Friday, May 28, 2021

Converting the East


“…since our people rejected idolatry and came under Christian law, we have not had a teacher capable of explaining this faith to us in our own tongue.”

-          King Rastislav of Great Moravia, from his letter to the Byzantine emperor

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

Missions to the East – would these be conducted from the East and Constantinople, or the West and Rome?  The Frankish missionaries would require Latinization of Great Moravia, so King Rastislav wrote a letter to the Byzantine emperor.

The Byzantines were fine with evangelizing the Slavs in their own language, and in 863 sent two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, for this task.  History remembers them as the “enlighteners of the Slavs.”  Cyril would develop an alphabet; a subsequent Slavic alphabet would be named for him. 

The Franks, however, would not give up.  they came up with a doctrine known as trilingualism; only three tongues were proper for Christian worship: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.  To this, Cyril would reply that there are already many people who have their own script and give glory to God – among them, the Armenians and Syrians.

The pope would give his blessing to this mission of Cyril and Methodius, but the Franks paid little attention to this gesture.  With Cyril dying shortly after this visit to Rome, Methodius would return to Moravia – and would be immediately arrested.  Rastislav’s nephew had seized power with the help of the Franks, turning the religious tables.  Yet, the pope insisted on his release.

A new pope, Steven V, was not so generous.  Noting that the Slavs were not using the filioque in their liturgy (a pretext, perhaps), two hundred missionaries were arrested and expelled from Moravia, with some sold by the Franks into slavery.

Then there were the Bulgarians, who were successfully converted into the Eastern tradition:

Sadly, a common faith did not prevent the relationship between the mighty empires of Byzantium and Bulgaria from deteriorating in the years following [Tsar] Boris’s conversion.

Under a subsequent Tsar, the Bulgarians would invade Byzantium, even reaching Constantinople before being stopped.  Future battles would have the Byzantines on the attack and suffer defeat, and further battles ending the other way.  As the culmination of fifty years of fighting, the Battle of Kleidion in 1014 resulted in only fifteen-thousand Bulgarian soldiers surviving out of an army of forty-five thousand.  Perhaps better to have died:

The ruthless and vengeful Basil, thereafter known as the “Bulgar Slayer,” ordered that of every hundred men, ninety-nine should have their eyes gouged out.

The others were left with one good eye, to lead the others l back to the Bulgarian capital.  Upon seeing them, Tsar Samuel fell over dead in shock.

Russia Christianized under Grand Prince Vladimir.  The account given has Vladimir sending emissaries to look into the Judaism of the Khazars, the Islam of the Arabs, and Latin Christianity.  But it was in “Greece” where they would find “the edifices where they worshipped their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”  They were impressed by the liturgical worship, not any form of doctrinal debate.

Vladimir would be baptized in 988.  Immediately thereafter, he dismissed his numerous “courtesans,” and in exchange took a Christian wife, Anna – remaining faithful to her for the rest of her life.  He would institute regular distributions of bread to Kiev’s poor and he opened banquets for the common people; he worked to abolish capital punishment, but was dissuaded by the bishops!

After his death in 1015, a civil war broke out between some of his sons – including one born from one of his pre-baptismal liaisons.  His preferred sons meekly laid down their lives instead of fight, and became Russia’s first canonized saints: Boris and Gleb.

Altered by Christianity, yet the Russian culture remained, unlike in the Latin West where the culture of the Saxons disappeared or was absorbed.  By the mid-eleventh century, Kiev was the capital of a distinctly Christian state – Russia had come to the full inheritance of Christianity. 


Distinctions were becoming ever-clearer between East and West, yet we have not yet quite reached what is known as the Great Schism.  Despite these differences – the filioque, a common tongue for worship vs. local tongue for worship, the physical structure of the temple, etc. – both East and West shared one characteristic: continuous and regular battle.

By this time, the East had lost much territory to the Muslim Arabs; the West suffered a similar fate for a time, until the tables were turned and the Arab tide was stopped in the southwest and southeast of Europe.  However, by this time, during the tenth and early eleventh century, the Latin West and the relationship between Church and emperor was in significant turmoil. 

That will be a story for next time.

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