Lorenzo Valla

Lorenzo Valla published his Treatise on the Donation of Constantine in 1440, which was an important event in humanist scholarship. I had been under the impression that it was largely philological – that is, that Valla demonstrated that it had been written in the Latin of the eighth century rather than the fourth, as it claims for itself, thereby proving that it was a fabrication. Upon reading it closely and in its entirely (I am ashamed to admit) for the first time just now I discover that its criticism is much more wide-ranging. There is some formal linguistic analysis, but not in really terms of chronology – Valla simply condemns the author for committing certain errors unworthy of any secretary of Constantine’s. Condemnation of anachronism is largely on account of the document’s referents: the Romans did not have “satraps,” the patriarchate of Constantinople had not yet been established, etc. But in a large part Valla focusses on the big questions: is this event likely to have happened? And if it did, why do no contemporary documents corroborate it? All this is strung together with anti-papal vituperation worthy of Luther at his most manic.

Near the end of the treatise, Valla also condemns the Life of Saint Sylvester (the pope to whom Constantine supposedly bequeathed the western empire) for including implausible details like the pope’s defeat of a dragon that had threatened Rome – and proceeds to condemn all other saints Lives that indulge in this sort of thing. He does not condemn saints as such; as he says: 

I defend and uphold them, but I do not allow them to be confused with ridiculous legends. Nor can I be persuaded that these writers were other than either infidels, who did this to deride the Christians in case these bits of fiction handed out by crafty men to the ignorant should be accepted as true.

This is very interesting, and one can certainly see where Protestantism came from, but then there is this passage:

I remember asking some one, when I was a youth, who wrote the book of Job; and when he answered, “Job himself,” I rejoined, “How then would he mention his own death?” And this can be said of many other books, discussion of which is not appropriate here. 

Whoa… so here is a humanist, if ever so briefly, turning his critical faculties on the Bible itself. Did anyone else do this? Did any humanist take the Bible to task for such unanswered questions as:

• Whom did Cain marry?
• How many animals did Noah take with him onto the ark? (One passage claims seven of each clean animal, and only two of each unclean animal)
• Just how long were the Hebrews in Egypt? (Exodus gives three different figures)
• If the Torah was written by Moses, how come it describes Moses’ death? 

And so on. 

I would be keen to know if any Renaissance scholar explored such questions, or whether this was more of an Enlightened activity. As I prep for HIS 306 this fall, I will be keeping my eye out for any more examples.