Monday, March 8, 2010


Yeah, so I don't know who you are but you've stumbled upon this blog, and I think you need an introduction.

Our project here is reading the Pseudo-Isidore. Regular posting is how I plan to keep my head straight and my notes in order as I digest this 700-page Latin document.

Who is Pseudo-Isidore, you ask? This is a good intro. But I'll break it down for you.

Basically, Pseudo-Isidore was the name adopted by a group of more or less unidentified Carolingian-era clerics who worked for nearly twenty years, from the 830s to the 850s, to concoct a vast web of interrelated legal forgeries. There are various theories about the identity of the forgers, though current orthodoxy would place them among the ecclesiastical supporters of the claims of Lothar I to succeed his father as overall head guy of the Frankish kingdom. Their forgeries, unbelievably complex, ridiculously long, went unsuspected for centuries afterwards.

These are the details: Lothar was the oldest son of Louis the Pious and had been the primary heir apparent since 817. But then Louis's wife died and he married the inconvenient and tedious Judith, who before too long bore him a favored son named Charles. Louis's efforts to find Charles a subkingdom threatened to split the empire apart. Opponents of this plan rallied around Lothar, in the interests of maintaining a united empire with one alpha king. In 833 Lothar, his other brothers (not including Charles) and assorted clerical allies, including Pope Gregory IV, deposed Louis the Pious, placing Lothar and his brothers in charge. This coup, one of the most memorable events in Carolingian history, took place at the "Field of Lies" (can you believe that doesn't have a Wikipedia article?) in Alsace. This state of affairs lasted for only a few months, until Lothar succeeded in pissing everyone off. Louis the Pious emerged from captivity; Lothar fled to northern Italy; key members of the unity party were imprisoned, deposed, or both.

It was in the aftermath of this disaster that most people think Pseudo-Isidore took up his proverbial pen. His goal was not so much to protect Lothar's interests -- after the coup that must have seemed like quite the lost cause -- but rather to defend Frankish bishops. Episcopal rebels had a pretty hard time after 834, and obviously a lot of people thought that Louis had gone too far in squeezing his adversaries. Especially his clerical adversaries.

One way to explain Pseudo-Isidore would be to imagine the poor benighted bishops heading to their cathedral libraries, as imperial soldiers cart their colleagues off to prison, dragging the big forbidding tomes of canon law off their shelves, and searching through them, trying to find some canon or other, just some authoritative text here or there, that they could use to show that their friends had been unlawfully deposed. They did find the odd text, but it was slim pickings, let me tell you.

So, the theory goes, some enterprising guys with well-appointed academic libraries and decent secretarial resources set out to rectify the situation. The only thing to do was draw up new, fake laws and pass them off as ancient, authentic laws -- fake laws that ranted and raved and sweated and mourned and spat and puked and shat about proceedings against bishops, accusers of bishops, the despoilment and deposition and imprisonment of bishops. On and on and on.

On this blog I'll be reading the Pseudo-Isidore's Decretals, but in fact that's only one component of the broader Pseudo-Isidorian universe. Beyond the Decretals, our forgers drew up absolute rafts of material; the bookworms probably haven't even found all of it yet. But the forgery complex, as we know it today, comprises the following pieces:

1. Capitularies collected by the fictional Benedictus Levita (Benedict the Deacon). Now online. These masquerade as royal legislation. The fiction is that they constitute books five through seven of an earlier (and perfectly unfishy) lawbook put together by Ansegis of Fontenelle (in four books!). Over 200 pages long in the printed edition, and here's the wrinkle: Many capitula clearly forged by people with Pseudo-Isidorian opinions, but Pseudo-Isidore seems to use Benedictus Levita as a source [update as of Aug. 2013: this latter point is actually debatable; for a bit more on the complex textual relationship between Benedictus Levita and Pseudo-Isidore, see Part I of my Theory of Pseudo-Isidore series] . Except at the very end of the Benedictus Levita collection, when the exact opposite happens, and Benedict starts to use Isidore as a source. Oh, and one final point: We can actually date Benedict in his final form. He got his finishing touches between 847 and 857, and I can rehearse the arguments for anyone who's interested.

2. The Hispana Gallica Augustodunensis, which I prefer to call the interpolated Hispana. A fancy Latin title, but the idea is pretty simple. Basically, there's a genuine Latin law book, used all over Carolingian Europe, known as the Hispana (because it comes from Spain). Then there's a local, Gallican version of this lawbook -- the Hispana Gallica. FINALLY, there's Pseudo-Isidore's personal edition of the Frenchy version of this Spanish law book, the interpolated Hispana. The Hispana Gallica is an ordinary, honest collection of laws; the interpolated Hispana has been retouched -- presumably by people in Pseudo-Isidore's orbit -- with various revisions and changes. Pseudo-Isidore then used this interpolated book as a foundation for his own broader forgery collection.

Those are the two big ones you'll have to remember. But there's at least two others:

3. The Capitula Angilramni, online here. Another document, like the stuff by Benedictus Levita, masquerading as royal legislation. This is full of laws dealing with legal proceedings against bishops. If you've been paying any attention you can guess what this collection is all about: Almost nobody can ever accuse a bishop of anything, if any bishop is ever accused it's almost impossible for any court ever to convict him, and so forth.

4. A newly discovered forgery, the Collectio Danieliana. Online here.

Anyway. Sorry to cut it short but that's about all I have time for now.

Tomorrow: The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals in frightening detail. Also, why we're reading Pseudo-Isidore and not any of these other peachy inventions. And maybe even an initial reader's report.

I know, it all sounds so enticing.

P.S. Beware the links to Wikipedia. The article on Pseudo-Isidore is a gem, assembled in its foundations by Karl Georg Schon (expert on all things pseudoisidorian); most of the other WP articles on Carolingian history are ripped from crickety sources like the Catholic Encyclopedia and old editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Even Schon's article has regressed to the mean, as ignorant editors have added various minor confusions. Caveat lector is all I'm saying.

Update (21 Aug. 2013): I've revised this post to make its historical claims a bit more tentative, updated some terminology, and corrected a few points that I got wrong. The above lines still articulate (more or less) the scholarly consensus about Pseudo-Isidore's historical background, but my own ideas have changed considerably in the three years since I started writing, as my ongoing Theory of Pseudo-Isidore series (linked in the sidebar) should make clear.


  1. Congratulations on taking on this task. It sounds like Captain Cook starting on a voyage of discovery. Hard to be sure whether the taxt is more daunting than Seckel, Fuhrmann, and other moderni. Might be useful to say a few words about Hinschius and his edition. I rembemer Schafer Williams preferring the (17th-cent) Migne reprint to Hischius. WG

  2. Thanks for the encouragement! And the comments. I agree, something about Hinschius is not a bad idea. Coming soon....

  3. Dear Sir!
    I also would like to congratulate you for your excellent work on the difficult subject of the Isidorian literature.
    yours sincerly, katolnai

  4. Very interesting- speaking as a historian trying to convince students to interrogate sources. However I stumbled across this by using the google search link on my iPad as I was reading Dorothy Sayers "gaudy night" in which her educated (Oxford) characters are discussing the moral and legal ethics of forgeries in the academic and literary worlds. (English murder mysteries are my secret vice?)

  5. "In 834 Lothar, his other brothers (not including Charles) and assorted clerical allies, including Pope Gregory IV, deposed Louis the Pious, placing Lothar and his brothers in charge."
    Indeed a memorable event, though memory is urgently whispering "833" in my ears...


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