Sunday, March 14, 2010

Introductory II: Pseudo-Isidore Under the Lights

Right, so a few days ago I talked about the other forgeries produced in Pseudo-Isidore's orbit -- Benedictus Levita, the interpolated Hispana, other fun stuff. But I'm reading the forged decretals, which lie at the center of this rat's nest. So it's time to give you the rest of the story.

At 700 pages in the current print edition (though now we have helpful online edition-in-progress), the decretals are easily the longest medieval ecclesiastical forgery ever, and certainly the largest piece of this fictive complex. On this blog we're reading the decretals and not all that other stuff because they are the biggest, hairiest beast in this particular zoo. It's the vehicle our forgers put the most spit and polish into. If we want to understand what they're up to, it seems the best place to start.

For at least 100 years anyway, it's been standard to call the forged decratals an "enlarged Hispana." Remember the interpolated Hispana I described last time? That Gallican edition of a Spanish lawbook that Pseudo-Isidore's minions had revised and fixed up? Well, the Pseudo Isidore is basically the interpolated Hispana with a lot of stuff added.

The Hispana, and thus the Hispana Gallica (French version) and the interpolated Hispana has two parts. Part 1 is legislation from church councils. Part 2 is papal decretals. Pseudo-Isidore adds a big chunk of completely forged material onto the beginning of the interpolated Hispana -- letters in the names of early popes from Clement to Melchiades. Those become the new Part 1, and Parts 1 and 2 of the interpolated Hispana go on to become Parts 2 and 3 of the Pseudo-Isidore. Pseudo-Isidore takes over the church councils from the interpolated Hispana more or less unaltered, but he adds loads of stuff to the decretals that originally formed Part 2. Some of the stuff he adds are more forged decretals, but some versions of Pseudo-Isidore also add genuine decretals and other stuff besides.

Like most eary medieval law books, Pseudo-Isidore arranges all this material chronologically, rather than systematically. And there are some wrinkles in his chronology. Parts 1 and 2 of the Hispana (=Parts 2 and 3 of Pseudo-Isidore) presented concurrent chronologies. Part 1 (Part 2 of Pseudo-Isidore) had councils from Nicaea I to Seville II (A.D. 325 - 618/9), and Part 2 (Part 3 of Pseudo-Isidore) had decretals from Pope Damasus I (d. 384) to Gregory II (d. 731). The forged decretals that form Part I of Pseudo-Isidore purport to represent the pre-Constantinian church, in effect providing the backstory to the HGA (which begins in the early fourth century). In other words, the forged decretals, from Clement to Melchiades fill what must have looked, in the ninth century, like a big historical gap. Part 1 of the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals are basically our forgers putting words in the mouths of the early popes. Most of these early popes had left left very few writings behind, if any. They gave the forgers a great big blank slate to write on.

Put yet another way, Pseudo-Isidore basically just invents rafts and rafts of papal letters -- over ninety in all. Most of these letters are pretty long, and most of them hammer away with unbelievable montony on the Pseudo-Isidore's key issues: accusations against bishops, despoilment of bishops, judgment of bishops, on and on and on. For the most part, these are the same issues covered by the other forgeries from the Pseudo-Isidore's circle, described in the last post.

But the Pseudo-Isidore hasn't just freely composed hundreds of pages of Latin. Each letter is a complicated mosaic of snippets from all kinds of other sources -- patristic letters and treatises; the bible; other law collections like the Hispana, the Dionysio-Hadriana; Carolingian-era conciliar legislation; and loads of other stuff that I'm forgetting right now. Very little of the material actually appears to have been written by Pseudo-Isidore himself. At the same time, though, the forgers feel free to adjust their sources however they see fit, often twisting their words to say exactly the opposite of what the original authors intended. Exactly why the Pseudo-Isidore was so interested in speaking through others' words, and why he avoids composing text himself as much as possible, will go on our list of things to look into.

That's enough for now. I still haven't given you all the intro information you'll need, but it's a start. There'll have to be one or two more background posts, and of course I'll fill you in on the rest as we go along.

Update (21 Aug. 2013): Terminology slightly revised, a few points corrected.


  1. Is going straight to PsIsid proper the right tactic? Looks as though one might get caught in a morass. Do you think this was the point of departure? I'd be tempted to start with the Autun Hispana, or even Bened. Levita. It would take a little prospecting in both to check the desirability of where to start. WG

  2. You're right; I think Benedictus Levita is probably the real place to set out, as Emil Seckel quickly realized. But in a way that feels like it's been done (Seckel's work and the new edition have solved a lot of the issues there).

    Of course the relationship between the forged decretals and Benedictus Levita (and the Capitula Angilramni) is something I plan to look into as I plod along.