History of the popes, beginning with St. Peter and continued down to the fifteenth century, in the form of biographies
Liber Pontificalis (BOOK OF THE POPES), a history of the popes, beginning with St. Peter and continued down to the fifteenth century, in the form of biographies. The first complete collection of the papal biographies in the original form of the Liber Pontificalis reached to Stephen V (885-91). They were afterwards continued in a different style as far as Eugene IV (d. 1447) and Pius II (d. 1464). The individual biographies are very unequal in extent and importance. In most cases they exhibit a definite symmetrical form, which in the old Liber Pontificalis is quite uniform. These brief sketches give the origin and birthplace of the pope, the length of his pontificate, the decrees issued by him on questions of ecclesiastical discipline and liturgy, civil and ecclesiastical events, the building and renovation of Roman churches, donations to churches of land, liturgical furniture, reliquaries, valuable tapestries and the like, transfer of relics to churches, the number of the principal ordinations (bishops, priests, deacons), the burial-place of the pope, and the time during which the see was vacant.
Historical criticism has for a long time dealt with this ancient text in an exhaustive way, especially in recent decades after Duchesne had begun the publication of his classic edition. In most of its manuscript copies there is found at the beginning a spurious correspondence between Pope Damasus and Saint Jerome. These letters were considered genuine in the Middle Ages; consequently, in those times St. Jerome was considered the author of the biographies as far as Damasus, at whose request it was believed Jerome had written the work, the subsequent lives having been added at the command of each individual pope. When the above-mentioned correspondence was proved entirely apocryphal, this view was abandoned. In the sixteenth century Onofrio Panvinio on quite insufficient grounds attributed to Anastasius Bibliothecarius in the ninth century the continuation of the biographies as far as Nicholas I. Although Baronius in great measure corrected this false impression, the earlier editions, which appeared in the seventeenth century, bear the name of Anastasius as the author of our book of the popes. The investigations of Ciampini (“Examen Libri Pontificalis seu Vitarum Rom. Pont. quae sub nomine Anastasii circumferuntur”, Rome, 1688), Schelstrate (“Dissertatio de antiquis Romano-rum Pontificum catalogis”, Rome, 1692), and other scholars, disprove any possible claim of Anastasius to the authorship of this work. The conclusive researches of Duchesne have established beyond a doubt that in its earlier part, as far as the ninth century, the Liber Pontificalis was gradually compiled, and that the later continuations were added unsystematically. In only a few cases is it possible to ascertain the authors.
Modern criticism deals chiefly with two points, the period in which the Liber Pontificalis, in its earliest part, was compiled, and the sources then available to the author of this oldest division of the Liber Pontificalis. Duchesne has proved exhaustively and convincingly that the first series of biographies, from St. Peter to Felix III [IV (d. 530)], were compiled at the latest under Felix’s successor, Boniface II (530-2), and that their author was a contemporary of Anastasius II (496-8) and of Symmachus (498-514). His principal arguments are the following. A great many biographies of the predecessors of Anastasius II are full of errors and historically untenable, but from Anastasius II on the information on the ecclesiasticopolitical history of the popes is valuable and historically certain. In addition, some manuscripts offer a summary of the earlier part of the Liber Pontificalis as far as Felix III (IV), whence the name “catalogue Felicianus”; consequently, the Liber Pontificalis must have been accessible to the author of this summary in a recension that reached to the above-mentioned Felix III (IV). This observation tallies well with the aforesaid fact that the biographies from Anastasius II on exhibit accurate historical information. Duchesne defended successfully this opinion against Waitz and Mommsen, who placed the first edition of the Liber Pontificalis in the beginning of the seventh century. To bear out this view they suppose that from the time of Anastasius II to that of the author a genuine and reliable historical source, since lost, was at his disposal. Since, moreover, they cannot explain the summary ending with Felix III (IV), as easily is done by the hypothesis of Duchesne, the latter’s opinion meets with the general approval of historians, and has recently been perfected by investigators like Grisar. The first part, therefore, to the death of Felix III (IV), i.e. to 530, should be considered a complete work, the compilation of some author who wrote shortly after the death of Pope Felix; later biographies were added at different times in groups or separately by various authors.
The compiler of the first part made use of two ancient catalogues or lists of the popes, taking from them the order of succession, the chronological data, and also certain historical notes; these lists were: (a) the so-called “Catalogus Liberianus”, and (b) a list of the popes that varies in length in the manuscripts, and perhaps depends on the “Catalogus Liberianus” for the period before the middle of the sixth century. The “Catalogus Liberianus” is so called because it terminates with Pope Liberius (352-66). It has reached us in the so-called “Chronographus anni 354”, an ancient manuscript that contains the valuable lists of the “Depositio martyrum” and the “Depositio episcoporum”. In the “Catalogus Liberianus” there are already short historical notices of some popes (Peter, Pius, Pontianus Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Xystus, Marcellinus, Julius), which were taken over by the author of the Liber Pontificalis. For its list of the earliest popes the “Catalogus Liberianus” was able to draw on the papal catalogue given by Hippolytus of Rome in his “Liber generations”, though even this list is not the oldest list of popes. It is probable that from the beginning of the second century there was already a list of popes, which contained short historical notices and was afterwards continued. Eusebius and later chroniclers used such lists in their works [Lightfoot, “The Apostolic Fathers“, Part I; “St. Clement of Rome“, I (2nd ed., London, 1890), 201 sqq.; Harnack, “Gesch. der altchristl. Litt.”, Part II: “Die Chronologie”, I (Leipzig, 1897), 70 sqq.; Sepia, “De Successione Romanorum Pontificum” (Rome, 1897)]. Such a catalogue of popes has reached us as above stated, in the “Catalogus Liberianus”, and forms a basis for the earliest recension of the work.
The compiler of the Liber Pontificalis utilized also some historical writings (e.g. St. Jerome, “De Viris Illustribus”), a number of apocryphal fragments (e.g. the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions), the “Constitutum Silvestri”, the spurious Acts of the alleged Synod of 275 bishops under Silvester etc., and fifth century Roman Acts of martyrs. Finally, the compiler distributed arbitrarily along his list of popes a number of papal decrees taken from unauthentic sources; he likewise attributed to earlier popes liturgical and disciplinary regulations of the sixth century. The building of churches, the donations of land, of church plate and furniture, and many kinds of precious ornaments are specified in great detail. These latter items are of great value, since they are based on the records of the papal treasury (vestiarium), and the conclusion has been drawn that the compiler of the Liber Pontificalis in its earliest form must have been a clerk of the treasury. It is to be noted that the actual Liber Pontificalis that we have was not the only work of this kind. There existed a similar collection of papal biographies, executed under Pope Hormisdas (d. 523), of which a lengthy fragment has reached us (Fragmentum Laurentianum); it gives the end of the life of Anastasius II (d. 498) and the life of his successor Symmachus. The text of the early Liber Pontificalis (first half of the sixth century), as found in the manuscripts that exhibit the later continuations, is not the original text. Duchesne gives a reconstruction of the earliest text of the work. After Felix III (IV) the Liber Pontificalis was continued by various authors at intervals, each writer treating a group of papal lives. Duchesne recognizes a first continuation as far as Pope Silverius (536-7), whose life is attributed to a contemporary. The limits of the next continuation are more difficult to determine; moreover in its earliest biographies several inaccuracies are met with. It is certain that one continuation ended with Pope Conon (d. 687); the aforesaid summary ending with this pope (Catalogus Cononianus) and certain lists of popes are proof of this.
After Conon the lives down to Stephen V (885-91) were regularly added, and from the end of the seventh century usually by contemporaries of the popes in question. While many of the biographies are very circumstantial, their historical value varies much; from a literary point of view both style and diction are, as a rule, of a low grade. Nevertheless they are a very important historical source for the period covered. Some of these biographies were begun in the lifetime of the pope the incidents being set down as they occurred. The authors were Roman ecclesiastics, and some of them were attached to the papal court. In only two cases can the author’s name be discovered with any probability. The life of Stephen II (752-7) was probably written by the papal “Primicerius “Christopher. Anastasius Bibliothecarius perhaps wrote the life of Nicholas I (858-67), a genuine, though brief, history of this pope; this author may also have worked at the life of the following pope, Adrian II (867-72), with whose pontificate the text of this Liber Pontificalis, as exhibited in the extant manuscripts, comes to an end. The biographies of the three following popes are missing and that of Stephen V (885-91) is incomplete. In its original form the Liber Pontificalis reached as far as the latter pope. From the end of the ninth century the series of the papal lives was long interrupted. For the whole of the tenth and eleventh centuries there are only lists of the popes with a few short historical notices, that usually give only the pope’s origin and the duration of his reign.
After Leo IX (1049-54) detailed biographies of the popes were again written; at first, however, not as continuations of the Liber Pontificalis, but as occasion offered, notably during the Investitures conflict. In this way Bonizo of Sutri, in his “Liber ad amicum” or “De persecutione ecclesiae” wrote lives of the popes from Leo IX to Gregory VII; he also wrote, as an introduction to the fourth book of his “Decretals”, “Chronicon Romanorum Pontificum” as far as Urban II (1088-99). Cardinal Beno wrote a history of the Roman Church in opposition to Gregory VII, “Gesta Romance ecclesiae contra Hildebrandum” (Mon. Germ. Hist., Libelli de lite, II, 368 sqq.). Important information concerning the popes is contained in the “Annales Romani”, from 1044 to 1187, and is utilized, in part, by Duchesne in his edition of the Liber Pontificalis (below). Only in the first half of the twelfth century was a systematic continuation again undertaken. This is the Liber Pontificalis of Petrus Guillermi (son of William), so called by Duchesne after the manuscript written in 1142 by this Petrus in the monastery of St. Gilles (Diocese of Reims). But Petrus Guillermi merely copied, with certain additions and abbreviations, the biographies of the popes written by Pandulf, nephew of Hugo of Alatri. Following the lines of the old Liber Pontificalis, Pandulf had made a collection of the lives of the popes from St. Peter down; only from Leo IX does he add any original matter. Down to Urban II (1088-99) his information is drawn from written sources; from Paschal II (1099-1118) to Honorius II (1124-30), after whose pontificate this recension of the Liber Pontificalis was written, we have a contemporary’s own information. Duchesne holds that all biographies from Gregory VII on were written by Pandulf, while earlier historians like Giesebrecht (“Allgemeine Monatsschrift”, Halle, 1852, 260 sqq.) and Watterich (Romanorum Pontificum vitae, I, LXVIII sqq.) had considered Cardinal Petrus Pisanus as author of the lives of Gregory VII, Victor III, and Urban II, and had attributed to Pandulf only the subsequent lives—i.e. those of Gelasius II, Callistus II, and Honorius II. This series of papal biographies, extant only in the recension of Petrus Guillermi, is continued in the same manuscripts of the monastery of St. Gilles as far as Martin II (1281-5); however, the statements of this manuscript have no special value, being all taken from the Chronicle of Martinus Polonus.
On the other hand the series of papal lives written by the cardinal priest Boso (d. about 1178), has independent value; it was his intention to continue the old Liber Pontificalis from the death of Stephen V, with which life, as above said, the work ends. For the popes from John XII to Gregory VII Boso drew on Bonizo of Sutri; for the lives from Gelasius II (1118-19), to Alexander III (1179-81) under whom Boso filled an important office, the work has independent value. This collection, nevertheless, was not completed as a continuation of the Liber Pontificalis and it remained unnoticed for a long time. Cencius Camerarius, afterwards Honorius III, was the first to publish, together with his “Liber censuum”, the “Gesta Romanorum Pontificum” of Boso. Biographies of individual popes of the thirteenth century were written by various authors, but were not brought together in a continuation of the Liber Pontificalis. Early in the fourteenth century an unknown author carried farther the above-mentioned continuation of Petrus Guillermi, and added biographies of the popes from Martin IV (d. 1281) to John XXII (1316-34); but the information is taken from the “Chronicon Pontificum” of Bernardus Guidons, and the narrative reaches only to 1328. An independent continuation appeared in the reign of Eugene IV (1431-47).
From Urban V (1362-70) to Martin V (1417-31), with whom this continuation ended, the biographies have special historical value; the epoch treated is broadly the time of the Great Western Schism. A later recension of this continuation, accomplished under Eugene IV, offers several additions. Finally, to the fifteenth century belong two collections of papal biographies, which were thought to be a continuation of the Liber Pontificalis, but nevertheless have remained separate and independent collections. The first comprises the popes from Benedict XII (1334-42) to Martin V (1417-31), and in another manuscript to Eugene IV (1431-47); the second reaches from Urban VI (1378-89) to Pius II (1458-64). For the last popes in each case they exhibit valuable historical material. In consequence of the peculiar development of the Liber Pontificalis as a whole, it follows that, in order to obtain the full value of the historical sources used in the Liber Pontificalis, each particular life, each larger or smaller group of lives, needs separate critical treatment. The Liber Pontificalis was first edited by J. Busaeus under the title “Anastasii bibliothecarii Vitae seu Gesta Romanorum Pontificum” (Mainz, 1602). A new edition, with the “Historia ecclesiastica” of Anastasius, was edited by Fabrotti (Paris, 1647). The best of the older editions of the primitive Liber Pontificalis (down to Hadrian II), with edition of the life of Stephen VI, was done by Fr. Bianchini (4 vols., Rome, 1718-35; a projected fifth volume did not appear). Muratori added to his reprint of this edition the lives of later popes down to John XXII (Scriptores rerum Italicarum, III). The edition of Bianchini with several appendixes is found also in Migne (P.L., CXXVII-VIII). For a classic edition of the early Liber Pontificalis, with all the above-mentioned continuations, we are indebted to the tireless industry of Louis Duchesne, “Liber Pontificalis. Texte, introduction et commentaire” (2 vols., Paris 1886-92). Mommsen began a new critical edition of the same work under the title “Gestorum Pontificum Romanorum pars I: Liber Pontificalis” (Mon. Germ. hist.); the first volume extends to 715 (Berlin, 1898).
On the plan of the Roman Liber Pontificalis, and in obvious imitation, Agnellus, a priest of Ravenna, wrote the history of the bishops of that city, and called it “Liber Pontificalis Ecclesiae Ravennatis”. It began with St. Apollinaris and reached to about 485 (see Andreas Agnellus of Ravenna). This history of the bishops of Ravenna was continued, first by the unknown author to the end of the thirteenth century (1296), and afterwards to 1410 by Petrus Scordilli, provost of Ravenna. Other medieval chroniclers have also left collections of biographies of the bishops of particular sees, arranged on the lines of the Liber Pontificalis. Thus in 1071-2, at the order of Bishop Gundecharus of Eichstatt, the “Liber Pontificalis Eichstettensis” (ed. Lethmann in “Mon. Germ. hist., Script.” VII, 242-50). Many medieval archiepiscopal and episcopal sees possess, under the title of “Gesta”, histories of the occupants of these sees. Most of them offer very important original material for local diocesan history (for a list of them consult Potthast, “Bibliotheca historica medii nevi”, 2nd ed., I, 511, 514-6).
J. P. KIRSCH