Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The Roman Republic, which seized so many states, also gave some away. Scipio made Massinissa king of Numidia.

Lucullus, Sulla, and Pompey, each gave away half a dozen kingdoms. Cleopatra received Egypt from Cæsar. Antony, and afterwards Octavius, gave the little kingdom of Judæa to Herod.

Under Trajan, the famous medal of regna assignata was struck and kingdoms bestowed.

Cities and provinces given in sovereignty to priests and to colleges, for the greater glory of God, or of the gods, are seen in every country. Mahomet, and the caliphs, his vicars, took possession of many states in the propagation of their faith, but they did not make donations of them. They held by nothing but their Koran and their sabre.

The Christian religion, which was at first a society of poor people, existed for a long time on alms alone. The first donation was that of Ananias and Sapphira his wife. It was in ready money and was not prosperous to the donors.

The Donation of Constantine.

The celebrated donation of Rome and all Italy to Pope Sylvester by the emperor Constantine, was maintained as a part of the creed of Rome until the sixteenth century. It was believed that Constantine, being at Nicomedia, was cured of leprosy at Rome by the baptism which he received from Bishop Sylvester, though he was not baptized at all; and that by way of recompense he gave forthwith the city of Rome and all its western provinces to this Sylvester. If the deed of this donation had been drawn up by the doctor of the Italian comedy, it could not have been more pleasantly conceived. It is added that Constantine declared all the canons of Rome consuls and patricians — “patricios et consules effici” — that he himself held the bridle of the mare on which the new bishop was mounted — “tenentes frenum equi illius.”

It is astonishing to reflect that this fine story was held an article of faith and respected by the rest of Europe for eight centuries, and that the Church persecuted as heretics all those who doubted it.

Donation of Pepin.

At present people are no longer persecuted for doubting that Pepin the usurper gave, or was able to give, the exarchate of Ravenna to the pope. It is at most an evil thought, a venial sin, which does not endanger the loss of body or of soul.

The reasoning of the German lawyers, who have scruples in regard to this donation, is as follows:

1. The librarian Anastatius, whose evidence is always cited, wrote one hundred and forty years after the event.

2. It is not likely that Pepin, who was not firmly established in France, and against whom Aquitaine made war, could give away, in Italy, states which already belonged to the emperor, resident at Constantinople.

3. Pope Zacharias recognized the Roman-Greek emperor as the sovereign of those lands, disputed by the Lombards, and had administered the oath to him; as may be seen by the letters of this bishop, Zacharias of Rome to Bishop Boniface of Mentz. Pepin could not give to the pope the imperial territories.

4. When Pope Stephen II. produced a letter from heaven, written in the hand of St. Peter, to Pepin, to complain of the grievances of the king of the Lombards, Astolphus, St. Peter does not mention in his letter that Pepin had made a present of the exarchate of Ravenna to the pope; and certainly St. Peter would not have failed to do so, even if the thing had been only equivocal; he understands his interest too well.

Finally, the deed of this donation has never been produced; and what is still stronger, the fabrication of a false one cannot be ventured. The only proofs are vague recitals, mixed up with fables. Instead of certainty, there are only the absurd writings of monks, copied from age to age, from one another.

The Italian advocate who wrote in 1722 to prove that Parma and Placentia had been ceded to the holy see as a dependency of the exarchate, asserts that the Greek emperors were justly despoiled of their rights because they had excited the people against God. Can lawyers write thus in our days? Yes, it appears, but only at Rome. Cardinal Bellarmine goes still farther. “The first Christians,” says he, “supported the emperors only because they were not the strongest.” The avowal is frank, and I am persuaded that Bellarmine is right.

The Donation of Charlemagne.

At a time when the court of Rome believed itself deficient in titles, it pretended that Charlemagne had confirmed the donation of the exarchate, and that he added to it Sicily, Venice, Benevento, Corsica, and Sardinia. But as Charlemagne did not possess any of these states, he could not give them away; and as to the town of Ravenna, it is very clear that he kept it, since in his will he made a legacy to his city of Ravenna as well as to his city of Rome. It is surprising enough that the popes have obtained Ravenna and Rome; but as to Venice, it is not likely that the diploma which granted them the sovereignty will be found in the palace of St. Mark.

All these acts, instruments, and diplomas have been subjects of dispute for ages. But it is a confirmed opinion, says Giannone, that martyr to truth, that all these pieces were forged in the time of Gregory VII. “E costante opinione presso i piu gravi scrittori che tutti questi istromenti e diplomi furono supposti ne tempi d’Ildebrando.”

Donation of Benevento by the Emperor Henry III.

The first well attested donation which was made to the see of Rome was that of Benevento, and that was an exchange of the Emperor Henry III. with the pope. It wanted only one formality, which was that the emperor who gave away Benevento was not the owner of it. It belonged to the dukes of Benevento, and the Roman-Greek emperors reclaimed their rights on this duchy, But history supplies little beyond a list of those who have accommodated themselves with the property of others.

Donation of the Countess Mathilda.

The most authentic and considerable of these donations was that of all the possessions of the famous Countess Mathilda to Gregory VII. She was a young widow, who gave all to her spiritual director. It is supposed that the deed was twice executed and afterwards confirmed by her will.

However, there still remains some difficulty. It was always believed at Rome that Mathilda had given all her states, all her possessions, present and to come, to her friend Gregory VII. by a solemn deed, in her castle of Canossa, in 1077, for the relief of her own soul and that of her parents. And to corroborate this precious instrument a second is shown to us, dated in the year 1102, in which it is said that it is to Rome that she made this donation; that she recalled it, and that she afterwards renewed it; and always for the good of her soul.

How could so important a deed be recalled? Was the court of Rome so negligent? How could an instrument written at Canossa have been written at Rome? What do these contradictions mean? All that is clear is that the souls of the receivers fared better than the soul of the giver, who to save it was obliged to deprive herself of all she possessed in favor of her physicians.

In short, in 1102, a sovereign was deprived of the power of disposing of an acre of land; yet after this deed, and to the time of her death, in 1115, there are still found considerable donations of lands made by this same Mathilda to canons and monks. She had not, therefore, given all. Finally, this deed was very likely made by some ingenious person after her death.

The court of Rome still includes among its titles the testament of Mathilda, which confirmed her donations. The popes, however, never produce this testament. It should also be known whether this rich countess had the power to dispose of her possessions, which were most of them fiefs of the empire.

The Emperor Henry V., her heir, possessed himself of all, and recognized neither testament, donation, deed, nor right. The popes, in temporizing, gained more than the emperors in exerting their authority; and in time these Cæsars became so weak that the popes finally obtained the succession of Mathilda, which is now called the patrimony of St. Peter.

Donation of the Sovereignty of Naples to the Popes.

The Norman gentlemen who were the first instruments of the conquests of Naples and Sicily achieved the finest exploit of chivalry that was ever heard of. From forty to fifty men only delivered Salerno at the moment it was taken by an army of Saracens. Seven other Norman gentlemen, all brothers, sufficed to chase these same Saracens from all the country, and to take prisoner the Greek emperor, who had treated them ungratefully. It was quite natural that the people, whom these heroes had inspired with valor, should be led to obey them through admiration and gratitude.

Such were the first rights to the crown of the two Sicilies. The bishops of Rome could no more give those states in fief than the kingdoms of Boutan or Cachemire. They could not even grant the investiture which would have been demanded of them; for, in the time of the anarchy of the fiefs, when a lord would hold his free land as a fief for his protection, he could only address himself to the sovereign or the chief of the country in which it was situated. And certainly the pope was neither the sovereign of Naples, Apulia, nor Calabria.

Much has been written about this pretended vassalage, but the source has never been discovered. I dare say that it is as much the fault of the lawyers as of the theologians. Every one deduces from a received principle consequences the most favorable to himself or his party. But is the principle true? Is the first fact by which it is supported incontestable? It is this which should be examined. It resembles our ancient romance writers, who all take it for granted that Francus brought the helmet of Hector to France. This casque was impenetrable, no doubt; but had Hector really worn it? The holy Virgin’s milk is also very respectable; but do the twenty sacristies, who boast of having a gill of it, really possess it?

Men of the present time, as wicked as foolish, do not shrink from the greatest crimes, and yet fear an excommunication, which would render them execrable to people still more wicked and foolish than themselves.

Robert and Richard Guiscard, the conquerors of Apulia and Calabria, were excommunicated by Pope Leo IX. They were declared vassals of the empire; but the emperor, Henry III., discontented with these feudatory conquerors, engaged Leo IX. to launch the excommunication at the head of an army of Germans. The Normans, who did not fear these thunderbolts like the princes of Italy, beat the Germans and took the pope prisoner. But to prevent the popes and emperors hereafter from coming to trouble them in their possessions, they offered their conquests to the Church under the name of oblata. It was thus that England paid the Peter’s pence; that the first kings of Spain and Portugal, on recovering their states from the Saracens, promised two pounds of gold a year to the Church of Rome. But England, Spain, nor Portugal never regarded the pope as their sovereign master.

Duke Robert, oblat of the Church, was therefore no feudatory of the pope; he could not be so, since the popes were not the sovereigns of Rome. This city was then governed by its senate, and the bishop possessed only influence. The pope was at Rome precisely what the elector is at Cologne. There is a prodigious difference between the oblat of a saint and the feudatory of a bishop.

Baronius, in his “Acts,” relates the pretended homage done by Robert, duke of Apulia and Calabria, to Nicholas II.; but this deed is suspected, like many others; it has never been seen, it has never been found in any archives. Robert entitled himself “duke by the grace of God and St. Peter”; but certainly St. Peter had given him nothing, nor was that saint king of Rome.

The other popes, who were kings no more than St. Peter, received without difficulty the homage of all the princes who presented themselves to reign over Naples, particularly when these princes were the most powerful.

Donation of England and Ireland to the Popes by King John.

In 1213, King John, vulgarly called Lackland, or more properly Lackvirtue, being excommunicated and seeing his kingdom laid under an interdict, gave it away to Pope Innocent III. and his successors. “Not constrained with fear, but with my full consent and the advice of my barons, for the remission of my sins against God and the Church, I resign England and Ireland to God, St. Peter, St. Paul, and our lord the Pope Innocent, and to his successors in the apostolic chair.”

He declared himself feudatory lieutenant of the pope, paid about eight thousand pounds sterling in ready money to the legate Pandulph, promised to pay a thousand more every year, gave the first year in advance to the legate who trampled upon him, and swore on his knees that he submitted to lose all in the event of not paying at the time appointed. The jest of this ceremony was that the legate departed with the money and forgot to remove the excommunication.

Examination of the Vassalage of Naples and England.

It may be asked which was the more valuable, the donation of Robert Guiscard or that of John Lackland; both had been excommunicated, both had given their states to St. Peter and became only the farmers of them. If the English barons were indignant at the infamous bargain of their king with the pope, and cancelled it, the Neapolitan barons could have equally cancelled that of Baron Robert; and that which they could have done formerly they certainly can do at present.

Were England and Apulia given to the pope, according to the law of the Church or of the fiefs, as to a bishop or a sovereign? If to a bishop, it is precisely contrary to the law of Jesus, who so often forbids his disciples to take anything, and who declares to them that His kingdom is not of this world.

If as to a sovereign, it was high treason to his imperial majesty; the Normans had already done homage to the emperor. Thus no right, spiritual or temporal, belonged to the popes in this affair. When the principle is erroneous, all the deductions are so of course. Naples no more belonged to the pope than England.

There is still another method of providing against this ancient bargain; it is the right of the people, which is stronger than the right of the fiefs. The people’s right will not suffer one sovereign to belong to another, and the most ancient law is to be master of our own, at least when we are not the weakest.

Of Donations Made by the Popes.

If principalities have been given to the bishops of Rome, they have given away many more. There is not a single throne in Europe to which they have not made a present. As soon as a prince had conquered a country, or even wished to do it, the popes granted it in the name of St. Peter. Sometimes they even made the first advances, and it may be said that they have given away every kingdom but that of heaven.

Few people in France know that Julius II. gave the states of King Louis XII. to the Emperor Maximilian, who could not put himself in possession of them. They do not sufficiently remember that Sixtus V., Gregory XIV., and Clement VIII., were ready to make a present of France to whomsoever Philip II. would have chosen for the husband of his daughter Clara Eugenia.

As to the emperors, there is not one since Charlemagne that the court of Rome has not pretended to nominate. This is the reason why Swift, in his “Tale of a Tub,” says “that Lord Peter became suddenly mad, and that Martin and Jack, his brothers, confined him by the advice of their relations.” We simply relate this drollery as a pleasant blasphemy of an English priest against the bishop of Rome.

All these donations disappear before that of the East and West Indies, with which Alexander VI. of his divine power and authority invested Spain and Portugal. It was giving almost all the earth. He could in the same manner have given away the globes of Jupiter and Saturn with their satellites.

Particular Donations.

The donations of citizens are treated quite differently. The codes are unanimously agreed that no one can give away the property of another as well as that no person can take it. It is a universal law.

In France, jurisprudence was uncertain on this object, as on almost all others, until the year 1731, when the equitable Chancellor d’Aguesseau, having conceived the design of making the law uniform, very weakly began the great work by the edict on donations. It is digested in forty-seven articles, but, in wishing to render all the formalities concerning donations uniform, Flanders was excepted from the general law, and in excepting Flanders, Artois was forgotten, which should have enjoyed the same exception; so that in six years after the general law, a particular one was obliged to be made for Artois.

These new edicts concerning donations and testaments were principally made to do away with all the commentators who had considerably embroiled the laws, having already compiled six commentaries upon them.

It may be remarked that donations, or deeds of gift, extend much farther than to the particular person to whom a present is made. For every present there must be paid to the farmers of the royal domain — the duty of control, the duty of “insinuation,” the duty of the hundredth penny, the tax of two sous in the livre, the tax of eight sous in the livre, etc.

So that every time you make a present to a citizen you are much more liberal than you imagine. You have also the pleasure of contributing to the enriching of the farmers-general, but, after all, this money does not go out of the kingdom like that which is paid to the court of Rome.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25