Thursday, August 18, 2011

Johannes Fried, Donation of Constantine and Constitutum Constantini: A Book Review (Part III)

What does the Constitutum Constantini have in common with the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries? Where do the concerns of these two very different fictions intersect? These are the important questions that Fried's book raises for us.

To review: The Constitutum Constantini is an imaginitive reworking of an older myth that occurs in the fifth-century Actus Sylvestri -- the so-called Sylvester legend. In this legend, among other things, the pope prompts the emperor's conversion to Christianity by curing him of leprosy. The Constitutum adopts big chunks of the Actus word-for-word. The forger innovates by having Constantine give Sylvester, his successors, and the Christian church a lot of stuff, all in a surfeit of piety and gratitude. This stuff includes supremacy over the patriarchal sees at Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem; a variety of ceremonial clothing including Constantine's crown (which Sylvester refuses to wear); Constantine's "Lateran palace," the churches of St. Peter, St. Paul and the Lateran basilica; the city of Rome; and ultimately the entire Western half of the empire. At the end Constantine concludes that it's not right for him to rule in a place where priests and the Christian religion have supremacy, and he heads off to Constantinople. There's other stuff in there too: Constantine holds the bridle of Sylvester's horse and acts as his groom and declares that the Roman clergy will have the same honor as the Roman senate. Do let me know if I'm forgetting anything important.

Anyhow, the Constitutum only appears to overlap with Pseudo-Isidore's concerns insofar as it relates to the pope's preeminent position in the Christian church. I quote the relevant passage from the translation online at the Medieval Sourcebook:
And we [i.e., Constantine] ordain and decree that he shall have the supremacy as well over the four chief seats Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem, as also over all the churches of God in the whole world. And he who for the time being shall be pontiff of that holy Roman church shall be more exalted than, and chief over, all the priests of the whole world; and, according to his judgment, everything which is to be provided for the service of God or the stability of the faith of the Christians is to be administered. It is indeed just, that there the holy law should have the seat of its rule where the founder of holy laws, our Saviour, told St. Peter to take the chair of the apostleship.... There...let them seek a teacher, where the holy body of the teacher lies; and there, prone and humiliated, let them perform the service of the heavenly king, God our Saviour Jesus Christ, where the proud were accustomed to serve under the rule of an earthly king.
Pseudo-Isidore also insists on papal supremacy, though for him the pope's position at the head of the Christian church is most often invoked as a legal protection for bishops. The point is that bishops and other clerics can appeal their way out of the provincial synod and seek impartial judgment in the papal court. The Constitutum casts the pope's position in a much different light. He's a religious leader in charge of Christian faith and piety. The pope as an exalted teacher, as the head priest of the Christian religion, as the embodiment of the holy law, the lex sancta -- I can appreciate that this pope might have flattered some of Pseudo-Isidore's biases and preconceptions. But the fact remains that Pseudo-Isidore's pope plays another game entirely. He's a pragmatic, administrative figure whose role in the church is above all important as a protection for bishops -- the bishops who, to use Pseudo-Isidore's favorite architectural metaphor, are the pillars of the Roman Church.

For Fried, though, there is considerably more overlap between the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals and the Constitutum. At the end of the document, as we saw above, Constantine confers “the city of Rome and all the provinces, places and cities of Italy and the western regions” to the potestas and the dicio of the Bishop of Rome, and to the ius of the Roman Church. These lines have traditionally been interpreted as conferring (or rather, purporting to confer) some sort of secular jurisdiction -- an interpretation that Fried might ascribe to the “canonists and propagandists of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.”

Unwilling to take this interpretation at face value, Fried goes in search of what exactly it means to transfer things like cities and provinces to the pope’s potestas and dicio. He finds that both secular and ecclesiastical authorities can have potestas and dicio, and that all the words really appear to mean is “some sort of legitimate power” (40). Thus the wording is “by no means unambiguous,” but Fried nevertheless thinks it significant that, according to the Constitutum, “the emperor did not grant any new authority, but assigned the places and regions mentioned to the existing authority of the bishop of Rome” (39). In Fried’s mind this forces us to conclude that the forger intended only to depict Constantine  handing the western empire over to the ecclesiastical authority of the pope. The Constitutum is thus not only partly but almost entirely about the pope's position at the head of the Church, and it has precious little to do with the pope's secular jurisdiction. Suddenly, Pseudo-Isidore and Pseudo-Constantine seem to be on the same page. Or at least in the same book.

Pseudo-Constantine, as we saw above, goes on to leave Rome because (Fried's translation now) “it is not right that an earthly emperor should have jurisdiction...where the...head of the Christian religion has been established.” Fried concludes:  “As far as earthly power and dominion were concerned, and as expressed at the end of the document, the...goal was more modest.... Not power over the entire West, but only over the City of Rome was granted to the successor of St. Peter” (45).

Fried's reasoning, specifically with respect to the meaning of potestas and dicio, deserves a closer look. Lexicographical investigations convince him that these terms can refer, above all, to four different things: 1) "an aspect of legal ownership,” 2) “administrative sovereignty,” 3) “imperial or royal authority,” and 4) the “jurisdiction of a bishop” (40-42). Fried finds reasons to exclude the first three possibilities, thus driving us into the fourth. Now I should confess, at the outset, that I suffer from a serious allergy to this Lord, Liar, Lunatic style of persuasion. I’d rather accept an interpretation because it seems intrinsically convincing than because it’s the least objectionable of the (perhaps artificially) limited possibilities on offer. Fried does bring some positive arguments to bear on the question, but they're weak tea indeed; and what's more, the alternative interpretations he outlines weather his attempts at exclusion quite well. We'll go in order:

Possibility #1, “legal ownership,” is rejected because “a similar transfer of property, including the Lateran Palace, had already been referred to earlier, and the pope will certainly not have received any personal property.” Nor were things like “provinces” “part of the emperor’s ‘property.’” (41 with n. 127). It strikes me, first of all, that Fried is expecting too much linguistic precision from the forgery. And does the Constitutum Constantini really grant the imperial palace twice – once as property and once in some other sense? Here are the two passages he's talking about, from the translation provided in his appendix (so you know I'm not massaging the meaning):
c. 14: To those same holy apostles, my masters, St. Peter and St. Paul; and through them, also to St. Sylvester, our father, and to all the pontiffs his successors...we concede and...confer our imperial Lateran palace....
c. 17: In order that the supreme pontificate may not deteriorate, but may rather be adorned with dignity and glory even more than is the dignity of the terrestrial empire..we confer to well as our palace, as has been said, as also the city of Rome, all provinces, places and cities of Italy and the western regions and we...relinquish them to his and his successors’ power and rule (potestas and dicio) and we decree that they shall remain undert he law of the Holy Roman Church.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Does that first bolded bit above amount to a first grant of the Lateran palace as property, and does that second bolded bit above amount to a second grant of the Lateran palace in some further additional sense? Or does that second bolded bit above simply refer to the first bolded bit above? Is it simply a reference made by way of comparison or analogy, to suggest that Constantine wanted to give Rome, Italy and the West to Sylvester in the same sense as he had given Sylvester his palace? This latter possibility strikes me as the only obvious way to read these words. Suddenly, and despite Fried's objections, "legal ownership" as a translation of potestas and dicio doesn't seem all that objectionable.
But we move on. Possiblity #2, “administrative sovereignty,” is excluded, first of all, “because it would have implied a parallel secular order besides the emperor, or an interim authority between the emperor and holders of office, for neither of which there is any evidence” (41). I fear that I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The Constitutum Constantini is a forgery. What does "evidence" mean in this context? It is possible both for a forger to insist that the popes should exercise “administrative sovereignty,” and for there to be no evidence that the contemporary papacy exercised any “administrative sovereignty.” All apologies to Fried if I have misundertsood the import of his words. He continues that “administrative sovereignty” is also to be rejected “because before Constantine the Bishop of Rome cannot possibly have received any secular potestas to which the emperor could have transferred any cities or provinces” (41-2). Once again, I invoke my complaint about Fried’s expectations of linguistic precision.

Possibility #3, “imperial or royal authority,” is rejected “on the grounds that neither was the pope already emperor, nor did the pseudo-Constantinian Constitution assign him any imperial authority and so did not make him emperor” (42). Again, I don’t understand how this argument is supposed to work given that the Constitutum is a forgery that has to contend with contemporary realities. Fried is simply wrong to go hunting for legal or lingquistic precision in a document like this. Pretend, for a moment, that you are a forger. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you want some unspecified people to think that the pope is supposed to wield some sort of imperial power in the West – or something analagous to imperial power -- or that he's the counterpart of the Byzantine emperor -- or whatever. Do you forge a document that has Constantine explicitly granting Sylvester “imperial authority” and “mak[ing] him emperor”? No, because reality constrains your fictions. People tempted to accept your forgery will have to wonder why the pope isn’t still referred to as an emperor and why nobody thinks of his position as imperial. So you have to obfuscate. You have to use vague terms like potestas and dicio – terms that mean everything and nothing. You can make implications with abandon, but at every turn your document must allow for the fact that the pope does not hold imperial office. The words you put in Constantine’s mouth must be prepared to deflect suspicion at every turn; they must deny potential opponents and critics any purchase. Plenty of people will doubt that the pope is an emperor; fewer will deny that he exercises, or ought to exercise, potestas and dicio in the West, at least in some sense of these terms.

Otherwise, and beyond these specific objections to Fried’s approach, I simply can't reconcile his reading with the contents of the Constitutum. The entire forgery is awash with symbols of imperial power, all of which are signed over to Sylvester and the Roman clergy. It seems strange to argue that all of these explicitly imperial and secular trappings are brought in to emphasize the pope’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

As we’ve seen, the passage that Fried finds so helpful for his argument has the pope granting his palace “as mentioned above, as well as the city of Rome, all provinces, places and cities of Italy and the western regions.” All of these things are to accrue to the potestas and dicio of Sylvester and his successors, as well as to the ius of the Holy Roman Church. It is only after this dispositio – that is, after Constantine is done signing away everything – that he picks up and moves to Constantinople, because he doesn’t think it appropriate that an earthly emperor should exercise power in the place where the prince of priests and the Christian religion is established. This is described purely as a consequence of the preceding donation; it is not an additional donation of anything at all, and I do not see how it limits the extra-ecclesiastical implications of the Constitutum to Rome alone. Of course Constantine frames his transition with specific reference to the city of Rome – as is appropriate, given that Rome was the seat of the Western Empire. In effect, though, the document has Constantine leaving the entire West. 

Put another way, Fried’s reading requires us to distinguish among things that the dispositio treats in exactly the same manner. Let's keep Rome in consideration. The Sylvester legend and the Constitutum both understand, after all, that Sylvester was bishop of Rome before Constantine ever contracted leprosy. When the Constitutum signs over a list of things that includes Rome to the pope’s potestas and dicio, then, how can this grant have anything to do with ecclesiastical jurisdiction? In what other sense, if not the extra-ecclesiastical, could Constantine conceivably be granting the city of Rome to the bishop of Rome? We have seen that not even Fried wants us to understand that Constantine’s palace and the city of Rome are being given over to the pope’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction alone. Yet the dispositio does not grant Rome with different terms or with different syntax than it grants the “places, provinces and cities of Italy and the western regions.” All are ceded to Sylvester in the same breath, as part of the same list, with the same verbs. 

Quite plainly, the Constitutum aims to give the pope some claim to extra-ecclesiastical jurisdiction over his palace, Rome, Italy and the entire West. Exactly what sort of jurisdiction is not clear; probably the forger does not want to be clear. His obfuscation is on display elsewhere, as we have noted many times: Pseudo-Constantine does not grant any imperial title and Sylvester shrinks from wearing Constantine’s crown over his tonsure. This is a forgery designed for a world in which the pope was not an emperor and did not wear an emperor's crown.

Back to Part I or Part II. Ahead to Part IV. 


  1. This is great! I recognize the type of arguments he proffers, and I think you have completely punctured them. Well done!

  2. Thanks for reading! Am glad you think I'm getting somewhere with all of this...

    Tomorrow or over the weekend I'll go over Fried's arguments about dating.


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