1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Donation of Constantine

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DONATION OF CONSTANTINE (Donatio Constantini), the supposed grant by the emperor Constantine, in gratitude for his conversion by Pope Silvester, to that pope and his successors for ever, not only of spiritual supremacy over the other great patriarchates and over all matters of faith and worship, but also of temporal dominion over Rome, Italy and “the provinces, places and civitates of the western regions.” The famous document, known as the Constitutum Constantini and compounded of various elements (notably the apocryphal Vita S. Silvestri), was forged at Rome some time between the middle and end of the 8th century, was included in the 9th century in the collection known as the False Decretals, two centuries later was incorporated in the Decretum by a pupil of Gratian, and in Gibbon’s day was still “enrolled among the decrees of the canon law,” though already rejected “by the tacit or modest censure of the advocates of the Roman church.” It is now universally admitted to be a gross forgery.[1] In spite, however, of Gibbon’s characteristic scepticism on this point, it is certain that the Constitutum was regarded as genuine both by the friends and the enemies of the papal pretensions throughout the middle ages.[2] Though no use of it was made by the popes during the 9th and 10th centuries, it was quoted as authoritative by eminent ecclesiastics of the Frankish empire (e.g. by Ado of Vienne and Hincmar of Reims), and it was employed by two Frankish popes, Gregory V. and Silvester II., in urging certain territorial claims. But not till 1050 was it made the basis of the larger papal claims, when another Frankish pope, Leo IX., used it in his controversy with the Byzantines. From this time forward it was increasingly used by popes and canonists in support of the papal pretensions, and from the 12th century onwards became a powerful weapon of the spiritual against the temporal powers. It is, however, as Cardinal Hergenröther points out, possible to exaggerate its importance in this respect; a charter purporting to be a grant by an emperor to a pope of spiritual as well as temporal jurisdiction was at best a double-edged weapon; and the popes generally preferred to base their claim to universal sovereignty on their direct commission as vicars of God. By the partisans of the Empire, on the other hand, the Donation was looked upon as the fons et origo malorum, and Constantine was regarded as having, in his new-born zeal, betrayed his imperial trust. The expression of this opinion is not uncommon in medieval literature (e.g. Walther von der Vogelweide, Pfeiffer’s edition, 1880, Nos. 85 and 164), the most famous instance being in the Inferno of Dante (xix. 115):

“Ahi, Costantin, di questo mal fu matre
 Non la tua conversion, ma quella dote
 Che da te prese il primo ricco patre!”

The genuineness of the Constitutum was first critically assailed by Laurentius Valla in 1440, whose De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio opened a controversy that lasted until, at the close of the 18th century, the defence was silenced. In modern times the controversy as to the genuineness of the document has been succeeded by a debate scarcely less lively as to its date, its authorship and place of origin. The efforts of Roman Catholic scholars have been directed (since Baronius ascribed the forgery to the Greeks) to proving that the fraud was not committed at Rome. Thus Cardinal Hergenröther holds that it was written by a Frank in the 9th century, in order to prove that the Greeks had been rightfully expelled from Italy and that Charlemagne was legitimate emperor. This view, with variations, was maintained by the writer of an article in the Civiltà cattolica in 1864 (Serie v. vol. x. pp. 303, &c.) and supported by Grauert, who maintains that the document was concocted at the abbey of St Denis, after 840. The evidence now available, however, confirms those who ascribe an earlier date to the forgery and place it at Rome. The view held by Gibbon and Döllinger among others,[3] that the Constitutum is referred to in the letter of Pope Adrian I. to Charlemagne (778), is now indeed largely rejected; there is nothing in the letter to make such an assumption safe, and the same must be said of Friedrich’s attempt to find such reference in the letter addressed in 785 by the same pope to Constantine VI., emperor of the East, and his mother Irene. Still less safe is it to ascribe the authorship of the forgery to any particular pope on the ground of its style; for papal letters were drawn up in the papal chancery and the style employed there was apt to persist through several pontificates. Friedrich’s theory that the Constitutum is a composite document, part written in the 7th century, part added by Paul I. when a deacon under Stephen II., though supported by a wealth of learning, has been torn to tatters by more than one critic (G. Krüger, L. Loening).

On one point, however, a fair amount of agreement seems now to have been reached, a result due to the labour in collating documents of Scheffer-Boichorst, namely, that the style of the Constitutum is generally that of the papal chancery in the latter half of the 8th century. This being granted, there is room for plentiful speculation as to where and why it was concocted. We may still hold the opinion of Döllinger that it was intended to impress the barbarian Pippin and justify in his eyes the Frank intervention in favour of the pope in Italy; or we may share the view of Loening (rejected by Brunner, Rechtsgeschichte) that the forgery was a pious fraud on the part of a cleric of the Curia, committed under Adrian I.,[4] with the idea of giving a legal basis to territorial dominion which that pope had succeeded in establishing in Italy. The donations of Pippin and Charlemagne established him as sovereign de facto; the donation of Constantine was to proclaim him as sovereign de jure. It is significant in this connexion that it was under Adrian (c. 774) that the papal chancery ceased to date by the regnal years of the Eastern emperor and substituted that of the pontificate. Döllinger’s view is supported and carried a step further by H. Böhmer, who by an ingenious argument endeavours to prove that the Constitutum was forged in 753, probably by the notary Christophorus, and was carried with him by Pope Stephen II. to the court of Pippin, in 754, with an eye to the acquisition of the Exarchate. In support of this argument it is to be noted that the forged document first appears at the abbey of St Denis, where Stephen spent the winter months of 754. E. Mayer, on the other hand, denies that the Constitutum can have been forged before the news of the iconoclastic decrees of the council of Constantinople of 754 had reached Rome. He lays stress on the relation of the supposed confession of faith of Constantine, embodied in the forgery, to that issued by the emperor Constantine V., pointing out the efforts made by the Byzantines between 756 and the synod of Gentilly in 767 to detach Pippin from the cause of Rome and the holy images. The forgery thus had a double object: as a weapon against Byzantine heresy and as a defence of the papal patrimony. As the result of an exhaustive analysis of the text and of the political and religious events of the time, Mayer comes to the conclusion that the document was forged about 775, i.e. at the time when Charlemagne was beginning to reverse the policy by which in 774 he had confirmed the possession of the duchies of Spoleto and Benevento to the pope.

Bibliography.—See Döllinger, Papstfabeln des Mittelalters (Munich, 1863; Eng. trans. A. Plummer, 1871); “Janus,” Der Pabst und das Konzil (Munich, 1869; Eng. trans. 1869); Hergenröther, Catholic Church and Christian State (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1872; Eng. trans. 2 vols. 1876); W. Martens, Die römische Frage unter Pippin u. Karl d. Grossen (Stuttgart, 1881), with text; H. Grauert, “Die Konstantinische Schenkung” in Hist. Jahrb. der Gorres-Gesellsch. iii. (1882), iv. (1883); Langen, “Entstehung u. Tendenz der Konst. Schenkungsurkunde” in Sybel’s Hist. Zeitschr. l. (1883); L. Weiland, “Die Konst. Schenkung” in Zeitschr. f. Kirchenrecht, xxii. (1887–1888), maintains that the Constitutum was forged at Rome between 813 and 875, in connexion with the papal claim to crown the emperors; H. Brunner and K. Zeumer, Die Konstantinische Schenkungsurkunde (Berlin, 1888; Festgaben für R. v. Gneist), with text; Friedrich, Die Konst. Schenkung (Nördlingen, 1889), with text; W. Martens, Die falsche Generalkonzession Konstantins des Grossen (Munich, 1889); P. Scheffer-Boichorst, “Neue Forschungen über die Konst. Schenkung,” i. ii. Mitteilungen des Instituts für österr. Geschichtsforschung, x. (1889), xi. (1890); G. Krüger, “Die Frage der Entstehungszeit der Konst. Schenkung,” in Theologische Literaturzeitung, xiv. (1889); J. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, vol. vii. p. 135 (Oxford, 1899); article “Konstantinische Schenkung,” G. H. Böhmer, in Herzog-Hauck, Realencykl. (1902); E. Mayer, “Die Schenkungen Konstantins und Pipins” in Deutsche Zeitschr. für Kirchenrecht (Tübingen, 1904). Laurentius Valla’s treatise was issued in a new edition, with French translation and historical introduction, by A. Bonneau, La Donation de Constantin (Lisieux, 1879).  (W. A. P.) 

  1. Dr Hodgkin’s suggestion (Italy and her Invaders, vii. p. 153) that the Constitutum may have been originally a mere pious romance, recognized as such by its author and his contemporaries, and laid up in the papal archives until its origin was forgotten, is wholly inconsistent with the unquestioned results of the critical analysis of the text.
  2. Leo of Vercelli, the emperor Otto III.’s chancellor, protested that the Constitutum was a forgery, but without effect. The attacks upon it by the heretical followers of Arnold of Brescia (1152) convinced neither the partisans of the pope nor those of the emperor.
  3. So Langen (1883) and E. Mayer (1904).
  4. This is also W. Mayer’s view in his later work. In his Die römische Frage (1881) he had placed the forgery in 805 or 806.