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7-08-2015, 21:04

Missions to the alans, hungarians and rus

Deliberate Christianisation of Alania – a barbarian power stretching from the Kuban to the Terek – began during the second patriarchate of Nicholas IMystikos (901–7, 912–25), more precisely between 914 and 918.We possess an invaluable source for this mission in the form of the patriarch’s letters. The attempt to convert the northern Caucasus had been instigated by the Abkhazian principality rather than directly by Byzantium, but Nicholas was personally responsible for several significant initiatives. In the first place, he sent missionaries to Alania drawn from his own closest associates (whereas Constantine andMethodios had held no ecclesiastical office); secondly, he did not send and then ignore them, but kept continual watch over their activities (again in contrast with Constantinople’s indifference to the brothers from Thessaloniki); finally, Nicholas set in motion a process which soon led to the inclusion of the see of Alania within the Constantinopolitan patriarchate. In the context of Byzantine traditionalism, this was revolutionary. Dioceses had been founded before, even in foreign realms – Bulgaria, for example – but always within the historical boundaries of the Roman empire. The lands to the north of the Caucasus were completely ‘other’, and their entry into the patriarchal ambit, followed by the vast lands of Rus, opened a new page in ecclesiastical history. The missionaries to Alania give us the first intimations of just how difficult it was to convert barbarians. Peter, archbishop of Alania, complained to Nicholas that his ‘sorrows are many and great is the affliction of [his] evils’.66 He added that Nicholas, who had never been in exile, could not hope to understand his torments. In reply, the patriarch objected, ‘. . . your wisdom was not being sent out for your comfort . . . but to labours and toils and distresses’, before advising him to ‘consider the blessed heralds of the Gospel, in whose number you have been found worthy to be enrolled . . . and cease to lament and to be dismayed because human affairs do not run as we would have them!’ Nicholas then consoled him, declaring that ‘. . . your portion of honour [is] equal to that of the apostles’ own’.67 Peter and another envoy, Euthymios, are the first Byzantine missionaries, in the proper sense, whose names survive in a Greek source. For the first time we read of the conversion of pagans not as an act of divine providence but as hard and often thankless work. And we read of missionaries as real people: self-sacrificing, perhaps, but also prone to despair. The appearance of such figures in Byzantine writings is an important sign that the culture of the Romaioi was developing a rather more realistic view of barbarians. This development is particularly evident in the advice which Nicholas gives to his missionaries. In a letter to Peter, the patriarch formulates his position on marriage among the Alans: As for what you write of matters respecting marriage which are opposed to the church order, and of other habits which give a more pagan character to those practising them, your wisdom is aware that so sudden a conversion of pagan life into the strictness of theGospel is not easily achievable. You should therefore continually apply your doctrine and salutary exhortation in a paternal and generous spirit . . . and where you find them recalcitrant, bear it with long-suffering, especially if the disobedient belong to the upper class of this nation and are not governed but governors. Towards their subjects you may perhaps be able to behave rather more austerely and despotically . . . but towards the powerful ones, who are quite capable of counteracting the salvation of the whole nation, you must reflect whether, if we behave too harshly to them, we may not unawares exasperate them the more, and thus turn everything upside down. Thus the Byzantines softened their previously inflexible stance on polygamy, especially among the nobility. The failure of the Cyrillo- Methodian mission in Moravia had been to a large extent caused by missionary rigour on precisely this issue (see above, pp. 317–18). Apparently the Greeks had learned useful lessons from their Latin rivals in Bulgaria and Moravia. And yet the fruits of the mission of Euthymios and Peter were not longlasting; al-Mas‘udi relates that after 932 the Alans ‘turned away from their new beliefs and expelled the bishops and the priests who had been sent by the emperor of Rum’.69 We do not know the circumstances in which the Byzantine church reappeared in Alania, although recent research has shown that this could have been as early as the 960s,70 and we shall return to the Christianisation of Alania below. After half a century of Byzantino-Hungarian military clashes and political contacts, around 948 envoys of Fajsz, prince of the Magyars, arrived in Constantinople. A few years later there came Bulcsu, who was baptised by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and his example was then followed by Gyula. According to John Skylitzes, the latter ‘took with him a monk by the name of Hierotheos, renowned for his piety. Theophylact [patriarch of Constantinople] consecrated him bishop of Tourkia [Hungary].Once there,Hierotheos converted many people from their barbarian errors to Christianity.’71 The metropolitanate of Tourkia appears in none of the official lists, but it probably existed until at least the mid-eleventh century.72 Archaeological evidence suggests that the Byzantine mission was especially active in the region of Szombor.73 Finds of Byzantine reliquary crosses in Hungary are distributed along the course of the Danube and the Tisza. They number about forty, with fifteen dating from between the mid-tenth and the mideleventh century (fig. 18). The ruling family from G´eza I (972–97) onwards accepted the Latin rite, although Greek clerics remained in the southern Hungarian lands well into the twelfth and even thirteenth centuries. Around the turn of the tenth century Niketas the Paphlagonian compiled a cycle of panegyrics in honour of the apostles. He depicts Andrew,74 Bartholomew75 and Matthew as thoroughgoing missionaries; Matthew is even said to have preached to the ‘Ethiopians . . . in their own language’.76 Unlike his predecessors writing on similar themes, Niketas shows awareness of a clash of cultures, though he decides not to describe how his protagonists overcame it. Thomas the Apostle, for example: . . . arrived among these people who are revolting in appearance but even more repulsive in their disposition. What was it like for him to associate and converse with them on questions of piety!He complained quietly about the burdensomeness of associating with these peoples, and suddenly the solution to all his difficulties appeared.77 As far as the eulogist is concerned, relief comes in the form of intervention by Christ, so he does not delve into the specific techniques of apostolic missionary practice.78 Another indication of the Byzantines’ growing interest in missionary activity can be seen in the Life of the apostle Thomas, contained in the late tenth-century collection of reworked saints’ Lives of SymeonMetaphrastes. All the early versions of Thomas’ acts derived from Gnostic accounts which – contrary to official Christianity – emphasise the harmfulness of marriage and wittily describe miracles and transformations. In these earlier versions, the problems of mission as such merit just one phrase: Thomas complains that, as a Jew, he cannot preach to the Indians.Nowhere do these versions explain how Thomas managed to solve his problems. Yet when Symeon Metaphrastes embarked on writing a commentary on Thomas’ acts, missionary problems become a central theme: Thomas was sent to India, which was utterly barbaric . . . That which is rooted over the course of a prolonged period turns into habit, which is stronger than any arguments of reason. Arriving in such a country, the apostle did not behave arrogantly and provocatively, did not start talking grandly and boastfully, and refrained frommany things which might have made him seem haughty, insufferable and smug . . . With dirty hair, a pallid face, dry and thin . . . dressed in a dirty threadbare cloak, he prepared himself . . . for meek and humble behaviour. He did not immediately start criticising them, did not reproach them with anything, and decided not to resort to such devices as severity. For he knew: what has become fixed in our souls through long habit cannot easily be eliminated, but is more likely to be changed by persuasion than force. Therefore he resorted more to gentleness, to kind manners and pleasant words . . . He came before them not with arrogance and superciliousness, and not with grandiloquence, but with deeds and signs . . . The Indian people were inducted into the mysteries and the seed of the Word was implanted in their souls. Thomas’ preaching [was disseminated] to such an extent that it reached the king himself, though it did not enter deeply into his consciousness.79 In Metaphrastes’ work Thomas is transformed from the showy magician of earlier tradition into a modest, industrious missionary. Interestingly, Metaphrastes’ ideal preacher conducts his propaganda ‘from below’. The text of the ‘Commentary’ is an implied polemic with those who deal with barbarians without bothering to conceal their contempt. Such an attitude in no way abrogated the imperial conception of barbarians as targets for conquest. In real life these two types of discourse – the imperial and the missionary – coexisted. In Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus’ Book of ceremonies we find the following paean to God: ‘He has enlightened the peoples . . . [and] glorifies imperial benefactors with victories and subjects barbarians to their right hand.’80 Elsewhere in the same work Constantine introduces chants that are to be performed at Pentecost: ‘God, who tamed the godlessness of the nations with tongue-like manifestations of flame, promises through you, brave lords, to conquer and annihilate pagan godlessness. The emperor So-and-So, the joy and reviver of the Romaioi, will force the alien tongues to become of one tongue in faith.’81 The inner contradictions of these passages are self-evident to us, but not to the Byzantines. After the first ‘baptism’ of the Rus in the 860s, there is a long gap in the sources. The only references to Byzantium’s attempts at Christianisation are to be found in the Rus primary chronicle where, after the conclusion of the peace treaty of 911, the emperor provides the Rus envoys with an escort ‘so as to show them the beauty of the churches . . . and to instruct them in their [i.e. the Byzantines’] faith’.82 That there were Christians in the Kievan elite is shown by the fact that a priest called Gregory went to Constantinople as part of Princess Olga’s entourage. The first extensive evidence, however, is provided by the stories of the baptism of Olga in 954–583 or 957,84 as told by the Rus chronicler and by Skylitzes. Despite the detailed account in the Rus chronicle,85 we cannot be certain when or even where Olga was baptised. There is no doubt, however, about the fact that the princess accepted Byzantine orthodoxy; she took the baptismal name of Helena in honour of the empress, who thereby became her godmother. Yet her relations with her godparents soon deteriorated to such an extent that in 959 she requested bishops from the Saxons. The conversion of the princess did not in itself lead to the Christianisation of Rus. This process was instigated in 988 by her grandson Vladimir. Unfortunately not a word about the conversion of Rus can be found in the works of contemporary Byzantine authors; the details have to be extrapolated from Rus, Arabic and western sources and, once again, we encounter the extraordinary silence of theGreek sources. What, for all this, dowe know about the Byzantines’ involvement in the conversion? The Rus primary chronicle states that, following envoys from the Muslims, the ‘Germans’ and the Jews, ‘the Greeks sent a philosopher to Vladimir’.86 Scholars have speculated as to who this anonymous ‘philosopher’ might have been.Most likely he is merely the chronicler’s generalised representation of a Byzantine missionary, and the term ‘philosopher’ harks back to Constantine-Cyril the Philosopher. The chronicle puts a long speech into this philosopher’s mouth.87 The speech, supposedly delivered in Vladimir’s presence, is overburdened with names and details that were hardly central to the teaching of Christianity. It is ponderous in the extreme, and hardly likely to have attracted and held the attention of a curious pagan.We cannot treat it as a standard missionary text, routinely regurgitated by Greek missionaries for the conversion of barbarians. Although the episode with the ‘philosopher’ has clearly been inserted into the chronicle from some other work unconnected with Vladimir, it is not pure fantasy. Aspects of the philosopher’s conduct remind us of other missionaries. For example, a painting of the Last Judgement is shown by the philosopher to Vladimir,88 just as a painting of the Last Judgement had figured in the conversion of Boris of Bulgaria by the Byzantine missionary Methodios; and the reliance on citations from the Old Testament is reminiscent of Constantine-Cyril’s speech to the people of Phoullai. Be that as it may, in the chronicle’s account none of these ploys impressed Vladimir. He refused to be baptised, and said: ‘I will wait a little more.’ Next, according to the chronicle, the prince sent his own embassies to various countries in order to ‘test the faiths’. In Constantinople the emperor and patriarch did everything possible to impress the envoys with the pomp of the service in St Sophia, and ‘they were astonished’.89 Yet despite the envoys’ warm reception in Constantinople, and despite their very positive reactions, Vladimir attacked and captured the Byzantine city of Cherson. We need not enter into the scholarly debates and attempt to explain this extraordinary turn of events. Vladimir’s baptism, according to the Rus primary chronicle, was merely a corollary to the negotiations about the return of Cherson, a precondition for receiving the emperor’s sister Anna as his bride;90 the negotiations concluded, Anna travels to Cherson not with a metropolitan for Rus, nor even with a staff of missionaries, but merely with the clergy of her personal entourage. It is left to Vladimir to say: ‘let those who have come with your sister baptise me’; so ‘the bishop of Cherson together with the emperor’s sister’s priests instructed Vladimir in the faith and baptised him.’91 After his baptism Vladimir ‘took his imperial bride, and Anastasios [the Chersonite who had betrayed the town to the Rus] and priests from Cherson . . . and he also took ecclesiastical vessels and icons.’92 This suggests that providing liturgical vessels had not been reckoned a missionary responsibility of the princess’ entourage, nor had anyone had the foresight to bring vessels from Constantinople in anticipation of the baptism of Rus; instead they were simply trophies plundered by Vladimir in Cherson. Although the Rus metropolitanate most probably existed from around 990, nothing is heard about it until 1039. Later Russian chronicles attempted to fill this lacuna with tales of local conversions,93 and even with the story of a certain ‘philosopher’ named Mark the Macedonian, who was allegedly sent by Vladimir on a mission – in the event unsuccessful – to the Volga Bulgars in 990.94 But this is highly dubious information from a late source.We learn something of the activity of senior Byzantine clergy in Rus from the series of questions that were put toMetropolitan John II.On the one hand, the metropolitan’s general approach is plain enough in his injunction to ‘adhere to strictness rather than to the custom of the land’.95 He rejects anything that is ‘far from present-day piety and the becoming way of life of the Romaioi’.96 Yet in two of his responses John shows a degree of tolerance: firstly he urges that sorcerers and magicians should not be punished with mutilation;97 and secondly, he allows priests to wear animal skins under their robes ‘because of the terrible cold and frost’.98 But such concessions to local conditions are rare. Besides the metropolitanate at Kiev, in the eleventh century there were bishoprics in perhaps as many as eight other towns, including Chernigov, Pereiaslavl’, Polotsk and Novgorod, and in the twelfth century in at least three more. The prelates in all these towns were Greek-born, but the only detailed information comes from the Life of an eleventh-century bishop, Leontios of Rostov (though the text was composed in the twelfth century, some time after the death of its hero). According to his Life, Leontios had been preceded by Theodore and Ilarion, Byzantines who, ‘unable to endure the abuse and persecution, fled home to the [land of the]Greeks’.99 Initially Leontios, too, had little success; driven out by the pagans, he moved to the edge of the town and built himself a hut. Children began to visit him and he gave them instruction, and then adults, too, would come. Eventually Leontios was invited back to the citadel, where he set about cautiously instilling Christianity, with encouragement and gentleness. Leontios’ success was again brief: he died in a pagan uprising. Although its ‘facts’ are probably fictitious, the Life of Leontios reflects contemporary Byzantine missionary practice; or at any rate it reflects the impressions of such practice that were formed in Rus. One serious problem for Byzantine churchmen was their ignorance of the local language. Metropolitan Nikephoros addresses the Kievans thus: ‘I have not been granted the gift of tongues, like the divine Paul, so as to carry out my tasks in that language [i.e. Slavonic], and therefore I stand amongst you voiceless and am much silent.’100 From the eleventh century onwards101 Byzantium’s only remaining pagan neighbours were the nomadic peoples of Asia Minor and the Black Sea steppes. Missions sent to them typically achieved swift successes which could just as easily be reversed. In 1048 the Pecheneg leader Tyrach was converted.102 Several years earlier Kegen, leader of a Pecheneg splintergroup, had ‘received holy baptism, himself and those with him. And a certain pious monk named Euphemios was sent, who set up a sacred font beside the Danube and provided holy baptism for all.’103 This conversion provoked a certain amount of controversy in Byzantium. JohnMauropous viewed it with great enthusiasm,104 his friend Michael Psellos was quite sceptical,105 while Michael Attaleiates was downright hostile: ‘there is no point in trying to bleach the Ethiopian.’106 Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) was praised for his missionary endeavours: For the emperor . . . was fond of teaching our doctrines and was a real missionary by choice and in his manner of speech; he wanted to bring into the fold of our church not only the Scythian nomads, but also the whole of Persia, as well as the barbarians who inhabit Libya and Egypt and follow the rites of Muhammad.107 Anna Komnena returns to this theme elsewhere: ‘I for my part would call him “the thirteenth apostle”.’ In contrast with the church fathers, who had reckoned the world already baptised or about to be baptised, Alexios took a realistic view both of the extent of the unbaptised world and of the complexity of the task before him. We should note, nevertheless, that there is no firm evidence that Alexios ever dispatched any religious missions beyond the old limits of the empire. Theophylact, archbishop of Bulgaria two generations after its conquest by Byzantium, spent the first half of his life – until 1092 – at the Constantinopolitan court, and the second part in provincial SlavOhrid.He composed the extended Life of Clement of Ohrid, his remote Slav predecessor in his see. Theophylact’s missionary principle, as it emerges from the Life, may be formulated thus: when helping barbarians adapt to Christianity, one should take them as they are, and one should simplify Christianity to make it accessible to their understanding.He praisesCyril andMethodios for creating ‘an alphabet which matched the coarseness of the Slavonic tongue’ (see fig. 19).108 He likewise appreciates the flexibility of his own hero, Clement, in dealing with the barbarians: ‘Knowing the coarseness of the people and their extraordinary obtuseness in mastering Scripture, [Clement] . . . devised the following scheme: for every festival he composed sermons that were simple, clear, containing nothing deep or subtle, the type of sermon that could not escape the comprehension of even the dullest of Bulgarians.’ 109 Theophylact explains that in Bulgaria only ‘wild’ trees had grown, bearing no ‘cultured’ fruit; but Clement ‘ennobled the wild plants through grafts, in order (as I think) thus to nurture human souls.’110 What we have here is not so much a narrative of Clement’s specific missionary activity, but more of a parable: Byzantine culture cannot be forced on the barbarians; it must be carefully grafted onto their own culture.111 With few exceptions, the emphasis shifts in the twelfth century from the conversion of barbarians to their subjugation. In the abundant panegyrical literature, emperors’ victories wholly overshadow their missionary achievements. One of the period’s few known preachers to the barbarians was Nicholas Hagiotheodorites, metropolitan of Athens, who died in 1175.112 Moreover, according to Euthymios Tornikes, in this period Byzantium reestablished bishoprics in the cities that had been captured by the Seljuqs, but not, he stresses, in new places.113 The work of Byzantine missionaries in Alania continued, although we have no direct sources on the subject. The seat of the metropolitanate of Alania is thought to have been a town in the vicinity of modern Nizhnii Arkhyz, but we do not even know the town’s name. Active church-building continued in the northern Caucasus, although the architecture of the extant churches is more reminiscent of Abkhazia than of Byzantium. A few dozen Greek inscriptions attest the presence of Greeks. Apparently there was an attempt to adapt theGreek alphabet so as to render local languages. Vestiges of Byzantine orthodoxy, albeit sometimes in heavily distorted form, have been detected in the pagan beliefs of the modern inhabitants of the northern Caucasus, especially theOssetians. There exists a unique written document, a report by Theodore, metropolitan of Alania. In 1225 Theodore sent to the Nicaean patriarch, Germanos II, a report on his journey to the Caucasus. The report’s general conclusion is that Christianity in Alania has withered: ‘Alas, on apostolic foundations there was built a house of straw and cane, and it has fallen victim to fire’;114 ‘the Alans are Christians only in name.’115 Theodore complains at the lack of proper missionary experience, though at the same time he is proud of his own modest successes in this area.116 State missionary activity limped on after the restoration of Greek power in Constantinople, but a weakened empire and the strengthening of her Islamic neighbours forced the emperors to show extreme caution.117 However, centres of orthodoxy in close contact with the barbarians, for example in the Crimea, were active in conversion-work. Late Byzantine baptisteries suitable for the baptism of adults have been found at several Crimean sites, suggesting possible missionary activity on the part of the local cave monasteries. In the late Byzantine period some new ecclesiastical provinces were created on barbarian territory. Among them was a bishopric instituted at Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde. In 1276 Bishop Theognostos of Sarai sent the patriarch of Constantinople, John Bekkos (1275–82), a list of questions arising from his pastoral work.Many questions reveal the missionary character of his concerns.118 The patriarch’s answers display considerable tolerance. In its final period the empire was eventually able to work out an integral and flexible ideology of mission. Realism characterises the missionary activity of the patriarchate in general. Thus in September 1365 a new bishopric of Achochia is mentioned in a patriarchal document.119 The bishopric was perhaps created for the migrant Abkhazian population. Around 1317, archbishoprics were founded in Lithuania and the Caucasus,120 although an attempt to convert the Lithuanian prince Olgerd ended in failure.121 As an example of this more practical approach to mission one might point to Gregory Palamas: while in Muslim captivity in 1354, Gregory conducted religious disputations, and inNicaea he preached Christianity in the streets, on his own initiative.122 And yet, even on the eve of its downfall, Byzantium could not fully shed its cultural snobbery or arrogance. The very term barbarian refers to a political discourse dominated by Roman imperial rhetoric in which Christianity does not fit comfortably. Missionary ideas are also the losers at the level of folkloric discourse. Thus among the Byzantines there was a widely held belief that the northern tribes of Gog and Magog had been locked behind iron gates by Alexander the Great. No writer from among the Romaioi ever took the trouble to consider whether Gog and Magog might be baptised. For the Greeks, the cultural stereotype was stronger than the religious principle: speaking in terms of Gog andMagog they could indulge themselves, lumping together all barbarians as a seething, subhuman mass. In the Byzantine mind the concept of universal Christianity was linked to the idea of world empire, which the Byzantines never entirely abandoned. This aspect of their outlook could easily be dubbed expansionism. Dimitri Obolensky proposed that Byzantium maintained an enormous, highly complex and diffuse system of international ties, which he called the ‘Byzantine commonwealth’. However, if we look closely at the fabric of the relations between the Romaioi and the world around them, we see that there was as much isolationism as there was expansion. In Byzantine missionary activity we find a paradoxical yet characteristic instance of isolationism, in the form of barbarians being converted by a stylite.123 The image of a static, lone missionary contradicts the basic concept of activism that the idea of proselytising normally implies. Yet in this image we can see the distillation of a specifically Byzantine perception of mission.

 

 

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