Better late than never: for the popes, and the translation of their letters

Earlier this month we published the first complete translation of all of ninety-nine letters that survive in a single manuscript, the Codex epistolaris Carolinus. These remarkable eighth century political documents are from popes Gregory III, Zacharias, Stephen II, Paul I, the anti-pope Constantine, Stephen III and Hadrian I to, respectively Charles Martel, Pippin III, Carloman and Charlemagne. Co-editor Richard Pollard offers his thoughts on the translation process and the publication of Codex Epistolaris Carolinus.

It is certainly a pleasure to see the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus finally published.  The work took a very long time.  In fact, when Rosamond first contacted me in 2014 about producing a translation of these 99 letters, I rebuffed her!  And when she asked again, I said no a second time.  Thankfully, she was stubborn enough to get me to change my mind.

The reason she asked was simple enough. During our time together at Cambridge, as supervisor and doctoral student (2006–2009), I had published an article on papal letters from the seventh century.[1]  I had discovered that the papal letter writers were somewhat more enduring in their use of prose rhythm – a rhetorical effect that rendered sentence endings nearly musical.  This suggested not only that the papal chancery was more organised and sophisticated than we thought in this period, but also that it was unlikely to have produced the famed Liber pontificalis.  Later, I continued my occasional work on seventh-century papal letters in a chapter published in 2013.[2]  Here again I deployed a study of prose rhythm (cursus) to glimpse the web of different individuals behind the letters of Gregory I and his successors.  Although we often ascribe Gregory’s letters to his personal hand, they were in fact products of an institution, and like the popes that followed him, Gregory relied on various individuals to draft correspondence.  In short, I’ve come to the conclusion that looking carefully at seemingly obscure aspects of the Latin of papal letters could pay dividends in sussing out the complexities of the early medieval papal administration.

Moving from seventh-century papal letters to eighth-century letters in the Codex epistolaris Carolinus was to enter a terra incognita, hence my reluctance to enter upon a translation.  And yet as I finally (and too slowly) embarked on my work, I noticed again some Latin peculiarities that seemed significant.  I was surprised to see that a select few of the early letters sung with the prose rhythm that I knew from my previous work.  As I note in my section of the introduction (pp. 84-91), the alternation between rhythmical and unrhythmical letters suggests, once again, that there was a diverse cast of bureaucrats behind the letters sent out by the papacy, this time those sent to the Franks.  

It wasn’t just the rhythm of these letters that varied markedly.  I also remarked that the Biblical quotations frequently seemed idiosyncratic.  In fact, rather than using the Vulgate Latin translation associated with St. Jerome (d. 420), many of the citations come from older Latin translations known collectively as the Vetus Latina.  So, when a letter from Stephen II (posing as St. Peter) quoted the gospel of Matthew to Pippin and his sons (‘You are Peter; and upon this rock …’), he may well have sounded slightly (and perhaps even intentionally) old-fashioned, perhaps in a bid to increase his authority.  Furthermore, if we look very carefully, we can also see that the papacy may have adopted parts of the newer Vulgate Bible as the eighth century progressed, offering us a glimpse of some of the once hidden “updating” the administration was undergoing.

I’m glad now that Rosamond coaxed me into working on this translation, and for her (and Dorine, and LUP’s!) patience during the process, and finally to Richard Price for coming to the rescue with the bulk of the translations.  Playing even a minor part in this wonderful volume is an honour indeed!

[1] Richard Matthew Pollard, ‘The Decline of the Cursus in the Papal Chancery and Its Implications’, Studi Medievali, ser. 3, 50.1 (2009), 1–40.
[2] Richard Matthew Pollard, ‘A Cooperative Correspondence: The Letters of Gregory the Great’, in A Companion to Gregory the Great, ed. by Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 291–312.

Richard Pollard is Professor in the Department of History at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is the editor of Imagining the Medieval Afterlife (Cambridge 2020).

Find out more about Richard Pollard’s new publication with Dorine van Espelo, Rosamond McKitterick, and Richard Price, Codex Epistolaris Carolinuson the LUP website. Discover more in our Translated Texts for Historians series.


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