Lorenzo Valla, Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine
The Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), the most famous of all medieval forgeries, was probably written in the eight century, and at the time established the legal basis for the clerical supremacy of Pope Sylvester and his successors; it also ceded vast regions of Constantine’s empire to the Vatican. A wide-ranging document, it was supposed to have been authored by the Emperor Constantine himself. The Donation begins by recounting Constantine’s conversion to the Christian faith and his being healed of leprosy by Sylvester, the Bishop of Rome. Having testifies thus, Constantine then supposedly goes on to grant to Sylvester primacy over all other patriarchates, making him chief of all Christian clergy, and creates in the papacy an imperial empire of sorts, with extensive territorial claims at its disposal. Parts of this forgery were included in medieval canon law, and the validity of the document, and therefore the legitimacy of Papal claims based upon it, continued to be asserted well into the fifteenth century.
A rise in skepticism in general and more directly toward the assumed piety and power of the Catholic Church was one of the hallmarks of Renaissance thought, culminating in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. As the foundation of many of the inherent rights and privileges of the Church, The Donation of Constantine came to be viewed by many with a far more critical eye during the Renaissance, and it was in of this atmosphere of questioning that Lorenzo Valla, an Italian humanist and rhetorician, came to examine the forged document. It must also be noted that Valla’s patron at the time was Alfonso of Aragon, who was involved in a territorial conflict with the Papal States, and it must be assumed that Valla was prodded by his loyalty to Alfonso. As long as The Donation of Constantine continued to be accepted as valid, competing claims by monarchs such as Alfonso could be characterized as not merely flawed, but in fact anti-Christian. Valla would set out to change that.
Early in his discourse, Valla acknowledges that he is likely to encounter violent opposition due to his efforts, but gamely asserts that “…to give one's life in defense of truth and justice is the path of the highest virtue, the highest honor, the highest reward.” (Valla, 23) He also provides an ethical imperative to his attack on the Church saying, “Nor is he to be esteemed a true orator who knows how to speak well, unless he also has the courage to speak. So let us have the courage to accuse him, whoever he is, that commits crimes calling for accusation.” (Valla, 23)
Valla then calls to remembrance a familiar story from the Acts of the Apostles, in which Paul rebukes Peter for shunning the Gentile Christians. There is a wonderful synergy in the use of this particular story, as the Popes, whose power Valla is about to undercut, consider their ecclesiastical authority to be handed down in an unbroken chain from Peter himself. To the occupant of the See of Peter he says, “Nor is any one made immune from chiding by an eminence which did not make Peter immune.” Therefore, it is here, early in his Discourse, that Valla establishes the moral high ground. He recognizes the danger he places himself in by speaking out, but considers the greater sin to be in having the gift of rhetoric and not using it to expose wrongdoing. (Valla, 25)
At this point Valla challenges the Popes directly for their complicity in the perpetrating of a forgery “…due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion.” Having accused them of either stupidity or greed, he goes on to castigate them for “…dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes.” (Valla, 27) In this way, Valla maintains his fidelity to the Church as an institution, shifting his attack to individuals within the Church who have used the forgery to advance themselves and the power of the papacy. In Renaissance Italy, there were many who advocated church reform while simultaneously refusing to consider an alternative to church authority, as occurred in northern Europe. Valla is typical of this way of thinking.
From this point, Valla turns his attention to the document itself, beginning with its historical foundations, starting with the legality of any such gift. He says that “…Constantine and Sylvester were not such men that the former would choose to give, would have the legal right to give, or would have it in his power to give those lands to another, or that the latter would be willing to accept them or could legally have done so.” (Valla, 27) Looking with amusement at the idea of such a gift from the perspective of the Emperor Constantine, he wonders what kind of monarch finds it natural to give away his kingdom. “That any one in possession of his senses would do this, I cannot be brought to believe.” (Valla, 29) Yet, many persisted in this very idea, because they saw the mythic story of Constantine’s conversion as explanatory of all subsequent behavior.
To those who would argue “…it was because he had become a Christian,” Valla counters, “If this be your idea, Constantine, you must restore your cities to liberty, not change their master.” (Valla, 33) Valla is convinced that if Constantine’s newfound Christianity was indeed his motivation, he would have more likely have seen an opportunity to bring Christianity to his subjects than to simply give away their lands. He goes on to say, “You have become a Christian, Constantine? Then it is most unseemly for you now as a Christian emperor to have less sovereignty than you had as an infidel. For sovereignty is an especial gift of God, to which even the gentile sovereigns are supposed to be chosen by God.” (Valla, 35) Here Valla has turned the arguments regarding Constantine’s conversion on their heads, in effect saying that becoming righteous would have made Constantine a more legitimate ruler, not less so! Valla then uses examples from both the Bible and from antiquity to demonstrate that just because God has bestowed upon a ruler great gifts, never before has a ruler given away half of his empire in response. Valla’s references to these sources had an important rhetorical value, as they would have been familiar to his audience, being mainstays of Renaissance literature, and considered conclusive evidence of appropriate behavior by monarchs.
Valla continues his Discourse on more concrete terms, pointing out that there is no existing documentation of Sylvester’s acceptance of Constantine’s gift. “Where is any taking possession, any delivery? For if Constantine gave a charter only, he did not want to befriend Sylvester, but to mock him.” (Valla, 63) What Valla is saying here is that if a gift is given without legal title changing hands, there is no gift at all, but might even be mockery. If a person were to send a letter offering to make a gift, and then not follow that offer up with something that verifies a change in title, the gift is little more than an empty promise. The person receiving the gift would also be expected to execute documents that certify their acceptance of, and later administration of, the gift. None of this subsequent documentation exists in the case of The Donation of Constantine, and is therefore strong circumstantial evidence that neither Constantine nor Sylvester were aware of such a gift. Valla mocks the absence of these supporting documents, saying, “After Constantine went away, what governors did Sylvester place over his provinces and cities, what wars did he wage, what nations that took up arms did he subdue, through whom did he carry on this government? We know none of these circumstances, you answer. So! I think all this was done in the nighttime, and no one saw it at all!” (Valla, 65)
Valla also points out the anachronisms present in the text that discredit its supposed age, such as the use of the word “satrap” to refer to Roman officials, when in fact, that term had not been used in such a way until the eighth century. “Whoever heard of satraps being mentioned in the councils of the Romans? I do not remember ever to have read of any Roman satrap being mentioned, or even of a satrap in any of the Roman provinces.” (Valla, 85) Valla also points out the document’s usage of the phrase “people subject” in referring to the citizens of Rome, which would have been inconceivable to a people who, as free citizens of Rome, ruled others. “Can those who rule other peoples, themselves be called a subject people? It is preposterous! For in this, as Gregory in many letters testifies, the Roman ruler differs from the others, that he alone is ruler of a free people.” Anachronisms are key evidence in exposing forgeries, and Valla does a wonderful job of finding them in his Discourse.
It also would be evidence of a transfer in administration would that there were any change in the minted coinage of the empire that Constantine had supposedly ceded to the Pope, but this is not so. Valla himself possessed coins from that era that proved the point. “…there are extant gold coins of Constantine's after he became a Christian, with inscriptions, not in Greek, but in Latin letters, and of almost all the Emperors in succession. There are many of them in my possession with this inscription for the most part, under the image of the cross, "Concordia orbis [The Peace of the World]." What an infinite number of coins of the supreme pontiffs would be found if you ever had ruled Rome! But none such are found, neither gold nor silver, nor are any mentioned as having been seen by any one. And yet whoever held the government at Rome at that time had to have his own coinage: doubtless the Pope's would have borne the image of the Savior or of Peter.” (Valla, 71) This hard evidence of a continuation in the administration of the secular rulers of the empire is difficult to refute, and Valla is wise to use it later in the text as a buttress to his more circumstantial arguments.
Valla then points out one of the more obvious historical inaccuracies when he notes that the Donation refers, in error, to the city of Constantinople, which did not exist at the moment the document was supposed to have been authored. “How in the world - this is much more absurd, and impossible in the nature of things - could one speak of Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees, when it was not yet a patriarchate, nor a see, nor a Christian city, nor named Constantinople, nor founded, nor planned! For the "privilege" was granted, so it says, the third day after Constantine became a Christian; when as yet Byzantium, not Constantinople, occupied that site.” (Valla, 95) The mislabeling of Byzantium as Constantinople is a sloppy error of the original forger, and by pointing it out, Valla further reveals the forgery for what it is.
Additional ignorance of ancient Roman terminology is revealed when Valla points out that the Donation says “…they are "made patricians and consuls," referring to church clerics. Patricians were a social class in ancient Rome, and there were only two consuls drawn from the patrician class, while later in the Middle Ages, the term “consuls” came to be more generally identified with a certain class of people, which like led to the forger’s confusion. Valla says, “Who has ever heard of senators or other men being made patricians? Consuls are "made," but not patricians. The senators, the conscript fathers, are from patrician (also called senatorial), equestrian, or plebeian families as the case may be…” He also mocks what would follow were the clergy, in fact, elevated to the status of Roman consul. “But how can the clergy become consuls? The Latin clergy have denied themselves matrimony; and will they become consuls, make a levy of troops, and betake themselves to the provinces allotted them with legions and auxiliaries? Are servants and slaves made consuls? And are there to be not two, as was customary; but the hundreds and thousands of attendants who serve the Roman church, are they to be honored with the rank of general?” (Valla, 113) Valla’s ridicule of the ignorance of the forger in turn makes the forgery appear ridiculous, which is an excellent rhetorical device.
Pointing out another error of ignorance, Valla brings his readers to the forger’s reference to the king’s diadem being made of "of purest gold and precious gems," when, in fact, “...a diadem was made of coarse cloth or perhaps of silk…” (Valla, 105) In the time of Constantine, a “diadema” would have consisted of a piece of white silk ribbon, to be tied around the forehead of the king and then knotted in the back, indicating his status. Later, in the Middle Ages, a diadem came to be more associated with a crown, which would have likely been bedecked with jewels as the forger supposes. This is another case of anachronism, which adds to the suspect chronology of the document. Valla has, by a preponderance of evidence both concrete and circumstantial, built an impressive case for the refutation of The Donation of Constantine as genuine. His systematic, clinical assault on The Donation by careful examination is wonderfully Renaissance, and typically humanist.
Lorenzo Valla was not the first to make the case that The Donation of Constantine was a fraud, and others around the same time, notably Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and Reginald Pecocke, Bishop of Chichester, were saying essentially the same thing. What made Valla’s assault on the document a singular event was the public nature of his critique. His essay entered into circulation in 1440, and was widely read, though not officially published until 1517. This was, not coincidentally, the year of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. It should come as no surprise that Valla’s brilliant deconstruction of one of the legal pillars of Church authority would become extremely popular with the incipient Protestant Reformation.
Valla has carefully developed his presentation of evidence against The Donation, using his extensive knowledge of classical Latin and his rhetorical skills to build a case that is close to irrefutable, even to those within the Church. In 1453, Pope Pius II himself, in a tract that went unpublished, admitted that the document was a forgery. References to The Donation are noticeably absent from church documents thereafter, although the Vatican would not officially concede to the obvious until the middle of the sixteenth century.
While Valla’s direct attack upon a foundational Church document may have made him remarkable for his time, much of the themes he embraces are, in fact, typical of Renaissance literature. Valla’s broadside at the Catholic Church is echoed in the writings of many who questioned the piety of clerics in the midst of an age of questioning. Often stories originating in this period have as stock characters priests or monks who are preoccupied with earthly gain, or nuns who have fallen into sin while living at a convent. Valla’s exposure of the fraudulent nature of The Donation would have led an audience already skeptical of the Church to wonder about other, more doctrinal claims made by Rome.
Valla is, in this regard, also typical of Renaissance humanists, in that he points out that the empire ruled by Pontiffs on earth has all along been one of earthly creation, not divine inspiration. Humanists saw humanity as self-propelling, not requiring divine intervention to work out its fate, as is expressed by Giovanni Pico in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. By placing the Popes in the same category as other land-hungry monarchs, the Church hierarchy is stripped of its ecclesiastical gilding and revealed as just another mortal enterprise.
It is from revelations such as this that the impetus to take the Church back to its first century roots was derived, and much of the reforms of the sixteenth century become clearer when seen in this light. Ironically, it is because of reforms successfully undertaken in the Italian states around Rome that the Protestant Reformation was never able to take hold there. Had the Church been foresighted enough to adopt similar reforms in Northern Europe, much of the moral force of the Reformation would have been undercut. Instead, the Church attempted to deny and resist, which led to the creation of what became a separatist movement, rather than a reformatory one.
Another consistent theme of Renaissance thought is a disdain for all things medieval, be it architecture, art or, in this case, claims by the Church. The Donation first appears around the eight century, too far away from the apostolic church to be pure and exactly in the middle of the Dark Ages that are so reviled by Renaissance artists and thinkers. Gothic styling is considered barbaric, medieval education is thought to be narrow and limiting and the Church too preoccupied with the sins of Adam and Eve. Tearing down one of the Middle Ages’ great buttresses of Church power would have only added to the satisfaction of a humanist such as Valla.
From a purely political standpoint, Valla is also typical of his time in that he is a loyal Catholic, a priest in fact, who has, as a matter of political convenience, allied himself with an avowed enemy of the Pope, Alfonso of Aragon. While one can never truly know what motivated Valla’s Discourse, there can be little doubt that he was acting to some degree on behalf of his wealthy and powerful patron, another typically Renaissance arrangement. And certainly Machiavelli would have appreciated the calculating way in which Valla chips away at Papal claims to vast regions of the West, disregarding what the Church says about his soul to serve what his intelligence says about his political future. In the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was never openly challenged, a priest would not have considered this course of action. The Renaissance, however, within a few generations created the conditions by which a priest from a small village in Germany would successfully lead an open revolt against the previously unassailable Church.
Lorenzo Valla used logic and rhetoric to build a convincing, if not airtight, case against The Donation of Constantine. He was clearly directing his arguments at those learned and powerful people within the Western world whose opinions shaped public policy. By exposing The Donation as a fraud, Valla removed the legal underpinnings of centuries of territorial claims by the Church, and opened the door to opportunist monarchs who might wish to benefit from the absence of a Papal mandate in these territories, including his own Alfonso of Aragon. What would follow would be centuries of warfare as rising nation-states attempted in turn to control these disputed areas. It is instructive for us, though, as students of the Renaissance, that in revealing the fraud of The Donation, Valla also reveals much about himself as a humanist and Renaissance thought during the time he wrote.