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Background information on the Donatio Constantini

Background information
on the Donatio Constantini

The DONATIO CONSTANTINI claims to be a decree of Emperor Constantine by which he gives to Pope Sylvester I (314-35) secular authority over the whole of Western Europe.

The DONATIO CONSTANTINI is without doubt a forgery, fabricated somewhere between the years 800 and 850.

For full explanation of the forgery read the Catholic Enclyclopedia.

As early as the fifteenth century its falsity was known and demonstrated. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (De Concordantiâ Catholicâ, III, ii, in the Basle ed. of his Opera, 1565, I) spoke of it as a dictamen apocryphum. Some years later (1440) Lorenzo Valla (De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio, Mainz, 1518) proved the forgery with certainty. Independently of both his predecessors, Reginald Pecocke, Bishop of Chichester (1450-57), reached a similar conclusion in his work, "The Repressor of over much Blaming of the Clergy", Rolls Series, II, 351-366. Its genuinity was yet occasionally defended, and the document still further used as authentic, until Baronius in his "Annales Ecclesiastici" (ad an. 324) admitted that the "Donatio" was a forgery, whereafter it was soon universally admitted to be such. It is so clearly a fabrication that there is no reason to wonder that, with the revival of historical criticism in the fifteenth century, the true character of the document was at once recognized.

How it was used

  • As far as the evidence at hand permits us to judge, the forged "Constitutum" was first made known in the Frankish Empire. The oldest extant manuscript of it, certainly from the ninth century, was written in the Frankish Empire. In the second half of that century the document is expressly mentioned by three Frankish writers. Ado, Bishop of Vienne, speaks of it in his Chronicle (De sex ætatibus mundi, ad an. 306, in P.L., CXXIII, 92); Æneas, Bishop of Paris, refers to it in defence of the Roman primacy (Adversus Græcos, c. ccix, op. cit., CXXI, 758); Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, mentions the donation of Rome to the pope by Constantine the Great according to the "Constitutum" (De ordine palatii, c. xiii, op. cit., CXXV, 998).
  • The document obtained wider circulation by its incorporation with the False Decretals (840-850, or more specifically between 847 and 852; Hinschius, Decretales Pseudo-Isidorianæ, Leipzig, 1863, p. 249).
  • At Rome no use was made of the document during the ninth and the tenth centuries, not even amid the conflicts and difficulties of Nicholas I with Constantinople, when it might have served as a welcome argument for the claims of the pope. The first pope who used it in an official act and relied upon, was Leo IX; in a letter of 1054 to Michael Cærularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he cites the "Donatio" to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood.
  • Thenceforth the "Donatio" acquires more importance and is more frequently used as evidence in the ecclesiastical and political conflicts between the papacy and the secular power. Anselm of Lucca and Cardinal Deusdedit inserted it in their collections of canons. Gratian, it is true, excluded it from his "Decretum", but it was soon added to it by "Palea".
  • The ecclesiastical writers in defence of the papacy during the conflicts of the early part of the twelfth century quoted it as authoritative (Hugo of Fleury, De regiâ potestate et ecclesiasticâ dignitate, II; Placidus of Nonantula, De honore ecclesiæ, cc. lvii, xci, cli; Disputatio vel defensio Paschalis papæ, Honorius Augustodunensis, De summâ gloriæ, c. xvii; cf. Mon. Germ. Hist., Libelli de lite, II, 456, 591, 614, 635; III, 71). St. Peter Damian also relied on it in his writings against the antipope Cadalous of Parma (Disceptatio synodalis, in Libelli de lite, I, 88).
  • Gregory VII himself never quoted this document in his long warfare for ecclesiastical liberty against the secular power. But Urban II made use of it in 1091 to support his claims on the island of Corsica. Later Popes (Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) took its authority for granted (Innocent III, Sermo de sancto Silvestro, in P.L., CCXVII, 481 sqq.; Raynaldus, Annales, ad an. 1236, n. 24; Potthast, Regesta, no. 11,848), and ecclesiastical writers often adduced its evidence in favour of the papacy.
  • The medieval adversaries of the Popes, on the other hand, never denied the validity of this appeal to the pretended donation of Constantine, but endeavoured to show that the legal deductions drawn from it were founded on false interpretations. The authenticity of the document, as already stated, was doubted by no one before the fifteenth century.
  • It was known to the Greeks in the second half of the twelfth century, when it appears in the collection of Theodore Balsamon (1169 sqq.); later on another Greek canonist, Matthæus Blastares (about 1335), admitted it into his collection. It appears also in other Greek works. Moreover, it was highly esteemed in the Greek East. The Greeks claimed, it is well known, for the Bishop of New Rome (Constantinople) the same honorary rights as those enjoyed by the Bishop of Old Rome. By now, by virtue of this document, they claimed for the Byzantine clergy also the privileges and perogatives granted to the pope and the Roman ecclesiastics.
  • In the West, long after its authenticity was disputed in the fifteenth century, its validity was still upheld by the majority of canonists and jurists who continued throughout the sixteenth century to quote it as authentic. And though Baronius and later historians acknowledged it to be a forgery, they endeavoured to marshal other authorities in defence of its content, especially as regards the imperial donations.

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