Michael Cerularius and the Letters of Leo of Ohrid

Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople during the papal legation of 1054, has long been seen as a difficult personality whose theological, political, and personal views led him to thwart the will of the Eastern Emperor, Constantine IX Monomachos, and to undermine any hope of a military alliance between the Eastern Empire and the Papacy to combat the Norman advances in the south of Italy. This assessment stems even from the report of the papal legation itself, written by Cardinal Humbert, which portrays the Emperor as open, welcoming, and even deferential to the legates, while the Patriarch was standoffish and intransigent. Not surprisingly, this view has prevailed in the scholarly literature, up to and including the last dedicated biographical treatment of Cerularius in 1989 by Franz Tinnefeld [1].

More recently, though, Anthony Kaldellis (University of Chicago, recently of Ohio State University) suggested a very different reading of some of the available sources [2]. In his retelling, Cerularius was an agent of a cohesive imperial policy toward the Latins who did nothing to provoke a hostile response from the legates or to stall the efforts of Emperor Constantine to forge a military alliance with Pope Leo IX. Instead, Kaldellis’s Cerularius deliberately avoided confrontation with the legates in order to give the emperor the space to make diplomatic overtures and to attempt to smooth over the religious differences that had been brought to light by polemicists on both sides. Kaldellis’s argument is bold, given that it seeks to overturn an essentially unbroken narrative about the 1054 legation that stretches back to the events themselves. It also asks important questions about the sources upon which this existing narrative has been based, noting quite reasonably that Cerularius was probably not some kind of evil mastermind lurking behind everything that the legates found objectionable in Constantinople. At the same time, I think a complete exoneration of Cerularius from any sort of offensive action stretches the source material too far in the other direction.

To keep things to a blog-appropriate length, I’d like to examine a single issue at the beginning of the conflict to serve as a microcosm of the whole. In the year prior to the famous legation, Archbishop Leo of Ohrid, a Greek churchman who had held high positions within the Constantinopolitan church hierarchy prior to his appointment to the province, wrote a series of three letters critiquing the Latin use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, among other ritual practices [3]. These letters were addressed primarily to the primate of Grado, Dominicus Marengo, and also to (arch)bishop John of Trani, with a request by the author in the first letter to forward the contents to the pope and to the Latin clergy in general. At least one of the addressees did just that, handing a copy of the first letter in the series (which may have been the only one received at that point) over to the papal court, and specifically to Cardinal Humbert, who drafted both a translation into Latin and an extensive point-by-point rejoinder. Humbert’s translation, unlike the original Greek text, ascribes this letter both to Leo of Ohrid and to Michael Cerularius. The question, then, is to what degree Cerularius was involved in this composition.

The Church of St. Sophia, Leo of Ohrid’s cathedral. Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

Kaldellis rightly points out, with the agreement of other scholars, that the see of Ohrid was independent of Constantinople and that Leo was a long-tenured archbishop with the political and theological wherewithal to send his own letters [4]. The suggestion, though, that Cerularius didn’t play any role, and indeed “tried to create a constructive relationship in order to promote imperial interests, not instigate or inflame a conflict,” ignores both the concurrent and robust exchange of letters and people between East and West as well as the other actions of Cerularius himself.

To begin with, Leo of Ohrid did not write these letters in isolation. Just as Leo of Ohrid wrote to Dominicus of Grado, Dominicus was in turn writing to Patriarch Peter III of Antioch, who then replied to him [5]. Dominicus’s correspondence is instructive simply by virtue of its existence, since it shows a broader level of communication between East and West than is commonly assumed, and also because it complains that the holy Roman church had been attacked “by a clergyman of Constantinople” for its use of unleavened bread (“παρὰ τοῦ τῆς Κονσταντινουπόλεως κλήρου”) and that “they censure [with a plural verb: “Ψέγουσι”] the most sacred azymes.” In the aftermath of the excommunications the following year, Michael Cerularius and Peter of Antioch exchanged their own letters, in which they discussed nearly all of the same issues raised by Leo of Ohrid [6].

Cerularius, for his part, is known to have written only one letter, addressed to Pope Leo IX and unfortunately not extant, that seems to have avoided discussing any of these contentious issues. He was, however, busily pursuing the same agenda by other means. By his own later admission, he had already repeatedly refused to give communion to Argyrus, the Eastern Roman catepan in southern Italy on the grounds that he (a Lombard) was a supporter of unleavened bread [7]. Argyrus was known to the papal curia, so it is likely that Humbert knew about this when drafting his translation. Cerularius also took the even more provocative step of closing the Latin-rite churches in Constantinople (or at least some of them) [8]. His inimical stance against the Latin rite was also noted by other Westerners in Constantinople. Pantaelo of Amalfi, in his independent account of the 1054 legation, described him as “most foolish in deeds and discernment” (“actibus et intellectu stultissimus”) a direct contrast to Constantine Monomachos, the “most victorious emperor” (“victoriosissimus imperator”) [9]. Cerularius was, in short, not going out of his way to build constructive relations with the Latin church.

Translated first letter of Leo of Ohrid. Roma, Biblioteca Universitaria Alessandrina, Manoscritti, ms. 169, fol. 128a. Rights belong to Internet Culturale https://www.internetculturale.it/it/15/termini-d-uso

So, at the very least, the joint authorial attribution in Humbert’s translation of Leo of Ohrid’s first letter represents the fact that Cerularius’s theological opinions were long-held, promulgated throughout the Mediterranean world, and closely aligned with the contents of the text. I think it’s also not too far a stretch to grant some credence to Humbert’s joint attribution of the text. Dominicus was a frequent conduit of information between Constantinople and the Papacy; John of Trani had just personally returned from a trip to Constantinople, likely with some degree of insight into the thought of Cerularius [10]. Both Dominicus and John were in close contact with the Curia during this time, and at least one of them gave the letter to Humbert. The balance of probability suggests that the letter was written at least with the knowledge and approval of Cerularius, and perhaps at his direct behest.

Does this bring us back to Michael Cerularius, evil mastermind? I think not. Kaldellis’s argument is an important check on a narrative that has often been taken too far, in which Cerularius is presented as a man of overwhelming political ambition doing his best to subvert imperial policy and take control of the throne, in fact if not in name. Rather, I think we ought to take him, together with the other Greek polemicists who were involved, at their word: they really were concerned about what type of bread to use in the celebration of the Eucharist. While he could not have been unaware of the political aims of Emperor Constantine, Cerularius clearly didn’t let them stop him from taking highly provocative actions against the Latin church. And in the end, for a medieval churchman, politics really shouldn’t be expected to stand in the way of orthodoxy.

Nick Kamas
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

  1. Franz Tinnefeld, “Michael I Kerullarios, Patriarch von Konstantinopel (1043-1058): Kritische Überlegungen zu einer Biographie,” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 39 (1989): 95–127.
  2. Anthony Kaldellis, “Keroularios in 1054: Nonconfrontational to the papal legates and loyal to the emperor” in Byzantium and the West: Perception and Reality (11th–15th c.), ed. Nikolaos G. Chrissis, Athina Kolia-Dermitzaki, and Angeliki Papageorgiou  (New York: Routledge, 2019): 9–24.
  3. Edited in Elmar Büttner, Erzbischof Leon von Ohrid (1037-1056): Leben und Werk (Bamberg, 2007): 181–256.
  4. Kaldellis, 10–11. See also Axel Bayer, Spaltung der Christenheit: Das sogenannte Morgenländische Schisma von 1054 (Böhlau: Böhlau Verlag, 2002), 65–67.
  5. Both are edited in Cornelius Will, Acta et Scripta quae de controversiis ecclesiae graecae et latinae saeculo undecimo composita extant (Leipzig: N. G. Elwerti, 1861): 205–208 (Dominicus to Peter), 208–228 (Peter to Dominicus).
  6. Will, Acta et Scripta, 172–183 (First letter of Cerularius to Peter), 184–188 (Second letter Cerularius to Peter), 189–204 (Letter of Peter to Cerularius).
  7. Will, Acta et Scripta, 177.
  8. This point has been contested, but I don’t think convincingly. See Tia Kolbaba, “On the closing of the churches and the rebaptism of Latins : Greek perfidy or Latin slander?” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 29 (2005): 39–51, J. R. Ryder, “Changing perspectives on 1054” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 35 (2011): 20–37, and Tia Kolbaba, “1054 revisited: response to Ryder” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 35 (2011): 38–44.
  9. Edited in Anton Michel, Amalfi und Jerusalem in Griechischen Kirchenstreit: Kardinal Humbert, Laycus von Amalfi, Niketas Stethatos, Symeon II. von Jerusalem und Bruno von Segni über die Azymen (Rome: Pont. Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1939): 52–54.
  10. Büttner, 43–44, 48.

The Anti-Latin Polemic of Metropolitan Ephraim of Kiev

While I think it is true, as I have argued before, that the Greek church never considered the events of 1054 as marking any kind of definitive break with the Latin West, this does not mean that the theological writers at the time ignored the sudden and dramatic juxtaposition of Eastern and Western liturgical, ritual, and cultural practices. Indeed, almost the reverse is true: the decades following 1054 witnessed a flourishing of a genre that has been termed the “Byzantine lists,” essentially short treatises outlining a series of objectionable practices that were common (or were believed by the authors to be common) among Latin Christians. Typically inspired by the letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch, which added several complaints about the Latins to a list of issues that were under more active discussion between the two sides in 1054, these lists commonly discussed issues that pertained to liturgical or ritual practice. Greek Christians regularly complained that their Latin confrères did not celebrate baptism correctly, did not fast from the correct foods or with sufficient rigor, and did not sing the word “alleluia” during church services at the correct times of the year, among other problems.

St. Peter of Antioch, detail of the mosaic in the Basilica of San VitaleRavenna, 6th century.

The primary study of the genre as a whole remains Tia Kolbaba’s monograph The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins, published in 2000 [1]. Kolbaba maintains that the composition of these lists was fundamentally a project of Byzantine cultural consciousness, a way of emphasizing (or constructing) the unity, antiquity, and correctness of Eastern Roman practice by way of comparison to the “other,” in this case, the Latins. These lists were intended as emotional appeals to a broad Greek audience, and were somewhat low-brow in both style and content: theologically difficult issues like the filioque are presented side-by-side with complaints that Latin bishops wear silk rather than woolen robes, with no effort to rank the comparative importance of the various complaints.

Given Kolbaba’s argument that these lists of complaints are fundamentally inward looking, focused more on the Eastern Romans than the Western ones, it is especially interesting that one of the earliest examples of the genre was not written within the oikoumene at all, but rather under the political authority of the Kievan Rus’. Ephraim, the metropolitan of Kiev from around 1055 to the early 1060s, was an ethnic Greek recently transplanted in the eastern Slavic territory when he authored a list of twenty-eight distinct complaints against the Latin Christians [2]. Most of these complaints concern topics that are familiar to students of the East-West conflict: the filioque, the use of azymes (unleavened bread) in the celebration of the Eucharist, the practice of fasting on the Sabbath (Saturdays). Indeed, the complaints in Ephraim’s treatise echo the issues raised in the 1054 conflict so completely that he either had received a thorough report of the events or was still personally resident in Constantinople during the time of the Humbertine legation.

Miniatures from the Kiev Psalter, 1397CE.

Ephraim, however, was also cognizant of his new cultural context, and Igor Čičurov, who first printed an edition of the text, points out instances where Ephraim used words or referenced topics that would have been far more familiar to a Slavic audience. For example, Ephraim attributes the sacramental use of azymes to the Vandals, noting that this group of people are now called the “Nemitzioi” (“τῶν νῦν Νεμιτζίων καλοθμένων”) a native Slavic term for Germans (i.e., non-Slavs): “немитции” or “немцы” [3]. Furthermore, Ephraim deviated from his literary model, Michael Cerularius, in accusing the Latins of not giving baptizands the names of saints, but instead the names of various animals (lions, bears, leopards, etc.) [4]. This complaint, Čičurov notes, is not made in any list of complaints against the Latins composed within the Eastern Roman Empire itself. Instead, it is only from the Slavic context, where the practice of retaining a non-Christian name after baptism was common, that this issue was raised [5].

This complaint brings us back to Kolbaba’s thesis, that the so-called Byzantine lists had more to do with policing cultural practice and ritual purity within the Eastern Christian world than in correcting behavior in the West. Constantinopolitan authors of similar works, although they surely would have objected to this naming practice, apparently did not see the need to mention it among their complaints. In Ephraim’s case, however, we see an ethnic Greek confronted with the very foreign (to him) practice of retaining a non-Christian name. His attack on the Latin practice would equally have served as a critique of the princely families of the Rus’ by whom he was surrounded. We are left, in the end, with a strengthening of Kolbaba’s central argument: “[…] the intended audience was not Latin. There are anti-Latin works which were intended to convince Latins, but the lists are not among them” [6] Instead, we should see Ephraim’s work, at least in part, the effort of a Greek clergyman to enforce the norms of Constantinopolitan orthodox theology and practice in the Eastern Christian hinterland.

Nick Kamas
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Tia M. Kolbaba, The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000). See especially chapter 1, pp. 9-19, for the argument on the purpose and context of the lists.

[2] For some biographical details on Ephraim of Kiev, see Gerhard Podskalsky, Christentum und Theologische Literatur in der Kiever Rus’ (988-1237) (München: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1982), 285-286. Further details, including a helpful bibliography, are in А. В. Назаренко, “Кое-что о Двух Русских Митрополитах XI в. Ефреме Киевском и Ефреме Переяславском” Древняя Русь: Вопросы Медиевистики 75.1 (2019): 87-90.

[3] “Антилатинский Трактат Киевского Митрополита Ефрема (ок. 1054/55-1061/62 гг.) в Составе Греческого Канонического Сборника Vat. Gr. 828,” Вестник ПСТГУ 19.3 (2007): 127. This publication in Russian is a revision of an earlier German article: I. Čičurov, “Ein antilateinischer Traktat des Kiever Metropoliten Ephraim,” Fontes Minores X (Frankfurt am Main, 1998): 319–356. The edition of the Greek text appears only in the German version.

[4] Traktat 18, in Čičurov, “Ein antilateinischer Traktat,” 344.

[5] Чичуров, “Антилатинский Трактат,” 126.

[6] Kolbaba, Byzantine Lists, 28.