The Dictatus Papae


The Dictatus Papae is a set of twenty-seven headings which survives in Gregory VII's letter-collection (register). It is undated, but placed between other pieces dating from early in 1075 (though as the letter-collection was not compiled on a day by day basis, this does not prove all that much about the date of the piece.

The Dictatus Papae takes its title from a heading in the letter-collection (which it shares with a number of other letters), a rubric meaning that the pope composed the piece himself, or at least had a hand in its composition. It does not mean a 'papal dictate' or anything of that kind, and indeed it is as well not to think of the Dictatus Papae as a manifesto. It was not published in the sense of being generally made known (though as we shall see it was known outside the immediate circle of the papal curia.) None of the conflicts of the years 1075 and following can be directly traced to opposition to it (though several of the claims made in it were also made by Gregory and his supporters during these conflicts).

Though the status of the piece is still not entirely clear, the most plausible view is that it is a set of headings for a collection of canon law to be put together with the specific purpose of backing the whole range of papal rights and prerogatives, and showing how they could be supported from the ancient sources of canon law (early councils, the Bible, the writings fo the church fathers). There is no doubt that Gregory and his entourage believed that the pope did possess the powers listed here, but equally no doubt that they were not laying down either generally accepted belief or a radical new creed. That the list was put together in some hurry is suggested by its lack of organisation; there is no grouping of subject-matter. The principal themes are the subordination of bishops to papal authority and the range of (mostly honorific) privileges claimed by the pope; it is not a claim to world domination. Nevertheless, both tone and content are important. Gregory certainly behaved in practice as if he thought he had such powers; we have seen this already in his dealings with bishops, and will see it still more clearly in his dealings with Henry IV.

The Dictatus Papae

One sign that the Dictatus Papae did not remain completely unknown outside Gregory's own office is the existence in manuscripts of canon law of a number of rather similar documents. Some of the claims of the Dictatus Papae are echoed word for word in the canon law collection of a supporter of Gregory's, Cardinal Deusdedit, who compiled his collection in the 1080s. Some can also be found echoed in a document which used to be known as the Dictatus of Avranches (from the library where one of the manuscripts containing it is preserved) but has now come to be given the title in the heading below. If you compare it with the Dictatus Papae, you will see that its aims and tendencies are broadly similar, but that it is much more carefully arranged. Documents like this are a sign that the Dictatus Papae was actually being worked on by contemporary lawyers and intellectuals. It did not simply remain tucked away as a memorandum in the curia. As you will see, it lays far more stress on the pope as judge than the Dictatus Papae, but it retains in its final section a concern for the pope's honorific prerogatives.

The Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis

- Professor Timothy Reuter, University of Southampton