Donation of Constantine

Donation of Constantine
   One of the most important and well-known forgeries of the early Middles Ages, this document presented itself as issued by the fourth-century emperor Constantine, conferring great power on the pope. The date of composition and the purpose of the Constitutum Constantini, or the Donation of Constantine, remain unclear. This uncertainty has led to a variety of interpretations, which often vary as a result of the date assigned to the document's creation. It has been described as a tool intended to support the efforts of the popes to improve ties with the new Carolingian dynasty after the deposition of the last Merovingian ruler, Childeric III, in 751 or following the coronation of Pippin in 754. It has also been seen as a document designed to undermine Byzantine territorial rights in Italy, particularly in light of Byzantine failures to protect the papacy from its enemies, the Lombards. The Donation, the great papal historian Walter Ullmann notes, may have been intended simply to free the papacy from the confines of an antiquated and ineffective Byzantine imperial government framework as part of its long-range program to establish a papal monarchy in Europe. Thomas Noble notes that the document may have served to establish an independent, papal territorial power in central Italy. The Donation, whatever its origin, enjoyed a long career, whether used in defense of or in opposition to papal authority, until proved a forgery by Lorenzo Valla in 1439.
   There is a general consensus among historians that the Donation was written in the 750s, although some have dated it later in the eighth century and have interpreted its meaning in light of the history of Charlemagne. It was most likely written by a Lateran cleric, possibly with the knowledge of Pope Stephen II, and was associated with the coronation and Donation of Pippin, the first Carolingian king of the Franks. The forgery was based upon legends that had existed in some form or other since the fifth century, legends that told the story of the relations between the Roman emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester I. The opening section of the false Donation outlines the events associated with Constantine's conversion in the early fourth century. This section of the forgery, which clearly borrows from the legend of Sylvester, includes the story of Constantine being cured of leprosy by Sylvester and then, grateful for this miracle, Constantine accepting instruction in the Christian faith from the pope. Also in this section, "Constantine" asserts the importance of Rome as the city of the apostles Peter and Paul and as such proclaims the place of its bishop as the ultimate authority in matters of orthodoxy. In the second part, "Constantine" makes his famed donation to the papacy. Before departing for his new capital in the east, Constantinople, he grants the pope supremacy over the episcopal sees of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and all the churches of the world. He also grants temporal authority to the pope and his successors over "Judaea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa, Italy, and various islands" (17). And, most importantly, Constantine bestows on the pope "our palace [the Lateran], the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy or of the western regions" (17). This final donation was clearly meant to imply that the imperial dignity in the Western Empire was being passed from Constantine to the pope and his successors and that the popes had the authority to appoint new temporal rulers over the lands of the Western Roman Empire.
   Although its origins remain unclear, the later history of the Donation is more definite. The forgery was involved in the struggles between church and state and manipulated by advocates on both sides. In the late ninth century, Frankish bishops inserted the Donation into canon law collections as a means to secure ecclesiastical property rights. In the eleventh century emperors and popes passed judgment on the document according to their own political and religious agendas. It was denounced by ardent supporters of the papacy in the later German empire, including Otto III (d. 1003). Various popes pointed to it to support for their territorial claims in Italy and rights to primacy in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Indeed, the Donation of Constantine had perhaps even greater influence on political and religious affairs after its composition sometime in the eighth century than it did when it first appeared.
   See also
 ♦ Dutton, Paul Edward, trans. The Donation of Constantine. In Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1993, pp. 13-19.
 ♦ Henderson, E. F., trans. Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages. Revised edition. London: George Bell and Sons, 1892, pp. 312-329.
 ♦ Noble, Thomas X. F. The Republic of St. Peter: The Birth of the Papal State, 680-825. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
 ♦ Ullmann, Walter. The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 1970.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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