The Donation of Constantine

Referenced in HIS 111 today: the Donation of Constantine, the document by which the papacy claimed a huge swath of central Italy as its own territory, and claimed residual rights over the Western Roman Empire. Thus, in AD 800, after a hiatus of 324 years, it deigned to bestow the Imperial crown on Charlemagne, the worthy candidate everyone had been waiting for. This document was allegedly granted by the Emperor Constantine (d. 337), but was of course an eighth-century fabrication; one of the signal achievements of Renaissance Humanism was Lorenzo Valla’s conclusive proof that it was written in the Latin of the eighth century, not the fourth. I’m not sure that the medieval papacy would have cared much – just because the document was forged, doesn’t mean it didn’t represent a real event (or rather, an event that the papacy dearly wanted to be true). Monasteries supplied such “missing” documents all the time.

As ever when I lecture about this topic, I think about Memogate, the attempted October Surprise of 2004, in my first semester at Reinhardt ten years ago now. George W. Bush, as everyone knows, spent the early 1970s valiantly defending Alabama from the Viet Cong, and it looks like he even skipped out on that, although apparently his dad’s influential buddies managed to scrub his record clean. This issue dogged him his entire political career and he maddeningly escaped every time it came up; but finally, here was indisputable proof that he finked on his duties! The trouble is that within twenty minutes of the documents being posted to the Internet they were proven to have been composed on Microsoft Word, which did not exist in 1973. Not to worry, CBS News told us, the documents were “fake but accurate,” and stood by them for ten days – which provided endless mirth for Republicans and further confirmed to them the existence of The Liberal Media.

Suffice it to say that we take documents a lot more seriously than the Middle Ages did, and CBS News should have disowned the fake ones a lot quicker than it did. (They should also have tried attacking GWB more about stuff that mattered.)