Sunday, March 3, 2013

Beware of Geeks Forging Gifts

Donation of Constantine (unknown painter, 13th century)

This is a non-serious post.  Today I'm giving you a snippet of my unfinished (and probably abandoned) short story about the origins of this great medieval forgery.  If nothing else, this will prove that I do occasionally look up from Dante's Florence and notice other times and places; it may also prove that I should stick with Dante's Florence.  Howe'er that may be, let me first provide just a bit of background information for those who don't know about the Donation.

The Donation of Constantine purported to be an imperial decree in which Emperor Constantine I transferred authority over certain lands, as well as certain imperial privileges, to the papacy.  Supposedly, Pope Sylvester I had miraculously cured the emperor of leprosy, and Constantine, in gratitude, converted to Christianity and made this gift to the papacy in perpetuity.

Pope Sylvester baptizing Constantine:  fresco by Cristoforo Roncalli, 16th century

The decree, allegedly prepared in the early 4th century, presented the pope with "power and dignity of glory, and vigour, and honour imperial" (quotes from good old Wikipedia) over the four principal sees:  Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople.  And oh, by the way, over all churches over the earth.  And over Rome plus the rest of Italy.  It also assigned the papacy the imperial insignia, including the tiara.  It was a pretty heavy-duty gift, all told.

As you can imagine, this caused no end of difficulty during the medieval centuries where the pope and the emperor were engaged in a constant tug-of-war for secular power.  Dante said (Wiki's translation):  "Ah, Constantine, how much evil was born, / not from your conversion, but from that donation / that the first wealthy Pope received from you!"  Of course, Dante was always harrumphing about something, but the Donation was widely accepted as authentic in his time, and it did fuel the imperial/papal conflict.

As it turned out, the document was a forgery.  Though some had suspected as much as early as the turn of the millennium, it wasn't definitively debunked until  1439-40, when Lorenzo Valla, a priest and humanist, proved that it could not have been written in the 4th century (anachronistic language, mistaken dates, etc.). The papacy was not happy, and Valla wound up on the banned-books list; it wasn't until the end of the 16th century that the Donation was generally accepted as a forgery.

 The current best guess is that it was written in the 8th century.  Many theories exist about when, where, and why; one, which I've used here, suggests that it might have come into being to assist Pope Stephen II in his negotiations with Pepin the Short, the Frankish Mayor of the Palace (but about to be anointed King by Pope Stephen), in 754.  (Pepin was also known as Pepin the Younger, and sometimes Pepin the Fat; his wife was called Bertha Bigfoot.  The Franks had a gift for nomenclature.)

Pepin the Short (miniature, 1112-1114)

Pepin was the father of the great Charlemagne, who in 754 was not yet "magne" but was in fact still a child.  Pepin was the son of Charles Martel, a great Frankish leader.  When Charles Martel died, Pepin and his brother Carloman shared the throne (until Carloman retired to a monastery); they did not, however, share it with their half brother Grifo, son of Charles Martel's second wife Swannahilde (also Swannhild, Swanahild, Swanachild, or Serenahilt), claiming that the pair was not legally wed and Grifo was thus illegitimate.  To make a long story short, Grifo rebelled, he was killed in battle, and his mother Swannahilde, who had supported his bid for power, was packed off to a nunnery (Chelles) to become abbess. 

In this story, the premise is that Stephen is on his way across the Alps to anoint Pepin.  Pepin's stepmother Swannahilde has - understandably - a bit of a chip on her shoulder about Pepin, and she'd really like to see the upcoming negotiations give the advantage to the pope, and not to the Frankish ruler.  To this end, she has managed to blackmail a couple of hapless, nerdy young clerics into creating this document.

And by the way, the document really did stipulate that the emperor had to lead the pope's horse.

Here's the excerpt:

"A lot of what you have will be fine the way it is. I like it that Constantine gives the Lombard lands to the pope. Pepin will hate that." Swannahilde drew a slender, caressing finger across the vellum. "But I want you to change just a few things, boy. Will you do that for me?"

Audulf gulped. He tried to speak, then settled for nodding vigorously.

"I thought you would. Now, as much as I enjoy the idea of Pope Sylvester healing the emperor's dysentery, I think it would be a bit more powerful if he had been healed of, let's say, leprosy. Don't you?"

"L-leprosy, my lady?" Audulf stammered.

"Yes. Let's say leprosy. It underscores the pope's holy powers, and it will make the people want to take a very close look at their own ruler, don't you think?" She waited courteously for a response, but Audulf's mouth was slack and his eyes round, and though his adam's apple pulsed, he emitted no sound.

"And while we're at it, let's have Constantine admit to something truly dreadful, shall we? Like - oh, let's say he planned to bathe in the blood of innocent children, only God stayed his hand just in time. Yes, I like that. Take notes, will you, boy?"

This time she was talking to me. Obediently I grabbed a wax tablet and a stylus from the writing desk. I scribbled "leprosy" and "bathe in blood," and then looked up, waiting for more.

"Keep all the parts about religion and penance. They sound very convincing, and besides, I like the idea of people thinking about a sinful monarch doing penance. But we do need to add a few more things. You can do that, can't you?" Audulf nodded vigorously again. He seemed to have figured out that eager agreement was the safest course. I scratched "keep religion" and "penance" on the wax tablet.

"Specifically, I'd like to make sure that Constantine acknowledges the Holy Father's right to all the same privileges the emperor claims for himself. The wearing of the purple mantle and the crimson tunic, and let's give him the right to the imperial sceptre, and the standards, and the collar--oh, and the crown."

Audulf looked at her, wild-eyed. "The c-crown, my lady?"

Swannahilde wrinkled her delicate nose at him. "Yes, the crown, boy. Why not?" She studied his panicked expression. "You don't like it, do you? Do you not think it will be believed?" Audulf by now looked rather as if he were choking. "Well, perhaps you're right. Say instead that the pope refused the crown and Constantine gave him the tiara instead." I wrote "No to crown. Tiara."

"So. Let's review. I'm happy to leave most of the details to you, but by the time we're finished here, I want everyone who hears this parchment read to know that the Lombard lands belong to the pope, not to Pepin, and that the Holy Father reigns supreme in Western Christendom. Have you got that?"

This time we both nodded. I wrote "Supreme. Western Christendom."

"Good. And one more thing. You must allow me my little jest, after all. Indulge me with this one. I want you to say that the emperor accepts responsibility, for his office and for all secular rulers in perpetuity, for cleaning up after the pope's horse." She chuckled at the thought. "Got that?"

I had gotten as far as "horse sh--" when Audulf finally managed to sputter out a few words.

"B-but Lady, n-nobody will believe it," he said, misery all over his face. "It's too much. We can't - we can't do that." Audulf was shaking all over, but he crossed his arms in front of his chest and faced her like a man. I was proud of him. I also thought he was completely mad, although perhaps not quite as mad as she was.

Swannahilde looked him up and down. "Well, boy, I see you have a tongue after all. Yes, I see your point. Instead, say merely that the emperor will lead the pope's horse. Is that dignified enough for you? I assure you, it's better than old Peep deserves."

Audulf, his brief foray into conversation at an end, went back to nodding. I wrote "leads horse."

End excerpt

Images in this post are in the public domain because more than 100 years have elapsed since the deaths of their creators.


Julia H. West said...

This was delightful! I honestly laughed out loud. Even if you never publish this elsewhere, know that you have delighted one of your readers.

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Julia! I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's all too easy to become deadly serious about history, but I think once in a while we need to play a bit.