Initial reflections on Volume 1 of Gregory the Great’s letters

The top of St Gregory's crozier
The top of St Gregory’s crozier

This morning I finished reading the first volume John R C Martyn’s translation of Gregory the Great‘s letters. This covers Books 1-4. Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome 590-604, and he left behind a significant corpus of writings — sermons, The Book of Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues (which are hagiographical), and letters. The Pastoral Rule is one of the few Latin patristic texts both translated into and widely read in Greek from a very early age.

Over 800 of Gregory’s letters survive. This is considerably more than any previous pope. Indeed, one of my catch-lines about Leo the Great (pope 440-461) is that more letters survive from him than from any other pope before Gregory, and for Leo we have a corpus of ~170 items. Unfortunately, I am not clear about how Gregory the Great’s epistolary corpus stacks up against later popes in terms of quantity. My apologies.

As a result of this massive corpus of missives, we have a much better sense of who Gregory is than of the other incumbents of the Roman see. We have many more avenues to access his thought on a range of issues. We see what sorts of things he was interested in, we see what sorts of things he believed, we see what sorts of people he knew. Gregory thus stands in sharper relief than any other Late Antique Bishop of Rome.

Now, when we say these things, we have to remember that, while Gregory undoubtedly unique and had his own strengths, it is not necessarily the case that his correspondence was unique as a body of documents. The mediaeval papacy was not suddenly born in the year 590. Gregory is but one step in a long process; what makes his letters unique is their quantity, not necessarily their concerns or outlook.

Not always, anyway.

One final preliminary issue. The sorts of papal letters I read for my own research tend to be of interest primarily or only as sources for canon law. Although I believe that canon law, and papal letters in particular, is an often overlooked source for social history, it is still the case that the explicit interest of the pope at hand is canon law, and very often in broad terms. That is, Innocent I is interested in discussing monks and nuns who leave their monasteries whereas Gregory is interested in this one particular story about this one particular nun who got pregnant. Gregory’s letters, then, are universally recognised by historians as a major source for the history of the Early Middle Ages, in a way, sadly, that a lot of other papal letters are not always.

Gregory’s main correspondents are clergy — mostly bishops, but sometimes also deacons and priests — and officials or aristocrats. In Books 1-4, he writes to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, for example, as well as the Byzantine imperial daughter Constantina. He writes to the deacon who manages the church’s landholdings and financial affairs in Sicily quite often. He writes to secular officials in Dalmatia and Africa.

His correspondents are in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Dalmatia, and North Africa, only occasionally in Gaul, although Frankish lands will feature more prominently in later books of the correspondence.

He writes about ecclesiastical abuses, about who is fit to be a cleric, about allowing Jews freedom of worship, about not allowing Jews to own Christian slaves or buy property from churches, about evangelising Sardinian pagans, about schism, about theology, about monks and nuns, about misbehaving sons of clerics, about people trying to sell off church plate, about people trying to found monasteries and how that’s a good thing, about people alienating property from its rightful heirs — about the range of human existence, basically.

I will go into some of the moments that piqued my interest next time. But it was worth the read, and I will get around to the next two volumes some day.

Pope Question: Aren’t most papal letters before Gregory the Great forgeries?

pope clipartShort answer: Yes, but…

Today’s pope question arose twice in one day recently, so I feel it is worth answering. I was asked what sort of manuscripts I’ve been studying, and I said that I’m currently looking into Late Antique Papal Letters; or Papal Letters from the Roman Empire (one from Siricius [pope 384-399], four from Innocent I [401-17], one from Zosimus [417-18], two from Celestine I [422-32]). These particular letters whose transmission I’m studying are, in fact, genuine.

But how can we know?

I think the first thing to deal with here is: Why are all early papal letters suspect? My guess is: a. The Donation of Constantine and b. Pseudo-Isidore. The Donation of Constantine is the famous ninth-century forgery that gave Pope Silvester (pope 315-335) all sorts of temporal power that no pope had before the Central Middle Ages. Lorenzo Valla, in one of the great moments in humanistic study and the history of philology, proved it a forgery in 1440. Pseudo-Isidore is also ninth-century, but of a different ilk. By ‘Pseudo-Isidore’, scholars of canon law mean a group of forgers (or maybe their forgeries) in mid-ninth-century Frankish lands (c. 844?) who produced a vast array of forged papal decretals (papal letters universally binding in canon law) from very early popes right up to when we have actually papal letters.

These two factors, I imagine, are why people think all early papal letters are forgeries; most of them are.

However, it is entirely reasonable to assume that letters written by Bishops of Rome would survive to posterity from the ancient world. This can be drawn first of all from analogy. Other western bishops left behind their correspondence, most famously St Cyprian, St Ambrose, and St Augustine, but we also have letters of, for example, Aurelius of Carthage. Eastern episcopal correspondence also survives, such as St John Chrysostom, St Basil of Caesarea, and St Athanasius. Indeed, the Bishops of Alexandria have left us many letters, most famously their yearly ‘festal letters’ that inform the Egyptian clergy of the date of Easter for the year and deal with some internal affairs and give a bit of exhortation.

If bishops from Carthage, Hippo, Milan, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Caesarea are involved in the business of ecclesiastical letter-writing in Late Antiquity, why not bishops of Rome?

It is also reasonable to assume that people would be interested in what Roman Bishops had to say. After, Canon 6 from the Council of Nicaea (325) says:

Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also.  Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges.  And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop.  If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.

Rome was Metropolitan of Suburbicarian Italy and chief episcopal see in the western, Latin-speaking Mediterranean. Due to actions of Constantine and then a long series of disgruntled provincial clergy, the Bishop of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries developed into an arbiter in disputes and court of appeal. People will have wanted to keep what this guy had to say.

So much for the theoretical grounding as to why it is inevitable that people will have kept and transmitted genuine papal letters.

How can we tell, though??

Not to go into the gory details, one question is how early the collections and manuscripts that contain a letter are. Is it in collections from the late fifth or early sixth century? Or does it not appear until the ninth or tenth century?

The next question is: How does the material match the context of the letter? For example, one of the Leo forgeries is all about the rights of chorepiscopi in Gaul and Germany. This was an issue in the 800s, not the 400s, not least because there wasn’t really an established episcopate of any sort in Germany at the time. But when Siricius makes references to the Council of Ariminum (Rimini, 358) and the canonical precedent established at the time, it seems genuine.

Leo the Great writes about Manichaeans in Ep. 7, and we have corresponding evidence from his sermons, from imperial laws, from the Chronicle of Hydatius and the Chronicle of Prosper that Manichaeans were an issue at that time. It is reasonable to assume that Leo would have written about/against them in his letters.

Of course, one will protest, isn’t contextualisation what makes a good forgery? Well, yes, but I can assure you that it is the burden of the many smaller references that help tip the scales, as well as references to canonical practice that would change over time.

Then there is style and terminology. This is harder. Even popes with distinctive personal styles like Leo the Great look an awful lot like their predecessors — a problem facing the identification of a fragment in one ms, is it Leo or Boniface I? Nonetheless, different popes have subtle differences, although it can be hard to spell it out. I do find, though, that Innocent I does not write the same as Leo the Great. I promise.

And don’t forget the seruus seruorum Dei rule — if it turns up in a papal letter before Gregory the Great (590-604), it’s either an interpolation or the whole letter’s a forgery.

I hope this helps. I promise that I’m not mistakenly reading a bunch of forgeries. Early papal letters are a vastly understudied and misunderstood resource for the historian of Late Antiquity, so casting aside the forgery burden is an important task so we can get down to studying the real documents.