False Decretals


(The Decretals of the Pseudo-Isidore)

False Decretals is a name given to certain apocryphal papal letters contained in a collection of canon laws composed about the middle of the ninth century by an author who uses the pseudonym of Isidore Mercator, in the opening preface to the collection. For the student of this collection, the best, indeed the only useful edition, is that of Hinschius, "Decretales Pseudo-Isidorianæ" (Leipzig, 1863). The figures in parenthesis occurring during the course of this article refer the reader to the edition of Hinschius. The name "False Decretals" is sometimes extended to cover not only the papal letters forged by Isidore, and contained in his collection, but the whole collection, although it contains other documents, authentic or apocryphal, written before Isidore's time.

The Collection of Isidore falls under three headings:

(1) A list of sixty apocryphal letters or decrees attributed to the popes from St. Clement (88-97) to Melchiades (311-314) inclusive. Of these sixty letters fifty-eight are forgeries; they begin with a letter from Aurelius of Carthage requesting Pope Damasus (366-384) to send him the letters of his predecessors in the chair of the Apostles; and this is followed by a reply in which Damasus assures Aurelius that the desired letters were being sent. This correspondence was meant to give an air of truth to the false decretals, and was the work of Isidore.

(2) A treatise on the Primitive Church and on the Council of Nicæa, written by Isidore, and followed by the authentic canons of fifty-four councils. It should be remarked, however, that among the canons of the second Council of Seville (page 438) canon vii is an interpolation aimed against chorepiscopi.

(3) The letters mainly of thirty-three popes, from Silvester (314-335) to Gregory II (715-731). Of these about thirty letters are forgeries, while all the others are authentic. This is but a very rough description of their contents and touches only on the more salient points of a most intricate literary question.



Nowadays every one agrees that these so-called papal letters are forgeries. These documents, to the number of about one hundred, appeared suddenly in the ninth century and are nowhere mentioned before that time. The most ancient Manuscripts of them that we have are from the ninth century, and their method of composition, of which we shall treat later, shows that they were made up of passages and quotations of which we know the sources; and we are thus in a position to prove that the Pseudo-Isidore makes use of documents written long after the times of the popes to whom he attributes them. Thus it happens that popes of the first three centuries are made to quote documents that did not appear until the fourth or fifth century; and later popes up to Gregory I (590-604) are found employing documents dating from the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, and the early part of the ninth. Then again there are endless anachronisms. The Middle Ages were deceived by this huge forgery, but during the Renaissance men of learning and the canonists generally began to recognize the fraud. Two cardinals, John of Torquemada (1468) and Nicholas of Cusa (1464), declared the earlier documents to be forgeries, especially those purporting to be by Clement and Anacletus. Then suspicion began to grow. Erasmus (died 1536) and canonists who had joined the Reformation, such as Charles du Moulin (died 1568), or Catholic canonists like Antoine le Conte (died 1586), and after them the Centuriators of Magdeburg, in 1559, put the question squarely before the learned world. Nevertheless the official edition of the "Corpus Juris", in 1580, upheld the genuineness of the false decretals, many fragments of which are to be found in the "Decretum" of Gratian. As a partial explanation of this it is enough to recall the case of Antonio Agustin (died 1586), the greatest canonist of that period. Agustin seriously doubted the genuineness of the documents, but he never formally repudiated them. He felt he had not sufficient proof at hand, so he simply shirked the difficulty. And it is also to be remembered that, owing to the irritating controversies of the time, anything like an impartial and methodical discussion of such a subject was an utter impossibility. In 1628 the Protestant Blondel published his decisive study, "Pseudo-Isidorus et Turrianus vapulantes". Since then the apocryphal nature of the decretals of Isidore has been an established historical fact. The last of the false decretals that had escaped the keen criticism of Blondel were pointed out by two Catholic priests, the brothers Ballerini, in the eighteenth century.

How the Forgery was done

Isidore was too clever to invent these documents in toto out of his own head. For the most part he plagiarized them in substance, and often in form. For the background he made use of certain data such as the "Liber Pontificalis", a chronicle of the popes from St. Peter onward, which was begun at Rome during the first twenty years of the sixth century. For instance, in the "Liber" it is recorded that such a pope issued such a decree that had been lost or mislaid, or perhaps had never existed at all. Isidore seized the opportunity to supply a pontifical letter suitable for the occasion, attributing it to the pope whose name was mentioned in the "Liber". Thus his work had a shadow of historical sanction to back it up. But it was especially in the form of the letters that the forger played the plagiarist. His work is a regular mosaic of phrases stolen from various works written either by clerics or laymen. This network of quotations is computed to number more than 10,000 borrowed phrases, and Isidore succeeded in stringing them together by that loose, easy style of his, in such a way that the many forgeries perpetrated either by him or his assistants have an undeniable family resemblance. Without doubt he was one of the most learned men of his day. From Blondel in the seventeenth century to Hinschius in the nineteenth, even up to quite recently, efforts have been made to discover all the texts made use of in the False Decretals. They make up quite a library. It is clear that the forger could not have had at hand the entire text from which he drew. He must have been content with extracts, selections, florilegia. But thereon we can only fall back on conjecture.

Isidore might have united the hundred documents he had forged in one single homogeneous collection, which would have been exclusively his work, and then secured its circulation, but, clever man that he was, he chose a different plan. To baffle suspicion he inserted or interpolated all his forgeries in an already existing collection. There was a genuine canonical collection which had been drawn in Spain about 633, and was known as the "Hispana", or Spanish. It contained (cf. Migne, P. L., LXXXIV, 93-848) first of all the texts of the councils from that of Nicæa; secondly the decretals of the popes from Damasus (366-384). Isidore took the volume and prefixed to it the first sixty of his forged decretals from Clement to Miltiades inclusive; these now became the first part of the collection of Isidore. As part II of his collection he retained part I of the Hispana collection, i. e. the genuine collection of councils since Nicæa (325). And as part III of his new volume added part II of the old Hispana, i. e. the genuine pontifical letters since Pope Damasus, but he inserted here and there among them the letters he had forged under the names of the various popes between Damasus and Gregory I (590-604). He was not yet safe, however. So, in order to give a more imposing appearance to the work, he inserted other documents not forged by him, but borrowed bodily from other collections of canon laws. Besides all this he interpolated many additions to authentic documents and added several prefaces to bolster up the fraud. To simplify this description it has been assumed that the forger made use of the unadulterated text of the Hispana. But as a matter of fact he used a French edition, and a very incorrect one at that, of the Hispana, and which was known on that account as the "Hispana Gallica", or French Hispana, which has never been edited, and which is to be found in the Manuscript 411 of the Latin Documents in the Library of Vienna. Furthermore, the forger tampered with the text of this French Hispana, so that his copy becomes, so to speak, a third edition or revision of the old Hispana. This is known as the "Hispana Gallica Augustodunensis", or "of Autun", so called because the Latin Manuscript, 1341, of the Vatican, which contains it, came from Autun. This collection likewise has remained unedited.

The Isidorian collection was published between 847 and 852. On the one hand it must have been published before 852, because Hincmar quotes the false decretal of Stephen I (p. 183) among the statutes of a council (Migne, P. L., CXXV, 775), and on the other hand it cannot have been published before 847, because it makes use of the false capitularies of Benedict Levitas, which were not concluded until after 21 April, 847. As to the place where the Decretals were forged, critics are all agreed that it was somewhere in France. The documents used by the forger, and especially those relating more nearly to his own epoch, are nearly all of French origin. And, as we have already pointed out, the frame chosen for the forgeries was the French edition of the Hispana. He also makes use of the "Dionysio-Hadriana" collection, which was the code of the Frankish Church, and of the Quesnel collection, which had a French origin. Moreover, he refers to the Councils of Meaux and of Aachen of 836, and to that of Paris of 829, etc. On Legal matters he quotes the "Breviarium" of Alaric. When he refers to civil affairs it is those of France he illustrates by. Lastly, it was in France that his work was first quoted, and there it had its greatest vogue. But while critics are all agreed that the forgery was done in France, they differ very widely when it comes to fixing the locality. Some are in favour of Le Mans and the province of Tours; others incline towards the province of Reims. We shall have occasion to refer to these differences later on; for the present we may be satisfied that the false decretals were forged in the North of France between 847 and 852.

Now, what was the condition of the Church in France at that time? It was but a few brief years after the Treaty of Verdun (843), which had put a definitive close to the Carlovingian empire by founding three distinct kingdoms. Christendom was a prey to the onslaught of Normans and Saracens; but on the whole the era of civil strife was over. In ecclesiastical circles Church reform was still spoken of, but hardly hoped for. It was especially after the death of Charlemagne (814) that reform began to be considered, but the abuses to be corrected dated from long before Charlemagne's time, and went back to the very beginnings of the Frankish church under the Merovingians. The personal government of the king or emperor had many serious drawbacks on religious grounds. In the mind of the bishops reform and ecclesiastical liberty were identical, and this liberty they required for their persons as well as for the Church. Doubtless Charlemagne's government had been advantageous to the Church, but it was none the less an oppressive protection and dearly bought. The Church was frankly subject to the State. Initiatives which ought to have been the proper function of the spiritual power were usurped by Charlemagne. He summoned synods and confirmed their decisions. He disposed largely of all church benefices. And in matters of importance ecclesiastical tribunals were presided over by him. While the great emperor lived these inconveniences had their compensating advantages and were tolerated. The Church had a mighty supporter at her back. But as soon as he died the Carlovingian dynasty began to show signs of ever-increasing debility, and the Church, bound up with, and subordinate to, the political power, was dragged into the ensuing civil strife and disunion. Church property excited the cupidity of the various factions, each of them wished to use the bishops as tools, and when defeat came the bishops on the vanquished side were exposed to the vengeance of their adversaries. There were charges brought against them, and sentences passed on them, and not canon law, but political exigencies, ruled in the synods. It was the triumph of The lay element in the Church. Success, even when it came, had its drawbacks. In order to devote themselves to political questions the bishops had to neglect their spiritual duties. They were to be seen more often on the embassies than on visitations. As supplies in their dioceses they had to call in auxiliaries known as chorepiscopi. What wonder, then, that these abuses gave rise to complaints? Especially after 829 the bishops were clamouring for ecclesiastical liberty, for legal guarantees, for immunity of church property, for regularity of church administration, for the decrease of the number of chorepiscopi and of their privileges. But all in vain; the Carlovingian nobles, who profited by these abuses, were opposed to reform. Powerless to better itself, could the Frankish Church count on Rome? At this very time the situation of the papacy was by no means inspiring; the Church at Rome was largely subject to the lay power in the hands of the imperial missi. Sergius II (844-847) has not escaped the reproach of Simony. Leo IV (847-855) had to defend his person just like any simple Frankish bishop. In the face of such a wretched situation the juridical prescriptions of Isidore are ideal.


We are not here concerned with the whole collection, but only with the laws contained in the forged documents. At the outset, let it be noted that Isidore's prescriptions have to do with a very limited number of cases and recur over and over again under slightly varying forms. Yet the forger's legal system is far from having any perfect cohesion. Inconsistencies, and even contradictions, are to be met within it. In the following synopsis, which is necessarily short, no notice is taken of these legal stumblings of Isidore; we are content to simply sum up the teachings of the false decretals, under their principal headings.

In matters concerning the relations of the political and ecclesiastical powers, Isidore sets forth the ordinary ideas of his time as to the supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal authority. Of his own authority alone, the ruler cannot assemble a regular synod; he must have pontifical authorization to do so (p. 228). That is a new requirement. A bishop may be neither accused nor condemned before a secular tribunal (pp. 98, 485). The Theodosian Code, from which the forger borrows in this matter, granted the privilegium fori only for minor faults. In such matters the Frankish law was not very explicit and was open to various interpretations. What is novel in Isidore is the general character of the law withdrawing bishops from the secular courts. Then again he recognizes in bishops a certain jurisdiction in secular matters. Roman law had already recognized this. He goes on to deal with the immunity of church property, which cannot be diverted from its original purpose without sacrilege. The evangelization of Christendom is a complex story which modern criticism has retold for us, by showing the slow onward march of the Faith. But Isidore's ideas thereon were those of his time, and therefore for the most part legendary. According to him, the organization of parishes was laid down by Clement of Rome, as early as the close of the first century, and was to be modelled on the ecclesiastical divisions of Rome and of the catacombs. This meant that dioceses were also a primitive institution, and that metropolitan divisions also existed in primitive times. The Apostles were thought to have accepted the territorial divisions of the Roman Empire, which had been handed down since then as ecclesiastical provinces. There is not much historical basis for such an explanation. It stands to reason that in Isidore we must clearly distinguish between this fantastic view of history and his explanation of hierarchical organization. On all essential points the forger reproduces the current ideas of his time. But he deserves attention when he speaks of chorepiscopi, or those auxiliary bishops we have already referred to. According to him they are usurpers; so far as power of order goes, they have priestly orders and nothing more. Every episcopal function exercised by them is null; all their sacramental acts ought to be reiterated. As a matter of fact, Isidore was wrong; chorepiscopi had full power of order and might validly administer both confirmation and ordination. Isidore forged theology as well as letters. He strongly affirms the authority of the bishops. That is his great concern. With him nothing else counts (pp. 77, 117, 145, 243). The bishop is monarch in his own diocese, but he does not stand alone; bonds unite him to his neighbours, and thus we have the metropolitan idea. The capital of each ecclesiastical province has a juridical right or title to be a centre of assembly for the bishops; this right is derived from the primitive division made by the popes. The province is to be governed by the provincial council, presided over by the metropolitan. On the prerogatives of this dignitary Isidore reproduces the prescriptions of the ancient law prior to the eighth century. After the middle of the eighth century the metropolitans had increased their prerogatives, and Isidore tries to ignore this de facto situation; for him nothing counts but canonical texts; the metropolitan is primus inter pares, and he can do nothing without the consent of his colleagues. The forger goes on to mention higher jurisdictions, those of primates and of patriarchs. But on these matters he shows but a slight knowledge of church government in Africa and in the East, and we have one of the most glaring examples of his incoherence.

The Authority of the Pope

In the many texts where the pope is in question Isidore is true to his task of plagiarizing. Very often he copies passages borrowed from ancient sources. This fact alone helps in a great measure to explain his insistence on the rights of the papacy. In many cases Isidore is but the mouthpiece repeating the sayings of the earlier popes, and we know how clear and uncompromising those early popes were on the question of their prerogatives. For example, call to mind the popes between Innocent I (401-417) and Hormisdas (514-523) and the series of their declarations. All that was well known in the ninth century, at least in theory. And it was all embodied by Isidore. But on the relations between pope and bishops he shows a certain inconsistency. Following the traditional teaching, he declares that the Apostolate and the episcopate were directly instituted by Jesus Christ. Yet at times he seems to be on the point of denying the potestas ordinaria of the bishops. He makes Pope Vigilius (p. 712) say: "Ipsa namque ecclesia quæ prima est ita reliquis ecclesiis vices suas credidit largiendas ut in partem sint vocatæ sollicitudinis non in plenitudinem potestatis."

Taking this passage strictly and by itself, it would seem to deny the potestas ordinaria of the bishops. But nevertheless the sentence is not an intentional forgery; it is merely another case where Isidore is a plagiarist. He had got hold of a famous text by St. Leo (Migne, P. L., LIV, 671), addressed to the Bishop of Thessalonica. From the end of the fourth century this bishop had been named by the popes as their representative in the province of Illyricum. Hence the Bishop of Thessalonica exercised by delegation certain rights belonging to the popes in these countries by reason of their title of Patriarch of the West. About 446, St. Leo had to find fault with the Bishop of Thessalonica, not in his character of bishop, but as legate, or vicar, of the Holy See. And on that occasion the pope pointed out to his vicar in Illyricum that he had received merely a partial delegation, not a plenitude of power. It is clear, then, that the text in question referred to a peculiar relation between the pope and a special bishop. Addressed to the vicar of Illyricum, St. Leo's words are quite accurate; but, applied to all bishops, they cease to be so, and might easily create much confusion. Isidore further demands that provincial councils be held at regular intervals. He asserts for the pope the right to authorize the calling of all councils and to approve their decisions. Laid down in this general and imperative manner, these claims were something new. Nothing like it had been of obligation for the holding of provincial councils; as for approving of the decrees of councils, it was a common occurrence in antiquity. When matters of serious importance were in question the popes claimed the right of approval, but there was no formal or general precept asserting such right. And in any case Isidore's legislation thereon never became the practice.

Ecclesiastical Trials

The procedure to be followed in the trial of ecclesiastics is of special interest to Isidore. According to him, the judging of clerics of all ranks up to and including the priesthood belongs as a last resource to the provincial councils and the primates. He says nothing about priests appealing to Rome, and in this he agrees with the fourteenth canon of the Council of Sardica. Apropos of the trials of bishops he shows some inconsistency in his legislation. On the one hand, he upholds the law as it existed prior to his time, and on the other hands he lays down a new law. Hence we find two series of texts which it is not easy to reconcile. The first series agrees with the existing law. A provincial council is the ordinary judge of bishops. The pope interferes only on appeal made to him by one of the interested parties. However, in the case where the impartiality of the judge is seriously doubtful, the bishop need not wait for the council to pass sentence, but may take his case straight to Rome. Stated in this general way, the latter provision is new. But as it is based on the idea of plain justice, it is not altogether foreign to the ancient ecclesiastical law. It was expressly mentioned in Roman law, from which Isidore borrowed it. How may the pope set about hearing an appeal? The ancient law did not exclude, but did not make provision for, sentence being passed at Rome itself. It recognized the pope's right to appoint a court of appeal composed of bishops from the neighbourhood of the accused; furthermore, he had the right to be represented there by a legate, who would naturally have a preponderating rôle at the trial. Such were the rulings of the Council of Sardica. But as a matter of fact, from the fifth century we have cases where the pope summoned episcopal appeals to be heard in Rome itself. So it is not a great surprise that Isidore should leave the pope free to decide where the final trial should take place. But, as we pointed out, side by side with this first series of decisions along the lines of the ancient law, we find another series which lays down a new law. Therein it is said that in the trial of bishops, the function of the provincial council is limited to hearing both sides of the case and referring it to the pope for judgment. Sentence can only be passed with his approbation. This is new legislation. But once more Isidore is not really inventing; he is merely giving clear and direct expression to the tendencies of his day. In face of the dangers created for the bishops by political disturbances, by the fear of being condemned for party feeling or through motives of revenge, the bishops themselves were eager that charges against them should not be decided without the approval of the pope.

One of the most characteristic peculiarities of the false decretals is the procedure laid down for the trial of bishops. Isidore declares over and over that it was the will of the Apostles that there be as few charges as possible made against bishops, and that, when there are any, their trial should be made as difficult as possible. This is a point worth remembering. The accusation of bishops will be a difficult thing, their defence an easy matter. Isidore's legislation on this head, when systematized, so efficaciously hindered any judicial action against a bishop that the reader is almost inclined to treat it as a joke. However, we must be just; it was not all an invention on Isidore'a part. His procedure in the main reproduces the requirements of Roman law; it draws on the decisions of the Roman apocrypha of the time of Symmachus (498-514), and it levies tribute from the laws of the Barbarian kingdoms. In a case of this kind, anything like a careful and thorough criticism requires that great attention be paid to the question of the sources employed. Isidore piles up obstacles against the accusation of bishops, but the obstacles are not all of Isidore's own devising. Any bishop dispossessed of his see by violence, and who is summoned to the courts, has a right to raise the plea of actio spolii, i. e. to fall back on the fact of dispossession in order to avoid trial, until he has been provisionally restored to his possessions and dignities. This appeal before trial is one of the main points in the Isidorian procedure. The only one who is competent to bring a charge against a bishop is the council of his province. Foreign tribunals are excluded, and the provincial council must have a full quorum. The charge must be made in the presence of accused and accusers. If one of the interested parties absconds, the whole judicial machine comes to a standstill.

The following are the rules governing accusations. A layman can bring no charge against a bishop. This rule, which occurs also in the Roman apocrypha of the time of Symmachus, may be explained by the different judicial status of clerics and laymen at the time of Isidore. Clerics were judged according to Roman law, whereas many laymen were subject to Germanic law, and the procedure under these two laws was different and even hostile. Moreover, at times laymen would not recognize clerics as having the rights to accuse them in the courts; and thus the clerics might well declare laymen incompetent in their courts. Then, too, it must not be lost sight of that Isidore's principle was never observed in practice; a modus agendi was always found. Isidore's second principle was that a cleric could never bring a charge against his superior. It is evident that thus the number of possible accusers became very restricted. The accusation must be made not in writing, but by word of mouth. Only those might bring charges who fulfilled exceptional conditions in respect to rank and standing. In this way it was easy to get rid of a troublesome accuser. The witnesses must be of equal merit with the accuser, and it took seventy-two witnesses to condemn a bishop. This again is not an invention of Isidore's. It was an old custom that a bishop might only be condemned by a council of seventy or seventy-two bishops. The numbers are an allusion either to the seventy elders of the Jewish people or to the Seventy-Two Disciples. But Isidore managed to complicate the situation by applying the number to the witnesses; though even if it were applied to the judges, the difficulty would not be lessened in practice. It was no easy matter to get together so numerous a tribunal. In the ninth century Photius declared that these two traditional numbers were not necessary; in any case Isidore's legislation was never enforced. The hearing of the charge follows Roman law, and minute regulations were drawn up to secure all the necessary scope and impartiality to the arguments for and against. Any admission of guilt had to be absolutely spontaneous, and no signature obtained by force was valid.

In his preface Isidore declares the purpose of his work. His aim is to build up a collection of canons more complete than any other by uniting together all the canons dispersed among the various existing collections. What must we think of this declaration? There is some truth in it, but his collection takes on a character all its own by the fact that it includes a hundred documents forged in Isidore's workshop. He might easily have made that more complete collection, without having recourse to forging documents for it. And, as a matter of fact, is his collection more complete than any other? Even a summary examination soon shows that there are many lacunæ in this collection of Canon law. It omits all mention of many important matters, governing of rural parishes, ecclesiastical benefices, tithes, simony, the monastic life, questions concerning the matrimonial laws, privileges and dispensations, and the pallium. The governing of parishes and the question of benefices were of vital interest when Isidore lived. Though not quite so acute as during the tenth and eleventh centuries, these points of law became occasions of conflict between the Church and the feudal society in progress of formation. They were already preoccupying men's minds, and as Isidore does not refer to them he can hardly claim to have wished to supply a complete ecclesiastical code. So we are driven to conclude that he had a very special object in view in composing his partial code. How are we to discover what this object was? Evidently by examining the documents he forged. There, if at all, are to be found his dominant ideas. And such an examination is by no means difficult after what we have just said concerning the legal side of the false decretals. Isidore's object is so clearly defined that it requires no very laboured analysis to discover it. His chief aim is to assure the dignity and fruitfulness of the episcopal office. In his view the diocese is the life-giving centre of the whole ecclesiastical organism, and the vitality of this centre is his chief concern. All his legislation has this same object. But perhaps it may be argued that, while he is indeed concerned to safeguard the authority of the bishops, he is even more careful to increase that of the pope. This was a view long in favour among both Gallicans and Protestants, but it is no longer the fashion. In our day critics are, on the whole, agreed that the immediate object of Isidore was to win respect for the episcopal authority. If he touches on the prerogatives of the pope, it is never in the interests of Rome, but always in those of the bishops. It was for this that he tried to facilitate appeals to Rome. But in his idea the rôle to be played by the pope would not restrict the rights of the bishops. It has been observed that Isidore does not mention the temporal power of the popes, and that he never thinks of turning to profit Constantine's pretended donation to the Church of Rome, nor does he seem to aim at increasing the French protectorate at Rome. Yet if his object had been to favour the Holy See, how differently would he have gone to work. Now, if we compare these aims of Isidore with the actual situation of the Frankish Church when the forger was at work, between the years 847 and 852, it will be evident that false decretals are directly opposed to the chief abuses of which the bishops were the victims at that time: condemnations of a political character, neglect of the episcopal office and the establishment of chorepiscopi. This explains the lacunæ in Isidore's ecclesiastical code. He was fighting against urgent and glaring abuses. A contemporary is always at a disadvantage in forming a clear opinion of his age, of those deep causes of which the slow but measured action must inevitably transform society. And hence it was that Isidore confined himself to things that were more or less on the surface in the everyday life around him. If he foresaw other dangers in the path of the Church, he certainly made no attempt to provide against them.

It remains true, however, that Isidore was a forger. But there are forgers and forgers. Let us not forget that the false decretals are from the same workshop that forged the capitularies of Angibramne (Angilram) and the false capitularies of Benedictus Levita. When the capitularies had been forged it was but a natural step to the forging of pontifical letters. For this new work Isidore owed much to the "Liber Pontificalis", or chronicle of the popes. Thus when the Liber tells us that such a pope issued such a decree long since lost, the forger noted the fact and set to work to invent a decree for his collection along the lines hinted at by the "Liber". This is a method well known in diplomatic work, and one that has left us the acta rescripta, of which we have many specimens in ancient charters. These acta rescripta are documents which, at a date long subsequent to that they bear, and because the originals or ancient copies of them had been damaged or lost, were drawn up by the aid of the remnants of the originals, or from extracts therefrom, or analyses of them, or at times from mere tradition concerning their contents (cf. Giry, "Manuel de diplomatique", Paris, 1894, pp. 12, 867, etc.). In Isidore's opinion many of the false decretals were merely such acta rescripta. It was not a very honest proceeding, and Isidore was far from being scrupulous. With a faint modification it might be said of him as of another forger in the seventeenth century, the crafty Father Jérôme Vignier, "He was the greatest liar in Paris." But men of the ninth century must not be judged according to modern ideas of literary morality. Neither can the false decretals be looked at as a purely literary work. They are a Landmark in the evolution of law. In every society law develops or evolves itself like other things, but under conditions of its own, and step by step with the social life it regulates, and which it must keep pace with in order to regulate. The state of society, the ensemble of its customs, change more or less according to time and place, and are never stationary. And slight changes, when multiplied to any degree, end by causing a chasm between former legislation and the newly born needs of a changed society. The written laws no longer meet the requirements of the social state they ought to regulate, and a readjustment of legal provisions becomes necessary. History shows us that this may take place in many ways, according to the nature of the desired change and the surroundings in which it takes place. It may be effected by the gradual substitution of new laws for those that have grown antiquated or, less courageously, by what is known as a creative interpretation of existing laws, of which we have many examples in Roman law; and again, in desperate cases, the change may be brought about by forgeries, when no other means seems practicable. Now, in the middle of the ninth century, the rules of canonical legislation did not seem to be the best possible to meet the existing state of ecclesiastical affairs. The reform councils of the ninth century had tried to bring about the new laws demanded by the situation, but the lay power had blocked the way. And thus the evolution of law, finding an obstacle to its growth on one side, was constrained to seek freedom on another. Unable to advance in normal fashion, a canonist whose intentions were more commendable than his acts bethought him of calling in the aid of the forger. It is impossible to condone such forgeries, but the history of the case puts us in a better position to judge them, and even to discover extenuating circumstances in their favour, by emphasizing the powerful forces at work in the society of the period, and which were acting with what one may call historical fatalism. Moreover, the false decretals are the work of private enterprise and have no official character. The theory that they were planned in Italy has been long since abandoned. They are of purely Gallican origin, and if they deceived the Church, the Church accepted them in good faith and without any complicity.


We saw above, in the case of Hincmar, that Isidore's forgeries were known among the Franks as early as 852. In Germany we hear of them a little later. We find traces of them in the Acts of the councils of Germany dating from that of Worms in 868, but in Spain we find no reference to them, and they seem to have been hardly known there. They found their way into England towards the close of the eleventh century, probably through Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury. Their reception in Italy is of greater importance. It occurred probably during the pontificate of Nicholas I (858-867). It seems certain that he knew of the decretals, and it is possible that he may have even possessed a copy of them, and showed proof of this on the occasion of the appeal to Rome made by Bishop Rothade of Soissons, who had got into difficulties with his metropolitan, Hincmar of Reims. Rothade reached Rome about the middle of 864. He had already caused his appeal to be presented to the pope, but he now explained his case in detail. It was to his interest to quote the authority of the false decretals, and he did not fail to do so. This is proved by a Letter written by Nicholas I on 22 January, 865, dealing with Rothade's appeal. Pope Adrian II (867-872) was acquainted with them, and in a letter dated 26 December, 871, he approves of the translation of Actard, Bishop of Nantes, to the metropolitan See of Tours, and quotes apropos one of the false decretals. Quotations made by Stephen V (885-891) are not conclusive proof that he directly used Isidore's text; and the same may be said of occasional references to it during the tenth century, which occur in the letters of the popes or of the papal legates. However, other authors in Italy show less reserve in using the false decretals. Thus, at the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth century they are quoted by Auxilius in the treatises he wrote in defence of the ordinations performed by Pope Formosus (891-896). It is true that Auxilius was born among the Franks, as was also Rathier, Bishop of Verona, who likewise quotes Isidore. Attone of Vercelli, however, was an Italian, and he quotes him. At the end of the ninth century and during the tenth, extracts from the false decretals begin to be included in canon law collections in the collection dedicated to Bishop Anselm of Milan, in the Réginon collection about 906, among the decrees of Burchard, Bishop of Worms. Nevertheless, until the middle of the eleventh century the false decretals did not obtain an official footing in ecclesiastical legislation. They were nothing more than a collection made in Gaul, and it was only under Leo IX (1048-1054) that they took firm hold at Rome. When the Bishop of Toul became pope and began the reform of the Church by reforming the Roman Curia, he carried with him to Rome the apocryphal collection. Anselm of Lucca, the friend and adviser of Gregory VII, composed an extensive collection of canons among which those of Isidore figure largely. The same thing happened in the case of Cardinal Deusdedit's collection made about the same time. And finally, when in 1140 Gratian wrote his "Decree" he borrowed extensively from Isidore's collection. In such manner it gained an important place in schools of law and jurisprudence. It is true that the Gratian collection had never the sanction of being the official text of ecclesiastical law, but it became the textbook of the schools of the twelfth century, and, even with the false decretals added to it, it retained a place of honour with the faculty of canon law. It was it that supplied the text of the "everyday" instructor on the things most essential to be known. And the faculty of law styled itself faculty of the Decree; which shows how important a place in the schools was given to the Isidorian texts inserted in the decretals.


For a long time the Gallicans and the Protestants dwelt on the innovation contained in these apocrypha and on the rights, altogether novel, which they conferred on the popes and which would never have come to pass had it not been for these forgeries. Nowadays Isidore's aim is understood to have been quite different. His chief concern was to defend the bishops; and if the papacy profited by what he did, it can be shown that it was a necessary consequence of the pope's being made the champion of the bishop. And even though it must be admitted that the popes benefited by the forgeries, their good faith is beyond question. Isidore wrote a long way off from Rome; he deceived his own neighbours in France, and among them the learned Hincmar of Reims. What wonder, then, that he deceived the popes also, when his work was carried to Rome by Rothade of Soissons about the summer of 864? It is true that some have hinted that Nicholas I erred against truthfulness; that he pretended that the Isidorian texts were contained in the archives of the Roman Church, an assertion not only inexact but untruthful (Migne, P. L., CXIX, 901). But as a matter of fact his words do not necessarily mean that at all. What he does say refers equally to the authentic decretals not included in the Dionysio-Hadriana collection. On the dubious interpretation of an obscure text it is not fair to bring a charge of untruthfulness against a man of character like Nicholas I. And if an unfavourable interpretation be accepted as the real one, the blame falls on the draftsman of the pontifical letters, the famous Anastasius the Librarian. Another reason for not impugning the honesty of Nicholas I under the circumstances is that he was under no necessity; he had no interest in approving of Isidore's letters. Indeed, he is much more reserved in his treatment of them than the Frankish bishops were at that very time. In that very letter of 22 January, 865, he points out to them their inconsistency, how, when it is to their own interest, they quote the letters of the early popes (i. e. Isidore's forgeries), and when the letters are unfavourable to them, they repudiate them. We saw above that according to Isidore's judicial system a bishop dispossessed of his see by violence and then haled to the courts had the right to plead the fact of dispossession in order to escape appearing before the courts, and that he must first be provisionally restored to his possessions and honours so as to arrange properly for his defence. No doubt Isidore had not invented all this. Roman law and canon law supplied him with precedents and even laws for it. But he made such procedure an essential factor in canon law. And it is an undoubted fact that from the year 864, in cases such as the one we refer to, Isidore's ideas and expressions exercised a marked influence on the conduct and decisions of Nicholas I. There is nothing calling for adverse criticism in all this as far as Nicholas is concerned. As a piece of legislation it was altogether in favour of the bishops. From another point of view it is important to consider whether, in the appeals of bishops to Rome, the conduct of Nicholas I was really influenced by Isidore's forgeries.

What we have already said concerning the forger's objects and aims limits the bearing of this question to a great extent. As a piece of general hard and fast legislation, Isidore's method of procedure was quite new. But the practice of the popes and the custom of the ecclesiastical courts supplied precedents which more or less bore out the principles laid down by Isidore. Hence we see that if Nicholas I made use of the apocrypha to justify his teaching on appeals to Rome, we must necessarily admit that he relied on a forged document; but even then we should not be obliged to admit that he was influenced by teaching altogether foreign to ecclesiastical antiquity, but only that by means of Isidore he was put in touch with teaching closely resembling that of St. Leo and of Gelasius I, two popes of the fifth century. And, as a matter of fact, did Nicholas I gain his teaching concerning appeals from these apocrypha? We have no proof whatever that he did. His firm and solid conviction of the rights of the Holy See had nothing to learn from the weak inventions of a forger among the Franks; he had learned those rights in the school of Roman traditions dating from the fifth and sixth centuries. We can admit that, while the pope's contention is justified, the arguments with which he supports it are at times open to attack. Thus, in a letter addressed to the Council of Soissons in 863, he wishes to assert his right to intervene in the trials of bishops, even when there was no question of an appeal to Rome. This amounted to an assertion of the absolute power of the Holy See, a claim he might have supported by many solid arguments; yet what is our surprise to find him claiming in support thereof the canons of the Council of Sardica, which say nothing of the sort. The Council of Sardica (343) intended very particularly to safeguard the legal rights of bishops who were being persecuted; that was its main object, and it by no means intended to define the rights of Rome in matters of the kind. These canons mark one of the early steps in the question of church discipline.

The claim of Nicholas I ought to have been supported by texts from the fifth and sixth centuries; and in the case in question his object was much more creditable than the reasons he gave in support of it. On the whole, then, from the beginning of his pontificate, and before he knew of the Isidorian texts, Nicholas I was in full sympathy with the ideas expressed therein. Acquaintance with those texts did not seriously affect him. Yet, in his letter to the Frankish bishops, dated 22 January, 865, apropos of Rothade, he puts the theory on appeals much after the manner in which Isidore had put it; so much so, that one writer speaks of the parfum isidorien that letter exhales (Fournier). If the letters of the early popes (i. e. the decretals of Isidore) are not explicitly quoted, they are at least alluded to. But from all that has been said we must conclude that Nicholas I took none of his essential ideas from Isidore, and that any influence he did exercise on that pope was too insignificant to be taken into account in a pontificate so filled with enterprises of daring and of moment. And this conclusion in Nicholas's case gives us more or less the answer to the further question as to how far the apocrypha influence the subsequent history of the Church. As we have seen, even without Isidore, Nicholas I would have brought about the same mode of government. And it has been well said that the principles of Nicholas I were those of Gregory VII and of the great popes of the Middle Ages; that is to say, Isidore or no Isidore, Gregory VII and Innocent III would not have acted otherwise than they did. As a matter of history, such a conclusion is quite justifiable, and as far as apologetics go it is quite sufficient answer. In the domain of theology and canon law, Isidore's forgeries never had any serious consequences.

Having said this, we are free to confess frankly that in lesser spheres than those of theology and law, the false decretals have not always exercised a fortunate influence. On history, for instance, their influence was baneful. No doubt they do not bear all the blame for the distorted and Legendary view the Middle Ages had of ecclesiastical antiquity. During the Middle Ages it was almost an impossibility to consult all the sources of information, and it was difficult to check and control those at hand. It was not easy to distinguish genuine documents from apocryphal ones. And this difficulty, which was the great stumbling-block of medieval culture, would have been always an obstacle to the progress of historical study. It must be admitted that Isidore's forgeries increased the difficulty till it became almost insurmountable. The forgeries blurred the whole historical perspective. Customs and methods proper to the ninth century stood out in relief side by side with the discipline of the first centuries of the Church. And, as a consequence, the Middle Ages knew very little concerning the historical growth of the rights of the papacy during those first centuries. Its view of antiquity was a very simple one, and perhaps it was just as well for the systematizing of theology. In the main, it was no easy matter to develop a historical sense during the Middle Ages. The absence of such a sense is all the more remarkable when we consider what civilization owes the Middle Ages in the realms of philosophy, theology, and architecture.


We have purposely reserved this question for the end. In the first place, it is of lesser importance than the others; and in the second, whereas critics are for the most part in agreement concerning the questions we have been treating, they are divided into two parties on this final question. For a time the decretals were thought to have been forged at Mainz, but that theory has been altogether abandoned, and now the disputed honour lies between Reims and Le Mans in the province of Tours. Here are the arguments put forth on both sides. The majority of German critics and a section of those in France favour Reims as the place where the decretals originated. According to them, Isidore's legislation concerning the trial of bishops was intended to support the cause of Ebbon, Archbishop of Reims, and to facilitate the retrial of that dignitary. Ebbon had been deposed in 835 for political reasons. He was reinstated at Reims in 840; he had to leave his see in 845 and ended his career in 851 as Bishop of Hildesheim. According to the critics, a comparison between his case and Isidore's procedure at trials shows such agreement that it must have been intentional; thus, for instance, the provisional restoration of the accused and dispossessed bishop, the arrest of the bishop, the possibility of a translation from one see to another (from Reims to Hildesheim). Besides this, it was in the province of Reims the forgeries first appeared, and from there they were carried to Rome by Rothade of Soissons; then, too, it was in this same diocese that, ever since Ebbon's time, the struggle against chorepiscopi was most intense. Isidore's opposition to archiepiscopal authority is also very marked; and, according to the critics, the province of Reims was the birthplace of that opposition during the years that intervened between Ebbon's deposition (838-841) and Hincmar's nomination (845); hence the conclusion that the forgeries were committed between 847 and 852 by partisans of Ebbon, and probably by clerics ordained by him in 841, and against whose ordination Hincmar, Ebbon's successor, raised objections soon after his election. This cumulative mass of argument is impressive; but to be really conclusive it would be necessary to prove that Isidore's legislation was invoked by these clerics against their archbishop, before his death in 851 or at least before 853, when the Council of Soissons was held, in which the ordinations held by Ebbon at Reims in 841 after his restoration were declared invalid. No such proof is forthcoming. The documents in favour of Ebbon in which is discovered a similarity to the teaching of the apocrypha are later than 853. At that time Isidore's work had begun to spread. That it was known and used at Reims after 853 is not at all surprising and is no proof of its having been composed in the Province of Reims. Furthermore, if these apocrypha had been composed in favour of Ebbon and of the clerics he ordained, then the question of the validity of ordinations performed by a deposed bishop ought to have been treated of. Yet not a word is said concerning it; though, on the other hand, Isidore submits all questions concerning clerics up to and including priests to the metropolitan council and to the primates. No mention is made of an appeal by priests to Rome, an omission that is inexplicable if the documents were written in favour of the clerics ordained by Ebbon, and who are supposed to have been the actual writers. Add to this that the period 847-852, when the forgery was committed, was for the clerics of Reims, Ebbon's partisans, a period pending appeal and a time of entente with Hincmar. or t e moment, they had no reason to need such a weapon against the archbishop. Lastly, P. Fournier points out that the theory which makes Reims the scene of the forgery in opposition to Hincmar is at variance with what we know of Hincmar's attitude. If Hincmar had the faintest suspicion that the decretals were aimed at him, he would have treated them differently. Though he had a suspicion that one or other document had been forged in part, he offered no objection to the collection as a whole. But it is certain that he would have spared no pains to discredit a code intended as a weapon against him. On the whole, then, this theory is an attractive one; but while no solid proof can be brought in its favour, many solid arguments can be brought against it.

There is another set of critics who fix on the province of Tours and the neighbourhood of Le Mans as the scene of the forgery. The principal among these critics are Langen, Döllinger, M. M. Simson, Viollet, J. Havet, P. Fournier and L. Duchesne. According to them, the forged legislation on the trial of bishops and the organization of dioceses and ecclesiastical provinces aim at a state of things existing in Brittany after 845, when Noménoé, Duke of Brittany, gained a victory over Charles the Bald. At that time Brittany was eager for independence, in the ecclesiastical as well as in the civil order. The bishoprics in Brittany were subject to the metropolitan of Tours, and the Carlovingian sovereigns clung to this ecclesiastical subjection as a pledge of political subordination. On the other hand, the Duke of Brittany was anxious to get rid of four bishops whom he suspected of favouring the Franks. He gave them a quick trial and expelled them from his domains. The affair was carried to Rome, and about 847 Leo II wrote a letter to the Duke of Brittany reminding him of the claims of Canon law. The whole thing caused much commotion among the Franks and at Rome. As it was a matter of public knowledge, and more or less contemporary with the appearance of the decretals, nearly all the critics are agreed that Isidore had this affair in his mind when he wrote, and that many of his laws presupposed some such state of affairs as existed in the province of Tours and the Church of Brittany. These are only appearances, however, and we want precise proofs, something more definite. Now the critics in question think they recognize a family likeness between two documents which were certainly written at Le Mans and the decretals of Isidore. The first of these is the apocryphal Bull of Pope Gregory IV (827-844) in favour of Aldric, Bishop of Le Mans. In this letter (Migne, P. L., CVI, 853) the pope recognizes the right of the Bishop of Le Mans to take his case to Rome whenever a charge is brought against him. The letter is supposed to have been written on 8 July, 833. It is quite after Isidore's own heart; and its style is wonderfully similar to that of the forger. The forged Bull of Gregory IV is a mosaic of authentic texts, and very often they are texts which Isidore used over and over again.

The critics are all agreed that this forged Bull and the decretals are independent documents; that is, that neither makes use of the other. But the critics we are now considering maintain that both come from the same workshop; that they are alike in materials and methods of composition. And they further point out the closeness of their dates. The forged Bull was certainly drawn up at Le Mans, they say, about 850, when Le Mans was in the hands of the Duke of Brittany. The bishop, who favoured the Franks, was in a sorry plight; and to protect him the Bull of Gregory IV was forged. We are certainly very near now to the date of the decretals, and the family likeness between the documents would be explained by the identity of their origin. The same critics argue in the same way in the case of a memoir or story of a dispute that took place in 838 between Aldric, Bishop of Le Mans and the Abbey of St-Calais (Migne, P. L., CXV, 81-82). During the course of the trial the authority of the canons is quoted after the manner of Isidore, i.e. in mosaic-fashion made up of those fragmentary passages Isidore was so fond of using. And this document belongs to the years between 842 and 846. We are still at Le Mans and about the period when the decretals appeared. Moreover, it is a fact that there were chorepiscopi at Le Mans at this time. Now, what are we to think of these arguments? They are not without value, but not all their assumptions are beyond question. Thus, we have no proof that the forged Bull of Gregory IV was written during the lifetime of Aldric. The present writer is of the opinion that it was after his time and as a support to Robert of Le Mans, successor to Aldric, in his quarrel with the monks of St-Calais. But the question as to the date of the Bull is merely a secondary one. The most important argument is the existence at Le Mans, about the very time when the decretals were forged, not of a document, but of two documents concocted in the very style of the forger Isidore. And there seems reason to believe that Le Mans has most claim to being the scene of the forgery of the decretals. In the interests of fairness we must, however, say one thing. As we have seen, the knowledge of the decretals shown by Pope Nicholas I dates from the visit to Rothade to Rome in 864. It is a matter, for us, of some surprise, since in the previous year the same pope had to deal with the appeal of Bishop Robert of Le Mans, successor of Aldric. If the false decretals were forged at Le Mans, how comes it that Bishop Robert did not use them exactly as Bishop Rothade of Soissons did one year later? It is true that in his letter of 22 January, 865, Nicholas I declares that the Frankish bishops appeal to the decrees of the early popes (i. e. the decretals of Isidore). And it may be that Bishop Robert of Le Mans is included in this generalization.