Lorenzo Valla was a humanist living in 15-th century Italy. The word "humanist" then had approximately the same meaning as "humanities student" does now: Valla studied ancient languages and literature, trying to understand human nature without becoming entangled in theological doctrine. One can conclude that he had a dreadful personality: he grew up in the Papal court but fell out with his sponsors, did not get a position in Rome and went on to the University of Pavia to teach rhetorics.
At the university, he ran afoul of law professors in so bad a way that they organized an attempt on his life. He then went on to serve the Alfonso the Magnanimous, king of Naples, Aragon and Cicily. The Pope had old claims to some Neapolitan lands which led to a conflict with Alfonse. Before it was resolved on the battlefield, Valla did his lord a few big favors by looking for grounds to denounce the Pope's claims, and in the process inventing history as we know it.
The papal claims were based on a document called the Donation of Constantine (Donatio Constantini) - a decree signed by 4th century Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) addressed to Pope Sylvester I (314-335). The Donation contains a pious story about a pagan ruler being converted to the True faith: Constantine became infected with leprosy and no magician or healer could cure him. Then a Christian priest prayed for him and he was cured, and soon baptised.
The emperor then bestowed on the see of Peter supremacy among all other sees, as well as his palace, his horse and the entire western half of his empire, himself moving to Constantinople, the Donation says. The popes in Medieval times used the document to substantiate their claims to lands in Western Europe (among them the Kingdom of Naples), their right to appoint rulers and their supremacy over the patriarchates of Constantinople. These claims were among the reasons for the final the Great Schism, between the Orthodox and Catholic churches (the mutual anathema was only lifted in 1965).
Opponents of the Holy See had on many occasions claimed the Donation was a fake. German King Otto III even went as far as issuing an edict on it in 1054, so the idea that Lorenzo Valla lay at the base of his treatise De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio, (On the fraudulence of the Donation of Constantine) was not new. The arguments he presented were.
First, there was no source old enough that mentioned the transition of power over Western Europe from Constantine to the Holy See. The Donation of Constantine was suspiciously the only source. Second, it was unfathomable in the Roman legal tradition to grant secular authority to a religious institution, especially on so grand a scale. The third and most important argument was that the language of the document clearly did not match that of the time it was allegedly written.
Valla was famous for his good Latin. Some said he spoke it as well as Cicero. He certainly had the qualification to refer to his contemporaries' Latin "kitchen speak", which he did on many occasions. In Constantine's Donation the word beneficium (making of good) is used to mean "land donation" - a meaning the word only acquired later, in the medieval period. The emperor's governors are referred to by the Persian "satrapis" - that's like Peter the Great naming one of his subordinates "ombudsman".
In terms of grammar and style, it was always quite obvious that the Donation was not written by a native classical Latin speaker. It was all evident from the start, Valla did not possess any secret knowledge. But he made the connection. It turned out that in order to settle an ages-old dispute, it was enough to carefully analyze the text of the Dontation, its relation to other texts (quotations, adoptions, references etc) and its place in the hierarchy of accumulated knowledge – simply to cross-check it against independent sources.
Valla never professed to have invented a new scientific method, he was just trying to solve a specific task which was not so much scientific as it was political. His argument on the fraudulence of the Dontation of Constantine only became widely known after his death, in early XVI century. The treatise which until then had only existed as a script was printed by German humanist Ulrich von Hutten with a mocking dedication to the Pope. Martin Luther quotes Valla's arguments from a Hutten book in his debates with the Holy see. The legend of Constantine's conversion in the Donation is a recognizable "drifting tale" (again, a story!) in medieval literature: the Slavic Tale of past years relates a similar tale about the conversion of Prince Vladimir, we could even trace them back to a common source but let's not go into too much detail.
The Donation of Constantine was most likely manufactured within the Papal court in the VII century. Those who made it would today be referred to as falsifiers of history. However, they would probably not have understood the accusations if confronted. They were likely convinced that the acts behind the Donation of Constantine really did take place. There was most likely a word-of-mouth account of it in and around Rome that was so commonly known that nobody thought it necessary to put it down in writing.
This theory of origin of the papal seat's worldly influence did not in any way contradict the reality known to the forgers. And if a fact Is true, then the document that chronicles it must also be true, even if it is fake. From this angle, Valla's way of thinking is much closer to our time: for him, the authenticity of a document determines the veracity of the facts stated in it.
That was also the thinking that Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon adhered to two centuries later as he prepared his vast collection of documents on the history of his order for the press. Having dedicated twenty years to studying old manuscripts he summarized it in the treatise De re Diplomatica in 1681. Mabillon devised a methodology for determining the authenticity of documents based on their exterior (the materials and ink used for writing, seals, handwriting, etc.) and attribution (time and place stated and in some cases the name of the author).
Bernard de Montfaucon, another Benedictine who worked by Mabillon's side in the famous abbey of Saint Germain-des-pres, near Paris, published his Palaeographia Graeca in 1708. It was a history of Greek writing from ancient times to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. These two had thus become pioneers of palaeography, the study of ancient scripts.
They both became first members of the French royal Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres , formed in 1663. The Academy still remains one of the most respected humanities institutions in the world.
Twenty years earlier, in 1643, Jesuit monk Jean Bolland of Antwerp started on one of the most ambitious publishing projects in the history of mankind, the Acta Sanctorum. Bolland and his associates (few of them in the beginning) wanted to assemble under one cover all the acts of Catholic saints, cross-checking each text against existing sources and looking into all the differences between versions, attaching to each of them a detailed commentary on who wrote and edited it, where, and when.
This project has set the standard of academic source studies for centuries to come. The community of scholars known as the Bollandisits only completed the publication of the Acta Sanctorum in1940. Critical treatment of sources was the chief innovation in the works of Bolland and his followers, as well as Monfaucon and Jean Mabillon and other humanitarians from their age. Their contemporaries who called themselves natural philosophers in the ancient manner (Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton) treated natural phenomena the same way.
Valla anticipated this approach two centuries ahead of the XVII century's "scientific revolution". The authenticity and veracity of sources were no longer a matter of faith: they could be determined by a method known today as historico-philological criticism. The use of that method gives history a right to claim the status of science. History is written by people, and people have their own interests, they hold political opinions and are subject to commercial motivation. Some have incomplete knowledge. Some make honest mistakes and purposeful omissions or even go as far as to tamper with sources.
Unfortunately, there are also cases of pure profiteering. As I was starting to work on this book I browsed Moscow's bookshops' history sections and came across a book titled "Single history textbook" with the label "Recommended by Nikolay Starikov". Despite being named a textbook, the tome did not have the appropriate markings of the Russian Education Ministry. It turned out to be reprint of a classic book for grammar schools first published in 1909. It was written my Sergey Fyodorovich Platonov, a great historian with a tragic fate, one of this book's heroes. My first reaction was: "Who is Nikolay Starikov to recommend a book by Platonov?".
After I took a closer look at the book it turned out that the text was not quite the one Platonov wrote. with a few not-too-clever tweaks, his idea of the Russian state's inherent "military organization principle" into the very familiar notion of "Russia is a besieged fortress". This was clearly an attempt to make a profit on the name of a great scholar, using him as cover for an opportunistic project with clear political and commercial motives.
This is hard to accept but not only is there no meaning in history, there is also no concept of "how it really happened". History does not deal with facts as they are, but only as they are related. History is something that has left our living memory, staying behind only as information in sources. These messages were left by people who got their information elsewhere (from personal experience or the accounts of others) and had their own agendas, which were not always simple and obvious.
Each historian, too, finds reasons to take certain bits of information into account while omitting others thereby turning a stream of information – which we all share – into a journey that one takes on one's own. A book on Ivan the Terrible written in the XX century tells us as much about its author and about the XX century as it does about the XVI-century Russian Czar.
Any distortion, and the distortion of history above all, starts with us forgetting to ask ourselves the question "How do we know this?". Or even "Why do we think we know this?" Why do we think that Alexander Nevsky* saved the Rus from being overrun by the Teutonic "dog knights"? How do we know the Czar Ivan IV was Terrible and Alexis of Russia was "Most peaceful" as his monicker suggests?
Do we really know that Czar Dimitry Ivanovich who reigned over the Russian empire for a short span in the early XVII century was in fact an impostor, a runaway monk by the name of Grigory Otrepyev whereas the real Dmitry Ivanovich was killed in his childhood on orders of Boris Godunov? We have all been told all of this by someone – a scribe, a researcher, a poet. All of them in turn had their own sources and convictions. That's a different and very interesting story.