Home Page

On Line Library of the Church of Greece

Walter Berschin

Valuation and Knowledge of Greek 

From: Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa   Translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Revised and expanded edition. The Catholic University of America Press, http://cuapress.cua.edu/  


Go to next page Go to previous page Go to Text Index


2. Hierarchical and Political Conflicts between East and West  

Greek was not held in the same regard throughout the Latin Middle Ages. In some eras and cultural circles of the period, its authority was especially great: in Gothic Italy of the sixth century, among the Irish of the early Middle Ages, in the Carolingian ninth and Ottonian tenth century, among the Normans of Southern Italy, in England of the thirteenth century, and -on the threshold of the modern period- in fifteenth-century Florence. With its ancient Greek monastic colonies, Rome was a metropolis of Greco-Latin intercourse until the eleventh century. The hierarchical conflict between the bishops of the older Latin and the younger Greek imperial cities quite early proved to be a negative factor in the valuation of Greek: "In the political domain, it was the West that struggled for autonomy against the inherited priority and universality of the Byzantine Empire. In ecclesiastical matters, on the other hand, Constantinople was the younger partner that claimed autonomy and equality vis-a-vis the Roman priority and universality."28 

  Pope Gregory the Great once failed to respond to the letter of a noble lady in Constantinople "because she wrote to me in Greek, although she is a Latin. "29 Pope Nicholas I (858-67) and Photius, patriarch of Constantinople (858-67 and 877-86), were the first ecclesiastical leaders of West and East to confront one another with unrestrained severity; the argument between East and West even led to dispute about the Latin and Greek languages. Emperor Michael III had called Latin a "barbarian and Scythian language," whereupon the pope defiantly suggested that he not only give up the title "Emperor of the Romans" but also expurgate the Latin readings from the liturgy of the stational masses at Constantinople.30 Pope Nicholas requested the advice of West Frankish scholars concerning the errors of the Greeks. Bishop Aeneas of Paris wrote a Liber adversus Graecos for the archbishops of Sens; Ratramnus of Corbie wrote a Contra Graecorum opposita for Reims. But for the time being, the dispute retained a simple episodic character.  

The tenth century arrived, a time of amicable relations with the Greeks, and Greek monasticism in Rome again grew strong. Its influence was to be felt up to the middle of the eleventh century -when the dynasty of popes from the house of Count Gregory I of Tusculum, the founder of Grottaferrata, came to an end. The fourth abbot of Grottaferrata, Bartholomew the Younger, a Calabrian and student of Nilus of Rossano, was the last of the Greeks in Rome to exercise influence on a pope -Benedict IX (1032-44). Soon thereafter, Cardinal Humbert the Lotharingian laid a papal bull of excommunication on the altar in Hagia Sophia (1054); with surprising abruptness, the ecclesiastical ties between East and West were severed. A self assured and expansive West, henceforth led by Rome and directed by a hierarchy which became increasingly characterized by 1aw instead of liturgy, glanced without admiration to the Greek East and acknowledged the Greeks as little as the Jews as preeminent because of their close association with the world of Christ's life. Yet even after the events of 1054, there were popes who were interested in Greek studies: Eugenius  III  (1145-53),  the patron of Burgundio and many other twelfth-century writers, Alexander V (1409-10), and Nicholas V (1447-55), the contemporary of Nicholas of Cusa. Beginning with the Council of Lyons (1274), many popes of the late Middle Ages supported, even if they did not highly esteem, the now weak Byzantine Empire and its emperor. 

Compared with the hierarchical conflict between East and West, the political one -the problem of the two emperors ("Zweikaiserproblem," Ohnsorge)- had less influence on the valuation of Greek in the medieval West. On the eve of the Frankish Empire, it was more the political rivalry than the theological examination of the Libri Carolini that produced the very problematic attitude toward the Greek doctrine of the icons. Pope Hadrian I denied the request for the sanction of the Frankish treatise, however, so that it remained no more than a scholarly curiosity. Much more volatile was the issue of the filioque addition to the credo (et in spiritum sanctum ... . qui ex patre filioque procedit), which, having first come into use (probably) in Spain, soon spread through Charlemagne's empire. The conflict concerning this addition broke out at the Christmas service in 808, in the place where the two versions of the credo came into liturgical contact with one another -in Jerusalem, where the Frankish monks of the monastery on the Mount of Olives sang the symbolum with the new filioque, which especially the Greeks of St. Saba's would not tolerate. As had his predecessor, Hadrian, Pope Leo III took the ecumenical position with regard to the Frankish zeal in cultivating their own self image. He rejected the addition and had the Greek and Latin creeds, written in the authentic forms -without the filioque- on silver tablets, put up in St. Peter's. But that did not suffice to do away with the infelicitous addendum: when the credo, which originally formed a part of the baptismal liturgy, was introduced into the Roman mass in the eleventh century after the manner of Spanish, English, French, and German practice, the filioque was also admitted. "The most serious and most protracted doctrinal controversy between the Greeks and Latins was due to a Frankish, not a Roman, decision."31

Political relations between the Eastern and Western emperors were often dramatic, but never dangerous. The diplomatic intercourse between the old Byzantine Empire and its younger counterpart in the West frequently gave occasion for reciprocal attempts at humiliation and deception, as the accounts of Notker I of St. Gall and Liudprand of Cremona illustrate for the time of Charlemagne and Otto the Great, respectively; this did not, however, lead to any lasting Western enmity toward the Greeks that would have detracted from the regard in which the Greek language and literature were held. Even the military conflicts between the Eastern and Western Empires in Italy caused no irreconcilable antagonism; and even in the ninth century they occasionally cooperated in a joint defense against the Arabs. The Ottonian period brought the closest relations between the Greeks and Latins, due to the Emperors Otto II and III. In the twelfth century, the universal claims of both empires once more came into vehement conflict when Emperor Manuel I exploited the strained relations between the Western Imperium and the pope and again tried to gain a foothold in Italy. In reality, however, the conflict consisted only of reciprocal demands. The expansive attitude which the Latin West adopted toward the Greek East in the late Middle Ages was not influenced by the political conflict between the Eastern and Western Empires: the existence of both was threatened in the thirteenth century, and they struggled in part against the same adversaries. The lesser powers were the more serious enemies of the universal power of Constantinople. The Venetian Republic diverted the fourth Crusade to Constantinople; Charles I (of Anjou), who had obliterated the Hohenstaufen dynasty, was deterred from an attack on Constantinople only by the Union of 1274 and then the Sicilian Vespers. A counselor of King Philip VI of France formulated the most malicious suggestions for dealing with the Greeks that history has preserved. Due only to his respect for the three "sacred languages" was he willing to forgo the plan to deprive the Greeks of their script and language. He recommended that Constantinople be captured and that six directives be implemented:32

The third directive is that whoever has more than one son must send the second to school for Latin instruction. And if Greek were not one of the three primary languages in which the titulus of our crucifled Lord was trebly written, I would make the beneficial and intelligent suggestion, as I think, that this language be exterminated altogether.