Monday, July 19, 2021

Historical Filters


In 1050, Leo convened a council in the southern Italian town of Siponto:

It ruled that the Greek practices of the local churches were to be abolished and that Latin practices must take their place.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

I will come to the meaning of the title of this post shortly, but to tell the meaning requires a bit of review.

Strickland is continuing to review some of the backstory prior to the Great Schism of 1054; southern Italy was historically under the authority of the Eastern Church, and followed its practices.  By this time, as the Church in Rome, through the Normans, was expanding its reach to the south, Leo wanted a cleansing.

The effort was met equally in the East.  Patriarch Michael Cerularius returned the favor, requiring long-established Latin churches to convert to Greek practice.  Whenever he met resistance, he had these churches shut down.  But his actions were not limited to Latin churches:

Byzantium had annexed much of Armenia in 1024.  This had brought into the empire an Ancient Eastern church with customs different from those of the Greeks.  One of these was the use of unleavened bread.

As was the case in the Latin Church.  The differences went further, as the Armenian Church was a Monophysite church, not having adopted the language of Chalcedon.  In any case, Michael’s actions made enemies of the Armenians.  Instead of retaining a friendly demeanor toward these people in the east who could help defend against the Turks, he alienated them.

This issue of unleavened vs. leavened bread was, it seems, the pretext of what, by now, was inevitable.  Leo of Ohrid (an Eastern Leo, not to be confused with the Pope) would write to Pope Leo on this matter, offering details behind the use of leavened bread. 

The reply, instead of engaging on the points, only focused on the issue that if the pope decides something, it is decided for the Church.  The pope cannot be wrong – despite earlier popes having been anathematized for other doctrinal or theological transgressions.

One last attempt at reconciliation was offered by both the Eastern Emperor Constantine and the Patriarch Michael.  This did not prevent the delegation from the West from departing for Constantinople – and certain mis-translations from the Greek to the Latin (purposeful or not) did not help in this matter.

Throughout, Humbert, a confidant of and advisor to the pope, played a leading role – even to lead the delegation to the East.  He was author or advisor regarding much of the correspondence from Rome to Constantinople; he was the one who would first present the Donation of Constantine which proclaimed papal preeminence, falsely composed likely in the eighth century but not discovered to be so until much later.

And, by now, Pope Leo had died – thereby removing any authority Humbert had in his mission (and it is almost certain that Humbert undoubtedly knew of this event).  And throughout, Strickland presents most (but not all) of the correspondence and discussion flowing from East to West as respectful and based on a historical theological understanding, the replies from Humbert are labeled as violent and abusive.

Three months was long enough to convince Humbert that Michael would not submit to papal authority.  And this is when he strode into Hagia Sophia before the Divine Liturgy on July 16, 1054 – three months after Leo’s death, and therefore without authority – and slapped a papal bull of excommunication on the alter.

What the bull of excommunication lacked in legitimacy it made up for with invective.  Humbert accused Michael and his supporters of almost every blasphemy and heresy for which he had a name.  the list was extensive, and it betrayed not only a fundamental misunderstanding of the East, but an almost farcical ignorance of church history.

A few days later, Michael would – with the emperor’s approval – return the favor.


Steven Runciman would write, “Few important documents have been so full of demonstrable errors…”  The errors cited regard simony, castration, the marriage of priests, the filioque, etc., and Runciman offers reasons why he views Humbert was in error – which may be true, but opens the door to an important tidbit….

Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman CH FBA (7 July 1903 – 1 November 2000), known as Steven Runciman, was an English historian best known for his three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951–54).

His three-volume history has had a profound impact on common conceptions of the Crusades, primarily portraying the Crusaders negatively and the Muslims favourably. Runciman was a strong admirer of the Byzantine Empire, and consequently held a bias against the Crusaders for the Fourth Crusade evident in his work. While praised by older crusade historians as a storyteller and prose stylist, he is viewed as biased by some contemporary historians.

Eton and Cambridge; multi-lingual; well-traveled; a close friend of George Orwell; studied under Aldous Huxley; interests in the occult and homosexuality; never married; died at 97 years of age.

Of Runciman, Thomas Madden would write in 2005:

It is no exaggeration to say that Runciman single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades. … Throughout his history Runciman portrayed the crusaders as simpletons or barbarians seeking salvation through the destruction of the sophisticated cultures of the east.

Mark Vaughn says (in 2007) that Tyerman "accurately, if perhaps with a bit of hubris, notes that Runciman's work is now outdated and seriously flawed."

All history books are written with a viewpoint, through a filter.  This is as true for me when I work my way through such books as it is for historians when they write these books.

I am not suggesting anything beyond noting that this book and series by Strickland is no exception.  This does not diminish, for me, the value it has in filling out a broader view of the history of Christendom – and who knows, perhaps a more accurate view than that which I held before being exposed to this work.

But all history books are written with a viewpoint, through a filter.


  1. "But all history books are written with a viewpoint, through a filter."

    All. From the historical parts of the Holy Bible which are "filtered" toward the Hebrews to the modern day People's History ( promoted by Howard Zinn, which is attempting to rewrite and teach from an altered American history (CRT). Zinn is not writing from the perspective of the victor...yet, but is making strong inroads in that direction.

    1. I take it that you do not accept that the Scriptures are revelation, God breathed, and inerrant in the originals.

      " the historical parts of the Holy Bible which are "filtered" toward the Hebrews"

      And they did a lousy job at it unless you think that writing about their "failures" that caused God's judgement somehow are a benefit to the Hebrews?

      Certainly, lessons for all us today and, therefore, a benefit.

    2. Take it anyway you want. I will not try to defend myself.

      One thing is for sure, though, parts of the Bible are historical AND that history was written from the writer's perspective. Whether it was "revelation, God breathed, and inerrant in the originals" is irrelevant to that inescapable fact.

    3. I must protest -- strongly -- against the various libels against Runciman. He was neither contrarian nor hypercritical in his treatment of the Crusades, and his treatment of the historical matter remains up to date. He was also the classic old English scholar who remained wedded to his work, not a queer.