Dear Readers: A long time supporter of the Mystagogy Resource Center has informed me that they would like to donate $3000 to help me continue the work of this ministry, but they will only do it as a matching donation, which means that this generous donation will only be made after you help me raise a total of $3000. If you can help make this happen, it will be greatly appreciated and it would be greatly helpful to me, as I have not done a fundraiser this year. If you enjoy the work done here and want to see more of it, please make whatever contribution you can through the DONATE link below. Thank you!
(Total So Far - Day 6: $2350)

January 2, 2011

The Donation of Constantine

By Fr. John Romanides

The Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals

The sixth and seventh centuries witnessed a continuing controversy in Francia over the place of the Frankish king in the election of bishops. One party insisted that the king had no part in the elections. A second group would allow that the king simply approve the elections. A third group would give the king veto power over elections. A fourth group supported the right of the kings to appoint the bishops. Gregory of Tours and most members of the senatorial class belonged to this fourth group. However, while supporting the king's right to appoint bishops, Gregory of Tours protested against the royal practice of selling bishoprics to the highest bidder.

From the time of St. Gregory the Great, the popes of Old Rome tried to convince the Frankish kings to allow the election of bishops according to canon law by the clergy and people. Of course, the Frankish kings knew very well that what the popes wanted was the election of bishops by the overwhelming Roman majority. However, once the Franks replaced the Roman bishops and reduced the populus Romanorum to serfdom as villeins, there was no longer any reason why the canons should not apply. Thus Charlemagne issued his capitulary of 803, which restored the free election of bishops by the clergy and people secunda statuta canonum. Charlemagne restored the letter of the law, but both its purpose and that of the popes were frustrated. The church in Francia remained in the grip of a tyrannical Teutonic minority.

It is within such a context that one can appreciate the appearance of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, a large collection of forged documents, mixed with and fused into authentic ones compiled and in use by 850.

Incorporated into this collection was the forgery known as the Donation of Constantine whose purpose was to prevent the Franks from establishing their capital in Rome. This is strongly indicated by the fact that Otto III (983-1002), whose mother was an East Roman, declared this document a forgery as part of his reason for establishing Old Rome as his capital. Constantine the Great allegedly gave his imperial throne to the pope and his successors because "it is not right that an earthly emperor would have power in a place where the government of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by the heavenly Emperor." For this reason he moved his "empire and power" to Constantinople. And it was hoped that the Franks would fall for the ruse and leave Rome to the Romans.

Translated into feudal context, the Decretals supported the idea that bishops, metropolitans or archbishops, patriarchs and popes are related to each other as vassals and lords in a series of pyramidal relations, similar to Frankish feudalism, except that the pope is not bound by the hierarchical stages and procedures and can intervene directly at any point in the pyramid. He is at the same time the pinnacle, and directly involved by special juridical procedure in all levels. Clergy are subject only to the church tribunals. All bishops have the right of appeal directly to the pope who alone is the final judge. All appeals to lower level church courts are to be reported to the pope. Even when no appeal is made, the pope has the right to bring cases before his tribunal.

The throne of Saint Peter was transferred to Rome from Antioch. Constantine the Great gave his throne to Pope Silvester I and his successors in Rome. Thus the pope sat simultaneously on the thrones of Saints Peter and Constantine. What more powerful rallying point could there be for that part of the Roman nation subjugated to Teutonic oppression?

The Decretals were strongly resisted by powerful members of the Frankish hierarchy. However, they very quickly had wide distribution and became popular with the oppressed. At times the Frankish kings supported the Decretals against their own bishops as their interests dictated. They were also supported by pious Frankish clergy and laymen, and even by Frankish bishops who appealed to the pope in order to nullify decisions taken against them by their metropolitans.

The forged parts of these Decretals were written in Frankish Latin, an indication that the actual work was done in Francia by local Romans. The fact that the Franks accepted the Decretals as authentic, although not in the interests of their feudal establishment, means clearly that they were not a party to the forgery. The Franks never suspected the forgery until centuries later.

Both Old and New Rome knew that these Decretals were forgeries.[20] Roman procedure for verification of official texts can leave no doubt about this. Therefore, it is very possible that agents of Constantinople, and certainly, agents of Old Rome, had a hand in the compilation.

The strongest argument that Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims (845-882) could conjure up against the application of these Decretals in Francia was that they applied only to Papal Romania. He made a sharp distinction between canons of Ecumenical Synods, which are immutable and applicable to the whole Church because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and laws which are limited in their application to a certain era and to only a part of the Church.[21] One can see why Hincmar's contemporary, Pope John VIII (872-882), expressed to Patriarch Photios his hope, that he, John, might be able to persuade the Franks to omit the Filioque from the Creed. What Pope John did not fully grasp was the determination with which the Franks decided that the East Romans be only 'Greeks' and heretics, as is clear from the Frankish tradition now inaugurated to write works against the errors of the 'Greeks'.[22]

The Decretals were an attack on the very heart of the Frankish feudal system, since they uprooted its most important administrative officials, i.e., the bishops, and put them directly under the control, of all things, of a Roman head of state.

The astute Franks understood the danger very well. Behind their arguments against the application of the Decretals in Francia, one finds lurking two Frankish concerns. On the one hand, they contended with a Roman pope, but on the other hand, they had to take this pope very seriously because the villeins could become dangerous to the feudal establishment if incited by their ethnarch in Rome.

Pope Hadrian II (867-872), John VIII's predecessor, threatened personally to restore Emperor Louis II (855-875) to his rightful possession in Lotharingia, taken by Charles the Bald (840-875), who had been crowned by Hincmar of Rheims (845-882).[23] Hincmar answered this threat in a letter to the pope. He warned Hadrian not to try "to make slaves of us Franks", since the pope's "predecessors laid no such yoke on our predecessors, and we could not bear we must fight to the death for our freedom and birthright."[24]

Hincmar was not so much concerned with bishops becoming slaves of the pope, but that a Roman should "make slaves of us Franks."[25]

In 990, King Hugh Capet (987-996) of West Francia (Gaul or Gallia) and his bishops applied to Pope John XV (985-996) for the suspension of Archbishop Arnulf of Rheims as required by the Decretals. Arnulf had been appointed by Hugh Capet, but subsequently betrayed his benefactor, in favor of the Carolingian Duke Charles of Lotharingia who was his uncle.

Impatient with the pope's eighteen month delay in making a decision, Hugh Capet convened a council at Verzy near Rheims in 990. Arnulf pleaded guilty and begged for mercy. Nonetheless, a group of abbots challenged the proceedings as illegal because they were not consistent with the Decretals.[26] The Council deposed Arnulf. Hugh Capet caused Gerbert de Aurillac, the future Pope Silvester II, to be appointed in his place.[27]

Pope John, however, rejected this council as illegal and unauthorized. He sent a Roman abbot named Leo to depose Gerbert, restore Arnulf, and pronounce suspension on all the bishops who had taken part in the council. The pope's legate announced the pope's decision at the Council of Mouson in 995.[28]

Gerbert vigorously defended himself.[29] He rejected the papal decision in the presence of the papal legate Leo and refused the advice of colleagues to desist from his duties until the matter could be brought before the next Council of Rheims. The bishop of Triers finally persuaded him not to celebrate mass until the final decision on his case was reached.[30]

Thus Gerbert was completely abandoned by both the ecclesiastical and lay Frankish nobles who felt obliged to display, at least publicly, their support for the pope's decision. They even avoided every kind of contact with Gerbert. But Abbot Leo had aroused the faithful in support of the pope who sat on the thrones of Saints Peter and Constantine the Great. Out of prudence, Gerbert went into seclusion.

At the next Council of Rheims in 996, Gerbert was deposed and Arnulf was restored.[31]The Frankish ecclesiastical nobility could not afford to oppose popular support for the pope.

It seems that it was not popular superstition and piety alone that was the foundation of the people's fervor for the pope, but also the common Romanism the majority shared with the pope. It is this Romanism which constituted the power basis for the papal thrones of Saints Peter and Constantine the Great.

That the underlying problem was a clash between Romans and Franks is clearly stated by Gerbert in a letter to Wilderod, bishop of Strassburg. He writes: "The whole Church of the West Franks lies under the oppression of tyranny. Yet remedy is not sought from the West Franks, but from these (Romans)."[32] It is easy to understand the enthusiasm with which the subject populus Romanorum welcomed the Roman pope's interventions, punishing and humiliating Frankish nobles guilty of injustice. That the legate Leo could reverse the decisions of Hugh Capet and his bishops, and drive the nobility into conformity and Gerbert into seclusion by means of the faithful indicates that the makings of a revolution were present.

The Frankish Counterattack

The Frankish establishment, however, had the power to react, and it did so on two fronts. It stepped up its propaganda against alleged papal "corruption" and, of all things, "illiteracy," and made the decisive move to replace Roman popes with alleged "pious" and "literate" Germanic popes.

The alleged corrupt Roman popes could have been replaced by pious Roman popes. At the time there were at least some 200 monasteries and 50,000 Roman monks south of Rome.[33] But this was exactly the danger that had to be avoided. The Decretals in the hands of the pious Roman popes were even more dangerous than when in the hands of corrupt ones. The purpose of this smear campaign was to shatter the people's confidence in the Roman Papacy and justify the need to cleanse it with "virtuous" and "literate" Lombards, and East and West Franks.

Otto II (973-983) had appointed a Lombard, Peter of Pavia to the papacy in 983. He became the first non-Roman pope as John XIV (983-984), and thus provoked a revolution of the Roman populace aided by Constantinople. However, it took another forty years for the noble vassals of King Robert the Pious (996-1031) to get up enough Christian courage to take an oath that they would no longer violate "noble women." They were careful not to include villeins and serf women in the oath.

The concern of the Frankish bishops for the morality of Roman popes is quite interesting, as they did not seem concerned with their own morality when passing the death sentence in their episcopal courts. Charlemagne's many wives and fifteen illegitimate children were taken in stride, together with the fact that he forbade the marriage of his daughters. But Charlemagne did not mind their having children, although he castigated such practices in his capitularies.

At the Council of Rheims in 991, already mentioned, Arnuld, the bishop of Orleans, lists and violently attacks the alleged "corrupt" popes and, of course, praises Peter of Pavia, i.e., Pope John XIV, the Lombard already mentioned. It is, perhaps, not by accident that the allegedly corrupt popes were attached to Constantinople and the pious one was a Lombard.

In this same speech, Arnulf remarks: "But as at this time in Rome (as is publicly known) there is hardly anyone acquainted with letters - without (as it is written) one may hardly be a doorkeeper in the house of God-with what face may he who has himself learnt nothing set himself up as a teacher of others? Of course, in comparison with the Roman pontiff, ignorance is tolerable in other priests, but in the Roman (pope), in him to whom it is given to pass in review the faith, the morals, the discipline of the priesthood, indeed, of the universal church, ignorance is in no way to be tolerated." [34]

This deliberate fabrication should raise the question of the veracity of such Frankish sources concerning the corruption and illiteracy of Roman popes. Certainly many of them were neither saints nor scholars, but it is likely that Frankish propaganda exaggerates their weaknesses and it is certain that it does not stop short of fabrication.

In this same speech Arnulf lists among the papal "monsters" Pope John XII (955-964), who was put on trial in 963 by Otto I (936-973) and condemned in absentia. The report of Liutprand, the Lombard bishop of Cremona, that no proof was necessary at the trial because the pope's alleged crimes were publicly known may be indicative of the need to reexamine such cases.

Perhaps the most important incentive for replacing Roman popes with Franks and Lombards is that revealed by this same Liutprand, a chief adviser to Otto I. He writes: "We...Lombards, Saxons, Franks, Lotharingians, Bajoarians, Sueni, Burgundians, have so much contempt [for Romans and their emperors] that when we become enraged with our enemies, we pronounce no other insult except Roman (nisi Romane), this alone, i.e., the name of the Romans (hoc solo, id est Romanorum nomine) meaning: whatever is ignoble, avaricious, licentious, deceitful, and, indeed whatever is evil."[35]

Perhaps the real reason that Pope John XII became the monster of Frankish propaganda was that he dared restore the older tradition of dating papal documents by the years of the reign of the Roman emperor in Constantinople. In any case, Liutprand's tirade against the Romans, just quoted, reveals the fact that he knew very well that East and West Romans were one nation, and that the emperor in Constantinople was the real emperor of the Romans.

This tirade also reveals the fact that Liutprand was not aware of the prevailing theory among modern European historians that the Germanic nations became one nation with the Romans in Western Europe. As is clear from Liutprand, the Germanic peoples of his time would have been insulted by such claims.

Otto III (983-1002) solved the main problem of Frankdom in 996 by appointing to the papacy Bruno of Carinthia, an East Frank, who, as Gregory V (996-999), demanded the reinstatement of Arnulf as archbishop of Rheims. Thus Gerbert de Aurillac gave up trying to be restored to Rheims. He was compensated, however, by his fellow Frank, now on the papal throne, with confirmation of his appointment as archbishop of Ravenna (998-999).

Upon the death of Bruno, Gerbert was appointed to the papacy by Otto III and ruled Papal Romania as Silvester II (993-1003). For European and American historians, this Silvester II is one of the great popes in the history of the papacy. But for Romans, he was the head of the Frankish army of occupation, and the pope who introduced the feudal system of suppression into Papal Romania and enslaved the Romans to the Frankish nobility. There was no other way the people of Old Rome would accept Germanic popes.

In defending himself against the decision of the Roman pope, John XV, the future Frankish Pope Gerbert d'Aurillac, staunchly and eloquently supported the positions of Hincmar against the universal application of the Decretals. When d'Aurillic became Pope Silvester II, he found their universal application useful. The Decretals in the hands of the Frankish Papacy, sealed the tomb of the West Romans very firmly for many centuries.

Between the years 973-1003, and especially between 1003-1009, the Romans of Papal Romania made valiant efforts to preserve their freedom and independence from Frankish feudalism by having or attempting to have their own popes; once, at least, with the assistance of the East Roman army which had reached Rome and entered the city. The German emperors, however, devised an interim method of keeping the Romans somewhat pacified, by confirming the election of Roman popes from the Roman Tusculan family, which secured the papacy for itself, in exchange for the betrayal of Constantinople and her Orthodoxy represented by the Crescenti family. However, this temporary facade was abolished at the Council of Sutri in 1046. Thenceforth, Germanic popes were once again appointed by the German emperors, until the Normans became the deciding factor in allowing the reformer Franks to wrest the papacy from the imperial Germans. Even Italian popes like Gregory VII are descended from the Frankish army of occupation, established in Italy since the time of Charlemagne. It is no wonder that Beatrice and Matilda, wife and daughter of Boniface II, marquess of Tuscany, should become the great supporters of the reformed Papacy, since this is also a Frankish family established there since the ninth century.


The conclusions, I believe, seem clear. The underlying forces which clashed on the battlefield were not the Decretals, canon law, and the Filioque, but Romans and Franks. The Franks used church structure and dogma in order to maintain their birthright, to hold the Roman nation in "just subjection." The Romans also used church structure and dogma to fight back for their own freedom from oppression and for their independence.

Both sides used the most convenient weapons at hand. Thus, the same canonical and decretal arguments are to be found now on one side, now on the other, according to the current offensive and defensive needs of each nation. The Filioque, however, became a permanent feature of conflict between East Romans and Franks with the West Romans attempting to side with the East Romans.

From all that has been pointed out, it should be evident that there are strong indication that Roman historical terms are much closer to the reality of the schism than is Frankish terminology. The first is consistent with its own past, whereas the second is a deliberate provocation of a break with the past.

To speak of the schism as a conflict between Franks and Romans, to which theology was subjected as an offensive weapon on the Frankish side, and as a defensive and counter-offensive weapon on the Roman side, would seem close to taking a picture of history with a movie camera. On the other hand, to speak of a conflict between so-called "Latin" and "Greek" Christianities is tantamount to commissioning Charlemagne and his descendants to prophesy the future, and see to it that the prophecy is fulfilled.

There is strong evidence that the higher and lower nobility of European feudalism were mostly descendants of Germanic and Norman conquerors, and that the serfs were mostly descendants of the conquered Romans and Romanized Celts and Saxons. This explains why the name Frank meant both noble and free in contrast to the serfs. This usage was strong enough to get into the English language by way of the Normans. Thus, even the African-American was described as receiving his franchise when set free.

The implications are quite tantalizing when applied to the task of understanding the framework of Frankish or Latin Christianity and theology in relation to Roman Christianity and theology. Feudalism, the Inquisition, and Scholastic theology were clearly the work of the Franks, Germans, Lombards, Normans, and Goths, who took over the Church and her property, and used the religion of the Romans to keep the conquered Romans in a servile state. In contrast to this, the Romans who were conquered by Arab and Turkish Muslims, had their own Roman bishops. Thus in the one case, the institutional aspects of Christianity became a tool of suppression, and in the other, the means of national survival.

Because it is impossible to believe that four Roman Patriarchates broke away from a Frankish Papacy, the Franks were forced to forge the somewhat more believable myth that four "Greek" Patriarchates broke away from a so-called Roman but, in reality, Frankish Papacy. European and American historians continue to teach and support this.

The schism began when Charlemagne ignored both Popes Hadrian I and Leo III on doctrinal questions and decided that the East Romans were neither Orthodox nor Roman. Officially, this Frankish challenge was answered at the Eighth Ecumenical Synod in 879 by all five Roman Patriarchates, including that of Old Rome.

There was no schism between the Romans of Old and New Rome during the two and a half centuries of Frankish and German control over Papal Romania.[36]

The so-called split between East and West was, in reality, the importation into Old Rome of the schism provoked by Charlemagne and carried there by the Franks and Germans who took over the papacy.

The atmosphere for dialogue between Old and New Rome may be cleared by the realization that the so-called "French" Revolution was essentially not much different from the so-called "Greek' Revolution. One was a revolt of Romans against their Frankish conquerors, and the other, a revolt of Romans against their Turkish conquerors.

It would seem that there is a much stronger unity among the Romans extending from the Atlantic to the Middle East than there can ever exist among those working for a union based on only a Charlemagnian Europe.

Perhaps the best path to the political reunion of Europe is to first realize that the already existing Roman Republics should, and can, unite into a Federation of Roman Republics. In other words, the so-called "French" and "Greek" Revolutions must be completed by becoming a Roman Revolution.

However, the path to the reunion of Christianity is not at all political or ethnic in nature. The Church's involvement in politics, and state structures for the preservation or the suppression of Roman society produced an interplay between church and society, but not necessarily between dogma and society.

The Medieval papacy incorporated the feudal structure into her fabric of administration and elevated it to the level of dogma.

The Orthodox Churches have also been adapting themselves to changing circumstances which affect their administrative fabric also, but have left this at the level of canon law.

The Protestant churches have rejected not only the dogmatic aspects of the Medieval papal administrative structure, but, on the whole, they have rejected the Orthodox development also, and have attempted to go back to what they understand to be Biblical or Apostolic Christianity.

Thus, Roman Orthodox and so-called "Roman Catholics" find themselves heirs to differences due to historical circumstances, and Protestants see themselves as a series of third alternatives.


[20] It is no accident that Otto III declared the Donation of Constantine to be a forgery, as already mentioned, a fact he probably learned from his East Roman mother and tutors. However, he evidently never suspected that the rest of the decretals had been tampered with.

[21] Hincmar's copious arguments are contained in his writings about his nephew's illegal appeal to the pope, Opuscula et Epistolae quae spectant ad causam Hincmari Laudunensis, Migne, PL 126:279-648.

[22] Of these, the following three survive: 1) Responsio De Fide S. Trinitatis Contra Graecorum Haeresim, Migne, PL 110:111-112; 2) Ratramnus of Corbie, Contra Graecorum Opposita, Migne, PL 121:225-346; 3) Aeneas of Paris, Liber Adversus Graecos, Migne, PL 121:685-762.

[23] Mansi 16.555-60.

[24] "...nos Francos non jubeat servire, quia istud jugam sui antecessores nostris antecessoribus non imposuerunt, et nos illud portare non possumus, qui scriptum esse in sanctis libris audimus, ut pro libertate et haereditate nostra usque ad mortem certare debeamus." Migne, PL 126:181.

[25] Mansi 19.97-100.

[26] It is interesting to carefully note that Richerus (Historiae 68), a student of Gerbert, reports that the abbotts were answered by the claim that it was impossible to notify the Roman pontiff about the matter because of obstacles caused by enemies and the bad conditions of the roads.

[27] Mansi 19.103-08. For Gerbert's own spontaneous version of the proceedings, see his report to Wilderod, bishop of Strassbourg. Mansi 19.107-68. It is clear that Richerus s attempting to cast the factual material in such a way as to cover up the clash that was in process between the West Frankish establishment and the Roman papacy. This is nowhere so much in evidence as in the fact that he carefully avoids mentioning that Gerbert and the bishops who ordained him were deposed by Pope John XV, a fact which Gerbert himself complains about in his letter to Empress Adelaide. Mansi 19.176-78.

[28] Mansi 19.193-96. This evidence should be used in the light of Gerbert's letter to Empress Adelaide, already mentioned in the previous footnote. Richerus makes a feeble attempt to present pope John as having sent Leo to simply investigate the matter at the Council of Mouzon (Historiae 4.95) and for this reason the text of the Papal decision had to be omitted from his acts of the Council. One can understand why this text has also disappeared from the Papal archives most probably when Bruno of Carinthia or Gerbert himself took over the Papacy.

[29] Richerus, Historiae 4.101-05. Mansi 19.193-96.

[30] Mansi 19.196. Richerus gives us an important key to these deliberations. Gerbert finally promised to abstain from the celebration of mass in order to avoid the appearance of an open revolt against the pope. Historiae 4.106. In other words, there was a general agreement among the lay and church nobles (i.e., the Franks) that the pope and the Gallo-Roman (Walloon) multitude are to be out-flanked, and for this reason, a final decision was at all costs avoided. That a Frankish candidate for the Papacy was being prepared for the succession of John XV was perhaps already decided upon and known by key Frankish leaders. In order to govern the predominantly Roman multitude effectively, the Franks had to always give the impression that they were faithful and obedient to the Roman pope.

[31] Mansi 19.197-200. Richerus mentions this council, but is silent about its decisions. Historiae 4.108. As already mentioned, he carefully avoids giving out the information that Gerbert was suspended by John XV. By not mentioning the death of this pope, Richerus gives us the impression that Gerbert twice visited the same papacy, which also recognized his appointment to the Archbishopric of Ravenna.

[32] "Pressa jacet tyrannide omnis Ecclesia Gallorum; atqui non a Gallis, sed ab his sperabatur salus," Mansi 19.166. Gallia, Germania, and Italia were parts of the Frankish Empire ruled in the past by members of the Carolingian families. Within this context, Ecclesia Gallorum signifies the Church of the West Franks and certainly not the French, who at this time were predominantly the Gallo-Roman serfs and villeins under Frankish rule. This is clear from the use of the title Rex Francorum by the Capetian Kings. See, e.g., Mansi, 19.93-94, 97, 105, 107-08, 113, 129, 171-72, 173-74.

[33] F. Mourret, A History of the Catholic Church, 3 (London, 1936), p. 439; J. Gay, L'Italie Meridionale et L'Empire Byzantine (867-1071) (Paris, 1904), p. 285.

[34] Mansi 19.132-33.

[35] Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana 12. Migne, PL 136. 815

[36] In his letter to Emperor Michael I (811-813), Charlemagne refers to the restoration of the unity of the Churches within the context of the establishment of peace between the Western and Eastern Empires, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae 4, p. 556ff. Charlemagne is here thinking in terms of the Frankish West and the Roman or Greek East and not of Old and New Rome. Pope Leo III had never accepted Charlemagne's doctrinal adventures about icons and the Filioque, and the East Roman Patriarchs desisted from reacting against them, evidently in support of the delicate and dangerous position of the West Romans under Frankish occupation. In any event, Charlemagne's remarks are his own admission that he himself had provoked a schism which existed only in his own mind, since all five Roman Patriarchs avoided being provoked, and seemed not to take the Franks doctrinally serious at that time. For an English translation of this letter, see Robert Folz, The Coronation of Charlemagne (London, 1974), pp. 242-43.