Donation of Constantine Is Exposed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Donation of Constantine was exposed as fraudulent, casting doubts on the legitimacy of papal authority.

Summary of Event

The Donation of Constantine (known in Latin as the Constitutum Constantini) is a document supposedly written by Constantine the Great Constantine I the Great , the first Christian emperor of Rome, to Pope Sylvester I in the early fourth century. The document consists of about three hundred lines of Latin text and is divided into two parts. The first half is known as the Confessio and the second half is known as the Donatio. [kw]Donation of Constantine Is Exposed (1440) [kw]Constantine Is Exposed, Donation of (1440) Constantine, Donation of Italy;1440: Donation of Constantine Is Exposed[3170] Cultural and intellectual history;1440: Donation of Constantine Is Exposed[3170] Religion;1440: Donation of Constantine Is Exposed[3170] Nicholas of Cusa Valla, Lorenzo Alfonso V Eugenius IV

The Confessio describes how Constantine the Great rejected the advice of pagan priests to bathe in the blood of children to cure his leprosy. He then had a dream in which Saint Peter and Saint Paul appeared to him and told him he would be cured if he visited Pope Sylvester I and became baptized as a Christian by him. Constantine followed this advice and was miraculously cured.

The Donatio relates how Constantine, in gratitude for his cure, declared that Pope Sylvester I and his successors would have rule over all Christian churches in the world. Constantine also granted them the use of his Lateran Palace and the use of numerous imperial insignias. Most important, he gave them political power over all the western part of the Roman Empire and stated that he would move his own court to a new capital (Constantinople) in the eastern part.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Donation of Constantine was used to defend the authority of the pope over all other Christian clergy and over the secular rulers of western Europe. Although some questioned the validity of the Donation of Constantine on the grounds that the emperor could not legally donate his authority over the empire, the authenticity of the document itself was rarely challenged. The only known accusation of forgery before the fifteenth century came from Otto III Otto III , ruler of the Western Roman Empire, in 1001.

The first important attempt to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery came from the German priest, philosopher, theologian, and mathematician Nicholas of Cusa Nicholas of Cusa . In his book De concordantia catholica De concordantia catholica (Nicholas of Cusa) (1433, on unity), he noted that the Donation of Constantine was not mentioned in any of the numerous church histories of its time. He also used historical records to show that the pope acknowledged the authority of the emperor in Western Europe until the eighth century.

The most critical attack on the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine came seven years later when the Italian philosopher Lorenzo Valla Valla, Lorenzo wrote De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio (1440; The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine, The (Valla) , 1922). In this work, Valla used both historical evidence and linguistic analysis to demonstrate that the Donation of Constantine could not have been written during the time of Constantine I.

Like Nicholas of Cusa, Valla noted the lack of historical records mentioning the document. He also noted that the Donation of Constantine made reference to the controversy over the use of images in worship services, an issue that did not come up until the eighth century. The document also mentioned satraps, a type of official that did not exist in the government of Constantine I.

Valla also studied the style of Latin used in the Donation of Constantine to prove that it could not have been written in the fourth century. By carefully examining the grammar and vocabulary used in the document, he was able to demonstrate that the Latin of the Donation of Constantine was not the Latin used during the time of Constantine I but the Latin used hundreds of years later.

Valla had many political, theological, and philosophical reasons for his attack on the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine. Besides a concern for exposing the truth, he also hoped to demonstrate that it would be evil for the pope to accept secular power from Constantine the Great because his Roman Empire was tyrannic. In a similar way, he advocated the spiritual freedom of the individual over the absolute spiritual authority of the pope. Philosophically, he defended the use of objective evidence over reliance on accepted authority.

Valla also had a more practical reason for denying the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine. He was employed as a secretary and historian to Alfonso V Alfonso V (king of Aragon) , king of Aragon, who was at war with Pope Eugenius IV Eugenius IV over control of the kingdom of Naples. By exposing the Donation of Constantine as a forgery, Valla denied the authority of the pope to determine who would rule the kingdoms of Western Europe.

At the beginning of the Reformation, Reformation the leaders of the Protestant movement used Valla’s book to demonstrate that the power of the pope was based on falsehoods. In defense of the Catholic Church, the Italian philosopher Agostino Steuco Steuco, Agostino pointed out that Valla’s work was seriously flawed by being based on an abridged and distorted version of the Donation of Constantine rather than on the best text available.

Despite this attack on Valla’s methods, modern scholars agree that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. The evidence suggests that it was composed shortly after the year 750, probably by a cleric at the Church of the Savior, which was built within the Lateran Palace mentioned in the document.

Significance

Several theories have been advanced to explain the motive behind the forgery of the Donation of Constantine. In the 1960’, it was suggested that it was used to defend the authority of the pope during diplomatic negotiations with the Franks in the eighth and ninth centuries. Later in the twentieth century, it was suggested that the Donation of Constantine was composed to associate the Church of the Savior with the glory of the first Christian emperor and that it was more an embellished version of what was believed to be the truth rather than a deliberate fraud.

The author of the Donation of Constantine apparently based the Confessio section of the document on well-known fifth century legends about Pope Sylvester I. The Donatio section is more original, although such a donation was vaguely mentioned in the same legends. The final part of this section, in which the pope was given power over all other rulers in Western Europe, was of great political and theological importance from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries.

Despite its later significance, this section may have been an afterthought added by the author after the importance of the Church of the Savior had been established earlier in the document. The claims of papal power made at the end of the Donation of Constantine were either well-established by the middle of the eighth century or were so broadly expressed as to be virtually without any specific meaning.

The critiques of the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine by Nicholas of Cusa and Lorenzo Valla in the middle of the fifteenth century were important precedents in the development of textual criticism in the early Renaissance. Later philosophers would use their methods to question the validity of other old documents. This movement away from accepting the writings of ancient authorities to making use of scientific evidence was one of the important factors in the philosophical transition from medieval Scholasticism to Renaissance Humanism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Camporeale, Salvatore I. “Lorenzo Valla’s Oratio on the Pseudo-Donation of Constantine: Dissent and Innovation in Early Renaissance Humanism.” Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (January, 1996): 9-26. Discusses the political and theological implications of Lorenzo Valla’s attack on the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delph, Ronald K. “Valla Grammaticus, Agostino Steuco, and the Donation of Constantine.” Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (January, 1996): 55-77. Describes Agostino Steuco’s criticism of the methods used by Lorenzo Valla to expose the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fubini, Riccardo. “Humanism and Truth: Valla Writes Against the Donation of Constantine.” Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (January, 1996): 79-86. An analysis of the philosophical motivations behind Lorenzo Valla’s critique of the Donation of Constantine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ginzburg, Carlo. History, Rhetoric, and Proof. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for Brandeis University Press/Historical Society of Israel, 1999. Contains a chapter on Lorenzo Valla and the Donation of Constantine. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valla, Lorenzo. The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine. Translated by Christopher B. Coleman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press in association with the Renaissance Society of America, 1993. A translation of De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio. Includes analysis and biographical material on Valla.

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