Coping with the Powerful Other: A Comparative Approach to Greek-Slavonic Communities of Rite in Late Medieval Transylvania and the Banat

Doctoral Defense
Open to the Public
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Senate Room
Monday, February 24, 2014 - 9:00am
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Monday, February 24, 2014 - 9:00am to 11:00am

Doctoral Dissertation Abstract

Coping with the powerful other:

A Comparative Approach to Greek-Slavonic Communities of Rite

in Late Medieval Transylvania and the Banat

The aim of this study has been to analyze the history of the communities of Greek- Slavonic rite in Transylvania by comparing them with other Greek rite communities in regions that I chose to call transitional regions. The timeframe for this research stretches from the first conquest of Constantinople (1204), the fourth Lateran Council (1215), via the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–9) to the Council of Trent (1545–63) and witnessed the structural development of the Greek-Slavonic rite in Transylvania. By evaluating the existing evidence for late medieval Transylvania with comparable information available in the sources (the vast majority of which were produced by the Latins) I have laid the basis for a typology of the Greek-Slavonic rite communities in such regions. This was a necessary undertaking in order to expand the knowledge on how these communities functioned.

This was achieved, first of all, by proposing to the reader to step out of the historiographical trend which uses labels such as “Orthodox” and “Catholic” and, at the same time, by identifying the sources that underline the peculiarity and originality of the ecclesial communities in the transitional regions. For the purpose of this study, transitional regions are to be understood as territories where rites interact. The ecclesiastical landscape in such transitional regions is characterized by the presence of two or more communities of rite which are living, preaching, performing their rituals, and building in the same region, a situation which has been labeled as co-territoriality.  Communities of rite in such geographical and temporal contexts have so far and usually been labeled confessions. This usage further complicates the understanding of the relations between communities of different rites as, in the case of the ecclesial communities in the transitional regions, the term confession has been wrongly attributed in discussing realities that it does not apply to, realities that are outside the chronological coverage of this notion. Confessionalism is a historical trademark that applies much better when referring to an ecclesiological situation from the sixteenth century onwards, when with the Reformation the emerging Christian denominations went through a lengthy and painful process of self-definition in relation to other Christian groups.

Much of the historiography of the Orthodox-Catholic relations in Transylvania rests on attempts of proving the separate existence of the two Churches there. These attempts trace this dichotomy in time as far back as possible (sometimes up to the tenth century bishopric of Tourkia). Without taking a distance from the confessional mindset that animates most of the debates on the topic and without looking at the details of the often complicated but, all in all, functioning relation between the two branches of Christianity in the transitional regions, further research on the topic has every chance to stall. I have thus challenged opinion in Romanian historiography that reject any possibility of having the clergy and faithful of the Greek-Slavonic rite under the jurisdiction of the Latin hierarchy (on the grounds that they were canonically prohibited from entering in such a relation) or of Latin bishops supporting the erection of Greek rite churches on territory under their jurisdiction (since the faith of the Greeks was often considered a danger for the Latin rite Christians). Taking into account the cases discussed in this study, such an approach has been proven inadequate.

As previously mentioned, I compared the data regarding the Greek-Slavonic rite Church in Transylvania with similar information from Crete (a Venetian possession from 1207 to 1669) and Cyprus (under the Latin rite Lusignan dynasty, 1191–1489; then a Venetian possession, 1489–1571). Crete presented itself as a somehow ideal case for the comparative approach, as it shared (grosso modo) the same ecclesiological destiny as Transylvania. Both regions had an important part of the population following the Eastern rite, and both were under the rule of a state that was officially part of western Christianity, all the way through the major ecclesiological turning points that frame my research. Another important point here is that by the end of the Venetian rule on Crete, members of the two Christianities had coexisted for almost five hundred years in a relationship whose complexity had no rival in the Greek East.  

By means of introduction, I present the advantages of using the comparative method for the study of the history of the Greek rite communities of Transylvania. I also touch upon the lack of terminology and explain how the notion of “transitional region” adds insight to the more familiar and widely used concepts of conviventia and “frontier region,” and to the more recent one of “rough tolerance,” while also reviewing the terminology that is used in the contemporary documents referring to Greek rite Christians. Using the term “transitional region” has some advantages. It allows a much easier, to my taste at least, geographical identification of the regions which it covers and it helps the reader to map my research. At the same time, it does not imply clear-cut borders, and, as the subject it covers, still leaves room for interpretations and later refining. Such regions had characteristics that made them different from more homogenous regions. As opposed to lands where the rite or pattern of jurisdiction was uniform, the regions where Eastern and Western Christianities met such as southern Italy, the former possessions of the Byzantine empire after 1204 (such as Cyprus, Crete, and Romania), the crusader states, south-eastern Poland, Transylvania  and the Banat all experienced an intermingling of rites and theological traditions. My study points out both the differences and the similarities between these regions at the level of the ecclesial life of the local Greek rite communities (with a focus on Transylvania, Crete, and Cyprus, and with more occasional references to the situation in southern Italy, the Crusader States and the lands inhabited by the Ruthenians) and analyzes the special conditions for the Greek-Slavonic rite in Transylvania. Understanding the place of the Greek-Slavonic rite in medieval Transylvania required assessing the impact of high Church politics, the way the local ecclesiastical and aristocratic elites reacted to changes in Church policy, and the manner in which the “Orthodox” themselves were perceived when living in a “Catholic” environment, before the time of confessionalism. 

In the first part of the thesis, I discuss the ecclesiological landmarks that shaped the life of the Greek rite communities from the thirteenth century up to the Reformation and the Council of Trent. The papal discourse (and that of other officials of Latin rite) usually moves between schism and union (with some extreme accusations of heresy). I introduce these categories in connection with the transitional regions I am focusing on. At any moment during their long coexistence, these ecclesial communities were able to preserve their rite, sacred language, and other customs due to an ever adapting Latin canonical regime that had the power to authorize the institutional existence and legal exercise of a public cult. This regime aimed at ensuring the visible communion of the local Churches in the one universal Church, defined as such by the Creed used by both the Greek and Latin Churches, and devised by the common conciliar Tradition. While during the eight to the eleventh centuries the Byzantine emperors were the ones that subjected the dioceses of southern Italy to the patriarchate of Constantinople, allowing them to keep their Greek or Latin rites, after the Norman conquest, the Church of Rome was in charge of defining the type of union appropriate for the Greek Churches there, and in other transitional regions, and tried to accomplish this by ever-adapting its policy. Later on, the most important transformations were brought by the councils of Florence and Trento. Though the Council of Florence agreed to finally bring together the two Churches it was not a fully-fledged success.  Nevertheless, its results were applied in areas with Greek rite populations under the control of Latin rite elites. The period immediately following the Council of Ferrara-Florence brought into the spotlight the Greek-Slavonic communities of Transylvania. With more information about the Greek-Slavonic communities becoming available in the documents in the second half of the fifteenth century this represents a good example of how high Church policies applied locally contributed to increasing the visibility of these communities in the Hungarian kingdom.  This historical process ended with the establishment of the Orthodox bishopric (metropolitanate) of Transylvania at Alba Iulia, at the end of the sixteenth century:  a “natural” option since in ecclesiology sacred geography usually follows the political one.  Then again the presence of two bishops in the same seat shows the uncomfortable and non-canonical situation (when judged according to the canons of the councils held in the first millennium) that started to perpetuate itself with the Crusades, in the Christian oikoumene.

In the second part, I look at the activity of the Greek rite clergy in the transitional regions and the policy of the Latin Church towards this clergy. I analyze the presence or lack of bishops in these regions, as this gives vital information about the organisation of the Greek rite Churches under Latin secular rule and the perils of non-residence. I explore the role of the protopapades and priests as agents of the integration of the local Churches and as interfaces with the Latin authorities. Furthermore, I discuss the destiny of the Greek rite monastic establishments and their strategies for adaptation and survival.

The similarities, as well as the continuous contacts with the Latin rite Christians, led to attempts of a de facto integration of the Greek-Slavonic communities especially at the level of the hierarchy. The general trend imposed by the Latin rite Church (based on eleventh century precedents and the decisions taken in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council) was to integrate the Greek-Slavonic rite bishops in the jurisdictional structure of the Latin Church, while at the same time gradually marginalizing them. Few of the Greek rite bishops managed to retain their sees and exercise their jurisdiction over a canonically defined territory. Most of those who stayed lost the territorial aspect of their function. They were removed from towns and relegated to monasteries in the countryside or to villages, and exercised their jurisdiction over communities of rite, rather than including the territory inhabited by these communities. In Transylvania and Crete the Greek rite bishops were pushed out completely. When they do appear in the sources, they are considered unreliable characters in the eyes of the Latin rite political and ecclesial establishment and rapidly dealt with, either through reconversion or by being expelled. Even when they were allowed to hold office, like in Transylvania in the aftermath of the Florentine Council, the institutional reflex was so strong that the bishoprics of Feleacu and Vad were erected in villages. The Greek-Slavonic rite hierarchy in the transitional regions was reduced to a largely monastery based one.

The transitional region witnessed the increase of the role of intermediaries at the level of church hierarchy. Where bishops were unavailable, protopapades or archdeacons became leaders of the clergy at regional level. Though, with the exception of a few documents, the evidence is largely lacking, I believe that the protopapades were holding a quasi-episcopal status and were responsible for ordinations as well. With the loss of the territorial function of the bishop’s office such a transfer of function was relatively easy to achieve. It also shows that coexistence in such a region lead to flexibility and adaptation of the members of the communities of rite. The monastic environment adapted even faster, and was supported by various prominent Latin rite personages such as the popes or secular rulers of Hungary and Venice.

In the third part, I analyze the secular policies towards the Greek rite communities in the transitional regions. I also discuss the reaction to these policies of the members (mostly the landed elite) belonging to the communities of Greek rite and their entangled religious options. The cultural identity of these communities is then touched upon also by exploring some of their external identity markers such as church buildings or iconographical preferences. I further assess the regime of tithes specific to the Latin Church and the ways in which it was used and abused when applied to Greek rite Christians.

Except for cases which implicated extremists on both sides and created but brief moments of tension the communities of Greek rite in the transitional regions continued to live mostly undisturbed. The clergy and population in the transitional regions were mostly left outside the grand ecclesiological debates of the late medieval age. The most visible signs of their religious identity were the rite they were practicing with its exterior appearances, the rituals and litanies, the language, the religious feasts, etc., which were much closer to the everyday religious experience of the ordinary believer. The picture emerges of linked, cooperating communities, not fully integrated or assimilated into each other, with only limited need for a shared liturgical language, a model familiar in contemporary cities and on other frontiers.

This coexistence has been at times conflictual, as the Latin Church had a superior vantage point due to its institutional support and organization, and together with the secular power had usually played the active and offensive part in this bipolar ecclesiological landscape. The Latin Church exercised a de jure control over territories where the Greek-Slavonic rite Christians were living, and desired as a maximal aim the subordination and assimilation of the Greek-Slavonic rite communities and churches under its sway and beyond. In hindsight, this policy was overall unsuccessful which, as observed by Adrian Andrei Rusu, can be also attributed to an efficacious passive force which was well rooted in the life of the Greek-Slavonic (mostly rural) communities. The immobility of the Greek-Slavonic rite communities could also be the result of a weak and undetermined policy of conversion on behalf of the active Latin Church, as well as of a tolerance that drew its inspiration from the similarities between the two Churches which overwhelmed the differences, at least during the fifteenth century and in the social contexts discussed above. The differences were mostly resurgent during conflictual situations and were usually known to the privileged few among the theological elite.

Researchers of the relation between the two Churches still have a long way to go before they can clearly explain how the various canonical traditions have permitted the existence and perpetuation of such coexistence on the territories of alleged Catholic states and inside the borders of established Latin dioceses a long time after the two Churches had “officially” separated. Much is still to be done in order to properly define the terminology and to better understand the geographical distribution of such communities, their ethnical/cultural composition, and the social changes these communities had to face during their long existence. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the analysis of the communities of rite in the framework of the transitional regions adds a further tool to the ongoing process of refining and redefining the theoretical tools at our disposal.