Libri Carolini

Libri Carolini

The Caroline Books (Libri Carolini), also called Charlemagne's Books or simply the Carolines, are the four books composed on the command of Charlemagne, around 790, to refute the Second Council of Nicaea (787), particularly as regards its acts and decrees in the matter of sacred images. They were sent to Pope Adrian I, who responded with a grandis et verbosa epistola (dignified and wordy letter).

The Caroline Books were first printed in 1549, by Jean du Tillet, Bishop of Meaux, under the name of Eriphele. They contain 120 objections against the Second Council of Nicaea, and are couched in harsh, reproachful terms, including the following: dementiam ("folly"), priscae Gentilitatis obsoletum errorem ("an old and outmoded pagan misunderstanding"), argumenta insanissima et absurdissima ("most insane and absurd reasoning"), derisione dignas naenias ("screeds worthy of derision"), etc. The modern edition of this text, by Ann Freeman and Paul Meyvaert (Hannover 1998), is called Opus Caroli regis contra synodum ("The work of King Charles against the Synod").


Despite statements to the contrary, the editions of the Caroline Books that have been in print are not those that were sent to Pope Adrian by Charlemagne, to which the Pope designed to write a refutation. This has been shown by Hefele, who notes that those sent to the Pope treated the matter in an entirely different order; and that they contained only 85 chapters, while the printed books have 120, or 121 if the authenticity of the last chapter is granted. Moreover the quotations made in Adrian's reply do not occur verbatim in the Caroline Books, but are in some cases lengthened, in others abbreviated.

Petavius thinks that what Adrian received were extracts from the Caroline Books, made by the Council of Frankfort (794). Hefele arrives at a directly opposite conclusion, viz., that the Caroline Books are an expansion of the Capitula sent to the Pope, and that this expansion was made at the bidding of Charlemagne. Baronius, Bellarmine, Binius, and Surius all question the authenticity of the Caroline Books altogether. However, this extreme position seems to be refuted by the fact that certain quotations made by Hincmar are found in the modern printed books.


The work begins, "In the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ beginneth the work of the most illustrious and glorious man Charles, by the will of God, king of the Franks, Gauls, Germany, etc., against the Synod which in Greek parts firmly and proudly decreed in favour of adoring (adorandis) images," followed immediately by what is called "Charlemagne's Preface". Even so, it is doubtful that Charlemagne wrote these books himself.

Some have attributed the writings to Angilram, Bishop of Metz; and others to the bishops of France, alleging that Pope Adrian having sent Charlemagne the Acts of the Council in 790, he gave them to the French bishops for examination, and that the Carolines was the answer they returned. There is also evidence that the author was Alcuin; besides the English tradition that he had written such a book, there is also the remarkable similarity of his commentary on St. John (4, 5, et seqq.) to a passage in Liber IV., cap. vi., of the Caroline Books.

Incongruous and false statements

If the authorship and authority of the Caroline Books are difficult subjects, the contents of the books are still more extraordinary, for it seems likely that the authors of these books had never read the acts nor decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea. Further, they seemed ignorant of what took place at the Second Council of Constantinople in 754. As an example, in Book IV., Chapter xiv., and also in Chapter xx., (Migne's ed., col. 1213 and col. 1226), the charge is made that the Second Council of Nicaea, specifically Gregory, the bishop of Neocaesarea, unduly flattered the Empress. However, these remarks were made at the Conciliabulum of 754, and not at the Second Council of Nicaea; also, they were not made by Gregory of Neocaesarea at all, and the reason they are attributed to him is because he read them in the proceedings of that pseudo-council to the true council of 787.

The most famous example of incongruity in these books occurs in Book III., Chapter xvii., in which it is attributed to Constantius, the bishop of Cyprus, the statement that the sacred images were to be given supreme adoration due to the Holy Trinity. Sir William Palmer attributes all of these mistakes to the books' author using a mistranslated version of the acts and decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea. Of this translation, Anastasius Bibliothetius says, "The translator both misunderstood the genius of the Greek language as well as that of the Latin, and has merely translated word for word; and in such a fashion that it is scarcely ever possible to know (aut vix aut nunquam) what it means; moreover nobody ever reads this translation and no copies of it are made."

Following are select false statements made in the text:

  • In the Preface, it states that the Conciliabulum was "held in Bithynia;" however, they were held in Constantinople.
  • In Book I, chapter i. are quoted certain words said to occur in the letters of the Empress and her son. On this Hefele remarks: "One cannot find the words in either of the two letters of these sovereigns, which are preserved in the acts of the Council of Nice."
  • In the Second Book, chapter xxvii., the council is charged with saying, "Just as the Lord's body and blood pass over from fruits of the earth to a notable mystery, so also the images, made by the skill of the artificers, pass over to the veneration of those persons whose images they bear." Now this was never said nor taught by the Nicene Synod, but something like it was taught by the Constantinopolitan conciliabulum of 754. These exact words cited occur neither in the one set of acts nor in the other. The underlying thought, however, was clearly exposed by the iconoclastic synod of 754 and as clearly refuted by the orthodox synod of 787.
  • In Book III, chapter v., it states that, "Tarasius said in his confession of faith that the Holy Spirit was the companion (contribulum in the Caroline Books) of the Father and of the Son." It was not Tarasius who said this, but Theodore of Jerusalem.
  • Chapter XVII. begins thus: "How rashly and (so to speak) like a fool, Constantine, bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, spoke when he said, with the approval of the rest of the bishops, that he would receive and honourably embrace the images; and babbled that the service of adoration which is due to the consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, should be given images, we need not here discuss, since to all who either read or hear this it will be clear that he was swamped in no small error, to wit to confess that he exhibited to creatures the service due to the Creator alone, and through his desire to favour the pictures overturned all the Holy Scriptures. For what sane man ever either said or thought of saying such an absurdity, as that different pictures should be held in the same honour as the holy, victorious Trinity. the creator of all things, etc." But according to the acts, this is exactly the opposite of what Constantine did say.


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