Seminar CCXXXVII: East-West links in the ninth-century Mediterranean

I write this while waiting for two captured lectures finally to save my edits and be available for my doubtless-eager students, and this may take a while, so what better way to while away the time than to go back nearly a year—ouch—and report on a seminar from back in Birmingham, on 26th March 2015, when Dr Federico Montinaro spoke to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies with the title “The Photian Schism (858-880): towards a cultural history”. Now, I suspect that only the most erudite of my readership will immediately be responding, “Ah yes, the Photian Schism, I know it well”, so perhaps it’s best to start with a basic chronology as Dr Montinaro presented it. The events were:

  • 858: For reasons we didn’t cover, Emperor Michael III deposed Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople, and replaced him with a layman called Photius; Ignatius went into exile.
  • 867: Patriarch Photius excommunicated Pope Nicholas I, of whom we have spoken here before, over a range of ‘errors of the Latins’ which he found intolerable, as well as the papacy’s interference in the Balkans, which Byzantium considered its ecclesiastical territory.
  • Still 867: Michael III was succeeded by Basil I, who immediately deposed Photius and recalled and reinstated Ignatius.
  • 870: a council was held in Constantinople over the East-West division, attended by representatives from the West (in particular the Greek-speaking historian and scholar Anastasius the Librarian), but didn’t really resolve much.
  • 871: meanwhile, a joint campaign by the Carolingian Emperor Louis II and Basil’s forces in Southern Italy had gone so badly that there was a falling-out there too, in which the legitimacy of Louis’s imperial title was called into question.
  • 877: Patriarch Ignatius died, and perhaps because the West was no longer in his good books, or perhaps because of local pressure, Basil reinstated Photius.
  • 879×80: Pope John VIII, anxious to rebuild bridges, confirmed Rome’s recognition of Photius’s election.

And thus ends the Schism, although by no means the difficulties between the new Western and old Eastern empires and their two patriarchal bishops.1 Now, Dr Montinaro’s quite short paper aimed to convince his audience that the extensive back and forth of embassies, letters, abuse and diplomacy actually brought the West and the East closer together during this period, increasing contact and familiarity at the highest levels. The dispute is certainly one of the few episodes involving both the West and Byzantium which we can usefully study with sources from both sides, not least the Historia Tripartita of the category-defying Anastasius, and if one does so (as Dr Montinaro has) the level of information the two sides had about each other does seem quite high; there were what seem to be quick reactions from one side to domestic controversies going on on the other, and theologians busy in both courts coming up with lists of the other side’s errors or defences of their own practices, all of which must have required some starting knowledge.2 Nor was this traffic all one-way; this is also the sort of time that the Greeks started to use a minuscule book-script such as the Carolingians had invented for Latin, and manuscript preservation in the Greek area also begins to climb in this general period. So Dr Montinaro closed with a plea that we should expect, and look for, more influences between East and West than is usually imagined.

Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822

A tenth-century manuscript of the Iliad in Greek minuscule, not to me looking very much like a case of Carolingian influence but the minuscule script itself is the novelty, I understand… This is Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822.

That conclusion seems perfectly admirable to me, but some of the steps to it are not things I would personally tread on, because correlation does not equal causation. Certainly, if one compares this situation to the arguments over images of God in the time of Charlemagne and the Isaurian emperors, it is clear that whereas Bishop Theodulf of Orléans, commissioned to write the Carolingian response to that problem, seems not to have had a clear idea of what the Byzantine positions actually were and the Byzantines paid no attention to the Carolingian theology of images at all, by the time of Photius the bandwidth of intellectual communication was clearly much higher.3 But several things then seem to partway explain that: by the 860s, the Carolingians were no longer a new dynasty and had Greek-reading theologians at some of their courts, and in any case, most of the interactions in this scenario were with the Carolingians and the pope in Italy, where contact with Byzantium had been continuous and regular in a way that Charlemagne could not have managed even if he’d wanted to from north of the Alps.4

Patriarch Photios of Constantinople being interrogated by a panel of ecclesiastics, from the Madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

Photius himself being interrogated by a panel of ecclesiastics, from the Madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes via Wikimedia Commons

The background signal of contact, in other words, might well be high enough that the Schism was not even the vehicle of such contact, but actually its result, as the East dealt with enough Latin churchmen that a catalogue of their ‘errors’ could even be collected. I also thought, and said, that what was missing from any explanation was much evidence of the people who actually went and made contact; in the schism Anastasius is almost the only one we can name, but there was clearly much more passing between the two empires than that, and at that rate, once we have to suppose any invisible contact, tying it to the Schism seems like that venerable game of medievalists, pushing two pieces of an incomplete jigsaw even though they don’t really fit because they’re the only ones we have. In other words, I was entertained but not convinced. Still, it would be nice to have all those references in print…

1. The standard work on the schism seems still to be František Dvornik, Le schisme de Photius : histoire et légende (Paris 1950).

2. Not least John Scot, Eriugena, Greek-literate and writing on such issues for King Charles the Bald in the 860s, as Dr Montinaro pointed out.

6 responses to “Seminar CCXXXVII: East-West links in the ninth-century Mediterranean

  1. When I was a lad it was pronounced sizm. Do people now say skizm?

  2. Depend on what you mean for ‘contact’. Bizantium – Visigoths, Charlemagne – Abassids, Iconoclastic tendencies, Jews and maritim comerce, Sirians/greeks in western mediterranean coast, Cordoba – Khazars, etc, etc. It looks to me as a continous bidirectional flow of exchanges… (I could not resist, just processing a late C9th armenian martir local tradition, right now…)

  3. Is “more contact than we had figured” not also one of the arguments McCormick makes in Origins of the European Economy? A different context, but still. And if traffic patterns were changing by the middle/late ninth century, maybe the Photian Schism is worth highlighting as an example of Mediterranean connectivity anyway.

    • I do agree with that; my objection here was actually very McCormick-like, in as much as I am supposing that beneath the high-level contact Dr Montinaro was focusing on there was a more continuous and diverse background contact that probably enabled the high-level contact to take place. The changes in that pattern in the ninth century (and tenth!) would indeed be worth exploring, though.

  4. Thanks for this Jonathan – and glad to hear you were entertained (if not convinced)! It was such bad timing for me when I gave this talk in Birmingham, but I am still persuaded that the material can be presented so as to show that high-level contact over 20 years counted way more than the “continuous and diverse background”. I am now mainly back to 7th-century stuff, but I promise a book on the schism by 2020! Hope to see you in Leeds in July – and may I congratulate you on the new job if I haven’t yet. Best, f

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s