A view on the Catholic-Byzantine Florence Council that took place in the early 15th century in an attempt to save Constantinople from the Ottomans

19 Feb

Why these conferences failed until it was too late: Catholic instransigence and hypocrisy and demand for submission form the Eastern Church, not union; Greeks sticking to their sense of integrity, ultimately John VIII came to an agreement on Union, but when he brought it back to the hornery crowds of Constantinople, few where having it.

A Florentine Cul-De-Sac: The Union That Divided

“My son, of course we know very well that the infidel dread the day we come to an agreement and unite with the Franks; for, they believe that if this happens, because of us they would suffer much at the hands of the Christians of the West. Therefore, as far as this council is concerned continue and study, and bring it up, especially when you need to scare the infidel. But, do not attempt to bring it about, for I see that our own people are unable to find a way for union, peace and harmony, unless they were to be returned to our original state. And since this is impossible, I fear a worse schism may be brought about, and hence we shall be left defenceless before the infidel…”[1]

Manuel II to John VIII, 1422

The view that the schism can be back-dated to 1054 is still prevalent. Dan Snow came up on my Twitter timeline a year or so ago claiming as much on its anniversary. Yet the papal bull of excommunication was directed at Cerularios, not the Orthodox Church and the Synod of the Patriarchate anathematised Humbert, not the Pope or the Latin Church.

Historians pushing the long view tend to fall back on the likes of John XI Bekkos who in his Second Oration on His Own Deposition refers to the “schism” that took place under Cerularios.[2] Psellos, however, performed a memorial oration for Cerularios without mentioning a schism,[3] Byrennios considered 1003 a superior date[4] and the last Pope mentioned in the diptychs was not Leo IX (d.1054) but John XVIII (d.1009) and even then several of his predecessors such as Gregory V (d.999) and Sylvester II (d.1003) were not accorded the honour.[5]

The confusion can be attributed to the fact that the schism was less an event than a general feeling that agreeing to disagree had a shelf-life. Placing the genesis of this sentiment may constituted an interesting parlour game but it was not something that could be given a clear causality. Real schism, then, began not in woolly words and easily manipulated feelings but action, or more accurately the reaction to divergence.

And the first actions that framed the situation as if a union was required were truly dreadful. Instead of any meaningful attempts at rapprochement, a “union” was proclaimed when the Latins conquered most of the empire in 1204, then against at Lyons in seventy years later (where the emperor thought he would lead by example – yet nobody followed). The schism, then, could be said to have been born in reaction to Latins requiring not just union – a consensus reborn – but obedience, as if the Eastern Romans had behaved like stray dogs rather than slightly bewildered brothers in faith.

The traditional Byzantine position was fairly liberal. It refused to accept that their own obedience was necessary yet nor, for that matter, was Latin obedience required. Instead, an ecumenical council was required, hosted by the emperor (as it had always been) where divergences could be drummed out just as they had on previous occasions.

The Papacy, however, demanded reductio. It required submission.

The Byzantines only agreed to join the negotiating table (it felt compelled to excuse this act with pieties about rejoining the “mystical limbs” of Christ) on the promise of military aid against the Turks. And even then the majority of Byzantines preferred to die with their religion/souls intact than go to hell in the name of dubious military aid arriving from Latins who’d put most of their capital to flame and annexed half of the empire not so long ago.

Initially intrigued by the conciliarist proposition at Basel, John VIII opted for the invitation of the Pope, whom the Byzantines traditionally recognised as the ecclesiastical authority in the West, who guaranteed the necessary funds to cover the expenses of the delegation and offered to host an ecumenical council rather than an oversized rubber-stamp committee.[6] No doubt the papal proposal of an Italian coastal city for the council also swayed many minds considering the alternative was across the Alps.[7]

From the beginning at Ferrara, the Byzantines realised that despite the courtesy with which they were welcomed in reality they were far from brothers enjoying equal status but at best schismatics and maybe even heretics. The difficulties they faced even to get a church for their liturgical needs (and the circulation of a Latin document accusing them of more than fifty heresies) ensured that the mood soon soured.

Added to these problems were issues of protocol, including the expectation that the Patriarch should kiss the Pope’s feet according to Latin customs – which the astonished patriarch refused to do, the arrangement of thrones at the Council (with the Pope’s placed higher than both Emperor and Patriarch when he was meant to be a patriarch in religious terms on a par with Joseph II and a minor imperial official in secular terms), the hubristic appearance of the names of the Pope and the Emperor in the decree of the Union in that order as an indication of precedence.

The major issues discussed (I use the verb lightly as in reality both sides had prepared speeches on issues so real responses were accidental rather than designed) were the filioque clause and claims of papal primacy.[8] Minor issues included the doctrine of purgatory, the use of leavened or unleavened bread in the Eucharist and the sanctification of the sacramental gifts in the Eucharist with or without the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit following the Words of Institution.

For the Latins, the addition of the filioque to the Creed was a clarification that stressed the consubstantiality of the Father and Son, while for the Byzantines it is primarily a violation of the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils that prohibited any change in the Symbol of the Faith. At the heart of it, however, were fundamentally different perceptions of the life in the Trinity which were related to the distinction among the divine hypostases, and between the common essence and energy of God.

Rather than challenging the dynamics of each persuasion, which might have involved some real debate and philosophising, each side limited themselves to entrenching themselves behind a small wall of patristic sayings. When this was fruitless, they narrowed the barrage to one particular aspect: the use of the prepositions “from” and “through” with reference to the procession of the Holy Spirit.

There was no real debate on primacy either. Instead, there followed a repetition of positions. While Latins maintained their view that the Pope was the only visible sign of unity in the Church constituted by Christ Himself, the Byzantines contended that the bishop of Rome was primus inter pares in terms of honour and any attempt to place this spiritual power within the secular domain was contrary to the principle of pentarchy as decreed by the ecumenical councils. The final compromise position was little more than a fudge: one in which the Pope was only as superior as the ecumenical councils had previously allowed, while the rights and privileges of the eastern patriarchs were to be safeguarded.

Almost all movement from the Byzantines on the questions at hand was due to pressure from the Emperor who, as Syropoulos recorded, stated that:

“We have come here for the divine work of union in order that this achievement with God’s aid will bring advantage for our country.”

Even then, anti-unionists such as Mark Eugenikos remained firm. In matters of faith, they insisted, the principle of oikonomia (in the sense of compromise) was not applicable. Indeed, his sentiments were shared back home where most found themselves shocked at the naivety of the ecclesiastical “experts” who’d sold their faith for a promise. More to the point, they remained suspicious that the “union” was really a mechanism for the gradual assimilation of the Orthodox Church to the Latin one – a dream they’d attempted to realise by force in 1204. And with a grieving emperor (inconsolable at the death of his wife), as well as a vacant patriarchal throne (Joseph II had died – struck dead for treachery in the eyes of anti-unionists), the pro-unionists began to evaporate.

Between May 1440 and 1441, a repudiation of the Act of Union was signed by members of the delegation and Isidore was languishing in a Muscovite prison for having the temerity to announce the union. Moreover, the global Church looked to be dissolving into chaos with half the Latin Church only in communion with the conciliarists (i.e. not the papacy) and the Byzantines questioning the legitimacy of their unionist clergy in a move that looked to repeat the parallelism of the fifth-century Jacobites.

On the battlefield, Catholic attempts to block the Ottoman tide proved futile. The crusaders were wiped out at Varna (1444) and the Hungarians were defeated at Kosovo in 1448 (not to be confused with the more famous battle in 1389). Under these circumstances Mark’s brother, John Eugenikos, felt able to refute the Act of Union point-by-point and society fell apart at the seams with only a small elite connected to the Emperor sticking to their unionist guns. As much was clear on 12 December, 1452, when both Byzantine and Latin liturgies were concelebrated at Hagia Sophia in presence of Constantine XI and (an escapee) Cardinal Isidore. There the decrees of the union were read out (in both tongues) and so officially proclaimed in the empire at exactly the moment nobody was prepared to fulfil them.

Towards the end, most Byzantines were prepared to claim the dissolution of the empire was directly linked to the apostasy of the Emperor and the Church’s betrayal of the faith. The Union had not only failed to avert the Ottoman danger but was the very reason for their loss of freedom. While in Rome, though never officially rejected, the union was disregarded/jettisoned by promoting the Uniate Church. Meaning the “Union” of Florence can only be conceived as a colossal failure that won neither the hearts nor minds of either side.

[1] George Sphrantzes, Chronicon Minus, XXIII, 5-6, in R. Maisano (ed.), Giorgio Sfranze, Cronaca, Rome 1990 (=CFHB 29), 82.1-15.

[2] Second Oration on his own Deposition (=PG 141), col 980.

[3] K. Sathas, Μεσαιωνικὴ Βιβλιοθήκη (1874), 348-49.

[4] Third Dialogue with the Latinophrones in Constantinople on the Procession of the Holy Spirit, E. Voulgaris (ed.), Τὰ Εὑρεθέντα,. 3 vols., (Leipzig 1768) repr. Thessalonike 1991, vol. 1, 379.14-24.

[5] See S. Runciman, The Eastern Schism (1955) repr. 1997, 32ff.

[6] Though this was turned into a negative by many, with some Byzantines worried that the Latins might refuse to pay their passage home if they refused to sign the union.

[7] Those who are interested in coming to judgments on the council themselves are welcome to consult the three main primary sources. First, the Memoires of the Grand Ecclesiarch of Hagia Sophia, Sylvester Syropoulos. Second, the Acta graeca, a diary of proceedings by a pro-unionist Byzantine bishop, most likely Dorotheos of Mitylene. Third, the Acta latina, an official record fo the Latin documents and Council proceedings by the papal lawyer Andrea of Santacroce. The best secondary sources include J. Gill, The Council of Florence (1959); IDEM, Personalities of the Council of Florence and Other Essays (1964); G. Alberigo (Ed.), Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1989); A. Papadakis – J. Meyendorff, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: 1071-1453 (1994) 357-409; D. J. Geanakoplos, The Council of Florence and the Problem of Union, in ChH24 (1955) 324046, in: IDEM, Constantinople and the West: Essays in Late Byzantine and Italian Renaissances and the Byzantine and Roman Churches (1989), 224-254.

[8] It’s worth noting that not only were different debating styles typical of each side with Latins favouring the scholastic and dialectic methods and Byzantines opting for the biblical and patristic lines of attack, but a large number of the “discussions” were conducted in small committees and not in plenary sessions.

Thanks to my friend Byz Amb for.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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