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Reginald Pecock and Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine

  • Joseph M. Levine (a1)


The story of the exposure of the Donation of Constantine is a familiar one. In the middle of the fifteenth century, it will be recalled, two different men, writing independently of each other in England and in Italy, demonstrated conclusively that the document was a forgery. Others had long suspected it and, on one occasion at least, carefully examined and rejected it. But it was left to Reginald Pecock and Lorenzo Valla to complete the criticism. When they were finished it was difficult, if not impossible, to continue to believe in either the document or the event. In this way, European historiography took a major step forward and the Renaissance relieved itself of one of the many legends that cluttered its understanding of the past.



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1 Nicholas of Cusa in his De Concordantia Cathotica (1432-1435), Book in, chap, ii; cf. Opera (Basle, 1565), reprinted in Christopher Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity, Columbia University Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, LX, no. 1 (1914), Appendix II, pp. 228-237. For the use and criticism of the Donation in the Middle Ages, J. J. von Döllinger, Fables Respecting tlte Popes, trans. Alfred Plummer (London, 1871), pp. 89-103; F. Zinkeisen, ‘The Donation of Constantine as applied by the Roman Church’, English Historical Review, ix (1894), 625-632; Gerhard Laehr, Die Konstantinische Schenkung in der abendlandischer Literatur des Mittlealters (Berlin, 1926; reprinted Vaduz, 1965); V. H. H. Green, “The Donation of Constantine’, Church Quarterly Review, cxxxv (1943), 39-63; Walter Ullmann, Medieval Populism (London, 1949); The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages, 2d ed. (reprinted London, 1965); Domenico MafFei, La Donazione di Costantino nei Giuristi Medievali (Milano, 1964); Giovanni Antonazzi, 'Lorenzo Valla e la Donazione di Costantino nel secolo XV, Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia, IV (1950), 186-223.

2 The Donation was defended, for example, by Augustinus Steuchus, Contra Laurentium Vallum in Faba Donatione Constantini (Lyon, 1547) and answered by Calvin in the Institutes, rv, xi, 12. For evidence of continuing debate into the seventeenth century, see Richard Crakanthorpe, The Defense of Constantine (London, 1621). There are useful citations in Maffei, pp. 321 fF.; L. D. Ettlinger, The Sistine Chapel before Michaelangelo (Oxford, 1965), p. 111 n.

3 There is, for example, no reason to suppose that Pecock had read Valla as H. Maynard Smith alleges in his Pre-Reformalion England (London, 1938), p. 422.

4 For the alleged modernity of Pecock, see most recently Ferguson, Arthur B., ‘Reginald Pecock and the Renaissance Sense of History’, Studies in the Renaissance, XII (1966), 147165 . Ferguson speaks of the essentially ‘medieval’ character of Pecock's thought but nevertheless insists upon his anticipation of renaissance humanism. He does not say much about the Donation, however. For the older view in its extreme form, that Pecock was 'too modern even for some people who live in the twentieth century’, see E. M. Blackie, ‘Reginald Pecock’, English Historical Review, xxvi (1911), 448-468, and J. L. Morison, ed., The Book of Faith (Glasgow, 1909), pp. 76-79; for echoes in the more recent literature see E. F. Jacob, ‘Reginald Pecock’, Proceedings of the British Academy, XXXVII (1951), 144; V. H. H. Green, ‘Bishop Pecock and the English Bible’, Church Quarterly Review, CXXIX (1940), 281 n.

5 For the details of Pecock's life, see John Lewis, The Life of Reginald Pecock (London, 1744); Churchill Babington, ed., The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of lite Clergy (Rolls Series, no. 19, i860), 1, introd.; V. H. H. Green, Bishop Reginald Pecock (Cambridge, 1945); Jacob, op. cit.; A. B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1959), III, ‘Pecock’.

6 Charles Mallet, A History of the University of Oxford (London, 1924), 1, 186.

7 Always excepting Aristotle,whose works were largelyknown in translation. Even so, it was the logical, scientific, and metaphysical writings that were studied to the neglect of the Rhetoric and Poetics

8 Repressor, I, lv, n. The paradox was continued in the next century when the English Protestants adopted Pecock as a forerunner and placed him thereby back among the Lollards. See, for example, John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments, 4th ed., ed. Joseph Pratt (London, 1870), in, 731-734. The Index Expurgatorius of Madrid even described him as a Lutheran professor of Oxford (Smith, p. 287).

9 Repressor, I, 73, 6.

10 Thomas Gascoigne, Loci e Libra Veritatum, ed. James E. Thorold Rogers (Oxford, 1881), p. xlii. See also An English Chronicle, ed. J. S. Davies (Camden Society, 1856), p. 77; Brief Latin Chronicle in Three Fifteenth Century Chronicles, ed. J. Gairdner (Camden Society, 1880), p. 167.

11 William C. Greet, ed., The Reule ofCrysten Religioun, Early English Text Society, orig. ser., 171 (1927), p. xiii; Elsie V. Hitchcock, ed., The Donet, Early English Text Society, orig. ser., 156 (1921), p. xvii.

12 Repressor, i, 49-50.

13 Green, op. cit., pp. 84-87; Jacob, pp. 149-150; Greet, pp. xiv-xv.

14 Repressor, 1, 8; Book, pp. 125-126. The arguments of syllogisms give us ‘well nigh all things which a man know other wise than a beast knows’ E. V. Hitchcock, ed., The Follower to the Donet), Early English Text Society, orig. ser., 164 (1924), p. 9.

15 Reule, pp. 428-429; Repressor, I, 76.

16 Repressor, 1, 76.

17 Reule, 425-426; Repressor, 1, 42, 97.

18 Repressor, 1, 99; Book, p. 139.

19 Repressor, 1, 131

20 ‘The doom of reason ought not for to be expounded, glossed, interpreted, and brought for to accord with the said outward writing in Holy Scripture.’ It is the Bible not reason which is malleable. Repressor, I, 25-26; Follower, p. 10; Book, p. 126; Reule, p. 464. There are, however, truths known to faith and not to reason (Reule, pp. 202 fF.). Cf. Everson, Everett H., ‘Reginald Pecock, Christian Rationalist', Speculum, XXXI (1956), 235242 .

21 Reule, p. 461. He advises the expositor to keep to the literal interpretation, however, and to use interpretations especially of those ‘wise holy lettered clerks which lived in the time of the apostles and were hearers and scholars of the apostles …’.

22 Ibid., p. 133.

23 Pt. n, chap, iii, pp. 261 ff.

24 Compare Reule, pp. 431 ff. For Pecock's source, see Daly, S. R., ‘Peter Comestor: Master of Histories’, Speculum, XXXII (1957), 6273 .

25 ‘For else there might none opinion be overcome by strength of argument, how false ever the opinion were, so that he included no repugnance, such as God might not do by miracle’ (Book, p. 270). For Pecock's general aversion to miracles see also Book, p. 294; Repressor, II, 353-354.

26 Morison, introd. to Book of Faith, p. 76.

27 Ibid., pp. 250-251; compare Reule, p. 433.

28 Book of Faith, p. 252 (re the Hundred Years’ War).

29 Repressor, I, 81.

30 Ibid., II, 322-323, 350 ff. Wyclif, Dialogus, IV, chap. 18. For other contemporary references see Babington, Repressor, u, 323, n.

31 Repressor, II, 351-352, 357-358.

32 For the text of the Donation, sec Coleman, Constantine, Appendix II, pp. 228-237, from Karl Zeumcr, Festgabefur Rudolf von Gneist (Berlin, 1888), pp. 39 ff.; for the Vita Sylvestri, Coleman, Appendix I, pp. 217-227, from B. Mombritius, Sanctuarium sett Vitae Sanctorum, ed. H. Quentin and A. Brunet (Paris, 1910), 11, 508-531. The Life preceded the Donation, apparently dating from the end of the fifth century; see W. Levison, ‘Konstantinische Schenkung und Silvesterlegende’, Miscellanea Francesco Ehrle (Rome, 1924), n, 181 ff., 239 ff.

33 Reule, pp. 426. See also the manuscript fragment quoted by Lewes, op. cit., p. 68.

34 Repressor, II, 352-353. The Tripartite History was a condensed Latin version by the translator Epiphanius, guided by Cassiodorus, of the Ecclesiastical Histories of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. It seems to have first been criticized by the humanist Beatus Rhenanus in 1523. See Laistner, M. L. W. , ‘The Value and Influence of Cassiodorus' Ecclesiastical History’, Harvard Theological Review, XLI (1948), 5167 . reprinted in Chester G. Starr, ed., The Intellectual Heritage of the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, 1957), pp. 22-39.

35 Repressor, II, 353-354; Book, pp. 270, 294. Pecock finds a discrepancy between the Pseudo-Damasus and Jerome that undermines the authority of the Liber, ibid., pp. 354, 359-360.

36 Ibid., II, 357-359. Most of this evidence is as suspect as the Donation.

37 Ibid., II, 374. This is the thirteenth-century chronicler Martinus Polonus, who seems to have supplied most of this information to Pecock. His work is a brief world chronicle, from Creation to 1277. See the recent article by William Mathews in Medieval Literature and Civilization: Studied in Memory of G. N. Garmonsway (London, 1969), pp. 275-288.

38 There is a convenient and extensive list of authorities in Ernest C. Richardson, trans., Eusebius: Constantine (Oxford, 1890), pp. 336-344, 445 ff., and in Coleman, Constantine, pp. 25 ff. A brilliant account of the sources is included in Norman H. Baynes, ‘Constantine the Great and the Christian Church’, Proceedings of the British Academy, xv (1929), 341-442. Conspicuous by its absence among Pecock's authorities were some important literary works, especially the pamphlet by Lactantius On the Deaths of the Persecutors usually considered the most trustworthy literary account (see the edition by J. Moreau [Paris, 1954]), but especially the evidence of laws, coins, inscriptions, etc.

39 For the problems of the Liber, see the useful brief discussion in E. H. Davenport, The False Decretals (Oxford, 1916), pp. 64 ff.; L. Duchesne, he Liber Pontificalis: Texte, Introduction et Commcntaire (Paris, 1886), I, cix-cxx (text, 170-201). There is an English translation by Louise R. Loomis, The Book of the Popes (New York, 1916).

40 Cf. Coleman, pp. 139,154 ff.; Gibbon (Bury ed.), 11, 305, n.; Baynes, pp. 396-398, 430-431. For the complex problems involved in the interpretation of this work, see especially H. Grégoire in Revue de l’Université de Bruxelles, XXXVI (1930), 231-272; Byzantion, XIII (1938), pp. 561-583; and Bulletin de la Classe des lettres et des sciences morales etpolitiques XXXIX (1953), 462-478; also G. Downey in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, VI (1951), 57-66. For recent accounts favoring Eusebius, see Andrew Alföldi, The Conversion of Constantine the Great, trans. H. Mattingly (Oxford, 1948); A. H. M.Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (New York, 1962), pp. 73-90.

41 See British Museum MS Cotton Nero fs. 51-5 8v, described by Jacob, E. F., ‘Florida Verborum Venustas’, Bulletin of the John Ry lands Library, XVII (1933), 274278 . Another reply to Pecock by John Bury is given in extract in Babington's edition of the Repressor, n, 567 ff.

42 G. Mancini, Vita di Lorenzo Valla (Florence, 1891); L. Barozzi and R. Sabbadini, Studi sul Panormita e sul Valla (Florence, 1891); Franco Gaeta, Lorenazo Valla (Naples, 1955).

43 On the neglect of grammar in fifteenth-century schools, see for example the testimony of William Bingham, Cat. Pat. Rolls Henry VI, in, 295; for its subordination to logic, H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden (Oxford, 1936), in, 346; J. B. Mullinger, The University of Cambridge from the Earliest Times to .. . 153$ (Cambridge, 1873), 1, 361; Gordon Left”, Paris and Oxford in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New York, 1968), pp. 120-122; Brother Bonaventura, “The Teaching of Latin in Later Medieval England’, Medieval Studies, xxni (1961), 1-20.

44 Hanna Gray, ‘Valla's Encomium of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Humanist Conception of Christian Antiquity’, Essays in History and Literature Presented to Stanley Pargellis (Chicago, 1965), pp. 37-51. Valla's works have been reprinted by Eugenio Garin in the Monumenta Politica et Philosophica Rariora, ser. I, nos. 5-6 (Turin, 1962). Especially relevant besides the Encomium are the Dialectical Disputations and the Elegentiae, as also scattered remarks; cf. Francesco Adorno, ‘Di Alcune Orazioni e Prefazioni di Lorenzo Valla’, Rinascimento, v (1954), 191-225.

45 Eugenio Garin, Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance, trans. Peter Munz (Oxford, 1965), p. 54; cf. Gaeta, chap, iii, ‘La nuova filologia e il suo significato’, pp. 77-126. A most useful recent discussion of Valla's philology and its relation to his notion of history is the second chapter of Donald R. Kelley's Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship (New York and London, 1970), pp. 10-50.

46 Relevant extracts may be consulted in Garin's ed., Prosatori Latini del Quattrocento (Milano, 1952), pp. 594-631; commentary in V. Rossi, // Quattrocento (Milano, 1938), pp. 88 ff. Even outside Italy Valla was admired as linguae latinae restaurator; cf. Franco Simone, The French Renaissance, trans. H. G. Hall (London, 1969), p. 97

47 Repressor, 1, 32-33.

48 E. Harris Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York, 1956), p. 46; Gianni Zippel, ‘Lorenzo Valla e le Origine della Storiografia Umanistica a Venezia’, Rinascimento, vn (1956), 103, n.; A. Morisi, ‘La filologia neotestimentaria di Lorenzo Valla’, Nuova rivista storica, XLVin (1964), 35-49. The text has been newly edited by Alessandro Perosa, Istitulo Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, Studi e Testi, 1 (1970). For Valla's critical work on the ancient historians, see especially R. Westgate, ‘The Text of Valla's Translation of Thucydides’, American Philosophical Society Transactions and Proceedings, LXVII (1936), 240-251, and G. Billanovich, ‘Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, xiv (1951), 137-208.’

49 Book, pp. 304-305, and in a lost work entitled The Provoker, cf. Gascoigne, op. cit., pp. 104, 209.

50 Hanna Gray, ‘Renaissance Humanism: The Pursuit of Eloquence’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xxrv (1963), 497-515.

51 ‘From eldest days continually hitherto, men were wont for to speak and write their words not only in truth but also therewith together for to speak and to write in some gains and beauty and in some deliciosity; and into this end and purpose they used certain colors of rhetoric that with them their speeches should be more lusty.’ This was, Pecock argues, however, merely spice and sauce for the meat, and inappropriate for philosophy (Repressor, 1, 255).

52 De Rebus a Ferdinandq Hispaniarum Rege et Majoribus Ejus Cestis, in Opera Omnia, 11, 6; cf. Garin, p. 55; Adorno, p. 194. Pecock on the contrary argued specifically against the use of historical examples as a means of furnishing moral wisdom—a commonplace for the humanist rhetoricians. Reason, not examples, was the sole instrument of philosophy (Reule, pp. 449-450).

53 Valla's tract, De Falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione Declamatio, ed. W. Schwann (Leipzig, 1928), appeared first in 1440. It was published by Ulrich von Hutten in 1519 and this edition was employed for an English translation in 1534 under the imprint of Thomas Godfray, A trealyse of the donation gyven unto Sylvester (STC 5641). The translation appears to be by William Marshall who also translated the Defensor Pads at about the same time. See James K. McConica, English Humanists and Reformation Politics (Oxford, 1965), pp. 136-137.1 have used this translation, which is quite literal except for some minor additions, in preference to the more recent English version by Christopher Coleman (New Haven, 1922). I have modernized the spelling as I have all the passages from Pecock so that a comparison between the two authors might be more fairly made. For Hutten's edition, see Hajo Holborn, Ulrich von Hutten and the German Reformation (New Haven, 1937), p. 81. For the use of Godfiray's work by Thomas Cromwell in the English Reformation see the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, 1 April 1534, vn, nos. 422-423.

54 Marshall trans., sig. f ii.

55 Here Valla succumbs to a forgery every bit as obvious as the Donation; ci”. Coleman 73. n.

56 Sig. G ii.

57 Sigs. G iv et seq. There are other examples of anachronism here as where Valla exposes the premature reference to Constantinople as a patriarchate. He also criticizes the faulty geography of the forger.

58 Sig. J ii.

59 See, as another example, Valla's ridicule of the justification for papal headship, advanced by Pecock and many others, that Cephas was the name given to Peter (Babington, Repressor, i, xxiv). For the origin of this error, sec Walter Ullman, The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages (Baltimore, 1966), p. 9, n.

60 For an example of the modern effort at a constructive argument, see Paul Scheffer- Boichorst, Neue Forschungen Über die Konstantinische Schenkung in Mittheilungen des Insliluts für osterr. Geschichtsforschung, x (1889), 302 ff.; XI (1890), 128 ff. Through close examination of the style, vocabulary, and ideas, he places the forgery in the papal chancery of either Stephen II or Paul I, A.D. 752-767, a conclusion generally held today. For other views, however, see Maffei, pp. 7-9; Ullmann, Growth, p. 74, n.

61 Döllinger, as a result, described Valla's work as ‘an artistic production, an eloquent declamation, [rather] than a calm historical investigation’. For this reason he even preferred Pecock, op. tit., p. 175.

62 Kelley remarks, for example, that while Valla could discriminate with skill among several classical styles and periods (and thus reveal an authentic historical relativism), with the Middle Ages his ‘sense of discrimination diminished as his disgust grew’. With the fall of Rome, for Valla, there was only decline and disintegration. Valla was thus disinclined to attempt either to date or to discuss the Donation in any way except simply to show its non-classical character; cf. Kelley, Foundations, p. 37.


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