|‘The simplest valid reason for being skeptical about the extermination claim is also the simplest conceivable reason: at the end of the war they were still there.’
The Donation of Constantine
Prof. Arthur Butz
|Plaques at Auschwitz|
|Before: Four Million|
|After: One and a half Million|
The “Donation of Constantine” is the most famous forgery in European history. It first appeared somewhere around the year 800. It is a document allegedly in the “hands” (sic) of Emperor Constantine I (288?-337), which recounts the long-standing and false legend of Constantine’s conversion and baptism by Pope Sylvester I. Its principal feature is its grant to the Pope of temporal authority over “the city of Rome and all the provinces, places, and states of Italy, and the western regions.” It also decrees that the Pope “shall have the supremacy as well over the four principal (holy) sees, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople,” and makes various additional specific grants. To make it clear that the Donation is in earnest, the document then has Constantine declare his intention to transfer his own capital to “the practice of Byzantia (where) a city should be built in our name [...] for where the primate of priests and the head of the Christian religion is established by the Heavenly Emperor, it is not right that an earthly Emperor shall have authority there.
What is of the greatest interest here is that the authenticity of this document was rarely questioned before the fifteenth century, despite the facts that (1) according to legends and histories widely available throughout the Middle Ages and to the document itself, the city that Constantine founded on the ancient site of Byzantium, and which was later called “Constantinople,” had not yet been founded, much less made the site of a principal holy see and (2) more conclusively, and in analogy with our “they were still there” observation on the Holocaust, according to records and histories available throughout the Middle Ages, imperial rule continued in Italy during the times of Constantine, Sylvester, and their immediate successors.
It was certainly not lack of interest or relevance that explains the long failure to see the Donation as a fraud. Much of the political life of the Middle Ages revolved around the controversy over the relative power of Pope and Holy Roman (i.e. German) Emperor, and able intellects participated in circumstances, in which the Donation was considered one of the arguments on the side of the Pope. Even Dante (1265-1321), an outspoken enemy of papal temporal power, touched on the Donation in his Inferno only to deplore Constantine’s granting of it:
O Constantine, what great evil had as its mother
Not your conversion, but that dowry
Which the first rich father got from you!
Thus, a wildly ahistoric forgery, approximately in the class of a letter bearing the alleged signature of George Washington, granting the Methodist Episcopal Church “authority to rule over Washington, DC and subject territories of North America,” went almost unchallenged throughout centuries of relevant controversy.
The first challenges were typically silly, off the mark, tendentious, or circumlocutory, and often, with Dante, challenged only the desirability of the Donation and not its historicity. In the middle of the twelfth century, the reform movement Arnold of Brescia attacked the whole legend of Sylvester and the Donation by arguing that Constantine was already a Christian when he met Sylvester. Among the anti-papal Ghibellines of Germany, there arose around 1200 the legend that, when Constantine made the Donation, the angels cried audibly “Alas, alas, this day has poison been dropped into the Church of God.” The partisans of the Pope retorted that, sure, the weeping was heard, but it was just the Devil in disguise, trying to deceive us. Others argued that the Donation was not valid because Constantine was tainted with Arian heresy, or because the consent of the people had not been obtained, or because the grant was supposed to apply only to Constantine’s reign. Others turned the donation into a back-handed blow at the papacy by arguing that it showed papal primacy to be derived not from God, but from the Emperor. Indeed, the last argument became, until the middle of the fifteenth century, a standard attitude toward the Donation on the part of anti-papal spokesmen. Around 1200, two writers had pointed to the fact of the continuity of imperial rule in Italy after the alleged Donation, but their presentations were circumlocutory and did not reveal their personal conclusions on the matter, and they had no evident influence on future controversy.
What should have been a conclusive critique of the Donation came in 1433, not from an anti-papal source, but from somebody we might characterize as a liberal reformer within the Church. Cusanus, Deacon of St. Florinus of Coblenz, presented for the use of the Council of Basle a critique of the Donation, which emphasized the overwhelming historical evidence against any transfer of sovereignty from Emperor to Pope in or just after the time of Sylvester and Constantine.
Cusanus’ De concordantia catholica had little direct impact, partly because of its dry and dispassionate tone and partly because it was eclipsed by the 1440 treatise of Lorenzo Valla, De falso credita et ementita Constantini. It is Valla’s name that is most closely associated with the overthrow of the hoax, partly because his own considerable talents were supplemented by Cusanus’ work, partly because of the oratorical and passionate nature of his treatise, and partly because the quickly succeeding developments of printing and the Reformation movement gave the treatise a massive distribution in various translations.
Valla’s basic approach was to subject the Donation to criticism from every perspective that was available to him. For example, he starts by trying to look at the matter from the perspective of Constantine, “a man who through thirst for dominion had waged war against nations, and attacking friends and relatives in civil strife had taken the government from them,” who then allegedly would “set about giving to another out of pure generosity the city of Rome, his fatherland, the head of the world, the queen of states, [...] breaking himself thence to an humble little town, Byzantium.” After reading only a few pages of Valla, the Donation seems incredible, but the treatise runs to about 80 pages in English translation and is a classic case of “overkill.” Valla supported Cusanus’ argument that the alleged transfer of sovereignty had not taken place with the evidence of the Roman coins of the period, which were issued in the names of Emperors, not Popes. Valla analyzed the language and vocabulary of the Donation document and showed they could not have represented the sort of Latin used by Constantine. Such methods were novel for the times.
Valla was not a disinterested scholar. At the time he wrote the treatise, he was employed as secretary to Alfonso of Aragon, who was contesting the rule of Naples with the Pope. Valla left his readers in no doubt of his view that temporal power of the Pope is bad and ought to be abolished. Nevertheless, Valla’s treatise is a landmark in the rise of historical criticism, and I believe it can profitably be studied today by those engaged in “debunking the genocide myth.”
Although somebody was burned at the stake in Strassburg in 1458 for denying the Donation, Valla’s thesis was at first quite well received among educated people, although the treatise remained in manuscript. By 1500, it seemed the legend was finished; the relative quiescence of fundamental controversy on the character of the papacy was probably helpful. However, the development of the Reformation movement and the wide use of Valla’s treatise as a weapon against the papacy had the ironic effect of reviving the defense of the legend. On the one hand, Martin Luther declared in 1537 that Valla’s treatise had convinced him that the Pope was the embodiment of the Antichrist. On the other hand, Steuchus, librarian of the Vatican, produced in 1547 a rather able attack on Valla’s treatise, which was put on the Index shortly later. The process of overthrowing the legend could only be considered completed around 1600, when the great Catholic historian Baronius declared that the falsity of the Donation had been proved.
This short sketch begs at least two fundamental questions. First, we have observed that the fraudulence of the Donation seems obvious, on the grounds that the alleged transfer of sovereignty did not in fact take place. Why then did it take so long to expose it?
I believe that the reason is fundamentally that it would have been impolitic, earlier than the Renaissance, to have drawn the obvious conclusions about the Donation. Important political and economic interests are difficult to oppose with mere observations, regardless of how factual and relevant. The two explanations that come most readily to mind, for the overthrowing of the legend at the time it was done, are, first, that the Renaissance introduced a new higher level of scholarship to Europe and, second, that the Reformation assisted anti-papal developments. I believe this interpretation is valid provided it is not thereby implied that the Middle Ages did not have the intellectual acumen to see through the fraud. The political developments of the post-medieval period were decisive in making it safe and even opportune to see the obvious.
We can elaborate on this basically political explanation by noting the old problem: we see the trees, not the forest, unless we make unusual efforts to do otherwise. To see the obvious, it must first be presented somehow. What people heard in the Donation controversy were the claims of Popes to temporal authority, references to the relevant document, and all sorts of arguments from quarters hostile to the Pope. Roman history, while known to a good extent, was not normally ably presented. For this perhaps amazing omission there are simple explanations. For one thing, the Popes represented the entrenched position and called the tune on that was to be discussed; they could hardly be expected to encourage examination on historical grounds. For another thing, spokesmen against the Donation, on account of their dissident position, had to address familiar subjects in order to accomplish the practical objective of being heard. Moreover, as they typically represented political or religious interests rather than historical studies, they often did not know the relevant history anyway. On the other hand, the professional scholars were largely dependent upon ecclesiastic authorities for their livelihoods. Thus, the field was suitable for a reign of politically founded stupidity.
To ask a second fundamental question, if the fraudulence of the Donation should have been obvious to the unintimidated and inquiring intellect and if political developments weakened and even removed the intimidation, then why was a lengthy treatise such as Valla’s necessary to overthrow it?
The question as posed is loaded, mainly in the sense of presupposing cause and effect relationships. We cannot separate causes and effects in complex events which saw (a) the shattering of the power of the papacy in the Reformation and (b) the overthrowing of one of the impostures which supported that power and (c) the wide circulation of a book exposing that imposture.
At best we can ask what role Valla’s treatise played in these events, and a good conjecture can be made on the basis of the contents of the treatise, which were far more extensive and far more detailed than what was required to prove the thesis. It contained intellectual material of such quantity and diversity that the spread of its influence was all but irresistible. Old coin buffs got something to talk about; the specialists in Latin grammar and language were invited into the controversy; the historians of Rome saw something for them, ditto the historians of the Church. In short, articulate tongues were set wagging against a background of colossal political development.
In my Convention paper three years ago, I stressed that extra-academic controversy should not be underrated as a means of nudging scholars along on controversial subjects (see Supplement 1). That is to say – and here I am speaking from direct experience as a member of academe – the typical attitude toward “hot subjects,” on the part of the basically honest but all-too-human scholar, is evasion. To be sure, there is a small minority, the hirelings of the profiteers of the reigning thesis, who consciously lie and obfuscate. Eventually there is a small minority that assaults the entrenched position, whose dissident utterances have the temporary effect of allying a larger minority with the conscious liars in denunciation of the heretics. However, the typical honest scholar, who tries to maintain self-respect while paying his bills, evades the hot issue.
This evasion is made difficult or impossible if diverse members of the populace abound with challenging questions. If the popular expression goes far enough, it can transform itself from a factor making evasion impossible, into a factor making heresy relatively safe. Thus, do not underrate popularization of hot subjects as a means of nudging or even propelling those who ought to handle them.
The main points I want to make in this section are as follows. Simple and decisive arguments against the Donation of Constantine, which, it seems to us, should have been obvious to the Middle Ages, were smothered by the politics of the times. Valla’s treatise, going into far more detail than seems necessary to our historical sense, played a crucial practical role in bringing down the legend of the Donation, but this process was inseparably linked to political developments favorable to Valla’s thesis and its unintimidated consideration.
The analogies to our own Holocaust legend may seem almost too obvious to labor. The academics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who would not see the simple, stand in painful and embarrassing analogy to academics of today. However, it is worthwhile to expand on a few points.
We have seen that the legend of the Donation was overthrown in a period of political development highly unfavorable to the papacy, and this suggests another obvious analogy and expectation: that the Holocaust legend will be overthrown in a period of political development highly unfavorable to Zionism. This anticipated confluence is above all inevitable and inescapable.
Presented orally at the 1982 conference of the Institute for Historical Review. This is a slightly edited version of the paper as published in the Journal of Historical Review, vol. 3, no. 4, Winter 1982, pp. 371-405. Reproduced from Supplement 2: Context and Perspective in the Holocaust Controversy in Arthur R. Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, Castle Hill Publishers, 2003, first published by Historical Review Press, 1976.