Eadfrith’s gospel book

In the closing years of the seventh century, behind the walls of the priory of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith created a masterpiece. He wrote and ‘painted’ a gospel book (a book of the four gospels of the new testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). Such books had been produced before, and would be produced again. But nothing like Eadfrith’s gospel book has ever been seen.

Lindisfarne is a tidal island on the eastern shore of England, just south of the Scottish border. Saint Aiden, an Irish monk, founded a priory there sometime in the first third of the seventh century. No doubt he was taken by the remote aspect of the island, which is approachable only during low tide. The Venerable Bede describes the island’s church as built “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds after the Irish manner. … But Eadbert, a later Bishop of Lindisfarne, removed the thatch, and covered both roof and walls with sheets of lead.”1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.¬†Eadbert was bishop while Eadfrith was a monk, and so it is doubtful if Eadfrith toiled under any roof grander than thatch. No doubt it was damp, cold, and dark.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.

The biggest, fakest donation ever

O Constantine, what evil did you sire,
not by your conversion, but by the dower
that the first wealthy Father got from you!1.Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.

Such was Dante’s lament as he surveyed the ditch of the Simonists, head down in flaming pits. He believed that the corruption and greed of the 14th century church could be laid at the feet of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who, in a grand gesture of piety in 335, donated (there’s that word again) all of Italy to the church and the popes that would lead her. That wealth, Dante believed, created a culture of ecclesiastical greed that had infected and weakened the church in his own time.

The pledge in question is called the Donation of Constantine, for that emperor who converted to Christianity in 317 AD. He later moved the capital of the empire to the ancient city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. The Donation is a document of some 4700 words, in twenty chapters, and it is written in the first person, allegedly by Constantine himself. In the first eleven chapters the author lays out the foundations of Christian theology, and relates the miraculous healing of “a mighty and foul leprosy” that led to his conversion. Pope Sylvester, the man who led him through his experience, is addressed frequently, as are “all his successors, the pontiffs who are about to sit upon the chair of Saint Peter until the end of time…”2.Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.
2. Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.

Pepin donates Aistulf’s toys

“Concerning all the cities received, he [Pepin] issued a donation in writing for their possession by St Peter, the holy Roman church and all the apostolic see’s pontiffs forever; it is kept safe even till now in our holy church’s archive.”1.Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.46, p.72. Thus did the eighth century church issue yet another claim to a spiritual authority so powerful and unique in the western world, that the greatest king of the age forgo his Lombard conquests, but rather donated the lands to the budding Papal States.

As we saw in last week’s post, this idea of granting land to the papacy was not a new one. The Lombard king Liutprand had done so several times earlier in the century (if you can call giving back land you conquered and then were paid dozens of pounds of gold to return a ‘donation’). Pepin’s donation was the culmination of decades of conflict between the Lombards, the weakening presence of the Byzantine empire in Italy, and the popes. The Lombards would launch various territorial incursions to grab what lands they could. The pope would then beg and plead and bribe to get some of it back, and the Byzantines, generally otherwise embroiled in the Iconoclast controversy far to the east, would not do much. But the general trend was of a gradual separation of the papacy from the eastern emperor, while the Lombards continued to expand their territorial holdings. To the north and across the Alps, the Franks looked on Italian affairs with a benign neglect, while wrestling with Muslim incursions, secession issues, and other family matters.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.46, p.72.

Donations that don’t fit in the Pope’s donation box

In the course of the eighth century the Roman Catholic church received several ‘donations’ of land in Italy. These donations expanded not just the landholdings of the nascent Papal States, but the very conception of the pope as a secular ruler.¬†As the eighth century opened there were three great political factions, whose dealings and interactions formed the foundation of our concerns.

The Byzantine emperor, who was in Constantinople, controlled smallish areas of Italian land, primarily along the Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines. The capital of the emperor’s holdings was at Ravenna, and his representative there was called the exarch. The pope, a nominal subject of the emperor, ruled over Rome and some associated lands. The lands of the emperor and pope formed a bloc that started near Venice, included the cities of the Pentapolis and Revenna, a land bridge across the Apennines mountains, and Rome and its ports. Byzantine territory also included the heel and toe of the Italian boot, as well as Sicily. But the bulk of Italy was in the hands of the Lombards, who controlled most of the valley of the Po river, including the major cities of Milan and Pavia, the Lombard capital. To the east of the Byzantine lands (across the Byzantine ‘bridge’ between Rome and Ravenna), lay the duchy of Spoleto, while southeast of Spoleto and Rome was the duchy of Benevento. Those two duchies, while Lombard, exercised almost complete independence from the king in Pavia.

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All the pope’s men

The papal bureaucracy of the eighth century was the most advanced and ‘modern’ government in all Europe. Unlike the hereditary kingdoms that surrounded the papal lands, the papacy was (and, for that matter, still is) ruled by an elected absolute monarch, albeit via a somewhat constricted electorate.

But no man is an island, and the pope required just as much help to run his kingdom as any other king or duke. He needed able men to assist in the performance of the papal duties, both secular and spiritual, and those men in turn required administrative staff to carry out the papal will. There were seven positions that were considered key in the papal government. Let’s take a look at the seven men who supported the pope.

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