The Photian schism. History and Legend

Francis Dvornik





We have now reached the end of a long journey and have concluded our researches on the Photian Schism. Many additional details might have made the picture more attractive and the argument more convincing; nevertheless, it may be hoped that none of the essential aspects of the problem have been overlooked. If our inferences are right, we are justified in saying that the Photian problem is one of the most complex yet the most enthralling of the causes célèbres bequeathed to us by the Middle Ages. The way the whole case has been handled, clouded and misinterpreted in the West illustrates the less agreeable kind of medieval mentality and shows the prejudices and misunderstandings that may arise from a lack of critical sense and from historical misinterpretation.


From my researches it would appear that the person of Photius, the great Patriarch and Father of the Eastern Church, has for centuries been treated by the whole of the West with unmerited scorn and contempt; and it is the historian’s task not merely to correct misinterpretation, but also to rehabilitate the historical figures who have suffered from it. Of this Photius is a notable example and history owes him reparation for the calumnies that have for centuries darkened his memory.


If I am right in my conclusions, we shall be free once more to recognize in Photius a great Churchman, a learned humanist and a genuine Christian, generous enough to forgive his enemies and to take the first step towards reconciliation. On the literary and scholastic side, Photius has always ranked fairly high amongst those scholars who have studied his writings ; in this field his name always commanded respect, as his contemporaries, friend and foe alike, unanimously testified. Scholars familiar with his literary work were not inclined to believe all the stories brought up against him by his opponents; they were true to the scholar’s instinct which prompted them to feel that a man who had spent his best days amongst books, in the company of the best representatives of the classical period and in daily contact with many devoted disciples, was not likely to descend to such meanness and petty ambition as were imputed to him by his enemies; and it was a right instinct which led them to honour a scholar who has been prominent in transmitting Hellenistic culture to posterity. At the same time, the firm conviction which prevailed among the simple orthodox that their Church could not be wrong in crowning its leader with the halo of sanctity for setting an example of Christian virtue was bound to find its justification.





My researches have also demonstrated that Photius had, like every human being, his weak moments. The worst mistake he made was his loss of self-control in 867, when instead of waiting for better days he went out of his way to launch a futile attack on the Patriarch of Old Rome. Events were to show that the lapse was inconsiderate, hasty and big with fatal consequences. It precipitated Basil’s change of policy towards the Extremists and the Pope, whilst it strengthened the position of the anti-Byzantine party in Rome at a moment when it was losing its influence after the death of Nicholas. It not only contributed to Photius’ downfall, but widened the gap between East and West. The excited clamours against the great Pope of the ninth century uttered by the Eastern bishops at the synod of 867 re-echoed over East and West for many years afterwards.


Did Photius ever realize his mistake? There are many signs to show that he did: his obvious endeavours to make peace with prominent Roman personalities, especially Marinus, his willingness to compromise on the Bulgarian issue which had been the occasion of his outburst in 867, his tardiness in pressing his case, his silent acceptance of Pope John’s words in which he could read traces of bitterness even after the reconciliation. He evidently hoped that time would heal the wound and obliterate the past.


If he did so, events were to show that he was wrong. The cloud that hung over the synod of 867 was never dispelled from the minds of the Romans: it blinded them to the brighter aspects of Photius’ history, affected all religious and cultural contacts between East and West and raised problems that were to poison the relations between the two Churches and influence the whole course of Christian development for centuries. We may well reflect how differently certain events would have shaped, if the Photian case had been judged from the beginning in the spirit we have outlined: both Western and Eastern Christianity would have run along different lines.


One may also regret that the Acts of the Photian Synods of 861 and 879-80 escaped the notice of the Western canonists and were completely obliterated by the Ignatian Synod of 869-70. At a time when the medieval West was framing its conception of universality and its political philosophy, it would have helped the framers to have before their eyes the solutions arrived at in the East when the Eastern Church was in communion with the West. As a result, her de facto acceptance of the right of recourse to the Patriarch of Rome as the highest court of appeal, even in disciplinary matters, as implied in the Acts of the





861 Synod, was overlooked by the Western canonists. The same happened to the stipulation of the other Photian Synod to the effect that each Church should follow its own practices. It was not in this broadminded spirit that East and West fought each other throughout the Middle Ages. And there lies the true significance of the history and legend of Photius.


The time has now come to reconsider in the light of history both the vital period of the ninth century and the trail of misconceptions it has left behind, and this in the best interests of Christianity; and if such a recension should lead to a better understanding between the two great Churches that have drifted apart for so many centuries to the obvious injury of the human race, the result should be widely beneficial.


It is therefore fitting at the end of this long and laborious research to evoke the conciliatory atmosphere that prevailed in Byzantium at the end of the tenth century, when the last echo of the struggles round Photius and Leo VI’s tetragamy died down and was stilled by the decisions of the synods of 920 and 991. After reading the declaration of a final reconciliation between the parties in opposition—the famous Tomus Unionis [1]—the Fathers closed all previous dissensions and schisms by their acclamation and the dramatic scene of final pacification so impressed the faithful that the Orthodox Church commemorated for centuries, in the office of Orthodoxy, [2] the victory of the Eastern Church over the last heresy, iconoclasm and its aftermath. The walls of every cathedral church re-echoed the words, as they were repeated three times by the deacon and the faithful, recalling the struggles of the ninth century: [3] ’Eternal memory to Ignatius and Photius, the Orthodox and renowned Patriarchs! Whatever has been written or said against the holy Patriarchs Germanos, Tarasios, Nicephorus and Methodius, Ignatius, Photius, Stephen, Anthony and Nicholas, be for ever





1. Mansi, vol. xviii, cols. 341 seq. See Grumel, Regestes, loc. cit. pp. 169-71, 231.


2. Th. J. Uspenski, ‘Sinodik v nedyelyu Pravoslaviya’, in Zapiski Imp. Novorossiiskago Universiteta (Odessa, 1893), vol. Lix, pp. 407-502. On the date when the name of Photius was entered into the Synodica read on Orthodoxy Sunday, see A. Michel, Humbert und Kerullarios, loc. cit. vol. ii, pp. 13 seq. Cf. also Hergenröther, Photius, vol. ill, pp. 725 seq.


3. Uspenski, loc. cit. pp. 415 seq.: Ἰγνατίου καὶ Φωτίου τῶν ὀρθοδόξων καὶ ἀοιδίμων πατριαρχῶν, αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη. . . . Ἅπαντα τὰ κατὰ τῶν ἁγίων πατριαρχῶν Γερμανοῦ, Ταρασίου, Νικηφόρου καὶ Μεθοδίου, Ἰγνατίου, Φωτίου, Στεφάνου, Ἀντωνίου καὶ Νικολάου γραφέντα ἢ λαληθέντα, ἀνάθεμα, ἀνάθεμα, ἀνάθεμα.


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