Redating the East-West Schism: An Examination of the Impact of the Sack of Constantinople in 1204

Redating the East-West Schism: An Examination of the Impact of the Sack of Constantinople in 1204

Redating the East-West Schism: An Examination of the Impact of the Sack of Constantinople in 1204

Michael J. Petrin

Herodotus: Stanford’s Undergraduate Journal of History, Volume 17 (2007)

Introduction: In 1054 A.D., three papal legates, led by Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, were sent to the city of Constantinople on a conciliatory mission by Pope Leo IX. The pope sent these legates to meet with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, in the hope of resolving certain points of disagreement between Greek and Latin Christians. However, the visit went poorly and, as a result, the papal legates entered Hagia Sophia one fateful day while the priests were preparing to celebrate Mass and placed a Bull of Excommunication against Cerularius upon the main altar. This offense sparked rioting in the streets of Constantinople and caused the patriarch and his synod to respond with a formal anathema against both the document itself and all those responsible for its production. It is on account of these events that the consummation of the East-West Schism between Greek and Latin Christianity (also known as the Great Schism) has traditionally been dated to the year 1054.

Although 1054 is indeed the date most often found on timelines and in textbooks—and therefore the date most often memorized by students of the medieval period—the majority of modern scholars recognize that the East-West Schism was in fact, as Timothy Ware writes, “something that came about gradually, as the result of a long and complicated process.” This gradual process had already begun long before 1054, propelled by tensions between Greek and Latin Christians over issues such as ecclesiastical authority, doctrine, and liturgy, as well as by cultural, economic, and ideological differences. On account of this, attempting to date the consummation of the East-West Schism is a very difficult undertaking, to say the least.

It is evident that early in the Middle Ages there existed a united Christendom wherein all Christians, both Greeks and Latins, believed themselves to be members of a single Church. It is also evident that later there existed a divided Christendom, with Greek Christians on one side and Latin Christians on the other—each side claiming to be the one, true Church. Yet although we are aware of both these historical realities, it is far from easy to pinpoint when the relationship between Greek and Latin Christianity shifted from one reality to the other. What is apparent, however, is that if we hope for an accurate dating of the consummation of the East-West Schism, we ought not to ignore the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Western crusaders.

The series of events leading up to the sack of Constantinople began when a great army of Latin Christians, recently having set forth to participate in the Fourth Crusade, was diverted from its ultimate goal of reconquering Jerusalem by an entreaty for help from Alexius the Younger (son of the recently dethroned Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus). The crusaders responded to this request in a spirit of goodwill, agreeing to travel to Constantinople in order to help Alexius and his father Isaac to regain the throne. However, although they were successful, a dissident courtier strangled Alexius to death soon afterward. The unfortunate murder of young Alexius triggered an outbreak of fighting between the Latin crusaders and the citizens of Constantinople, which predictably ended with the crusaders conquering the city. Having emerged victorious, the crusaders then sacked Constantinople, stealing holy relics, abusing the populace, and, afterward, audaciously naming both a Latin emperor and a Latin patriarch to hold power in the East.