A long time ago there was a guy who donned a tinfoil hat. It was a risky move professionally, but he was an ornery sort who enjoyed rocking the boat every now and again, upending received “wisdom” and then sitting back to watch the fallout.
Sometimes it seemed to his contemporaries that he made outrageous claims simply for the ripples of discontent they produced within his small community, for most of the time they involved trivial matters important only to a tiny coterie of scholars. But on this one particular occasion he launched a claim that had much broader implications. He was certain that an extraordinary fraud had been perpetrated which had gone relatively unquestioned for quite some time — one which, unlike most of his provocative assertions, had real-world consequences.
I say relatively unquestioned because this trouble-maker was not the first person to suspect the fraud had taken place, for others had expressed skepticism over the years. But he was the first person to lay out a coherent justification for these doubts, and in the end, after he had published his opinion, he’d not only exposed the massive conspiracy for the fraud that it was, he’d launched a new academic discipline.
Our conspiracy theorist’s name was Lorenzo Valla and he was born in 1407. His claim was that a certain document the papacy used to justify its temporal powers over the Western portion of Christendom was a forgery. It was allegedly composed in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine himself, but Valla showed that it actually had to have been forged centuries later.
The document was known as the Donation of Constantine and it appeared to gift the entire Western hemisphere to Pope Sylvester in gratitude for his having cured the emperor of leprosy. The document explicitly stated “. . . we give over . . . to the most blessed pontiff and universal pope, our father Sylvester, and to the power and sway of him and his successor pontiffs, not only our palace . . . but the city of Rome and all the provinces, places, and cities of Italy or the western territories . . . and we grant that they should remain under the law of the holy Roman church.”
Why was this important? At around the same time, a group of forgeries called “The False Decretals” were composed presumably with the intent to boost Rome’s power at a time when it was weakening. The purpose of back-dating these “proofs” of church authority was to reinvigorate it in its contests with secular rulers. And the Donation, included amongst these Decretals, was indeed used throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance to justify the authority of the Church over the state. In addition, it bestowed an impressive amount of material wealth on the papacy in land, palaces, Church sees, and so forth. Further, the papacy’s claims to ownership of this vast territory justified its demands for periodic tribute as well….[ ]