presents Simon LeVay's new novel, The Donation of Constantine


Historical Novel Society, 5/1/14

The famous Donation of Constantine, an 8th-century document allegedly giving great swaths of temporal authority and ownership to the Catholic Church, is perhaps most famous today for having been spectacularly exposed (through linguistic and historical methods) in 1440 by Renaissance humanist Lorenzo Valla as a fraud. But the Donation has a complex and fascinating history of its own, which forms the backdrop of LeVay’s fast-paced and chatty novel set in the reign of Pope Stephen II and primarily featuring the Pope’s brother Paul and an English nun named Leoba in a surprisingly thrill-filled story about the intense political and personal dramas that gave rise to the creation of the Donation in the first place. The story travels over great chunks of the landscape of 8th-century Europe and involves a good deal of dramatic tension arising from the looming threat of Lombard war-making. LeVay invests all of this with great energy and historical precision, and the result is a fascinating novel of religion’s very real-world wheelings and dealings.

Windy City Times, 5/5/14

In his second novel, The Donation of Constantine: A Novel, Simon LeVay explores the intricacies of the Catholic church and the power it exerted over Europe in the middle of the eighth century.

LeVay intertwined the lives of historical figures with fictional characters to tell the story of a transformative time for the Catholic Church.

The book is a captivating story of Pope Stephen II's papacy and his desire to save Rome from the Lombards; subterfuge between Deacon Paul ( Pope Stephen's brother ) and Sister Leoba ( a Vatican scribe ) surrounding the Donation of Constantine; the role that Omar ( a Muslim who crafted and sold Christian relics ) plays in that subterfuge, Zaid ( Omar's son ) and Lenora's ( a Christian neighbor of Zaid's ) unlikely love story; Pope Stephen II's travels to secure the support of the Frankish King Pepin; and the war between Pope Stephen II and the Lombards, which King Aistulf led.

The book is peppered with just enough detail about Catholic traditions, rites and prayers for readers to understand the inner workings of the Catholic church during this era.

The best parts of the book feature Zaid's and Lenora's joint and separate paths, and Sister Leoba's story.

Although you might disagree with a character's actions, the reasons behind them are made clear with the way LeVay describes the feelings and motivations of each. This is where LeVay shines as an historical fiction author.

Aside from the anachronistic use of floozy and rascal in the beginning of the book, LeVay does a great job of transporting the reader back to a time when travel was time consuming and arduous, relics were held in high regard, and Rome was in a period of decline.

LeVay includes an afterword where he explained who the fictional characters were as well as additional information about the historical figures and events that took place. He also explained how he embellished some of their stories or merged events to streamline the overall story.

The Donation of Constantine: A Novel is a gripping, suspenseful and intricate tale. For readers who love history and historical fiction, especially how the inner workings of the Catholic church affected the landscape of Europe during the medieval era, I would highly recommend this book.

Publishers Weekly 2/17/14 -- Starred review

LeVay provides an intriguing look at eighth-century Rome and a critique of the complexities of historical truth in this fictional account of the creation of one of the seminal documents in European history: the Donation of Constantine. With Aistulf, King of the Lombards, poised to overrun Rome, Paul, the brother of Pope Stephen II, and Leoba, a nun, missionary, and scribe, concoct a desperate scheme to forge a letter from Emperor Constantine I giving the Pope temporal power over the West.

LeVay presents an intriguing view of the clash between social necessity and individual faith that successfully evokes a world with concerns familiar to modern-day readers. Additionally, the author offers a coherent, fact-based picture of the ambiguities of historical truth and the shakiness of the foundations of society. The inclusion of historical background information weighs down the narrative at times, but the complexity of the novel’s issues provides room for reflection on the perversion of fact and dogma in the face of necessity.

Church Times 3/27/2015

It is 751, and Rome is under threat of attack from the Lombard King Aistulf, who has already brutally sacked Ravenna. In the Lateran Palace, pious Pope Stephen’s more worldly counsellors try to persuade him to fight back, or appeal to the Emperor in Constantinople for help.

In the firm belief that they are acting for good, Stephen’s much more street-wise brother Paul and a bright English nun forge a decree from the fourth-century emperor Constantine giving the Pope temporal and spiritual power over the Christian world. Emboldened by his new authority, Stephen undertakes a perilous journey across the mountains to France, and crowns Pepin king, asking for his help in saving Rome.

At the same time, across the river in Rome’s poor quarter, a devout Muslim boy, Omar, falls in love with his Christian neighbour Lenora. The forged decree will affect both their lives, as it will those of people who do not know of its existence.

This is a ripping yarn, and LeVay’s skill in moving between apparently unrelated stories that finally interweave keeps the reader turning the pages. He is good at capturing atmo--sphere, whether it’s a freezing winter journey or the claustrophobic world of the papal court. It is also a highly intelligent novel that requires a great deal of background knowledge to understand it properly. LeVay gives us this through the dialogue, without being patronising or stilted.

He has done a huge amount of research into what Rome was actually like at the time, and is fascinated by complex processes, whether political or technical. I didn’t know that Rome’s grain was ground by ship mills on the Tiber. I do now, and exactly how they work.

Underpinning the book, of course, is the old question whether the end justifies the means, which is one he leaves unanswered.

In the middle of the eighth century, Rome – the holy city and the residence of the Pope – is under attack. The Christian King of the Lombards, Aistulf, has conquered Ravenna and threatens the Eternal City. The protection of Rome lies in the hands of the Emperor, but the bonds with the Eastern Empire have long since weakened. In the Lateran Palace, the Holy See at that time, believers and non-believers are trying to convince the new-elected Pope Stephen to send messengers to the Emperor, or to take defence in his own hands, although there is no legal base for this action. And then Paul, the Pope’s brother, meets Leoba, a British nun and scribe. They are willing to help Stephen, and in their eagerness to protect the town, they decide to create – together with Omar, a trader in relics – the biggest and most influential forgery in history, the Donation of Constantine. In this act, the Roman emperor Constantine gives to every Pope since Sylvester not only spiritual power but also worldly power over the Christian world.

Against this historical background, historical and non-historical characters act in a dance macabre of consequences. Stephen decides to travel north, to Pepin, King of the Franks, to crown him and to seek his support against Aistulf. In Rome, he is replaced by his brother and deacon Paul, who is left alone and torn between his love for Leoba and his doubt of the rightness of his actions. There is Zaïd, Omar’s son, travelling with the Pope, and Lenora, a Roman girl, following her parents back to Lucca. The forgery influences their lives, even the lives of those who are not aware of its existence and importance.

Simon LeVay is at his best when he describes the feelings of individuals and the interaction between people who fall in love with each other. How much I enjoyed the doubts of Paul, the despair of Lenora, the strong belief of Leoba, the optimism of Zaïd, the intellectual and physical pains of Stephen, exhausted by his journey to protect Rome, the political and religious dispute between Paul and archdeacon Theophylact, the relation between Christians and Muslims, the spell-caster Sybilla and her difficult position between Christianity and paganism. Rome is the multicultural stage of the world, and the author a perfect puppet master.

Sometimes however, the political discussions between the Pope and his entourage, necessary to create the right historical context for the papal actions and journey, seem to be a bit long and unrealistic. Chapter five is one of those longer discussions between members of the papal clergy, but once you passed it, you can really enjoy the later plot. On the other hand, the several discussions on the authenticity of the Donation are marvellous. It’s as if Lorenza Valla rose from his grave to lay out the arguments proving that the Donation is a forgery.

During the papal journey, when the main characters of LeVay’s plot are separated from their beloved ones and they need to create new interactions, the action might look a bit forced: it is unlikely that the Christian Pope would develop a friendship with a Muslim slave, even in the severest of storms. But that is why this is historical fiction. Everything is possible if the author wants it to happen, and he can blame it all on the forged Donation. Once back in Rome, the ill Stephen defeats Aistulf with the help of Pepin, and Zaïd regains his true and only love. All is well that ends well, except for Paul, the Donation’s creator, for whom there is no mercy.

Love conquers all in this historical fiction, even the biggest fraud. Read this book near the fireside while enjoying a good glass of wine, and put yourself in the skin of one of the men and women whose life was influenced by the Donation, for good or bad. We want more, Simon LeVay! (Jan DeGeest)