Dates, Popes, and Emperors

Dates, Popes, and Emperors

A common feature of many manuscripts of canon law is the papal catalogue. These catalogues list every pope from St Peter onward, either to the incumbent of the Roman see at the time of writing, or the incumbent at the time the document collection was put together, if the collection pre-dates the manuscript. They are not always interesting documents, and probably among the most overlooked aspects of canon law manuscripts. Nonetheless, they can give us insights into the world of these books.


Durham Cathedral Library, C.III.1, is a canon law book from the late 1100s that contains a papal catalogue amongst a small canon law collection at the beginning of the volume. The manuscript begins with a variety of canons (regulations) from theĀ Decretum of Burchard of Worms (c. 1012ish) and, I think, some others, then the papal catalogue, followed by decretals of Pope Alexander III, a table of consanguinity (arbor consanguinitatis), then canons of the Council of Tours (1163) and more decretals.


The papal catalogue is on folios 7v-8r, a tidy two-page spread. It runs from St Peter to Pope Alexander III (pope, 1159-1181), who provides much of the decretal material in the volume. The episcopates of the popes are dated by emperor, from the death of Jesus under Tiberius and the death of Peter under Nero through the episcopate of Alexander III under Frederick. It also includes marginal numbers, I-X, then every ten popes for a while until the rubricator gives up. Moreover, certain events are noted in the margins in red, such as the Council of Nicaea or a ‘Romanum concilium’.


The feature I find most interesting in this particular papal catalogue is the choice of emperors included. First, after the death of Valentinian III, no western Roman emperor is included. One wonders what the source for the emperors is — is it eastern? Why no mention of at least Anthemius (r. 467-472), the only western emperor after Valentinian III whom we can definitively say had eastern support? He overlapped with popes Hilarus (461-468) and Simplicius (468-483), after all.


Second, on folio 8r, column a, western rulers return with Pippin III, the first Carolingian King of the Franks (r. 751-768), listed alongside east Roman (‘Byzantine’) Emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775). Constantine V is the last Byzantine emperor included; after the accession of Charlemagne (r. 768-814), son of Pippin, none of Constantine’s successors are listed in the catalogue.


Now, these emperors are not themselves listed exhaustively. They are listed as a device to date the popes. Using them, however, also serves to root the papacy firmly in the history of the Empire. In a way, it may even be seen to help legitimise papal authority.


What the removal of the Byzantines and the inclusion of the Carolingians shows us is how western Europe viewed its own imperial world — from Charlemagne to Frederick Barbarossa. It viewed this imperial lineage in the same manner as it viewed Roman Emperors from Tiberius to Constantine V. It saw them as the legitimate successors of Augustus. The Byzantines, however, it did not.


This may reflect twelfth-century views of the Byzantine Empire. It certainly reflects two shifts of the eighth and ninth centuries. The first of the shifts occurs in the first half of the eighth century, and it is the movement of papal attention from the eastern Mediterranean to northern Europe, from Constantinople to the activities of the Majordomos of the Merovingian palace (the future Carolingians) and the workings of papally-sponsored missionaries such as Boniface in Germania.


The second shift occurs in the reign of Charlemagne. Famously, on Christmas day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor at St Peter’s in the Vatican. When we consider this alongside the Byzantine self-styling of the Carolingians, the late Roman-style art of various types (in mosaic, ivory, gold) made by the Carolingians, we can see their aspirations very clearly. They are thrown into sharp relief by the fact that from 797 to 802, the throne of Constantinople was in the hands of Irene who had overthrown her own son. Not only this, regardless of papal policy in this regard, Charlemagne was an iconoclast, whereas Irene was an iconodule.


Clearly the Carolingians did not consider Irene legitimate. And the popes, who needed Charlemagne’s help but who had long maintained at least the appearance of loyalty to the Byzantine emperors, did not either.


So maybe a list of popes is more interesting to reflect upon than you might think at first glance, after all.