The Ignorance and Credulity of the Times

 •  2 min. read  •  grade level: 11
So deep was the ignorance and credulity of those times, that the most absurd fables were received with great reverence by all classes. The cunning priests knew how to clothe their religious frauds with the most specious piety, and to blind both king and people. According to the legend Constantine was healed of the leprosy by Pope Sylvester; and so penetrated with gratitude was the Emperor, that he resigned to the pope the free and perpetual sovereignty of Rome, Italy, and the provinces of the West; and resolved on founding a new capital for himself in the East.
The object of Hadrian in forging such a deed, and in writing such a letter, was no doubt to influence Charlemagne to imitate the alleged liberality of his great predecessor. If he merely put the popes in possession of the said donation of Constantine, he was only acting as his executor; if he aspired to be a spontaneous benefactor of the church, he must exceed the limits of the original deed of gift. But the depths of this forgery we have not yet fathomed. It went to prove that the Greek Emperors, all these centuries, had been guilty of usurpation, and robbing the patrimony of St. Peter; that the popes were justified in appropriating their territory, and in rebelling against their authority; that the gifts of Pepin and Charlemagne were nothing more than the restitution of a small portion of the just and lawful dominions originally granted to the chair of St. Peter; and that he, Charlemagne, must consider himself as debtor to God and His church, so long as a single item of the debt thus entailed upon him remained unpaid.
Such were some of the convenient effects of the document for the purposes of Hadrian at the time; but though it may have been productive of great advantages to the papacy both then and afterward, the forgery has long since been exposed. With the revival of letters and liberty the fictitious deed was condemned, together with the False Decretals—the most audacious and elaborate of all pious frauds. Speaking of the Decretals, Milman observes, "They are now given up by all; not a voice is raised in their favor; the utmost that is done, by those who cannot suppress all regret at their exposure, is to palliate the guilt of the forger, to call in question or to weaken the influence which they had in their own day, and throughout the later history of Christianity."