08.01.21, Chazelle, Oikoumene

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Patrick Gray

The Medieval Review baj9928.0801.021


Chazelle, Celia and Catherine Cubitt, eds.. The Crisis of the Oikoumene: The Three Chapters and the Failed Quest for Unity in the Sixth-Century Mediterranean.. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 14.. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xii, 304. ISBN: 978-2-503-51520-5 (hb).

Reviewed by:
Patrick Gray
York University

The eight essays written for this volume address a theological controversy, born in the Byzantine East in the time of Justinian, that played a part in the disintegration and reconstruction of the western Mediterranean during the tumultuous sixth century. In this, its history was intertwined with another Justinianic initiative, paradoxically the "quest for unity" of the book's subtitle--Justinian's wars to 'reconquer' North Africa, Italy, and Iberia--that also resulted instead in disintegration and reconstruction. The interplay between the controversy and the reconquest is the theme of the book.

The theological controversy in question is the so-called Three Chapters Controversy, perhaps not well known among medievalists. Unlike the West, which was unified in its allegiance to the christological doctrine enunciated by the Council of Chalcedon (451) under the leadership of Rome (always excepting the mostly-Arian barbarians), the East was fractured into pro- and anti-Chalcedonian factions, the latter being dominant in the Near East and Egypt. No emperor was more vigorous in pursuit of a resolution to this ecclesiastical schism threatening the Empire itself than was Justinian. Since unity with Rome was impossible without official loyalty to Chalcedon, he sponsored initiatives that tried to construe Chalcedon in ways it was hoped would reconcile anti-Chalcedonians to it. The condemnation of the Three Chapters--the theological mentor of the heretic Nestorius, and certain works of two of his friends accepted by Chalcedon--was one such initiative, prosecuted first by imperial edict, and then by the fifth ecumenical council, Constantinople II, in 553. Failing to resolve the schism in the East, this ill-fated initiative actually caused schism in the West.

The essays are framed by an introduction and an epilogue, both by the formidable team of Robert Markus and Claire Sotinel. The introduction lays out the historical background and the course of events from the birth of the controversy in the East, through the arousing of resistance, especially in North Africa, the Western reception of the Fifth Council, the complicated and contradictory stances taken by a succession of popes (among them Gregory the Great), the schism that arose between the north Italian church (including Venetia and Histria) and Rome, the long history of that schism in relation to the new political order of northern Italy created by the establishment of the Lombard kingdoms there, to later accounts such as that of Paul the Deacon. As the book is focused on the West, it is not surprising that, where a viewpoint becomes apparent, it is Western: Chalcedon 'settled' the christological conflicts; Byzantine emperors 'intervened' in church affairs; anti-Chalcedonians were 'monophysites' (a term now avoided by most scholars concerned with the East).

Part I of three is devoted to "The Crisis in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean."

In the West, the issue of the Three Chapters was essentially not so much about the theology of Chalcedon as about its authority, which many Westerners saw as undermined by the condemnation of works and persons accepted by it, as also about the propriety of condemning persons who had died in the faith of the church. Readers interested, nonetheless, in the theological issues raised by Chalcedon, and how they came to involve the condemnation of Nestorius' friends in the tradition of Antioch, will learn all that they need to know and more in the judicious opening essay by Richard Price, entitled "The Three Chapters Controversy and the Council of Chalcedon."

The first center of resistance to the condemnation of the Three Chapters was certainly North Africa. In the second essay, "L'Afrique Reconquise et les Trois Chapitres," Yves Modéran offers convincing historical explanations for what transpired in North Africa, above all the disillusionment of the church of North Africa with the liberation it had believed would result from the reconquest, and with the security the reconquest was expected to provide against revolts in Mauretania and Numidia. The essential first achievement of this chapter is to set out chronologically the little-known steps by which the crisis unfolded 544-569. This is followed by a thoughtful challenging of the conventional explanation as to why North Africa was so vigorous in its resistance (that there was a tradition of resistance) by exploration of what African churchmen themselves appealed to (e.g. respect for church councils; experience in resisting Vandal repression); a careful analysis of the deepening sense of disillusionment referred to above, and of the reasons behind choices factions made to side with imperial policy or resist it; and explanations as to how, remarkably, peaceful relations between Constantinople and North Africa replaced hostilities after 569.

Part II turns to "Italy and the Papacy." As Claire Sotinel points out at the outset in her essay on "The Three Chapters and the Transformations of Italy," Italy was the area in the West most permanently and deeply marked by the Three Chapters Controversy. The distinction between the major administrative regions of Italia Suburbicaria, centred on Rome, and Italia Annonaria, with metropolitan sees in Milan and Aquileia, were reflected in distinct ecclesiastical realities. A third administrative and ecclesiastical reality was represented by Ravenna, the imperial seat. The wars of reconquest disrupted any balance that had been achieved, and the Three Chapters Controversy was superimposed on that backdrop and never existed in isolation from it. Sotinel chronicles in convincing detail what happened as confused reports about the condemnation of the Three Chapters spread in Italy, imperial authorities attempted to ensure its acceptance, and a succession of popes first opposed it, then joined in it, then obfuscated the whole affair in an attempt to obtain uninformed acceptance of it. Sotinel's main narrative, however, concerns the churches of northern Italy, led by Milan and Aquileia, which did have a relatively clear understanding of the condemnation and vigorously opposed it, so much so that they entered into schism with Rome, known as the Aquileian Schism, which endured for two centuries, and into complicated and ambivalent understandings with Ravenna. The different paths followed by Milan and Aquileia vis-á-vis Rome in subsequent years are shown to have influenced profoundly the ecclesiastical status of each in surprising ways.

One strand of the narrative concerning papal attempts to deal with the Aquileian Schism already outlined by Sotinel is taken up in detail by Carol Straw in an essay entitled "Much Ado about Nothing: Gregory the Great's Apology to the Istrians." Gregory, Straw explains, wished to reconcile the northern Italians to the Fifth Council and its condemnation of the Three Chapters, part of which required explaining away the papacy's volte face on the issue. The Gregory who emerges from the analysis misrepresented Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose post-Chalcedon correspondence made clear his intentions, as making only a very narrow claim; concealed the real issue (the radical position of the "Robber Council" of 449) that Chalcedon addressed; and diverted attention from Constantinople II's real intent in the condemning the Three Chapters by insisting that the whole controversy really was much ado about nothing.

By far the most intriguing essay is Celia Chazelle's "The Three Chapters Controversy and the Biblical Diagrams of Cassiodorus's Codex Grandior and Institutions." Chazelle admits that drawing connections between certain biblical diagrams in Cassiodorus that make no overt statement about the Three Chapters Controversy, and his reconstructed attitude towards a controversy about which he made no explicit comment in his writings, is a matter of "working with gossamer threads," especially as even the diagrams require a certain amount of reconstruction. There are several figures and one plate, so that one may follow this part of the argument if one is very attentive. The central gossamer thread concerns depictions of a male bust, a lamb, and a dove, evidently symbolizing the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but with the bust also--argues Chazelle--having the features of Christ, the human making the divine perceptible. Here Chazelle sees sympathy for Chalcedon's assertion of two natures, divine and human, in Christ. Supporting arguments are drawn, one from Cassiodorus' writings favoring unity and opposing division. Chazelle just may be correct, but certainty will never be possible on this point.

Claudio Azzara begins his essay, "Il Regno Longobardo in Italia e i Tre Capitoli," with a letter of 591 to the Emperor Maurice from ten bishops of Istria which, he says, illustrates the rent torn in the fabric of northern Italy as a result of the Lombard invasions and the Three Chapters Controversy. The bishops were resisting Gregory the Great's attempt to bring them back under Roman ecclesiastical authority, and represented a large area turned, by decades of disappointment and disruption, against Justinian, against Constantinople, and against Rome. Theirs was the distinct self-consciousness of the Aquileian church. The next section repeats unnecessarily information provided by the Introduction and earlier essays. However, the real contribution of the essay is its detailed exposition of the controversy as it unfolded between those inside the Lombard kingdoms (the schismatics), and Rome and Constantinople, with the Lombard rulers being given sympathetic treatment.

The Merovingian kingdom was not, as Ian Wood points out in "The Franks and Papal Theology, 550660," uninterested in the Three Chapters Controversy, but neither did it have clear information about it. What can be told, to some extent, is the story of how information, or misinformation, made its way to the Franks over the life of the controversy, and that is the meat of this essay. Wood concludes that it was only in periods when the papacy had reason to communicate real information to them that the Franks gained any kind of clarity about the controversy.

The final essay is Walter Pohl's "Heresy in Secundus and Paul the Deacon," which deals with Paul the Deacon's retrospective account of the Three Chapters Controversy, and his struggle to understand and represent quarrels that no longer had currency, and for which his sources were contradictory. In the process, Pohl addresses questions about the identity of Secundus of Trento--a "churchman in the service of the Lombard king and queen, Agilulf and Theodelinda," and a defender of the Three Chapters--and the history and influence of his lost Historiola.

The epilogue enunciates its purpose as "to make explicit the comparisons implied by the individual studies," a mandate it fulfils well, hanging these comparisons on the chronology of the controversy in the West. The various geographical and ecclesiastical areas dealt with are compared on such themes as their degree of involvement with the controversy, the longevity of resistance, the influence of military considerations, the tension between the goal of reconquest and the goal of religious unity, the degree of imperial influence via Ravenna, etc. The irony pointed out by the book's title, that the quest for unity provoked disunity, including the disunity represented by the Aquileian Schism, is driven home.

There is much to approve, and much to be learned, from this collection of essays. That they are the product of a collective decision to work in parallel on the Three Chapters Controversy in the West towards the production of a book probably explains why, unlike so many collections of conference proceedings, even on a well-defined topic, there is a surprising coherence, a lack of repetition, and a consistent high quality here. Predictably for a reviewer whose work concentrates on the East, there are certain disappointments having to do with the narrowly western viewpoint. Some were mentioned at the outset. Here it is worth mentioning only one, and the most serious: the lack of any sense of the bigger unification game Justinian was engaged in in the East, the attempt to restore the anti-Chalcedonian schismatics to the official Chalcedonian church, and with that to ensure the integrity of the Empire in the East. The risk of alienating for a few generations some diehards in the West--for a few generations, because in the end Gregory the Great's policy of reducing the schism there to "much ado about nothing" was successful--by condemning the Three Chapters could not but seem well worth taking to any emperor, and perhaps any church leader, who was aware of the risk to the empire in the East. As it was, the attempt failed and Justinian's fears were proved all too valid by the willingness with which areas dominated by anti-Chalcedonians welcomed Muslim invaders as their liberators in the next century.

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Patrick Gray

York University