Paschasius Radbertus was not Pseudo-Isidore

Clara Harder has written a new article: “Pseudo-Isidorus Mercator,” in: Great Christian Jurists and Legal Collections in the First Millennium, ed. Philip L. Reynolds (Cambridge, 2019),  397–412. Everybody should read it.

I did, and I found the following remarks, at 398f. (please see the original for the citations, which I haven’t reproduced):

There has also been controversy as to when the work of forgery began and what were the forgers’ intentions. Some argue that there had been general dissatisfaction with the rule of Louis the Pious among the Carolingian clergy since the late 820s. The unjust dismissal of bishops, in particular, was already a topic of discussion. Work on the forgery, therefore, could have begun in the early 830s. The decisive moment might even have been in 830, when, after a brief uprising against him, Louis the Pious seems to have deposed bishop Jesse of Amiens and exiled abbot Wala of Corbie. Others have suggested recently that the nineteenth-century scholars Hinschius and Seckel were correct in assuming that the forgery was not carried out before the late 840s. According to this view, archbishop Ebo of Reims was a central figure in work on the forgery.

The crucial consideration pertains to the forger’s intentions. One can find textual support for several different theories by selectively analyzing the vast amount of material contained in Pseudo-Isidore’s collection. But any theory about the forger’s identity has to take account not only of the content of the collection, but also of additional evidence acquired through detailed textual and comparative analysis. Zechiel-Eckes showed how one could do this by compiling all the points of correspondence between the forgery and Paschasius’s known writings. Although Zechiel-Eckes could not definitively demonstrate that Radbert of Corbie was the guiding spirit of the forgery, therefore, he makes a very strong case. The involvement of this monk in the Pseudo-Isidorian project seems at least to be very likely, and to date no one has convincingly refuted the thesis or proposed a more convincing one.

In Kuhnian terms, the little world of Pseudo-Isidorian research is between paradigms right now. This is why it is not stable and to informed observers the research appears “highly technical and extremely controversial.”  (Well, at least it explains the controversial part: the technical problems are unfortunately down to Pseudo-Isidore himself.) What happened is that the question of Pseudo-Isidore’s origins, at the very end of the 20th century, had become a dead field. The Hinschius/ Seckel/ Fuhrmann framework for understanding the forgeries had no more active supporters because the entire question of who Pseudo-Isidore was and when he worked had no active scholars. This paradigm collapsed as Zechiel-Eckes revived the field with his quite different theories. Early on it seemed that these theories would become the new paradigm, but they have not held, and so we are where we are now.

Harder is a generous scholar and so she writes implicitly. But I will answer the charge of “selectively analyzing” as if it were directed at me.

From the beginning, Zechiel-Eckes developed his political theory of the forgeries on the basis of the relationship between procedural and related provisions in the False Decretals and what we know of Louis the Pious’s legal retaliation against his episcopal political opponents at the 835 Council of Thionville.

The False Decretals, or some core of them (the A2 recension) as a direct reaction to Thionville 835: this is Zechiel-Eckes’s thesis.

To explore how this thesis relates to the content of the False Decretals in a systematic (rather than a selective) way, I focused on Ebo specifically because most of what we know about Thionville is about his condemnation and deposition. It is thus the parameters of Zechiel-Eckes’s political hypothesis of the forgeries that determined my focus on Ebo. I pulled everything out of the decretal forgeries that could conceivably relate to Ebo and his problems, but then I also gathered everything I could find about episcopal trials in the Carolingian kingdoms between 814 (Louis the Pious’s accession) and 858 (when the False Decretals were surely in circulation). The point was to find circumstances attested only for Ebo that the False Decretals also addressed.

The result of this exercise was the Speculum article that I published. The exceptio spolii, an isolated passage in Pseudo-Alexander (J3 †49) on forced confessions, and four false decretals addressing episcopal translation: This was my harvest of things in Pseudo-Isidore’s program that are almost assuredly about Ebo in particular because there is not really anyone else in the historical record for them to be about.

This project yielded unexpected information about the post-845 date of the decretal forgeries. Naturally only some passages in the False Decretals address episcopal translation, in fact relatively few of them. But the thing about termini post quem or termini ante quem is that how selective the passages chosen to indicate them might be, does not matter. One textual moment can be enough to date an entire corpus. And the other thing about passages addressing Ebo in the False Decretals is that, selective or not, they help us determine Pseudo-Isidore’s ecclesiastical and political allegiances, which was my only point. The suggestion that Pseudo-Isidore has some connection with Ebo’s associates follows not from this internal reading, but from other points of evidence: in part, from Ebo’s own writings, which seem to demonstrate an advance knowledge of the forgeries; and in part also from the post-845 date itself, together with the circumstances of the earliest reception. I will elaborate more on this issue later, as it is a bit involved.

Anyway, that is how I would respond were anyone to suggest I have achieved the post-845 date and the association of the False Decretals with the Ebo clerics on the basis of a selective reading.

Now to the theory of Radbert-as-Pseudo-Isidore, which as the above quotation shows still has its defenders:

In the Speculum article, I tried to pen mostly a positive argument in favor of a different approach. I made my disagreement with the Radbert theory clear but I tried to avoid a comprehensive confrontation with it, because it seemed in poor taste to do so. As I wrote my more recent piece on Ennodius, the subject matter forced me to be a little more direct, but still I tried to play it down, addressing Radbert’s purported authorship of the False Decretals only insofar as it concerned Vat. lat. 3803, and only in the final pages of the article.

But Harder writes that there is “a very strong case” for the Radbert theory and also that “no one has convincingly refuted the thesis.” So, I will advance a much more direct argument here, and one that turns on three points.

I. The Radbert Thesis Is an Artifact of Zechiel-Eckes’s Impossible Dating Scheme

This is the logic of it: The False Decretals are brimming with material to the advantage of the episcopate. So people always thought the forger was some kind of episcopal actor. Zechiel-Eckes found that the forgers did some research at the Corbie library, and he decided that they had to be a monastic forgery. This in my view is where he went wrong; he had evidence placing the forgery at Corbie, which was not really the same as evidence identifying the forgery with the monastic institution of Corbie and hence its abbot.  However that may be, though, he then needed an explanation for the episcopal material in the False Decretals, because “monastic forgery at Corbie” meant “Abbot Radbert of Corbie is Pseudo-Isidore”, and yet Radbert was only ever an abbot and a deacon. Zechiel-Eckes provided a political explanation, glossing the apparently pro-episcopal material in Pseudo-Isidore as in fact a defense of Radbert’s political allies, namely bishops who had opposed Louis the Pious in 833 and who lost their sees at Thionville 835; and of course an attack from the perspective of the “Unity Party” (membership in which Zechiel-Eckes granted Radbert) upon Louis the Pious himself.

But, the False Decretals postdate Ebo’s transfer to Hildesheim in 845. They just do. And so if you continue to subscribe to the Radbert thesis, your explanation for the episcopal arguments that Pseudo-Isidore makes is broken. And, just to be clear: At the level of the False Decretals, the episcopal arguments are almost all of the arguments that Pseudo-Isidore makes.

II. The Radbert Thesis Was Never Fully Developed, Let Alone Proven

Harder writes that “any theory about the forger’s identity has to take account […] of […] evidence acquired through detailed textual and comparative analysis. Zechiel-Eckes showed how one could do this by compiling all the points of correspondence between the forgery and Paschasius’s known writings.”

If Zechiel-Eckes ever undertook such a comprehensive comparison, he never published the results. And so we are not obliged to refute anything.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, we turn to Zechiel-Eckes’s last statement on this matter[1], where he argued that Radbert was Pseudo-Isidore as follows:

1) Pseudo-Isidore and Radbert were both learned; 2) Pseudo-Isidore presumably worked on his forgeries between from the later 830s and this aligns with a caesura in Radbert’s literary activity from 831 and 849; 3) both authors know the rare works of Ennodius of Pavia; 4) Radbert at one moment in the second book of his Epitaphium Arsenii mentions giving Gregory IV a legal collection that proved the universal competence of Gregory IV to judge everyone, such that he was to be judged by nobody, and Pseudo-Isidore also has expansive views of papal jurisdiction; 5) Radbert forged a brief pseudopatristic tract inc. Cogitis me in the name of Jerome, and indeed “nach demselben Strickmuster” (p. 18) as Pseudo-Isidore, that is to say with the help of authentic sources that postdated the putative author (Jerome) and were therefore anachronistic; 6) and finally it would seem hard to believe that this great forgery enterprise could have operated at Corbie without Radbert’s knowledge.

Now these are certainly not all the arguments that Zechiel-Eckes made about Radbert’s authorship. (This is a blog post, I do not have to cite everything.) They are, however, the arguments that Zechiel-Eckes believed were sufficient to demonstrate Radbert’s authorship, and in fact they are an entirely fair representation of the case Zechiel-Eckes tended to make for Radbert-as-Pseudo-Isidore, with minor variations here and there.

As I think any neutral reader can appreciate, if you have a priori reasons for believing in Radbert’s authorship, the above will seem to be promising points of departure for further research; but if you are not convinced of Radbert’s authorship, or even perhaps agnostic, none of this has any force at all.

As for 1), I think that Pseudo-Isidore’s learning has been in many respects exaggerated. Work on the sources of the False Decretals, which has occupied me intensely this past year, has convinced me that it is a mistake to make too much of this. Also it is possible for two learned people to be in the same place, and at an august monastic institution like Corbie, even probable that such a thing would happen.

As for 2), there is no proof at all that work on the forgeries began as early as 831, so this neat alignment with the gap in Radbert’s known activity is a product of the assumptions some have made about Pseudo-Isidore’s dates, and not of any evidence. As for circulation after ca. 850, well, there is a lot more happening around this time than Radbert’s retirement: Ebo’s death at Hildesheim and Hincmar’s preparations for Soissons 853 are the two big Other Things. And then it is also the case that dates can just as easily be read against the Radbert thesis as for it: One could argue, for example, that the forgeries only begin to circulate after Radbert’s retirement ca. 850, because before then the monastic scriptorium (responsible for early post-850 copies of Pseudo-Isidoriana like Vat. lat. 1341 and Vat. lat. 630) had been under Radbert’s oversight as abbot and was thus closed to the forgers. That is of course not my argument: it is just an illustration that conclusions drawn about Radbert’s dates and the chronology of the forgery enterprise are conditioned by prior assumptions.

As for 3), I deal with this in my article on Ennodius. The reason Radbert knows Ennodius is that Vat. lat. 3803 was at Corbie when he was writing the Matthew commentary. Pseudo-Isidore was also at Corbie and also knew Vat. lat. 3803. Radbert cites just one line from Ennodius from the first folio recto of Vat. lat. 3803. Alas he does so without the distinctive marginal notae we have learned to associate with Pseudo-Isidore. Pseudo-Isidore demonstrates a far more extensive knowledge.

As for 4), and the whole matter of the libellus that Radbert claims he and Wala gave to Gregory IV in 833: This is bound up with arguments I made a long time ago and have since partially retracted (see the link if you want to know what is going on here). Harder repeats this argument several times in her book, but a) you could buy the whole story and even my old idea that the libellus was some proto-Pseudo-Isidorian forgery (as Zechiel-Eckes also seems to suggest at one point) and still we are only as far as point 3), namely that Radbert and Pseudo-Isidore shared a library. Otherwise, b), an expansive vision of papal jurisdiction by itself does not prove Pseudo-Isidore is at issue, which is why even in my old work I tried to bring the Gregory IV decretal into the mix as additional evidence that could bear on the problem of the libellus. Expanded papal jurisdiction may be in the 830s an uncommon thing to insist on, but the idea can be derived from widely circulated decretal texts like those in the Dionysio-Hadriana and other items like canons from the Council of Sardica. I don’t know what else to say: A shared theme, one widely available in authentic sources, is no way to argue for authorship.

On 5), there is nothing more likely to destroy belief in the Radbert thesis than to actually read Cogitis me. It is ed. Albert Ripberger, CC Cont. med. 56C, from p. 97. Other than the fact that it is a pseudonymous letter, it has nothing in common with Pseudo-Isidore at all. The source base is almost totally different. Many of the authors that Radbert draws on are nowhere in the False Decretals. It is a pseudepigraphical invention defending western devotion to Mary, a theme that could not be more remote from the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries. And I type these next words a bit reluctantly, because I don’t want to be impolite. But as Harder has written of a “detailed textual and comparative analysis”, an endeavor in which she says Zechiel-Eckes has shown us the way, it is necessary to say this: Arguments like this one, but also points 1), 2) and 3) above too, are not the result of close textual investigations, but rather of frankly superficial comparisons. Radbert forged, Pseudo-Isidore forged; Radbert used authentic and anachronistic sources, Pseudo-Isidore used authentic and anachronistic sources. These kinds of arguments are a grave weakness and they are most of what the Radbert thesis is made of. In other articles, for example, Zechiel-Eckes referred to Radbert’s great Matthew commentary, and argued that this implicated him because Pseudo-Isidore cites Matthew more than any other book of the Bible. (But why is that?

And this brings us to 6), which is a possibility I am anxious to consider: Perhaps Radbert did know about the forgery enterprise at least in some capacity. Other people who were not Pseudo-Isidore surely had some idea of what was going on as well. This is a very different thing from arguing that Radbert was Pseudo-Isidore, but the whole question also turns on speculation. Nobody has direct insight into how scholarship and the library and the scriptorium were administered and what it was possible to do at a large institution like Corbie, for how long, with or without the abbot’s approval, and with or without his coming to find out about it.

We should not, however, assume that the forgeries were common knowledge at Corbie or that they represent anything like a collective enterprise of the monastery. A curious thing about early manuscripts of the forgeries copied at Corbie (Vat. lat. 1341, Vat. lat. 630) is how the scribes responsible for them nowhere demonstrate special knowledge of the nature of the forgeries. Underlying sources are never brought in to correct textual defects, for example; and in Vat. lat. 630 sometimes the scribes seem puzzled about the proper order of what they’re copying and where specific pieces ought to go. Then there are the extremely subtle marginal annotations in the source manuscripts we have discovered, very much in contrast to the bold and confident excerpt marks left by other Corbie scholars like Ratramnus. In Vat. lat. 3803 a few of the excerpt signs have even been erased.

III. The Radbert Thesis Has Led Nowhere

Now I come to the part of the argument that I have generally tried not to make, because it seems the least polite of all, but it is also in my view the most powerful reason to put all of this talk about Radbert aside.

The Radbert thesis has not proved helpful in reading the forgeries or in editing them or in understanding their early history or reception or anything like that. Nor, conversely, has the Radbert thesis proven helpful in reading the other acknowledged works of Radbert or in understanding their perspective or sources or purpose. In fact it looks like scholars of Radbert reject the idea that he had anything to do with the Pseudo-Isidorians.

Now of course scholars could be wrong. But the theory that Radbert steered the Pseudo-Isidorian enterprise is now old enough to drive a car, having been outlined in detail for the first time in 2001. And in all of that time, how has it advanced? The answer is that it has not advanced at all. No new proofs beyond the cursory suggestions of Zechiel-Eckes in his articles have been adduced for it. Worse still, adherents of this theory have not really behaved like they believe in it. I don’t mean to accuse others of insincerity, but it has always struck me as strange that Zechiel-Eckes thought Pseudo-Isidore and Radbert were in some sense the same person and that for a while many people including myself believed this, and some still do, but that their work on Pseudo-Isidore never once spilled over into study of Radbert. Years ago in 2010, when I thought Zechiel-Eckes was right, I even asked myself why I wasn’t doing more with Radbert’s acknowledged works. I sat down to read the great Matthew commentary and after returning to it on and off for three years, I learned why: The Matthew commentary has nothing to do with Pseudo-Isidore.

What would be most welcome is any study at all that compared the prose style of Paschasius Radbertus or the broad pool of mostly theological sources that Radbertus draws on in his work to the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries. Rather than saying Radbert commented on Matthew and Pseudo-Isidore cites Matthew a lot, somebody might attempt the apples-to-apples comparison: Does Radbert also cite Matthew a lot when he is not commenting on Matthew? Or OK, perhaps we Pseudo-Isidorians are all legal scholars and uncomfortable in the Radbertian theological sphere. I accept that. So why not try to do the next best thing? Why not explain anything in Pseudo-Isidore (beyond a broad political orientation) according to Radbert’s concerns and circumstances and his favorite themes or authors in his other works? I do not mean the rough comparisons outlined above, I mean real work. If the Radbert theory were worth anything analytically, it should have proven fruitful by now. We ought to be smacking our heads and saying: What an excellent theory, it has helped us explain Pseudo-Isidore’s whole puzzling thing about chorbishops/clerical oaths/the consecration of Chrism on Maundy Thursday/whatever. But nobody has done anything like that at all. And in fact just typing out this careless list of puzzling things that come to mind shows again how far Pseudo-Isidore is from Radbert, and why nobody has undertaken this work, and why they never will.

The Radbert theory does not, like good productive theories, suffuse our texts and help us explain them. Adherents of this theory (as I was myself) read Pseudo-Isidore on his own terms and then in totally separate connections genuflect to Radbert’s involvement at semi-regular intervals.

Just look at the research: Zechiel-Eckes’s theories might have other problems, but they are no less valid if we take Radbert’s name out of them and replace it with “unknown monk(s) at Corbie” or the like. The same is true of Clara Harder’s publications, which insist on Radbert-as-Pseudo-Isidore but which also advance wide-ranging arguments about the forgeries that stand or fall on their own without need of the Radbert thesis at all. In fact, assuming a refuted Radbert thesis, I have trouble finding anything in Harder’s publications that is undermined, except her case for the Radbert thesis itself. And in looking over my old article on Gregory IV and Divinis praeceptis, which was even inspired by my belief in Radbert-as-Pseudo-Isidore, I am struck by how all of it works just the same, or does not work just the same, save for a few details, if I get rid of the Radbert thesis.

That the theory sits apart from work on Pseudo-Isidore and not within it is a powerful demonstration that it does not go anywhere, and it does not go anywhere because it is not true.

[1] Fälschung als Mittel Politischer Auseinandersetzung, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Künste, 2011, esp. at pp. 17–19.


For further reasons to disassociate Radbert and Pseudo-Isidore, see this brief investigation of secretarial activity associated with Pseudo-Isidore, including what may well be Pseudo-Isidore’s autograph. The literary and intellectual processes illustrated there do not compare favorably to secretarial activity associated with Radbert, including perhaps an example of Radbert’s autograph.

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