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:
- letters of early Popes before Nicea (325 AD), from Clement to Miltiades, most of which are forgeries, either totally or in part ;
- decrees of Church councils, most of which are genuine, at least for the greater part;
- 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:
In the forged Fourth Letter of Pope Clement we read the following:
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.
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