BMCR 2008.02.21

“Donation of Constantine” and “Constitutum Constantini”

, , Donation of Constantine and Constitutum Constantini : the Misinterpretation of a Fiction and Its Original Meaning.. Millennium-Studien / Millennium Studies ; 3. Berlin-New York: Walter De Gruyter Incorporated, June 2007. 1 online resource (201 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9783110902235 $101.00.

This new study by Johannes Fried presents an extensive analysis of the so-called Constitutum Constantini, a text which, even if it did not intend do do so, was the main source of inspiration for the Constantinian ‘Donation’, that is, the presumed ‘gift’ of secular power by the Roman emperor Constantine to the Church. The author’s modus operandi consists in making a very clear distinction between these two elements, so as to avoid the trap into which some past studies have been lured, namely to project the idea of the Donation, which clearly is a historical fiction, onto its textual source of inspiration, the Constitutum Constantini. Even if an evident forgery, this document remains an artefact belonging to a specific and highly secretive context. It is through a study of the wording of the Constitutum, combined with a more traditional historical inquiry, that Fried makes his case for the Frankish origin of the text, which, even if it mentioned the idea of a ‘gift’, did not at all express the later, fictitious Donation-idea. In what follows, we will give a brief summary of the author’s line of reasoning.

In a short introductory chapter, Fried presents the basic distinction between Donatio and Constitutum Constantini, that is between the (forged) text of Constantine’s constitution (the Constitutum) and the fictitious idea of Constantine’s ‘gift’ of secular power to the Church (the Donatio). Through a process of distortion and interpretation, this idea was read into the text of the Constitutum, especially into its second part.

The second chapter, entitled ‘The “Donation of Constantine”‘, could be characterized as a sort of ‘appetizer’ for what is to follow. It presents, through the example of a poet’s recollection of the Constantinian Donation, a fine illustration of the way in which the historical fiction of Constantine’s deed slowly but steadily invaded the collective memory. Fried evokes a poem by Walther von der Vogelweide (12th-13th century), who laments the century-long suffering caused by Constantine’s ‘gift’ to the Church, a view which, as the author states, was shared by many a contemporary of Walther’s. Through the example of Walther, who clearly based his knowledge of the deed on what had in his time already in a sense become ‘common knowledge’, and not on written sources, the book offers useful insights into the way in which at a quite early stage the deed ‘had crept in through the side door of forgetting, misunderstanding and re-interpretation’ (p. 9). Such a distortion was possible through the particular context in which meaning was constructed in Walther’s time: ‘The culture of oral memory and the literary tradition were […] not two separate lines, but were intertwined, influencing each other and reshaping themselves, before emerging in distorted forms as a new element in the cultural memory of the West. The exegetic advantages of knowledge based on writing were drawn from the same oral culture of discursive memory as that used by the poet’ (p. 10).

The third chapter, entitled ‘The origin and fate of the “Donation of Constantine” in the High Middle Ages’, deals with the way in which the Donation as an idea came into existence. It provides some of the most significant and important episodes of the ‘chequered history of the reception of the Constantinian Donation’ (p. 14). Firstly, Fried gives the example of the bishop and historian Otto of Freising (mid-12th century), who based his inquiries on written sources rather than on oral reports, even if, as we have seen, by his time both had been irredeemably mixed up and distorted. Through logical analysis however, Otto managed to conclude that the deed was indeed impossible, but in the end he refrained from making such an explicit statement. Hereupon Fried proceeds with his illustration of the fate and reception of the ‘poisoned gift’ (p. 14) of the Donation through the case of Gerhoch of Reichersberg, who contested the idea of an imperial deed to the Church by advocating the fact that Constantine could not have disposed of public property. He however also confirmed the ‘anti-Roman’ tendency present in the work of Otto of Freising, pronouncing the need to ‘listen to the Roman Bishops […] unified in their pronouncement of the truth’ (p. 15). We hereupon get a description of the ‘discovery’ of the Constitutum Constantini by Humbert of Silva Candida, ally of pope Leo IX: even if Leo and Humbert’s ‘version’ of the document still did not include the premise of papal secular power in anything other than Rome, they cleared the way for further elaboration and distortion (p. 18). This was (presumably) the case with Paucapalea, who dressed up an excerpt of the second part of the Constitutum Constantini, containing the idea of Constantine’s ‘gift’ of secular power, as a summa to canonist Gratian’s Decretum (about 1148). Following Paucapalea, the elaboration of the idea of the Donation continued almost without a break. We learn this through a variety of written sources, at the end of the presentation of which Fried also treats the symbolic representation, and its possible effects, of the Donation idea. In so doing, he shows how by this time the Donatio had become common — even if not universally accepted — knowledge, only very rarely contested by scholars. Furthermore, this paved the way for further elaboration and distortion. Fried also clearly underlines how the text of the original Constitutum Constantini was nearly never used as a source, not even by Lorenzo Valla, who drew up an analysis of the fictitious character of the Donation-idea.

In the first part of the fourth chapter (‘The wording and meaning of the ” Constitutum Constantini“‘) Fried makes a case for the Frankish origin of the Constitutum Constantini, which has often been attributed to the eighth-century Roman papal court. He does this through a very straightforward analysis of the text’s wording and style, providing ample and, as far as this reviewer can judge, convincing evidence to suggest that the text, even though its ‘style’ was quite ‘Roman’, might well have originated in Frankish territory. Fried presents evidence contained in, among others, a series of papal letters which were available in Frankish territory and which show resemblances with some aspects of the Constitutum, constructing his case around the notions of dicio and potestas. He also points out other interesting linguistic and juridical peculiarities, which allow him to suggest that the original Constitutum concerned aspects of ecclesiastic law. Thus the text is to be interpreted as a document confirming papal earthly power over Rome and its surroundings, but only spiritual and ecclesiastic, that is patriarchal, authority over the West, as opposed to the Frankish emperors’ secular authority. The author concludes: ‘non-Roman powers were at work here. They were not interested in extending or reflecting on papal authority, but in restricting the borders of the emperor’s power within the context of current Frankish supremacy’ (p. 48).

The fifth chapter (‘The origin of the Constitutum Constantini‘) continues to provide elements supporting the thesis of a non-Roman origin of the Constitutum. Suggesting that the text could very well be a reflection of the Carolingian divisio regnorum, Fried also states that it contains elements which were well-known in Frankish territory, and that, on the contrary, elements which could only have been known to a writer intimate with the Roman papal court are remarkably absent. This, and a number of other arguments e silentio, precede an illustration of some further linguistic as well as practical peculiarities. At the end of the chapter we then get a foretaste of what is to follow, namely the suggestion that the Constitutum could very well have originated in the monasteries of Corbie and St. Denis.

In the sixth chapter the reader first of all is presented with a study of the Palatium Lateranense, which is mentioned a couple of times in the Constitutum Constantini. After an extensive analysis of the possible physical orientation of this ‘palace’, as well as of the dubious usage of the words Palatium Lateranense, Fried stresses, among others, the fact that at the time of the forgery (which he situates mid-ninth century) no one in Rome referred to the Patriarchium Lateranense as the Palatium Lateranense — this would in fact create confusion and refer to two distinct buildings, not one — and on the other hand suggests that this would not have been unusual in non-Roman, Frankish contexts, where the word Palatium was in common use. In so doing, he adds another element to his plea in favour of the Frankish origins of the Constitutum Constantini. The monasteries of Corbie and St. Denis and their respective abbots (Wala of Corbie and Hilduin of St. Denis) are at the centre of the book’s concluding chapter, in which Fried sums up the textual and contextual elements which lead him to believe that both abbots, opposed to Louis the Pious, who was closely linked to the pope, must have played a central role in the forgery of the Constitutum Constantini.

In the conclusion, all the above elements are neatly summed up, leading up to the assessment that this new book ‘places the invention in the context of the history of the disintegration of the Frankish Empire instead of the milieu of the Roman church in the 8th century; and attributes it to the murderous struggles for the succession within the empire of Charlemagne’ (p. 113). Fried puts forward this thesis in a very convincing way, making a valuable contribution to scholarly debate on the subject.

After the core of the study the reader is presented with the texts of the Donatio (included in Paucapalea’s summa, cf. supra) and the Constitutum (including a translation), a name index, bibliography and some plates, and above all with an interesting appendix written by Wolfram Brandes. Brandes provides further evidence for the Frankish origins of the forged text, basing his argument on the use, in the Constitutum, of the word satrapa. He traces this notion back to its common use in Saxon milieus well known to abbot Wala of Corbie, contrary to the rare use of the term in Rome in the eighth and ninth centuries.

The Donation of Constantine is a clear cut example of how historical fiction can enter public memory and, fed by various powers, stay there for centuries. This case study is in itself of incredible value on account of the lasting effects the idea of the Donation has had on history, but it also inspires awareness on a different level, that is, as a warning for historians and in general for all those who study aspects of the past that things are not always what they are believed or presented to be. It is nowadays largely accepted that the Donation was an invention created to support clerical claims to secular power, so the innovative value of Fried’s work lies not in this premise, but in his meticulous reconstruction of the genesis of the text of the Constitutum Constantini. As has been said, Fried has provided a strong case in favour of the Frankish nature of the Constitutum Constantini. His book contributes greatly to this picture, and will without any doubt enrich the scholarly analysis of the question. My only criticism concerns the quite numerous typographical errors and sometimes faulty phrases, which a more thorough reviewing of the typescript could have avoided. That said, Fried has provided a book of great value not only to specialists in the matter, but also to less specialized readers, definitely a milestone in this specific field of research.