The M+G+R Foundation

On the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine

The Details

NOTE From The M+G+R Foundation: We do not necessarily believe nor wish to imply that any Pope who utilized the power fraudulently secured through the forged Donation of Constantine, was aware that it was not a legitimate document. This Forgery concocted by the Vatican insiders of the time, as well as the circumstances surrounding it, bring to mind the scandal which befell the Roman Church when Josemaría Escrivá was canonized. The Popes of centuries ago may have been misled about the Donation of Constantine just as John Paul II was obviously misled about the "holiness" of Escrivá  and the "holiness" of the founder of the Legionnaires of Christ - Marcial Maciel

Lorenzo Valla,

Discourse on the Forgery
of the Alleged Donation of Constantine

In Latin and English
English translation by Christopher B. Coleman
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922).

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned and proofread by Jonathan Perry, February 2001.

by Christopher B. Coleman

[Page 1] THE Donation of Constantine - the most famous forgery in European history; papal authority - since the triumph of Christianity the most perennial question of European society; historical criticism -  one of the most comprehensive, most alluring, and most baffling enterprises of the modern mind; Lorenzo Valla - the greatest of the professional Italian humanists; these lines of study have converged, accidentally perhaps, to call forth the following pages. Much of the subject matter which might properly form their introduction I have already treated more fully in an earlier work, [1] and a brief statement will suffice here.

The Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), written probably not long after the middle of the eighth century, became widely known through its incorporation in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals (about 847-853). Parts of it were included in most of the medieval collections of canon law; Anselm's, Deusdedit's, and Gratian's great work (the Decretum, or Concordia discordantium canonum). It purports to reproduce a legal document in which the Emperor Constantine the Great, reciting his baptism and the cure of his leprosy at the hands of Sylvester, Bishop of Rome 314-336, confirmed the privilege of that pontiff as head of all the clergy and supreme over the other four patriarchates; conferred upon him extensive imperial property in various parts of the world, especially the imperial Lateran palace, and the imperial diadem and tiara, and other imperial insignia; granted the Roman clergy the rank of the highest Roman orders and their [Page 2] privileges; gave Sylvester and his successors freedom in consecrating men for certain orders of the clergy; it tells how he, Constantine, recognized the superior dignity of the Pope by holding the bridle of his horse; grants Sylvester Rome, all of Italy, and the western provinces, to remain forever under the control of the Roman See; and states his own determination to retire to Byzantium in order that the presence of an earthly emperor may not embarrass ecclesiastical authority. This remarkable document was almost universally accepted as genuine from the ninth to the fifteenth century.

The question of the position of the bishop of Rome in the Christian Church lacks but a few generations of being as old as Christianity itself. His relation to secular governments became an acute problem as soon as the imperial government broke down in Italy, and has remained so to the present moment. For centuries the Papacy was the strongest institution in western Europe. While its control at any one time rested principally on the power it actually possessed and on the ability of its representatives, legal theories and historical documents played a not inconsiderable part in its rise and decline. Of these documents the Donation of Constantine was perhaps the most spectacular, even though it was not the most important. It was cited by no less than ten Popes of whom we know, to mention no lesser writers, in contentions for the recognition of papal control, and contributed not a little to the prestige of the Papacy. On the other hand, when its spuriousness became known, the reaction against it, as in Luther's case, contributed powerfully to the revolt from Rome. Its century-long influence entitles it to a respect difficult for any one who now reads it to feel. And Valla's discussion of it contains many interesting reflections on the secular power of the Papacy, perhaps the most interesting expression in this connection of fifteenth century Italian humanism.

Among the achievements of modern historical criticism Valla's work was a conspicuous pioneer. Its quality and its importance have often been exaggerated, and as often underestimated. It is some satisfaction to make it more generally available in the origi- [Page 3] nal text and translation, so that the reader may judge for himself. A critical appraisal would have to take into account that Nicholas Cusanus some seven years earlier in his De concordantia catholica covered part of the same ground even better than Valla did, and anticipated some of his arguments. But Valla's treatise is more exhaustive) is in more finished and effective literary form, and in effect established for the world generally the proof of the falsity of the Donation. Moreover, for the first time, he used effectively the method of studying the usage of words in the variations of their meaning and application, and other devices of internal criticism which are the tools of historical criticism to-day. So, while Valla's little book may seem slight beside later masterpieces of investigation and beside systematic treatises in larger fields, it is none the less a landmark in the rise of a new science. I speak from personal experience in adding that it is still useful in college classes in promoting respect for, and development in, critical scholarship.

As to Valla himself the words of Erasmus will bear repetition; "Valla, a man who with so much energy, zeal and labor, refuted the stupidities of the barbarians, saved half-buried letters from extinction, restored Italy to her ancient splendor of eloquence, and forced even the learned to express themselves henceforth with more circumspection." [2] The Italian Renaissance is much extolled among us, - and so little known. A short time ago diligent search revealed no copy of Valla's works in the United States, and many of the larger libraries had none of his separate writings. The same is doubtless true in the case of other great names in the Renaissance. Meanwhile, there are those whose profession it is to teach European history and who are utterly unacquainted with medieval and later Latin.

The best life of Valla is that by Girolamo Mancini. [3] There is no satisfactory account of him in English.

Valla wrote his Discourse on the Forgery of the alleged Dona- [Page 4] tion of Constantine (Declamatio de falso credita et ementita donatione Constantini, also referred to as Libellus, and Oratio) in 1440, when he was secretary to Alfonso, king of Aragon, Sicily, and Naples. It may well be considered as part of the campaign which that king was conducting against Pope Eugenius IV in furtherance of his claims to Italian territories.

There has hitherto been no satisfactory text of this treatise. The first printed edition, that of Ulrich von Hutten, in 1517, is excessively rare, and it, as well as its numerous reprints, is defective in places. The same is true of the text in the collected works of Valla, the Opera, printed at Basle, 1540, 1543 (?). The only English edition, by Thomas Godfray (London, 1525 ?), is rare and of no great merit. A modern French edition by Alcide Bonneau (La Donation de Constantin, Paris, 1879) gives the text with a French translation and a long introduction. It is based on the 1520 reprint of Hutten's edition, is polemical, uncritical, and admittedly imperfect. A modern edition with translation into Italian (La dissertazione di Lorenzo Valla su la falsa e manzognera donazione di Costantino tradotta in Italiano da G. Vincenti, Naples, 1895) is out of print.

My text is based on the manuscript Codex Vaticanus 5314, dated December 7, 1451, the only complete manuscript of the treatise I have been able to find. I have collated this with Hutten's text as found in one of the earliest, if not the earliest, reprint (contained in the little volume De Donatione Constantini quid veri habeat, etc., dated 1520 in the Union Theological Seminary library copy, but corresponding closely to the one dated 1518 in E. Bocking's edition of the works of Ulrich von Hutten, vol. 1, p. 18), and have occasionally used readings from Hutten's text or later ones, such as that of Simon Schard, [4] but in every instance I have indicated the MS. reading. I have used uniform, current spelling and punctuation, and have used my own judgment in paragraphing.

Preceding Valla's treatise I reprint, with a translation, the text [Page 5] of the Donation as given, with the omission of long sections, in Gratian's Decretum, or Concordia discordantium canonum, which was the form Valla used and on which he based his criticism. I take it from A. Friedberg's edition of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, vol. I, columns 342-345. The full text of the Donation is best given by Karl Zeumer, in the Festgabe fur Rudolf von Gneist (Julius Springer, Berlin, 1888), pp. 47-59, reprinted among other places in my Constantine the Great and Christianity, pp. 228-237. The document may be studied to advantage also in the Decretales Pseudo-Isidorianae et Capitula Angilramni, ed. Hinschius (Leipsic, 1863). An English translation, from Zeumer's text, is in E. F. Henderson's Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, pp. 319-329

In the translation of passages of the Donation I have, so far as possible, used the words of Henderson's translation. In quotations from the Bible I have used the King James version. In translating Valla's quotations from the Donation I have usually, though not always, followed him in giving words their classical and not their medieval meaning.

The Donation of Constantine grew out of the legends about Sylvester I, Bishop of Rome, as well as out of legends about Constantine. These are described at length in Constantine the Great and Christianity. The most familiar form of the Sylvester-Constantine legend is that of Mombritius' Sanctuarium, sive Vitae collectae ex codibus, Milan, c. I470, vol. II, folio 279: Paris, 1910, vol. II, pp. 508-531.

Present-day scholarship is not in entire agreement on all points connected with the Donation of Constantine. The following summary, however, may be hazarded. The problem of modern criticism, of course, is, not to establish the spuriousness of the Donation - that has long been obvious - but to locate the origin of the document as closely as possible.

The development of the Sylvester-Constantine legend was worked out best by Dollinger (Papstfabeln des Mittelalters, Munich, 1863: ed., J. Friedrich, Stuttgart, 1890) and by Duchesne (in his edition of the Liber Pontificalis, vol. I, 1886, pp. cvii-cxx).

[Page 6] These have shown the existence at Rome, as early as the last of the sixth century, of the story which forms most of the narrative part of the Donation, and gave the forger the whole of his background.

The earliest known manuscript of the document is in the Codex Parisiensis Lat. 2778, in the Collectio Sancti Dionysii, found in the monastery of St. Denis, in France. The collection contains documents dating from the last years of the eighth century, though it may have been put together later. The collected Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals, in which the Donation was virtually published to the world, in the middle of the ninth century, also came out in France. French writers of the ninth century, also, were the first, so far as we know, to refer to the Donation. Such facts help to fix the date of the forgery, but under the circumstances they do not fix the place as France. Rather they are merely another illustration of the well-known leadership of France in learning and politics during the ninth century.

Linguistic peculiarities of the document have been most exhaustively treated by one of the greatest of critical historians, Paul Scheffer-Boichorst, [5] not to speak of briefer studies by Dollinger, Brunner, and others. In the full text of the Donation, as for instance the one published by Zeumer, are found many features distinctive of Italian documents of the eighth century, and a number that apparently are peculiar to the chancellery of Stephen II (III), Bishop of Rome 752-757, and of Paul I (757-767), more particularly the latter. (Some of these do not occur in the passages and the text which Valla used; that is, in his copy of Gratian's Decretum.) This is true in varying degrees of particularity of the form or usage of the following words; synclitus (for senatus) in § 15, banda (for vexillum) in § 14, censura (diploma) in § 17, constitutum (decretum) in §§ 17 and 18, retro (applied to the future) in §§ 1 and 19, largitas (possessio) in § 13, consul and [Page 7] patricius (as mere designations of rank) in § 15, vel (et) in §§ 11, 12, 13, 16, 19, seu (et) in §§ 14 and 17, satraps (as a Roman official) in § 8, 11, and 19, and inluminator in § 7 in some manuscripts. The following phrases, also, are more or less distinctive; Deo amabilis in § 1, Deo vivo qui nos regnare precipit in § 19, uno ex eadem sancta Trinitate in § 1, principem apostolorum vel eius vicarios firmos apud Deum adesse patronos in § 11, pro concinnatione luminariorum in § 13, et subscriptio imperialis in § 20, propriis manibus roborantes in § 20, religiosus clericus in § 15. The first part of § 4, Tres itaque formae . . . hominem, is very similar to part of a letter of Paul I's in 757. In short, the language of the Donation seems to point to the papal chancellery as the place of its origin, and the pontificate of Paul I (757-767) as the most probable time.

That also seems to offer the situation and environment which would most naturally call forth the document as we have it. This is well brought out by Ludo Moritz Hartmann in his Geschichte Italiens im Mittelalter, [6] and by Erich Caspar in his Pippin und die romische Kirche.[7] The Papacy was then cutting loose from the Emperor at Constantinople and ignoring his representatives in Italy, as well as developing its own independent policy toward Italian territory, toward the Lombards, and toward the Franks. The aim of the forger seems to have been the characteristically medieval one of supplying documentary warrant for the existence of the situation which had developed through a long-drawn-out revolution, namely, the passage of imperial prerogatives and political control in Italy from the Emperor to the Papacy. Hence, along with general statements of papal primacy, and of gifts of property, detailed and explicit stress is laid upon the granting of imperial honors, the imperial palace, and imperial power to the Pope, and upon the right of the Roman clergy to the privileges of the highest ranks of Roman society. Legal confirmation was thus given for riding roughshod over the vestiges and memories of the imperial regime in Italy and for looking to the Papacy as the [Page 8] source of all honors and dignities. Furthermore we know that Paul I was extremely devoted to the memory of Sylvester, and so it may well have been under his influence that this document came into existence with its tribute to Sylvester's personal character and historic significance.

I wish to give public expression of my thanks to Professor Deane P. Lockwood, of Columbia University, for his kindness in reading my translation of Valla's treatise and the many suggestions and improvements he indicated; to Professor J. T. Shotwell, of Columbia University, who was largely responsible for the beginning of the whole undertaking; and to Mr. Alexander D. Fraser, of Allegheny College, for generous assistance in reading proof.


[1] C. B. Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity, three phases: the historical, the legendary, and the spurious. Columbia University Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, vol. LX, no. I. Columbia University Press, and Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1914.

[2] F. M. Nichols, ed., Epistles of Erasmus. Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1901.

[3] Vita di Lorenzo Valla (Florence, 1891).

[4] Syntagma tractatuum de imperiali iurisdictione, etc., Strassburg, 1609; first published under a similar title at Basle, 1566.

[5] Neue Forschungen uber die Konstantinische Schenkung, in Mittheilungen d. Instituts fur osterr. Geschichtsforschung, vol. X (1889), pp. 325 et seq., XI (1890), pp. l28 et seq. Reprinted in his Gesammelte Schriften in the Historische Studien of E. Eberling, vol. XLII.

[6] II, ii (Leipsic, 1903), pp. 218-231.

[7] Berlin, 1914, pp. 185-189.

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