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HE Donation of Constantine-the most famous forgery in European history; papal authority-since the triumph of Christianity the most perennial question of European society; historical criticism—one of the most comprehensive, most alluring, and most baffling enterprises of the modern mind; Lorenzo Valla—the greatest of the professional Italian humanists; these lines of study have converged, accidentally perhaps, to call forth the following pages. Much of the subject matter which might properly form their introduction I have already treated more fully in an earlier work,1 and a brief statement will suffice here.
The Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), written probably not long after the middle of the eighth century, became widely known through its incorporation in the PseudoIsidorian Decretals (about 847-853). Parts of it were included in most of the medieval collections of canon law; Anselm's, Deusdedit's, and Gratian's great work (the Decretum, or Concordia discordantium canonum). It purports to reproduce a legal document in which the Emperor Constantine the Great, reciting his baptism and the cure of his leprosy at the hands of Sylvester, Bishop of Rome 314-336, confirmed the privilege of that pontiff as head of all the clergy and supreme over the other four patriarchates; conferred upon him extensive imperial property in various parts of the world, especially the imperial Lateran palace, and the imperial diadem and tiara, and other imperial insignia; granted the Roman clergy the rank of the highest Roman orders and their
1 C. B. Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity, three phases: the historical, the legendary, and the spurious. Columbia University Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, vol. LX, no. 1. Columbia University Press, and Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1914.
privileges; gave Sylvester and his successors freedom in consecrating men for certain orders of the clergy; it tells how he, Constantine, recognized the superior dignity of the Pope by holding the bridle of his horse; grants Sylvester Rome, all of Italy, and the western provinces, to remain forever under the control of the Roman See; and states his own determination to retire to Byzantium in order that the presence of an earthly emperor may not embarrass ecclesiastical authority. This remarkable document was almost universally accepted as genuine from the ninth to the fifteenth century.
The question of the position of the bishop of Rome in the Christian Church lacks but a few generations of being as old as Christianity itself. His relation to secular governments became an acute problem as soon as the imperial government broke down in Italy, and has remained so to the present moment. For centuries the Papacy was the strongest institution in western Europe. While its control at any one time rested principally on the power it actually possessed and on the ability of its representatives, legal theories and historical documents played a not inconsiderable part in its rise and decline. Of these documents the Donation of Constantine was perhaps the most spectacular, even though it was not the most important. It was cited by no less than ten Popes of whom we know, to mention no lesser writers, in contentions for the recognition of papal control, and contributed not a little to the prestige of the Papacy. On the other hand, when its spuriousness became known, the reaction against it, as in Luther's case, contributed powerfully to the revolt from Rome. Its century-long influence entitles it to a respect difficult for any one who now reads it to feel. And Valla's discussion of it contains many interesting reflections on the secular power of the Papacy, perhaps the most interesting expression in this connection of fifteenth century Italian humanism.
Among the achievements of modern historical criticism Valla's work was a conspicuous pioneer. Its quality and its importance have often been exaggerated, and as often underestimated. It is some satisfaction to make it more generally available in the origi
nal text and translation, so that the reader may judge for himself. A critical appraisal would have to take into account that Nicholas Cusanus some seven years earlier in his De concordantia catholica covered part of the same ground even better than Valla did, and anticipated some of his arguments. But Valla's treatise is more exhaustive, is in more finished and effective literary form, and in effect established for the world generally the proof of the falsity of the Donation. Moreover, for the first time, he used effectively the method of studying the usage of words in the variations of their meaning and application, and other devices of internal criticism which are the tools of historical criticism to-day. So, while Valla's little book may seem slight beside later masterpieces of investigation and beside systematic treatises in larger fields, it is none the less a landmark in the rise of a new science. I speak from personal experience in adding that it is still useful in college classes in promoting respect for, and development in, critical scholarship.
As to Valla himself the words of Erasmus will bear repetition; "Valla, a man who with so much energy, zeal and labor, refuted the stupidities of the barbarians, saved half-buried letters from extinction, restored Italy to her ancient splendor of eloquence, and forced even the learned to express themselves henceforth with more circumspection." The Italian Renaissance is much extolled among us,—and so little known. A short time ago diligent search revealed no copy of Valla's works in the United States, and many of the larger libraries had none of his separate writings. The same is doubtless true in the case of other great names in the Renaissance. Meanwhile, there are those whose profession it is to teach European history and who are utterly unacquainted with medieval and later Latin.
The best life of Valla is that by Girolamo Mancini.2 There is no satisfactory account of him in English.
Valla wrote his Discourse on the Forgery of the alleged Dona
1 F. M. Nichols, ed., Epistles of Erasmus. Longmans, Green & Co., New York,
2 Vita di Lorenzo Valla (Florence, 1891).
tion of Constantine (Declamatio de falso credita et ementita donatione Constantini, also referred to as Libellus, and Oratio) in 1440, when he was secretary to Alfonso, king of Aragon, Sicily, and Naples. It may well be considered as part of the campaign which that king was conducting against Pope Eugenius IV in furtherance of his claims to Italian territories.
There has hitherto been no satisfactory text of this treatise. The first printed edition, that of Ulrich von Hutten, in 1517, is excessively rare, and it, as well as its numerous reprints, is defective in places. The same is true of the text in the collected works of Valla, the Opera, printed at Basle, 1540, 1543 (?). The only English edition, by Thomas Godfray (London, 1525 ?), is rare and of no great merit. A modern French edition by Alcide Bonneau (La Donation de Constantin, Paris, 1879) gives the text with a French translation and a long introduction. It is based on the 1520 reprint of Hutten's edition, is polemical, uncritical, and admittedly imperfect. A modern edition with translation into Italian (La dissertazione di Lorenzo Valla su la falsa e manzognera donazione di Costantino tradotta in Italiano da G. Vincenti, Naples, 1895) is out of print.
My text is based on the manuscript Codex Vaticanus 5314, dated December 7, 1451, the only complete manuscript of the treatise I have been able to find. I have collated this with Hutten's text as found in one of the earliest, if not the earliest, reprint (contained in the little volume De Donatione Constantini quid veri habeat, etc., dated 1520 in the Union Theological Seminary library copy, but corresponding closely to the one dated 1518 in E. Böcking's edition of the works of Ulrich von Hutten, vol. I, p. 18), and have occasionally used readings from Hutten's text or later ones, such as that of Simon Schard,1 but in every instance I have indicated the MS. reading. I have used uniform, current spelling and punctuation, and have used my own judgment in paragraphing.
Preceding Valla's treatise I reprint, with a translation, the text
1 Syntagma tractatuum de imperiali iurisdictione, etc., Strassburg, 1609; first published under a similar title at Basle, 1566.