1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Decretals
DECRETALS (Epistolae decretales), the name (see Decree above), which is given in Canon Law to those letters of the pope which formulate decisions in ecclesiastical law; they are generally given in answer to consultations, but are sometimes due to the initiative of the popes. These furnish, with the canons of the councils, the chief source of the legislation of the church, and form the greater part of the Corpus Juris. In this connexion they are dealt with in the article on Canon Law (q.v.).
The False Decretals. A special interest, however, attaches to the celebrated collection known by this name. This collection, indeed, comprises at least as many canons of councils as decretals, and the decretals contained in it are not all forgeries. It is an amplification and interpolation, by means of spurious decretals, of the canonical collection in use in the Church of Spain in the 8th century, all the documents in which are perfectly authentic. With these amplifications, the collection dates from the middle of the 9th century. We shall give a brief account of its contents, its history and its influence on canon law.
The author assumes the name of Isidore, evidently the archbishop of Seville, who was credited with a preponderating part in the compilation of the Hispana; he takes in addition the surname of Mercator, perhaps because he has made use of two passages of Marius Mercator. Hence the custom of alluding to the author of the collection under the name of the pseudo-Isidore.
The collection itself is divided into three parts. The first, which is entirely spurious, contains, after the preface and various introductory sections, seventy letters attributed to the popes of the first three centuries, up to the council of Nicaea, i.e. up to but not including St Silvester; all these letters are a fabrication of the pseudo-Isidore, except two spurious letters of Clement, which were already known. The second part is the collection of councils, classified according to their regions, as it figures in the Hispana; the few spurious pieces which are added, and notably the famous Donation of Constantine, were already in existence. In the third part the author continues the series of decretals which he had interrupted at the council of Nicaea. But as the collection of authentic decretals does not begin till Siricius (385), the pseudo-Isidore first forges thirty letters, which he attributes to the popes from Silvester to Damasus; after this he includes the authentic decretals, with the intermixture of thirty-five apocryphal ones, generally given under the name of those popes who were not represented in the authentic collection, but sometimes also under the names of the others, for example, Damasus, St Leo, Vigilius and St Gregory; with one or two exceptions he does not interpolate genuine decretals. The series stops at St Gregory the Great (d. 604), except for one letter of Gregory II. (715-731). The forged letters are not, for the most part, entirely composed of fresh material; the author draws his inspiration from the notices on each of the popes given in the Liber Pontificalis; he inserts whole passages from ecclesiastical writers; and he antedates the evidences of a discipline which actually existed; so it is by no means all invented.
Thus the authentic elements were calculated to serve as a passport for the forgeries, which were, moreover, quite skilfully composed. In fact, the collection thus blended was passed from hand to hand without meeting with any opposition. At most all that was asked was whether those decretals which did not appear in the Liber canonum (the collection of Dionysius Exiguus, accepted in France) had the force of law, but Pope Nicholas having answered that all the pontifical letters had the same authority (see Decr. Gra. Dist. xix. c. 1), they were henceforward accepted, and passed in turn into the later canonical collections. No doubts found an expression until the 15th century, when Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464) and Juan Torquemada (d. 1468) freely expressed their suspicions. More than one scholar of the 16th century, George Cassander, Erasmus, and the two editors of the Decretum of Gratian, Dumoulin (d. 1568) and Le Conte (d. 1577), decisively rejected the False Decretals. This contention was again upheld, in the form of a violent polemic against the papacy, by the Centuriators of Magdeburg (Ecclesiastica historia, Basel, 1559–1574); the attempt at refutation by the Jesuit Torres (Adversus Centur. Magdeburg. libri quinque, Florence, 1572) provoked a violent rejoinder from the Protestant minister David Blondel (Pseudo-Isidorus et Turrianus rapulantes, Geneva, 1620). Since then, the conclusion has been accepted, and all researches have been of an almost exclusively historical character. One by one the details are being precisely determined, and the question may now almost be said to be settled.
In the first place, an exact determination of the date of the collection has been arrived at. On the one hand, it cannot go back further than 847, the date of the False Capitularies, with which the author of the False Decretals was acquainted. On the other Date. hand, in a letter of Lupus, abbot of Ferrières, written in 858, and in the synodical letter of the council of Quierzy in 857 are to be found quotations which are certainly from these false decretals; and further, an undoubted allusion in the statutes given by Hincmar to his diocese on the 1st of November 852. The composition of the collection must then be dated approximately at 850.
The object which the forger had in view is clearly stated in his preface; the reform of the canon law, or rather its better application. But, again, in what particular respects he wishes it to be reformed can be best deduced from certain preponderant ideas which make themselves Aim of the author. felt in the apocryphal documents. He constantly harps upon accusations brought against bishops and the way they were judged; his wish is to prevent them from being unjustly accused, deposed or deprived of their sees; to this end he multiplies the safeguards of procedure, and secures the right of appeal to the pope and the possibility of restoring bishops to their sees. His object, too, was to protect the property, as well as the persons, of the clergy against the encroachments of the temporal power. In the second place, Isidore wishes to increase the strength and cohesion of the churches; he tries to give absolute stability to the diocese and the ecclesiastical province; he reinforces the rights of the bishop and his comprovincials, while he initiates a determined campaign against the chorepiscopi; finally, as the keystone of the arch he places the papacy. These aims are most laudable, and in no way subversive; but the author must have had some particular reasons for emphasizing these questions rather than others; and the examination of these reasons may help us to determine the nationality of this collection.
The name of Isidore usurped by the author at first led to the supposition that the False Decretals originated in Spain; this opinion no longer meets with any support; it is enough to point out that there is no Spanish manuscript of the collection, at least until the 13th century. In the 16th Nationality of the collection. century the Protestants, who wished to represent the forgeries in the light of an attempt in favour of the papacy, ascribed the origin of the False Decretals to Rome, but neither the manuscript tradition nor the facts confirm this view, which is nowadays entirely abandoned. Everybody is agreed in placing the origin of the False Decretals within the Frankish empire. Within these limits, three different theories have successively arisen: “At first it was thought that Isidore’s domicile could be fixed in the province of Mainz, it is now about fifty years ago that the balance of opinion was turned in favour of the province of Reims; and now, after the lapse of about twenty years, several authors have suggested the province of Tours” (P. Fournier, Étude sur les Fausses Décrétales). In favour of Mainz, especial stress was laid on the fact that it was the country of Benedictus Levita, the compiler of the False Capitularies, to which the False Decretals are closely related. But Benedict, the deacon of Otgar of Mainz, is as much of a hypothetical personage as Isidorus Mercator; moreover, in the middle of the 9th century the condition of the province of Mainz was not disturbed, nor were the chorepiscopi menaced. In favour of Reims, it has been pointed out that it was there that the first judicial use of the False Decretals is recorded, in the trials of Rothad, bishop of Soissons (d. 869), and of Hincmar the younger, bishop of Laon (d. c. 882); and an application of the axiom has been attempted: Is fecit cui prodest. But both these trials took place later than 852, at which date the existence of the collection is an established fact; the texts of it were used, but they were in existence before. Between 847 and 852, the province of Reims was disturbed by another affair, that of the clergy ordained by Ebbo at the time of his short restoration to the see of Reims, in 840–841; these clerics, Vulfadus (afterwards archbishop of Bourges), and a few others, had been suspended by Hincmar on his election in 845. But the affair of Ebbo’s clergy did not become critical till the council of Soissons in 853; up till then these clergy had, so far as we know, produced no documents, and the citations from the False Decretals made in their later writings do not prove that they had forged them. Moreover, Hincmar would not have cited the forged letters of the popes in 852; above all, this theory would not explain the chief preoccupation of the forger, which is to protect bishops against unjust judgments and depositions. We must, then, look for conditions in which the bishops were concerned. It is precisely this which has suggested the province of Tours. Brittany, which was dependent on the province of Tours, had just for a time recovered its independence, thanks to its duke Nominoé. The struggle between the two nationalities, the Celt and the Frank, found a reflexion in the sphere of religion. The Breton bishops were for the most part abbots of monasteries, who had but little consideration for the territorial limits of the civitates; and many of the religious usages of the Bretons differed profoundly from those of the Franks. Charlemagne had divided up the Breton dioceses and established in them Frankish bishops. Nominoé hastened to depose the four Frankish bishops, after wringing from them by force confessions of simony; he then established a metropolitan see at Dol. Hence arose incessant complaints on the part of the dispossessed bishops, of the metropolitan of Tours, and his suffragans, notably those of Angers and Le Mans, which were more exposed than the others to the incursions of the Bretons; and this gave rise to numerous papal letters, and all this throughout a period of thirty years. There were requests that the bishops should be judged according to the rules, protests against the interlopers, demands for the restoration of the bishops to their sees. These circumstances fall in perfectly with the questions about which, as we have pointed out, the pseudo-Isidore was mainly concerned: the judgment of bishops, and the stability of the ecclesiastical organizations.
In the province of Tours, attempts have been made to define more clearly the centre of the forgeries, and the most recent authorities fix upon Le Mans. The sole argument, though a very weighty one, is found in the undeniable relation, revealed in an astonishing similarity both in expressions and composition, which exists between these forgeries and some other documents certainly fabricated at Le Mans, under the episcopate of Aldric (832-856), notably the Actus Pontificum Cenomanis in urbe degentium, in which there is no lack of forged documents. These certainly bear the mark of the same hand.
Though we cannot admit that the False Decretals were composed in order to enforce the rights of the papacy, we may at least consider whether the popes did not make use of the False Decretals to support their rights. It is certain that in 864 Rothad of Soissons took with him Canonical influence. to Rome, if not the collection, at least important extracts from the pseudo-Isidore; M. Fournier has pointed out in the letters of the pope of that time, “a literary influence, which is shown in the choice of expressions and metaphors,” notably in those passages relating to the restitutio spolii; but he concludes by affirming that the ideas and acts of Nicholas were not modified by the new collection: even before 864 he acted in affairs concerning bishops, e.g. in the case of the Breton bishops or the adversaries of Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, exactly as he acted later; all that can be said is that the False Decretals, though not expressly cited by the pope, “led him to accentuate still further the arguments which he drew from the decrees of his predecessors,” notably with regard to the exceptio spolii. In the papal letters of the end of the 9th and the whole of the 10th century, only two or three insignificant citations of the pseudo-Isidore have been pointed out; the use of the pseudo-Isidorian forged documents did not become prevalent at Rome till about the middle of the 11th century, in consequence of the circulation of the canonical collections in which they figured; but nobody then thought of casting any doubts on the authenticity of those documents. One thing only is established, and this may be said to have been the real effect of the False Decretals, namely, the powerful impulse which they gave in the Frankish territories to the movement towards centralization round the see of Rome, and the legal obstacles which they opposed to unjust proceedings against the bishops.
Bibliography.—The best edition is that of P. Hinschius, Decretales pseudo-Isidorianae et capitula Angilramni (Leipzig, 1863). In it the authentic texts are printed in two columns, the forgeries across the whole width of the page; an important preface of ccxxviii. pages contains, besides the classification of the MSS., a profound study of the sources and other questions bearing on the collection. After the works cited above, the following dissertations should be noted. Placing the origin of the False Decretals at Rome is: A. Theiner, De pseudo-Isidoriana canonum collectione (Breslau, 1827); at Mainz, the brothers Ballerini, De antiquis collectionibus et collectoribus canonum, iii. (S. Leonis opera, t. iii.; Migne, Patrologia Lat. t. 56); Blascus, De coll. canonum Isidori Mercatoris (Naples, 1760); Wasserschleben, Beiträge zur Geschichte der falschen Dekretalen (Breslau, 1844); in the province of Reims: Weizsäcker, “Die pseudoisidorianische Frage,” in the Histor. Zeitschrift of Sybel (1860); Hinschius, Preface, p. ccviii.; A. Tardif, Histoire des sources du droit canonique (Paris, 1887); Schneider, Die Lehre der Kirchenrechtsquellen (Regensburg, 1892). An excellent résumé of the question; seems more favourable to Le Mans in the article of the Kirchenlexicon of Wetzer and Welte (2nd ed.); F. Lot, Études sur le règne de Hugues Capet (Paris, 1903); Lesne, La Hiérarchie episcopale en Gaule et Germanie (Paris, 1905); for the province of Tours and Le Mans: B. Simson, Die Entstehung der pseudoisidor. Fälschungen in Le Mans (Leipzig, 1886. It is he who pointed out the connexion with the forgeries of Le Mans); especially Paul Fournier, “La Question des fausses décrétales,” in the Nouvelle Revue historique de droit français et étranger (1887, 1888); in the Congrès internat. des savants cathol. t. ii.; “Étude sur les fausses décrétales,” in Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique de Louvain (1906, 1907), to which the above article is greatly indebted. (A. Bo.*)
- The False Capitularies are for civil legislation what the False Decretals are for ecclesiastical legislation: three books of Capitularies of the Frankish kings, more of which are spurious than authentic. The author gives himself out as a certain Benedict, a deacon of the church of Mainz; hence the name by which he is usually known, Benedictus Levita. The two false collections are closely akin, and are doubtless the fabrication of the same hands.