This episode will take you on a historical journey, shedding light on the complex cultural, linguistic, and administrative differences and the theological disputes that fueled the Great Schism between the Latin Church and the Greek Church in 1054. We explore the fallout of the Fourth Crusade, the ensuing attempts to mend the schism and the intricacies of the Council of Florence of 1439. Cosimo de Medici's persuasive prowess led to the relocation of the Council to Florence from Ferrara and gave the city unforeseen cultural and financial gains. Finally, we touch upon the influence of the Council of Florence on the Florentine Renaissance.
The Council of Florence by Joseph Gill
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Intro Music: Hayden Symphony #39
Outro Music: Vivaldi Concerto for Mandolin and Strings in D
I Take History With My Coffee Podcast
Title: “Let the Heavens Rejoice!”
“Let Mother Church also rejoice. For she now beholds her sons hitherto in disagreement returned to unity and peace, and she who hitherto wept at their separation now gives thanks to God with inexpressible joy at their truly marvelous harmony. Let all the faithful throughout the world, and those who go by the name of Christian, be glad with mother catholic church. For behold, western and eastern fathers after a very long period of disagreement and discord, submitting themselves to the perils of sea and land and having endured labors of all kinds, came together in this holy ecumenical council, joyful and eager in their desire for this most holy union and to restore intact the ancient love.”
Laetentur Caeli, Bull of Union With the Greeks, July 1439
Welcome back to the I Take History With My Coffee podcast and thank you for continuing our exploration of the Early Modern period.
In this episode, we will not delve too deep into theology but focus on some of the history of the split between the West and East to put into context the council that would ultimately meet in Florence in 1439.
The Great Schism permanently split the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church during the Middle Ages. The split had deep historical roots, going back to the division of the Roman Empire by Diocletian in the late 3rd century, which already reflected cultural detachment between Greeks and Latins. As Christianity developed in both regions, cultural, linguistic, and administrative differences contributed to the estrangement.
Over time, theological disputes emerged, including differences in understanding the Trinity and liturgical practices. St. Augustine's works shaped the Latin understanding of the Trinity. At the same time, the Christian East followed the Cappadocian Fathers' approach, viewing the Father as the origin of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The West emphasized the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and Son. These differing views coexisted in tension for centuries.
Additionally, issues of grace versus law, righteousness, justification, and atonement were points of contention for the Latin West. At the same time, the Christian East had controversies around liturgical expressions and the concept of humans becoming divine through incarnation.
The role of the Pope and his authority in Rome was a significant point of debate, with the Western Church increasingly asserting the primacy of the Pope, while the Eastern Church emphasized the authority of ecumenical councils and the role of the patriarchs.
The formal split occurred in 1054 when mutual excommunications were exchanged between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constaninople. The Eastern Church, though, considered the separation to have happened during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 when Constantinople was sacked. The city suffered immense destruction and pillaging, and its most sacred items were lost or taken to the Christian West. The Greek people saw this event as a grave act that deeply impacted their perception of the West and their fear of Latinization. The sack created centuries of cultural rejection and mass disapproval among Greeks towards anything associated with Rome. This heavily influenced how the Christian East viewed the West.
After the schism, the Western Church remained centered in Rome and gradually developed its distinct theological, liturgical, and administrative traditions. The Eastern Church continued its traditions under the leadership of various Patriarchs, with the Patriarch of Constantinople as the first among equals in the Eastern Orthodox communion.
Despite their feelings after 1204, the Greeks did make significant attempts to heal the schism. In 1334, the patriarch of Constantinople chose Barlaam of Calabria to represent the Greeks in a dialogue with Dominican bishops, proposing a solution to the divide. However, Pope Benedict XII rejected this offer and insisted that the Greeks accept the papal authority's decisions.
Later, Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos took up the task and initiated direct negotiations with Pope Clement VI. John VI advocated for an ecumenical council to be held in Constantinople or Rhodes, with comprehensive theological discussions. However, negotiations reached a dead end with Pope Clement VI's death in 1352. John VI continued his efforts in 1367. However, like his predecessors, Pope Urban V rejected the idea and maintained that unconditional obedience to the see of Rome was the only way to bridge the divide between the Latins and Greeks.
The Great Western Schism from 1378 to 1417 put negotiations between the Christian East and West on hold. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) aimed to restore unity to the Western Church, bringing the conciliar movement to prominence. This movement gave hope to the Greeks, as it emphasized the authority of ecumenical councils over the Pope in matters of faith. Negotiations resumed, with the Greeks proposing the same conditions as before, including an ecumenical council with financial securities and a location near the sea for safe return if the talks failed.
Adhering to the idea that councils should be held regularly, Martin V, the Pope elected at the Council of Constance, invoked that one should be convened in Basel in 1431. But Martin V died in February of that year before the council started. Pope Eugene IV was then elected and tried to dissolve the council at Basel to convene a new one at Bologna. He was overruled.
The Council of Basel officially began on December 14th, 1431, as decreed by Pope Martin V. Eugene IV, after initially trying to dissolve the Council after four days, called for the council to meet at Ferrara and invited the bishops from Basel, who refused to comply. The bishops insisted on the supremacy of general councils over the Pope's authority.
Meanwhile, Pope Eugene IV accelerated negotiations with the Eastern Church for a union between the Christian East and West. Both sides stood to benefit from the union, with the Greeks seeking military help against the threat of Ottoman Turks, and Eugene IV seeing it as an opportunity to strengthen his rule and influence in both the West and East. While the Turkish threat was real, it wasn't the sole reason for the Christian East's consideration of a new ecumenical council. The Eastern Church's ecclesiastical hierarchy had been seeking a way to restore unity for a long time. At various points, Byzantine rulers were willing to submit to the spiritual supremacy of the see of Rome without theological preconditions, depending on the need for Western aid.
From the Eastern perspective, any ecumenical council had certain elements and preconditions. The Pentarchian structure, established in the 4th century, viewed the Christian Church as one visible body ruled by five Patriarchs in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Each Patriarch or their representative had to attend and approve the final decision of each Ecumenical Council, making the result binding for the universal Church.
Additionally, the Roman Emperor had to issue a formal call to gather bishops and Patriarchs for an ecumenical council. This concept, known as symphonia, symbolized the religious and governmental unity of the Christian World. Constantinople, as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was still seen as synonymous with the Roman Empire. Even when the empire's territorial extent dwindled due to the encroachment of Islam, the Greeks insisted on the de jure continuation of the Rome Empire and its authority to call an ecumenical council. They considered themselves true "Romans" who closely adhered to the Roman heritage and system of government. (In fact, they never referred to themselves as Byzantines. They called themselves "Romaioi" - Romans.)
Before the Ecumenical Council began, there was a dispute over who would represent the West: the bishops at Basel or the Pope's council at Ferrara. Both sides sent representatives to the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Byzantine Emperor. The representatives met in Constantinople and even came close to physical confrontation. The East agreed to participate only if the Pope attended the Council, as per the doctrine of Pentarchy, which required the Pope to represent the West. Geographical factors also played a role. Though Ferrara was less than ideal, Basel was further inland and facing financial issues in raising funds.
The Greek delegation arrived in Venice on February 8th, 1438, and received a splendid reception led by the Doge. The Greeks were positively surprised by the warm welcome, despite the flourishing cultural and commercial ties between Constantinople and Venice. Many Greeks had sought refuge in Venice, where they had found a receptive environment. The humanistic thirst for classical knowledge peaked during this time, contributing to the enthusiastic attention and respectful reception the Greeks received. There was no lack of those eager to learn and obtain valuable manuscripts.
However, the warm reception in Venice was overshadowed by the sight of stolen sacred artifacts from the Fourth Crusade displayed in Venetian churches, a stark reminder of the darker side of the relationship between West and East. After staying there for about a month, the Greeks arrived in Ferrara on March 4th. At Ferrara, the Patriarch designated St. George Cathedral as the location for the Council proceedings, firmly establishing Ferrara as the main venue. The Patriarch of Constantinople expressed his wish for Basel's participants to come to Ferrara and accept the Pope's leadership, leaving no doubt about Basel's role in the discussions.
At the top of the agenda was the issue of the Filioque. This was the Western addition to the Nicene Creed. It asserted that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In the Eastern tradition, the Holy Spirit only originates from the Father. The Greeks saw this as the most significant obstacle to reconciliation between the churches. Other points of contention included discussions on leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Eucharist, the concept of Purgatory, and the role of the see of Rome, which was of great importance to Pope Eugene IV.
However, the Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, delayed the start of any real debate. He wished to wait for representatives of the secular powers. Despite efforts by both sides, the rulers showed little enthusiasm throughout Europe. Soon, the Greeks faced financial hardships. Promised finances from the Pope to support the Greek delegation were perpetually delayed, leading to difficulties. The Pope lacked available funds due to hostile military actions in Italy and the Council of Basel's interference in the monetary flow to Rome. And then the plague arrived in Ferrara.
It was at this moment that Cosimo de Medici stepped in. For any city, hosting a church council was analogous to hosting a Super Bowl or World Cup. It would benefit financially, culturally, and politically. A council would mean prestige for both Florence and Cosimo. And if that council achieved a union between the two churches, then that would be an honor unequaled in Christendom. Cosimo petitioned that Florence should be the host city when the council site was first discussed. He was disappointed when Ferrara was chosen but felt a bit of smugness and vindication when problems arose. Then, when the plague broke out, he saw an opportunity.
Cosimo dispatched his brother Lorenzo to Ferrara with assurances that Florence was healthier, had better accommodations for no charge, and that the Council could use a 1500 florin a month loan as long as it was in session. This was an offer too good to refuse, and all parties immediately accepted it. In January 1439, the Council was transferred to Florence.
The entry of the Eastern Emperor and his entourage into Florence did not go as planned. A fierce winter storm forced observers off the streets and rooftops, disrupting the grand procession. Cosimo, who had himself appointed as Gonfaloniere, was relieved that the city's guests were safely lodged in various places: the Pope and his suite in the monastery of Santa Maria Novella, the Patriarch of Constantinople in Palazzo Ferranti, and the Emperor and his attendants in the palaces and houses of the exiled Peruzzi family. Council committees met in Santa Maria Novella, while full sessions occurred in Santa Croce.
During the Council sessions, Cosimo’s friend, the bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci was deeply impressed by the learned speeches and the skillful interpreters translating between Greek and Latin. To the Florentine citizens, the Council was a delightful spectacle. They were fascinated by the bearded men from Constantinople in their opulent clothes and unusual headdresses, accompanied by servants from Moorish and Mongol backgrounds and even exotic animals. This captivating sight inspired many Florentine painters, including Gentile da Fabriano and Benozzo Gozzoli.
I will not go into the details of the theological discussions of the council. For those looking for a more in-depth discussion of the council, I refer them to Joseph Gill’s book “The Council of Florence.” It remains one of the few comprehensive works on this subject. A link to the book is in the show description under resources.
As the days passed during the Council of Florence, it became evident that little progress was being made, and tensions were rising—one of the main disputes centered around the origin and nature of the third Person of the Trinity. The Greeks' opinion clashed with the Pope's spokesman, Ambrogio Traversari. As an example of how things were proceeding, a nervous delegate mistakenly scratched out a different passage during the discussions, causing confusion.
However, after private discussions between Traversari and Johannes Bessarion, Archbishop of Nicaea, a compromise on the Holy Ghost was reached, paving the way for agreements on other matters, including the partial authority of the Papacy over the Eastern Church. The crucial document setting forth the terms of the compromise was signed on July 5, 1439, and during a ceremony in the Cathedral the next day, it was proclaimed: "Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult for the wall which divided the Western and Eastern Churches has fallen. Peace and concord have returned.”
The accord agreed upon at Florence would be short-lived. The agreement was strongly denounced and abandoned after the delegates returned to Constantinople from Florence. During the Council, the Eastern Church made efforts to present a united front and meet the criteria for a genuinely ecumenical council. The Byzantine Emperor and representatives from various patriarchates attended, giving the impression of proper representation. However, these representatives were mainly from Constantinople's elite circle, not truly representing the broader Eastern Orthodox community. Most Eastern Christians lived under Muslim rule or in Slavic nations and were not adequately represented at the council. They had little interest in sacrificing their faith to save the declining Byzantine Empire. Among the general populace was a strong feeling that it would be better to live under Sultan’s turban than the Latin miter.
Mark Eugenicus, the Metropolitan of Ephesus, was the only one of the Greek delegation who had refused to sign the agreement in Florence. He emerged as a critical figure in the anti-unionist movement within the Empire. The Eastern Church now faced internal splits and power struggles, which affected its response to the Union. The imminent threat of Turkish invasion further complicated the situation in Constantinople.
Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor, sought help from the West to save Constantinople but faced resistance from anti-unionists who refused to recognize him as emperor. Despite a temporary acceptance of the Union in Hagia Sophia in 1452, it could not prevent the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans on May 29, 1453.
The council at Florence would be the last attempt at unifying the two branches of Christianity. By the beginning of the 16th century, the Latin Church faced its own crisis leading to the Protestant Reformation.
For Florence, the Council had a positive impact, as predicted by Cosimo. It benefited the city's trade and significantly impacted the emerging Florentine Renaissance. The presence of numerous Greek scholars in Florence greatly influenced the growing interest in classical texts, history, art, and philosophy. The study of Plato, in particular, was revitalized, surpassing the long-standing dominance of his pupil, Aristotle. Johannes Bessarion, Archbishop of Nicaea and a prominent Greek scholar, decided to stay in Italy, becoming a cardinal and Archbishop of Siponto. Similarly, Gemistos Plethon, an authority on Plato, remained in Florence before eventually returning to his homeland to pass away.
In the next episode, we will explore Cosimo de Medici’s role in Florence's intellectual and artistic life.
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