I am proud to feature this interesting article by Catholic friend of the blog and frequent commenter, Michaël de Verteuil –
Of the two Patriarchs of Constantinople most closely associated with the East-West schism, Michael Cerularius (Keroularios) is clearly the lesser figure in Orthodoxy. Unlike Photius, Michael was not a great scholar and was not declared a saint after his death. As the latter schism was to become definitive, Michael correspondingly suffered more at the hands of Catholic historiography. In its more extreme forms, he stands accused of hubris, deceit, mendacity, treachery, and even homicidal intent. The purpose of this brief historical note is to offer a more nuanced picture which may help rehabilitate his reputation in the eyes of Catholic readers.
Michael Cerularius was born in a minor senatorial family probably around the year 1000. He served initially as a court official under Emperor Michael IV the Paphlagonian (ruled 1034-1041) until implicated in subversive intrigues with Constantine Monomachus circa 1040. Exiled, and pressured to become a monk to preclude him from further political ambitions, he accepted the tonsure following the sudden suicide of his brother.
Michael’s fortunes changed in 1042, when the Emperor died and Michael’s former co-conspirator was recalled to the capital and crowned as Constantine IX (1042-1055). Michael was made principal secretary to Patriarch Alexius I, and succeeded to the patriarchal throne one year later in 1043. While Catholic historiography tends to portray him as having been from the very first an extremist leader of the “anti-Latin” party then most closely associated with the Studium monastery, this seems unlikely to have been the case. Michael owed his rapid preferment to imperial patronage rather than ecclesiastic politics, and had only been a monk for two years prior to his promotion. In any event, his relations with the Papacy appear to have been largely untroubled and non antagonistic for most of the next decade until 1052.
In that year, Michael ordered the Latin churches serving the important Italian merchant community in Constantinople to conform to established Byzantine practice and cease offering unleavened communion bread. In 1053, at Michael’s apparent invitation, Metropolitan Leo of Ochrid in Bulgaria (modern Macedonia) wrote a letter to Bishop John of Trani in Apulia for circulation to “all the bishops of the Franks and the most venerable Pope.” This letter condemned in harsh terms typical Latin liturgical practices, including the use of Eucharistic “azymes.” Michael then circulated to the other three Eastern Patriarchs a treatise composed by the studite monk Nicetas that further attacked Latin liturgical practices, describing them as “horrible infirmities” and Latins themselves as “dogs, bad workmen, schismatics, hypocrites and liars.” Faced with continuing defiance by the Latin churches nominally under his jurisdiction in Constantinople, he ordered them closed. When these instructions were further ignored, a mob led by studite monks and his chancellor (chartophylax) Nicephorus broke into the Latin tabernacles and reportedly trampled the “invalidly” consecrated Eucharistic bread underfoot.
Given the heated polemic atmosphere that surrounded and followed these events, it is not easy to determine with precision what provoked this series of anti-Latin outbursts. The use of unleavened bread was already long been a point of contention between the Greek and (non Chalcedonian) Armenian Churches.The recruitment in recent years of warlike Armenian officers into the Byzantine army may have helped bring the issue to the fore, but the most likely cause of this new dispute with the West lay in developments in southern Italy.
Between most of the mid 6th to 10th centuries, Sicily and much of southern Italy had been under some form of direct or indirect Byzantine control. Much of the population had been ethnically Greek or hellenized, and the area had been forcibly transferred from Western to Eastern ecclesiastical jurisdiction by the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Isaurian (ruled 718-41). As a result of these factors, by the time of the gradual Muslim conquest of Sicily and southern Italy, most of the local churches were either following or had been deeply influenced by some form of the Byzantine rite.
By 1040, Norman mercenaries formerly in the pay of the Eastern Empire began a campaign of conquest on their own behalf against the various Lombard duchies and the Byzantine catepanate that then dominated the south of the peninsula. Despite papal opposition to these destabilizing encroachments, the Normans were solidly Latin in their Christianity. They thus understandably proceeded to replace in the areas they controlled Byzantine rite bishops with Latin ones as vacancies opened up. By 1050, a progressively Latinized episcopate had begun to substitute Latin liturgical practices for Eastern ones, and this notably involved the use of unleavened bread.
It may be this perceived Latin “aggression” against the Byzantine rite and Michael’s claimed patriarchal jurisdiction in southern Italy that prompted his restrictions against the Latin rite churches of Constantinople. This would also explain why the relatively pro-Byzantine John of Trani would have been an appropriate recipient for Leo of Ochrid’s letter. Even the invitation to John to share the letter with “the venerable Pope” makes sense in this context, as ironically Pope Leo IX (1048-54, later canonized in the West) was then in loose confinement not far away in Benevento after having been captured by the Normans at the battle of Civitate in June of 1053.
It is probably from this position of weakness in Benevento that Pope Leo sent his three legates to confer with Constantine and Michael with a view both to resolving the outstanding religious issues, and to incidentally secure support for the Pope’s own release and against his Norman enemies. The three legates were Humbert Cardinal bishop of Silva Candida, the Pope’s cousin and chancellor Cardinal Frederick (later elected as Pope Stephen IX, 1057-58), and Archbishop Peter of Amalfi. On their way, the legates were briefed on conditions in Constantinople by Argyrus, a member of the local Lombard aristocracy from Bari then serving as Byzantine catepan (katepano) for southern Italy. Argyrus had argued sharply with Michael during an earlier visit to the capital over the catepan’s inability to receive the Eucharist in its unleavened form, and thus numbered among the Patriarch’s personal enemies.
That the legates’ mission was not fully successful would probably be an understatement. With the Emperor matters went reasonably well. The alliance against the Normans was duly signed and, with Constantine’s stern encouragement, Nicetas was forced to retract his incendiary accusations and publicly burn copies of his letter. With Michael, however, the mission got off to a disastrous start. The Patriarch found the legates disrespectful and was shocked by the hectoring tone of the papal letter Humbert had drafted. Relations with Leo had always been formally correct and, given the Pope’s plight, Michael might have expected an offer of a return to the status quo ante rather than what amounted to a demand for a humiliating public retraction and submission. While court officials attempted to broken discussions between the Patriarch’s staff and the legates, Michael steadfastly refused to have anything further to do with them, preferring to treat them instead as impostors sent to discredit him by Argyrus.
In the meanwhile, Pope Leo had made his own peace with the Normans and been released. He died shortly thereafter, leaving the position of the legates in Constantinople untenable. With the negotiated alliance now bereft of much of its point, and the Patriarch still refusing to address any of their demands, the legates drafted a bull excommunicating Michael, Leo of Ochrid and their supporters. This the legates deposited on the altar of Sancta Sophia on 16 July, departing for Rome two days later. Michael responded by calling a synod of local bishops which exonerated him and in turn excommunicated the legates.
Before turning to the historical reception of these excommunications, it might be worth considering Michael’s actions for what they might imply for ecumenical efforts in our own time between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Significantly, at no time did Michael ever deny Leo’s substantive primacy (though he clearly had a less expansive understanding of its scope than Humbert), nor did he presume to excommunicate the Pope. While he clearly opposed the filioque or the liturgical use of unleavened bread as abuses, he never cited these as sufficient grounds for schism. Instead of contesting papal authority head on, he preferred the less confrontational approach of challenging the legates’ credentials. The closure of the Latin churches of Constantinople might have been an extreme gesture, but such action remained well within his canonical discretion as local ordinary. His sponsorship and circulation of the writings of Nicetas and Leo of Ochrid may also have been tactless and provocative, but by failing to pen such missives himself, he left the way open for what he must have considered a reasonable and face-saving compromise for all concerned, i.e. reciprocal guarranties for the Latin churches in Constantinople and the Byzantine rite churches in Italy. There is also nothing to link the Patriarch directly to sacrilege of Nicephorus (who may have been an imperial appointee) against the Latin Eucharist. In fact, Michael never took any steps explicitly indicating a definitive break with Rome, let alone with the West generally.
The whole episode seems to have been largely ignored by contemporary Byzantine historians until the mid-13th century, at which time Orthodox historiography began to present Michael as a stalwart defender of Orthodoxy against Roman pretensions, and herein lies a tale.
In 1089 Pope Urban II (1088-1099) wrote to Emperor Alexius I Comnenus enquiring as to why the bishop of Rome no longer figured in the diptychs of the Church of Constantinople. The question was duly passed on to the Patriarchate which, after a search of its archives, purported not to know when or why communion with Rome had ceased. One does not have to ascribe excessive importance to the events of 1054 to see in this exchange a coy exercise in diplomatically convenient institutional amnesia. After Constantine’s death in 1055, Michael had presided in the space of two years over three successive coronations only to quarrel in 1058 with Isaac I Comnenus (Emperor 1057-1059, died 1061) over some confiscated Church property. Isaac charged the Patriarch with having ordered the making of purple slippers (part of the imperial regalia) either for his own use or that of his nephew, the Emperor’s rival Constantine Ducas (Michael’s nephew by marriage). Michael was then deposed and sent into exile, suffering a shipwreck along the way and dying of his injuries.
The resulting uproar contributed to Isaac’s eventual abdication. The Comneni never forgot, however, and Alexius I and his court had little interest in exalting his uncle’s old nemesis and snubbing the Papacy he hoped would help him recruit military assistance in the West against the Turks. It is not until after the failed reunion council of Lyons in 1274 that Byzantine scholars felt a need to recast Michael as a great champion of Orthodoxy, possibly in order to demonstrate a historically consistent but dubious chain of opposition to Rome stretching from Photius to a much later Patriarch Michael III of Anchialus (1170-1178) who, unlike his 11th century namesake, would famously dismiss the Pope as a “heretical layman.”