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The ‘False Decretals’

Also known as the ‘Canons of Pseudo-Isidore’

ca 847 - 852 AD, France

The ‘False Decretals’ are a collection of Church legislation composed around 850 AD in the North of France. They are also known as the Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore because their compilers passed themselves off as Saint Isidore of Seville.

The Decretals claim to be a collection of decrees of councils and decretals of Popes from the first seven centuries. Most of the papal letters are forgeries. The collection contains:

  1. letters of early Popes before Nicea (325 AD), from Clement to Miltiades, most of which are forgeries, either totally or in part ;
  2. decrees of Church councils, most of which are genuine, at least for the greater part;
  3. a collection of letters of Popes, from Sylvester I (died 335 AD) until Gregory II (died 731 AD), at least 40 of which are falsifications.

Why such falsification?

How do we know they are forgeries? Experts have proved this from a careful study of the original manuscripts themselves, from a comparison with other source material, from an analysis of the language used in the documents and of the subject matter presented. Plenty of information about this is available on the internet. The full latin text of the documents has been published online (and for a discussion click on the image above).

How could they forge documents? In the early Middle Ages ancient texts were laboriously copied from ancient manuscripts to new ones. Especially monasteries were devoted to this. It was not difficult for anyone skilled in copying ancient texts to create new documents that looked like old texts.

Why did they do it? It is clear that the main objective of the forgers was to protect local bishops from the unwanted interference of metropolitan bishops. They did this by laying down the rights of local bishops and by stressing the role of the See of Rome to which - they claimed - local bishops had always had the right to appeal to. One infamous example of a key forged document is the so-called Donation of Constantine, a certificate by which the Emperor Constantine was supposed to have given absolute pre-eminence to the See of Rome.

Unfortunately, the Decretals were accepted as authentic throughout the Middle Ages. They exerted a great influence on canonists, theologians and councils.

Prejudice against women

The forgers also used the opportunity to propagate other concerns, such as their determination to keep women away from the altar. They seem to have been obsessed with a fear of women's monthly periods and a determination to protect sacred objects from being contaminated by women.

For example, in the forged Second letter of Pope Clement (92 - 99 AD) we read the following passages:

Quod si post ordinationem ministro contigerit proprium invadere cubile uxoris, sacrarii non intret limina, nec sacrificii portitor fiat, nec altare contingat, nec ab offerentibus holocausti oblationem suscipiat, nec ad domini corporis portionem accedat, aquam se sacerdotum porrigat manibus, ostia forinsecus claudat, minora gerat officia, urceum sane ad altare suggerat .
"If, after ordination, a minister [='deacon'?] happens to encroach on the private bed space of his wife, he may not enter the sanctuary, nor carry the sacrifice, nor touch the altar, nor receive the offerings for the holocaust from [the faithful who] present them, nor take part in the Body of the Lord. Rather let him do menial jobs: offer water to the priests to wash their hands with, close the doors outside, carry a jug to the altar."


Contact with his wife's bed makes the minister ritually unclean.

Praecipimus etiam, ne cum extero ecclesiae sive laico de fragmentis oblationum domini ponatur ad mensam. Unde scis tu, qui passim sacrarii panes indignis impendis, unde nosti, si a mulieribus mundi sunt? Hinc et David ab Abimelech sacerdote interrogatus, cum panes sibi ad comedendum posceret, si mundus esset a muliere, cum se mundum ante triduum profiteretur, panes propositionis manducavit.
"We also order that fragments from the offerings to the Lord not be shared at table with someone outside the church or a layman. How would you know, you who so casually dole out the loaves of the sanctuary to unworthy people, how can you tell whether they are clean from women? That is why also David was interrogated by the priest Abimelech whether he was clean from a woman. When he declared to have been clean since three days, he ate of the loaves of proposition."


Sexual contact with a woman makes a man ritually unclean for days.

In the forged Fourth Letter of Pope Clement we read the following:

Est sane propria quaedam nostrae religionis observantia, quae non tam imponitur hominibus, quam proprie ab unoquoque deum colente causa puritatis expetitur . De castimoniae dico cautela, cuius species multae sunt. Sed primo, ut observet unusquisque, ne menstruatae mulieri misceatur, hoc enim exsecrabile ducit lex dei. Quod et si lex de his non admonuisset, nos ut canthari libenter volveremur in stercore. Debemus aliquid amplius habere animalibus utpote rationabiles homines et caelestium sensuum capaces, quibus summi studii esse debet ab omni inquinamento cordis conscientiam custodire.
"There is a characteristic custom of our religion which is not so much imposed on men as properly expected from anyone who worships God on account of purity. I am speaking of concern for cleanliness of which there are many kinds.

But first that anyone should make sure not to share company with a menstruating woman, for this is considered loathsome by the law of God. And if the law had not warned about this, we would happily as Spanish flies wallow in excrement. We need to have something wider than animals, as men with reason and capable of heavenly feelings whose highest endeavour it should be to protect our conscience from every contamination of the heart."


Again, men should avoid contact with women in their periods. Notice again the stress on the worship of God: men should be uncontaminated by women when taking part in worship.

. . . Sed et illa species castimoniae observanda est, uti ne passim et libidinis solius causa feminis coeatur , sed posteritatis reparandae gratia, quae observantia, cum etiam in nonnullis pecudibus inveniatur, pudori est, si non ab hominibus rationabilibus et deum colentibus observetur. Ergo omnes peccaverunt et egent auxilio dei.
"But also that kind of cleanliness must be observed that a man does not have sex with a woman casually and for the sake of lust, but only to ensure posterity.
Since this observance can even be found among some cattle, it is shameful if not observed by men with reason and worshiping God. Therefore all have sinned and need God's help."


This attitude to sex in marriage is truly appalling. Sex is considered 'dirty' with women being blamed as the source of contamination..

The forged letter of Pope Soter

In the light of the above prejudices we can appreciate why the Letter of Pope Soter was concocted. Its sole purpose was to inculcate that no woman, not even consecrated women, should touch sacred objects.

“It has come to the notice of the apostolic See that consecrated women or nuns among you touch sacred vessels or altar linen and carry incense round the altar. No one in his senses doubts that this behaviour deserves condemnation and correction. Therefore we command you on the basis on the authority of this Holy See, that you put an end to this behaviour thoroughly and as soon as possible. And in order that this kind of plague will not proliferate further in other provinces, we order that the practice be discontinued as soon as possible”. See full text here.

P. Hinschius, ea., Decretales Pseudo-Isidorianae et Capitula Angilramni (reprint, Aalen, 1963), p. 124. Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 86.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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