurred a reappraisal of medieval works, the result of which most was rejected leading to the modern era of philosophy.
Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. 1986. Vol. 3, pp. 564-5.
Henderson, Ernest, ed. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965. pp. 319-329
Valla, Lorenzo. The Profession of the Religious and the principal augments from the Falsely-Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine. Trans. Olga Zorzi Pugliese. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1985.
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