pope sylvester i

2

The Donation of Constantine Fraud,

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Roman Catholic Church began to take over many of the governmental and societal functions that the Empire once performed.  As it took on the former roles of the Empire, the Church grew beyond being a religious institution, morphing into a powerful governmental authority that influenced politics, the economy, and society.  At the time many questioned the authority of the Catholic Church to hold such power, especially the Eastern Roman Empire, whose Orthodox from of Christianity would eventually split from the Western Church. Others questioned the Church’s power to acquire wealth and hold political sovereignty over various lands, especially in Central Italy (The Papal States) where the church operated as a sovereign nation.

To settle the question, in the 8th century the Church produced an ancient document called the “Donation of Constantine” to legitimize their power.  The Donation of Constantine was a document supposedly created by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great after being cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester I. In the document Constantine granted the church "supremacy as well over the four principal sees, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth" and “landed estates in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa, Italy and the various islands". Finally the document decreed that the Church would have sovereign authority over Rome itself, giving the Church Imperial governmental authority over the city.  In essence, the Catholic Church was claiming that it had been granted governmental powers by Constantine, with the Church having the power of the Roman state and the Pope holding the powers of the Roman Emperor.  

Throughout most of the Middle Ages, few questioned the legitimacy of the document.  As a result few questioned the authority of the Church and Pope.  However in the 14th and 15th century people began question the foundations of Medieval society, especially when the Renaissance blossomed in Europe.  In 1440 a priest named Lorenzo Valla examined to the document to determine its authenticity.  Valla was not only a priest, but a lawyer, rhetorician, historian, and linguistic expert.  Valla found that the document was not only a fake, but a badly produced fake at that.  Names and dates mentioned within the document were wrong and the document used Latin words common in the 8th century that did not exist during the 4th century.  To Valla it was quite clear that the Donation of Constantine was a fake produced sometime in the 8th century.  Most other scholars and academics who examined the document agreed.

The exposure of the Donation of Constantine shook the bedrock of the Catholic Church.  Many of the ruling families of Italy were allying in order to take over the Papal States.  Fortunately for the Church, many still believed the Donation to be legitimate, despite the academic proof of its fraudulence.  Furthermore, the Church relied upon other historical precedence, claiming that ownership of the Papal states was granted by Charlemagne (which was true), and that the Pope inherited the Keys of Heaven from St. Peter (a theological point which cannot be proven true or false).  Today, everyone agrees that the Donation of Constantine is a fake, and the Church has since discarded it as an important religious document.