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.

You know your Isidore is ‘Pseudo-‘ when …

Hincmar of Reims

So I’m in Florence right now. In case you missed that. And for those who were envying the Cypriot weather, the buckets of rain falling from the heavens today as I shivered from San Lorenzo to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze will make you less envious.

At the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale this afternoon, I was perusing a manuscript containing a large swath of papal letters from Clement I (d. 97) to Leo I (d. 461), with a few items from Constantine and Athanasius thrown in for good measure. I didn’t spend any time determining the veracity of the Constantinian and Athanasian documents. However, there was a clue that not all of these documents were above board. Some of the letters began with the phrase:

seruus seruorum Dei

Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Isn’t “servant of the servants of God” how all popes start letters?’ And you’d be almost right — it’s how most popes after Gregory I start most of their letters.

Wait. Gregory I?

Wasn’t he pope from 590-604?

He sure was.

Of course, I knew there would be forgeries in this manuscript (see below). However, it can be difficult sometimes to spot a papal forgery. You see, popes all write the same. This is partly because of the extreme conservativism inherent with the office — the Pope’s job is largely to maintain the tradition, but also to interpret it for a new generation. They tended to repeat one another, for one thing. If another pope had said it, the current pope will repeat his official ruling on a subject.

However, they also all write the same because eventually they aren’t writing much at all. The papal chancery is. I mean, they’re composing the letters and overseeing the content, but notarii do the actual writing by some point in the 600s, and probably earlier. We even have a seventh-century papal chancery style guide.

But there are ways to tell. Like ‘seruus seruorum Dei‘ turning up in a pre-Gregorian papal letter. Or early popes who obsess about primates and chorepiscopi. Or a letter from a pope like Leo I or Gregory I, who actually does have his own style, that isn’t in his own style.

But how did I know to expect forgeries?

Well, I knew that this manuscript is from a body of canon-law literature ascribed to ‘Isidorus Mercator’, affectionately known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’. That ‘Pseudo-‘ on the front is a dead giveaway!

The Pseudo-Isidorian canonical collections, which encompass canons from church councils as well as papal letters from as early as possible — and even earlier (forgeries!) — up to Gregory the Great. The collection is a clever mixture of genuine and false material, alongside genuine material that has been modified to suit the Pseudo-Isidorian forgers.

They emerged in 844 (if I remember correctly) in the context of the later Carolingian wars wherein a number of bishops (esp. Hincmar of Reims) got themselves mixed up in things and wanted to limit the power of the secular authorities over them as well as of their own metropolitan bishops. So the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries were contrived. What makes them intriguing is the fact that they include so much genuine material, and are therefore of great importance to the transmission of authentic canon law material.

And I got to spend some time with Pseudo-Isidore today. I’ll go visit him again on Wednesday; tomorrow, I’m returning to Collectio Vaticana at the chilly Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.