Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Thirty-Sixth Letter (Item 42): Pope Fabian to all the Eastern Bishops and Faithful

This letter, the second ascribed to the third-century Pope Fabian, is nothing if not hefty. It's also more closely crafted than usual, with arguments spliced together from a wide range of sources, and textual excerpts carefully integrated for a smoother-than-usual effect. It's not the summit of medieval Latin literature, but it manages to avoid that clunky feel that plagues a lot of the other false decretals.

While the contents are mostly familiar (same old stuff on judicial proceedings against clerics), we do get an unusual bit on chrism right up front. Usually liturgical content in Pseudo-Isidore depends on the papal biographies in the Liber Pontificalis. Most of the time, it turns out that the biography ascribed some liturgical innovation to the pontiff in question (i.e., Easter is to be celebrated on Sunday), and Pseudo-Isidore -- always on the lookout for gaps in the historical record that he can fill with his forgeries -- invents a letter that supposedly establishes that liturgical point. Of course the other 90 percent of the letter is about primates and judicial proceedings against bishops and assorted stuff; the liturgical angle just gave Pseudo-Isidore a nail to hang his coat on.

Here, though, things are different. Fabian says that "certain people" aren't consecrating the chrism every Paschal season; some argue that if they have enough left over from last year, why bother to consecrate more? Fabian is very, very opposed to this kind of liturgical neglect. No less an authority than Jesus, he says, commanded the blessing of chrism when he washed the apostles' feet at the Last Supper: It's to be done every year without exception. None of this has anything to do with Fabian's biography in the Liber Pontificalis, though the same argument does occur in Benedictus Levita. What's going on here? Were there any contemporary ninth-century arguments about the annual consecration of chrism? So many questions.

The rest of the letter covers more familiar ground. A very tightly constructed paragraph, with nearly all its words taken from other sources (primarily Benedictus Levita and the Bible: it took me nearly twenty minutes to disentangle it all, and this is WITH the help of Hinschius's apparatus fontium), drags out the same old arguments. Nobody can bring an accusation who is himself under suspicion, who is an enemy of the accused, who is infamis, whose conversatio is less than perfect, whose faith, life and libertas are unknown. Certainly no members of the laity are permitted to acccuse the clergy.

Onto a point that seems at first completely unrelated: Pseudo-Fabian starts citing passages from the Old Testament that, he asserts, establish the Christian diaconate. If deacons were so important to God, what about priests and the higher clergy? Now you get where he's going. Nobody in the priesthood can be condemned humano examine; only God can judge priests. From there back to the subject of accusations: The apostles and all their successors aimed to make it well nigh impossible to accuse members of the clergy of any crime -- and they did this for a reason. From there we get familiar lines about the exceptio spolii: no bishop who has been deprived of goods or office can be tried until he's been restored to his former state. Also, clerics who consipre against their bishops are to be kicked out of office and handed over to the episcopal curia, which they are to serve for the rest of their lives as infames.

You might think Fabian would be winding down, but he's still going strong. Nobody should ever be an accuser, a judge and/or a witness at the same time, and so every judicial process requires at least four people (an ELECTED judge, an accuser, a defendant, and a witness). Bishops should only really be tried if they've deviated from the faith, and even then the proper thing is for their subordinates to approach them first and attempt to correct them in private. If this doesn't work -- quod absit ! -- they're to be brought before their primate or the Apostolic See (NOT their archbishop!). If the problem does not involve matters of faith, it's better for everyone just to put up with the offending bishop.


Recipients: eastern bishops and faithful

Date: 19 Oct.

Sources: Letters of Zosimus, Siricius, Celestine I and Innocent I (all from the Hispana); an additional letter of Innocent I (from the Quesnelliana); other letters of Gregory the Great, Jerome and Ambrose; Gregory's Regula pastoralis; Benedictus Levita; Augustine, sermons 46 and 351, as well as his Enchiridionn; the Bible; Capitula Angilramni; Isidore, Synonyma and Sententiae; acta of the 418 Council of Carthage

Contemporary Carolingian Legislation: 816 Council of Aachen (?)

Words*: 2300

*Karl Georg Schon has only provided .pdf editions, with numbered lines, through item 41, the first Fabian letter. Thus for letters after item 41 we'll  have to gauge length differently, by word count (which, in retrospect, I should've been dong all along). Over the next few days I'll add wordcounts to the older posts, so we'll have a consistent means of comparison.


  1. I've not been keeping careful track, but has PsI spoken hitherto about episcopal accusations and defenses of bishops vs accusations? Gliding over your summaries (esp the Clement stuff) it looks to me, perhaps wrongly, that this letter is the one in which this (favorite) subject gets its first outing. WG

  2. Not the first time by far -- I probably should've been clearer about this. The theme is right there in one of the early Clement epistles (if not the very first one). And he introduces the exceptio spolii argument right in the preface.

  3. "Were there any contemporary ninth-century arguments about the annual consecration of chrism?"

    I've seen this argument somewhere, which suggests, given my fairly limited reading of core-Carolingian material, that it would be worth looking in early capitularies for stuff on the theme. Aachen 816 is an obvious one, which you note, so maybe you've tried this already but in case it's not there I encourage you to seek more widely in the dMGH.

  4. In the years since writing this post, I've completed a pretty thorough investigation. This newer post should clarify things a bit more: