The Donation of Constantine

THE Donation of Constantine was a document of great importance in the Middle Ages. It was used by the Church to support its claim of supreme rule over even earthly powers. It supposedly was given by the Emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester I in the 4th century, when Constantine relocated his capital in Constantinople, granting the pope (therefore the Roman Church) dominion over all Italy, as well as over Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Alexandria. It also claimed that Constantine had bestowed upon the papacy supreme control over all clergy, and, more significantly, a great deal of political power (though Sylvester had, apparently, humbly refused to accept from Constantine the Imperial Crown!).

For centuries the Donation was accepted by all, giving the popes great political clout. However, in the 15th century it was proven by Nicholas of Cusa, a German cardinal and scholar, to be a forgery.

Apparently it had been forged during the Frankish Empire in the 8th or 9th century. In that period the papacy was in a constant struggle for control with the powerful Carolingian rulers (such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne). The Church at Rome, seeing its power threatened, devised the idea, and produced the document that came to be known as The Donation.

The Waldensians (unaware that the document was a forgery) considered Sylvester’s supposed acceptance of worldly political power as a denial of the humility and poverty fundamental to obedient followers of Christ and the Apostles. They believed that from the 4th century on, the Church had compromised with the world, and therefore had denied Christ. And the power and luxury they saw in the Church seemed to support their claim.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #22 in 1989]

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