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.

Dionysius Exiguus — too much overlooked

Dionysius Exiguus, or ‘Denys the Short’ (Wee Dennis, perhaps?) was a ‘Scythian’ (ie. from the Northeastern edge of the Roman Empire) monk who lived at Rome in the early sixth century. I have a feeling this is precisely why he has fallen into obscurity, for — other than Boethius & Benedict — the Latin Fathers between the two papal Greats (Leo, d. 461, & Gregory, ascended sedes Apostolica 590) are often overlooked. One may read Sidonius Apollonaris out of an interest in Late Latin prose style, but who reads Cassiodorus these days?

Anyway, this wee man is far too often overlooked. The only two books I found about him in the University of Edinburgh Library are both about the fact that he is the person who set out to establish the date of Christ’s birth — and his version stuck, even though he got it wrong (thus BC & AD trace back to him). These two works are both fairly recent, Anno Domini by Georges Declercq and The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era by Alden A. Mosshammer.

Dionysius, though, is an important person to focus our attention upon not only because of Anno Domini starting with him, but also because of the important place he stands and the era of which he is indicative.

Dionysius was prominent chiefly for two activities — translating and editing (maybe this is why I think we should look at him more closely!). He translated various works into Latin, such as the Life of St. Pachomius, Proterius of Alexandria’s letter to Pope Leo, the letter of Proclus of Constantinople to the Armenians concerning the orthodox faith, and some works of Gregory of Nyssa concerning the creation of the world.

Sadly, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, ‘Translation has often been marginalized as a second-order activity, lacking in originality’ (‘Translation’). People have an obsession with first things, with the primus inventor, with ‘the original’, with ‘creativity’ and ‘new contributions to knowledge’ that things such as translation or Roman art or the entirety of the Middle Ages, due to their ‘derivative’ nature are scorned and ignored.

Yet translation is an important task. It can tell you as much about the translator as a text composed by the author him/herself. Is this writer skilled at the primary language? Is there facility in the rendering into the target language? What things are changed? What effects do these changes have? Why might they have been made? Are all changes ‘errors’? Can a translation ‘improve’ upon the original?

Furthermore, the Early Medieval enterprise of translation is an important reality in a world where Latin and Greek readers are becoming more and more estranged, unable to read each other’s bodies of literature. Therefore, it becomes imperative that important texts be made available in Latin for the Latin-reading public. Part of the shift from a ‘Classical’ to a ‘Medieval’ world was the shift from a bilingual Roman Empire to a very real, at times insurmountable, division between the Greek East and the Latin West.

Observing which works were translated by Dionysius and his contemporaries. and for whom and what the distribution of these translations was can show us a lot about the late Patristic Age as it forged a brave, new Medieval world.

Dionysius Exiguus is also notable for his contribution to canon law. Here, again, he is not the first to engage in the task under discussion, but he is important and indicative of the age in his own right. He compiled a bipartite collection of documents related to canon law (a ‘canonical collection’), the first part covering the canons of various synods East and West up to Chalcedon, the second collecting papal letters from 284-498.

This, the Collectio Dionysiana, is not unique. Of the canonical collections that contain letters of Leo the Great, fifteen of them are from the sixth century; of the fifteen, seven are from the first half, including the Dionysiana. Although I am aware only of canonical collections with Leonine material, no such collections seem to exist prior to the turn of the sixth century. The early 500s, then, are an important age for the transmission of canon law.

Collections such as the Collectio Dionysiana are very important in this period, because the papal Register was an invention of Gregory the Great. Thus, pre-Gregorian papal letters have a somewhat patchy and scattered history (quite literally). Taking these disparate materials and putting a number of them into a single volume for easy access was a vitally important task at the the beginning of the 500s. Thus could popes and other persons with a need to consult the mind of past Bishops of Rome on issues of faith and practice have an easier time of it.

Furthermore, the choice of letters, whether through necessity (‘These are all I have’) or editorial practice (‘These are all I shall use’) helps shape future opinion on these subjects. No longer will popes have to simply cite Sancti Patres; they can actually name who said what — Noster Pater Sanctus Leo, Papa Romae.

This collection, in particular, has an important place in the development of canon law. Other canonical collections made use of the Dionysiana, such as Collectio Vaticana (6th century), Cresconius’ Concordia canonum (mid-6th with a wide array of manuscripts surviving), Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana (8th, many mss), and Collectio Dionysiana adaucta (9th). Canon jurists and papal advisers and popes were reading the Collectio Dionysiana for centuries as they compiled new, larger canonical collections. This particular arrangement and gathering of papal documents would have shaped their own view of papal authority and the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The manuscripts of collections that trace themselves back to Dionysius are mostly no later than the twelfth century, although there is one from the sixteenth. In the twelfth century, Gratian made his famous Decretum, that brought together various excerpts from canons and papal letters arranged systematically on certain questions, so the copying of material such as the Dionysiana would have understandably gone down. Nevertheless, that is five hundred years of consistent copying and use, even in the face of the famous and influential Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.

Finally, this anthologising of Dionysius’ is, like his translations, indicative of his age. The Later Roman Empire was a world saturated by far too much reading material, and anthologies were in vogue. I doubt this was because people didn’t like reading long extracts or entire works; rather, it’s because there was so much available to put into the anthologies. It is an age where a person can gain a lot without having to read all 144 books of Livy, or over 100 papal letters just to answer one question.

Dionysius is part of the culture that gives birth to the Middle Ages. He is indicative of the wider realm in many ways, and important for the development of western European culture in the years following the ‘Fall’ of Rome. For these reasons, he is too much overlooked.