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§ 60. The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.


I. Sources.


The only older ed. of Pseudo-Isidor is that of Jacob Merlin in the first part of his Collection of General Councils, Paris, 1523, Col., 1530, etc., reprinted in Migne’s Patrol. Tom. CXXX., Paris, 1853.

Far superior is the modem ed. of P. Hinschius: Decretales Pseudo-Isidorianae et Capitula Angilramni. Lips. 1863. The only critical ed, taken from the oldest and best MSS. Comp. his Commentatio de, Collectione Isidori Mercatoris in this ed. pp. xi-ccxxxviii.


II. Literature.


Dav. Blondel: Pseudo-Isidorus et Turrianus vapulantes. Genev. 1628.

F. Knust: De Fontibus et Consilio Pseudo-Isidorianae collectionis. Gött. 1832.

A. Möhler (R.C.): Fragmente aus und uber Isidor, in his “Vermischte Schriften” (ed. by Döllinger, Regensb. 1839), I. 285 sqq.

H. Wasserschleben: Beiträge zur Gesch. der falschen Decret. Breslau, 1844. Comp. also his art. in Herzog.

C. Jos. Hefele (R.C.): Die pseudo-Isidor. Frage, in the “Tubinger Quartalschrift, “1847.

Gfrörer: Alter, Ursprung, Zweck der Decretalen des falschen Isodorus. Freib. 1848.

Jul. Weizsäcker: Hinkmar und Pseudo-Isidor, in Niedner’s “Zeitschrift fur histor. Theol.,” for 1858, and Die pseudo-isid. Frage, in Sybel’s “Hist. Zeitschrift, “1860.

C. von Noorden: Ebo, Hinkmar und Pseudo-Isidor, in Sybel’s “Hist. Zeitschrift,” 1862.

Döllinger in Janus, 1869. It appeared in several editions and languages.

Ferd. Walter (R.C.): Lehrbuch des Kirchenrechts aller christl. Confessionen. Bonn (1822), 13th ed. 1861. The same transl. into French, Italian, and Spanish.

J. W. Bickell: Geschichte des Kirchenrechts. Giessen, 1843, 1849.

G. Phillips (R.C.): Kirchenrecht. Regensburg (1845), 3rd ed. 1857 sqq. 6 vols. (till 1864). His Lehrbuch, 1859, P. II. 1862.

Jo. Fr. von Schulte (R.C., since 1870 Old Cath.): Das Katholische Kirchenrecht. Giessen, P. I. 1860. Lehrbuch, 1873. Die Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des Canonischen Rechts von Gratian bis auf die Gegenwart. Stuttgart, 1875 sqq.3 vols.

Aem. L. Richter: Lehrbuch des kath. und evang. Kirchenrechts. Leipz., sixth ed. by Dove, 1867 (on Pseudo-Isidor, pp. 102–133).

Henry C. Lea: Studies in Church History. Philad. 1869 (p. 43–102 on the False Decretals).

Friedr. Maassen (R.C.): Geschichte der Quellen und d. Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande. 1st vol., Gratz, 1870.

Comp. also for the whole history the great work of F. C. von Savigny: Geschichte des Röm. Rechts im Mittelalter. Heidelb. 2nd ed. 1834–’51, 7 vols.

See also the Lit. in vol. II. § 67.


During the chaotic confusion under the Carolingians, in the middle of the ninth century, a mysterious book made its appearance, which gave legal expression to the popular opinion of the papacy, raised and strengthened its power more than any other agency, and forms to a large extent the basis of the canon law of the church of Rome. This is a collection of ecclesiastical laws under the false name of bishop Isidor of Seville (died 636), hence called the “Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.”264264    The preface begins: ”Isidorus Mercator servus Christi lectori conservo suo et parenti suo in Domino fideli (al. fidei) salutem.’ The byname ”Mercator,” which is found in 30 of the oldest codices, is so far unexplained. Some refer it to Marius Mercator, a learned Occidental layman residing in Constantinople, who wrote against Pelagius and translated ecclesiastical records which pseudo-Isidorus made use of. Others regard it as a mistake for ” Peccator” (a title of humility frequently used by priests and bishops, e.g. by St. Patrick in his ” Confession”), which is found in 3 copies. ” Mercatus” also occurs it, several copies, and this would be equivalent to redemptus, ” Isidorus, the redeemed servant of Christ.” See Hinschius and Richter, l.c. He was the reputed (though not the real) author of an earlier collection, based upon that of the Roman abbot, Dionysius Exiguus, in the sixth century, and used as the law-book of the church in Spain, hence called the “Hispana.” In these earlier collections the letters and decrees (Epistolae Decretales) of the popes from the time of Siricius (384) occupy a prominent place.265265    The original name was decretale constitutum or decretalis epistola, afterwards decretalis. See Richter, l.c. p. 80. A decretal in the canonical sense is an authoritative rescript of a pope in reply to some question, while a decree is a papal ordinance enacted with the advice of the Cardinals, without a previous inquiry. A canon is a law ordained by a general or provincial synod. A dogma is an ecclesiastical law relating to doctrine. The earliest decretals had moral rather than legislative force. But as the questions and appeals to the pope multiplied, the papal answers grew in authority. Fictitious documents, canons, and decretals were nothing new; but the Pseudo-Isidorian collection is the most colossal and effective fraud known in the history of ecclesiastical literature.

1. The contents of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. The book is divided into three parts. The first part contains fifty Apostolical Canons from the collection of Dionysius, sixty spurious decretals of the Roman bishops from Clement (d. 101) to Melchiades (d. 314). The second part comprehends the forged document of the donation of Constantine, some tracts concerning the Council of Nicaea, and the canons of the Greek, African, Gallic, and Spanish Councils down to 683, from the Spanish collection. The third part, after a preface copied from the Hispana, gives in chronological order the decretals of the popes from Sylvester (d. 335) to Gregory II. (d. 731), among which thirty-five are forged, including all before Damasus; but the genuine letters also, which are taken from the Isidorian collection, contain interpolations. In many editions the Capitula Angilramni are appended.

All these documents make up a manual of orthodox doctrine and clerical discipline. They give dogmatic decisions against heresies, especially Arianism (which lingered long in Spain), and directions on worship, the sacraments, feasts and fasts, sacred rites and costumes, the consecration of churches, church property, and especially on church polity. The work breathes throughout the spirit of churchly and priestly piety and reverence.

2. The sacerdotal system. Pseudo-Isidor advocates the papal theocracy. The clergy is a divinely instituted, consecrated, and inviolable caste, mediating between God and the people, as in the Jewish dispensation. The priests are the “familiares Dei,” the “spirituales,” the laity the “carnales.” He who sins against them sins against God. They are subject to no earthly tribunal, and responsible to God alone, who appointed them judges of men. The privileges of the priesthood culminate in the episcopal dignity, and the episcopal dignity culminates in the papacy. The cathedra Petri is the fountain of all power. Without the consent of the pope no bishop can be deposed, no council be convened. He is the ultimate umpire of all controversy, and from him there is no appeal. He is often called “episcopus universalis” notwithstanding the protest of Gregory I.

3. The aim of Pseudo-Isidor is, by such a collection of authoritative decisions to protect the clergy against the secular power and against moral degeneracy. The power of the metropolitans is rather lowered in order to secure to the pope the definitive sentence in the trials of bishops. But it is manifestly wrong if older writers have put the chief aim of the work in the elevation of the papacy. The papacy appears rather as a means for the protection of episcopacy in its conflict with the civil government. It is the supreme guarantee of the rights of the bishops.

4. The genuineness of Pseudo-Isidor was not doubted during the middle ages (Hincmar only denied the legal application to the French church), but is now universally given up by Roman Catholic as well as Protestant historians.

The forgery is apparent. It is inconceivable that Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in Rome, should have been ignorant of such a large number of papal letters. The collection moreover is full of anachronisms: Roman bishops of the second and third centuries write in the Frankish Latin of the ninth century on doctrinal topics in the spirit of the post-Nicene orthodoxy and on mediaeval relations in church and state; they quote the Bible after the; version of Jerome as amended under Charlemagne; Victor addresses Theophilus of Alexandria, who lived two hundred years later, on the paschal controversies of the second century.266266    The forgery was first suggested by Nicolaus de Cusa, in the fifteenth century, and Calvin (Inst. IV. 7, 11, 20), and then proved by the Magdeburg Centuries, and more conclusively by the Calvinistic divine David Blondel (1628) against the attempted vindication of the Jesuit Torres (Turrianus, 1572). The brothers Ballerini, Baronius, Bellarmin, Theiner, Walter, Möhler, Hefele, and other Roman Catholic scholars admit the forgery, but usually try to mitigate it and to underrate the originality and influence of Pseudo-Isidor. Some Protestant divines have erred in the opposite direction (as Richter justly observes, l.c. p. 117).

The Donation of Constantine which is incorporated in this collection, is an older forgery, and exists also in several Greek texts. It affirms that Constantine, when he was baptized by pope Sylvester, a.d. 324 (he was not baptized till 337, by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia), presented him with the Lateran palace and all imperial insignia, together with the Roman and Italian territory.267267    “Dominis meis beatissimis Petro et Paulo, et per eos etiam beato Sylvestro Patri nostro summo pontifici, et universalis urbis Romae papae, et omnibus ejus successoribus pontificibus . . concedimus palatium imperii nostri Lateranense ... deinde diadema, videlicet coronam capitis nostri simulque pallium, vel mitram .... . et omnia imperialia indumenta ... et imperialia sceptra . . et omnem possessionem imperialis culminis et gloriam potestatis nostrae ... Unde ut pontificalis apex non vilescat, sed magis amplius quam terreni imperii dignitas et gloriae potentia decoretur, ecce tam palatium nostrum, ut praedictum est, quamque Pomanae vobis et omnes Italiae seu occidentalium regionum provincias, loca et civitates beatissimo pontifici nostro, Sylvestro universali papae, concedimus atque relinquimus.” In Migne, Tom. 130, p. 249 sq. The object of this forgery was to antedate by five centuries the temporal power of the papacy, which rests on the donations of Pepin and Charlemagne.268268    That Constantine made donations to Sylvester on occasion of his pretended baptism is related first in the Acta Sylvestri, then by Hadrian I. in a letter to Charlemagne (780). In the ninth century the spurious document appeared. The spuriousness was perceived as early as 999 by the emperor Otho III. and proven by Laurentius Valla about 1440 in De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione. The document is universally given up as a fiction, though Baronius defended the donation itself. The only foundation in fact is the donation of the Lateran palace, which was originally the palace of the Lateran family, then of the emperors, and last of the popes. The wife of Constantine, Fausta, resided in it, and on the transfer of the seat of empire to Constantinople, he left it to Sylvester, as the chief of the Roman clergy and nobility. Hence it contains to this day the pontifical throne with the inscription: “Haec est papalis sedes et pontificalis.” There the pope takes possession of the see of Rome. But the whole history of Constantine and his successors shows conclusively that they had no idea of transferring any part of their temporal sovereignty to the Roman pontiff.

5. The authorship must be assigned to some ecclesiastic of the Frankish church, probably of the diocese of Rheims, between 847 and 865 (or 857), but scholars differ as to the writer.269269    The following persons have been suggested as authors: Benedictus Levita (Deacon) of Mayence, whose Capitularium of about 847 agrees in several passages literally with the Decretals (Blondel, Knust, Walter); Rothad of Soissons (Phillips, Gfrörer); Otgar, archbishop of Mayence, who took a prominent part in the clerical rebellion against Louis the Pious (Ballerinii, Wasserschleben); Ebo, archbishop of Rheims, the predecessor of Hincmar and leader in that rebellion, or some unknown ecclesiastic in that diocese (Weizsäcker, von Noorden, Hinschius, Richter, Baxmann). The repetitions suggest a number of authors and a gradual growth. Pseudo-Isidor literally quotes passages from a Paris Council of 829, and agrees in part with the collection of Benedictus Levita, completed in 847; on the other hand he is first quoted by a French Synod at Chiersy in 857, and then by Hincmar of Rheims repeatedly since 859. All the manuscripts are of French origin. The complaints of ecclesiastical disorders, depositions of bishops without trial, frivolous divorces, frequent sacrilege, suit best the period of the civil wars among the grandsons of Charlemagne. In Rome the Decretals were first known and quoted in 865 by pope Nicolaus I.270270    Nicolai I. Epist. ad universos episcopos Galliae ann. 865 (Mansi xv. p. 694 sq.): ”Decretales epistolae Rom. Pontificum sunt recipiendae, etiamsi non sunt canonum codici compaginatae: quoniam inter ipsos canones unum b. Leonis capitulum constat esse permixtum, quo omnia decretalia constituta sedes apostolicae custodiri mandantur.—Itaque nihil interest, utrum sint omnia decretalia sedis Apost. constituta inter canones conciliorum immixta, cum omnia in uno copore compaginare non possint et illa eis intersint, quae firmitatem his quae desunt et vigorem suum assignet.—Sanctus Gelasius (quoque) non dixit suscipiendas decretales epistolas quae inter canones habentur, nec tantum quas moderni pontifices ediderunt, sed quas beatissimi Papae diversis temporibus ab urbe Roma dederunt.

From the same period and of the same spirit are several collections of Capitula or Capitularia, i.e., of royal ecclesiastical ordinances which under the Carolingians took the place of synodical decisions. Among these we mention the collection of Ansegis, abbot of Fontenelles (827), of Benedictus Levita of Mayence (847), and the Capitula Angilramni, falsely ascribed to bishop Angilramnus of Metz (d. 701).

6. Significance of Pseudo-Isidor. It consists not so much in the novelty of the views and claims of the mediaeval priesthood, but in tracing them back from the ninth to the third and second centuries and stamping them with the authority of antiquity. Some of the leading principles had indeed been already asserted in the letters of Leo I. and other documents of the fifth century, yea the papal animus may be traced to Victor in the second century and to the Judaizing opponents of St. Paul. But in this collection the entire hierarchical and sacerdotal system, which was the growth of several centuries, appears as something complete and unchangeable from the very beginning. We have a parallel phenomenon in the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons which gather into one whole the ecclesiastical decisions of the first three centuries, and trace them directly to the apostles or their disciple, Clement of Rome.

Pseudo-Isidorus was no doubt a sincere believer in the hierarchical system; nevertheless his Collection is to a large extent a conscious high church fraud, and must as such be traced to the father of lies. It belongs to the Satanic element in the history of the Christian hierarchy, which has as little escaped temptation and contamination as the Jewish hierarchy.



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