Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis

title.none: Davis, ed./trans., Lives of 9th Century Popes

identifier.other: baj9928.9608.003 96.08.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Western Michigan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Davis, Raymond (ed. & trans.). The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995. Pp. 334. $20.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-85323-479-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.08.03

Davis, Raymond (ed. & trans.). The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995. Pp. 334. $20.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-85323-479-5.

Reviewed by:

Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis
Western Michigan University

The Liber pontificalis ( LP), the collection of Lives of the popes, was written over a long period of time. First compiled in the 530's, it was not continued until it was brought up to date around 640, after which the Lives were written during each pontificate or shortly after the pope's death. The tradition of writing a biography of each pope was continued until the late ninth century, when the series was allowed to lapse. The authoritative edition was published by Louis Duchesne in 1886-92.1 The Lives tend to be quite formulaic, and many of the later Lives are made up mainly of lengthy lists of church donations. These factors make the LP perhaps less accessible than works of narrative history by single authors. Although a few scholars have studied aspects of the text since Duchesne's edition appeared, it has not received as much attention as might be expected, given its immense influence upon medieval historiography, and its importance for modern historians of politics, art, liturgy, and many other aspects of the Early Middle Ages.

Raymond Davis's translation of the early medieval LP offers substantial new criticism of, and commentary on, this important text. The first two volumes of the translation were also published by Liverpool University Press in the same series, as The Book of Pontiffs (through Pope Constantine, d. 715) and The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (through Pope Stephen IV, d. 817).2 With the volume under review, Davis concludes his translation; this final volume contains the Lives of Popes Paschal (817-824) through Stephen V (885-891), comprising ten Lives (three popes have no extant Lives) and ending with the last surviving biography of the series.

Those familiar with the first two volumes of Davis's translation will be pleased to know that the third volume follows the format of the second, with a brief introduction of the whole, a detailed introduction for each Life, and copious notes below the translation. The volume also includes a glossary of terms, a bibliography, an index, and a map of Rome with churches and other locations mentioned in the text. This format makes the translation an enormously valuable resource for both students and researchers, since Davis's notes update those of Duchesne, now rather out of date.

In his general introduction to the text, Davis discusses the authorship and purpose of the LP, and the reasons why it ended in the late ninth century. The discussion is essentially a response to Thomas Noble's 1985 article, "A New Look at the Liber Pontificalis,"3 which Davis seems not to have known when he published the first and second volumes of his translation.

Duchesne had suggested that the LP was compiled in the papal vestiarium; Noble proposed that the authors were notaries from the papal chancery, or scrinium. Duchesne based his argument on the fact that the records of donations that form a large part of some Lives would have been kept in the vestiarium;4 Noble noted that the archives would have been available to notaries as well as vestiarii, and that notaries keep turning up in various papal Lives, implying an ongoing interest in this office on the part of the authors.5 Davis notes that vestiarii as well as notaries are occasionally mentioned in the LP, and he rejects this part of Noble's argument, reiterating that the lists of donations point to the vestiarium.

In fact, the type of information included in the LP throughout its 350-year history, and the style in which it is presented, changes so much over the course of the Lives, that it is perhaps not possible to fix the location of its composition in one place. Even the recording of donations changes over the course of time, appearing only sporadically in the Lives of the sixth through eighth centuries. Thus, to fix the composition of these very varied Lives in one papal office is perhaps not even possible, and Davis proposes that "it matters little whether the writers came from one Lateran office or another. It is enough to accept that until Nicholas's time they were not among the ecclesiastical or lay nobility of Rome; they were, relatively, humble clerks." (p. x).

This leads to Davis's conclusion that the LP was compiled not for any coherent purpose, as Noble suggests, but simply because it had always been compiled by the vestiarii. The chain was broken when, in the late ninth century, this rote production was taken out of the hands of clerks and attempted by a high-ranking historian, whom he notes on p. 249 was probably not the papal librarian Anastasius. This action, Davis suggests, broke the bureaucratic continuity of composition, and the work was not continued thereafter. Davis aptly criticizes some of the purposes claimed by Noble, particularly the idea that it was used as an inventory of archival material, which seems unlikely particularly given the immense lists of donations, which seem to be the archival records themselves rather than an index of them. However, Noble's other suggestions, that the LP was used to train clerics and as a handy reference for bureaucrats, do have merit, and Davis's rejection of this sort of function of the text, in favor of bureaucratic lethargy, as the reason for the continuation is not particularly satisfying.

The introductions to the individual Lives contain specific discussion about how each Life was written. They also provide information about the Life and times of each pope from other sources, so that the reader can see what has been included in the LP Life, and what has been left out. This is very useful, as the omissions and inclusions help to illustrate how and why each Life might have been composed. The notes to the translation similarly provide helpful comparative historical information. Art historians should find Davis's notes very useful, as he provides even more abundant information about the churches and other objects mentioned in the lists of donations. The notes, together with the glossary, also offer extensive explanations of the obscure terms used in the descriptions of art and architecture. Finally, the many cross-references to other places in the LP in which similar phrases or expressions are used, provide indications of each author's familiarity with the earlier text, as well as with the types of literary and rhetorical devices used by these compilers.

There are a few problems with presentation. The glossary, as in the previous volumes, is organized according to a somewhat confusing mix of English and Latin terms, and would be clearer if all the listings were in one language or the other, with a cross-referenced list at the end. The map is very confusing, since it includes the outlines of various classical structures which are not identified, contains no key indicating what the dots and basilica outlines mean, and includes only structures within the walls. The key is arranged in numerical order, with the numbers reflecting topography, which makes it hard to use; listing the churches alphabetically by saint would be much more helpful.

The most noticeable problem with this last volume of translation of the LP is that Davis refers frequently to discussions, notes, glossary entries, and other texts in the previous volumes. For example, no account of the original composition of the LP is given in this volume, because it appeared in the first one; this somewhat weakens Davis's arguments about the bureaucrats who composed the Lives. Terms that were found in the glossary of the second volume are not repeated here. Now that all three volumes have appeared, one could wish that Davis might rework the material, add notes to the early Lives, and publish the whole as one volume, with one glossary, one general introduction, one series of maps, etc. But even without such an undertaking, Davis's translations and commentaries will focus new and deserved attention on this important and influential historical text.


1 L. Duchesne, ed., Le Liber Pontificalis: Texte, introduction et Commentaire, 2 vols., (Paris, 1886-92); reprinted with a third volume of commentary by Cyrille Vogel (1955-7).
2 Liverpool University Press, Translated Texts for Historians vol. 6, 1989, and vol. 13, 1992, respectively.
3 Archivium historiae pontificiae 23 (1985), 347-58.
4 Duchesne, ed., LP, p. clxii.
5 Noble, op. cit., pp. 355-6.