Sources for the History of the Council of Florence
It was at an early period that the spirit of supremacy began to show itself in the Pontiffs of Rome. As soon as their unceasing and strenuous efforts to spread their spiritual monarch over the whole of the West were crowned with success, they, not content with this, sought also the submission to their pontifical throne of their own equals–the Eastern Patriarchs, and thus occasioned that great division of the West and East, which, commencing under Photius, ended in the final Schism of the Church of Rome from the only Orthodox Church of the East. It was not love of power alone that caused this division; but also an obstinacy in adhering to many material regressions from ancient doctrine and discipline of the Church Oecumenical. Time, instead of abating this love of power and eradicating errors, only conduced to their development and strength. Thus it was, that the division of the Churches became more and more permanent, while the Eastern Christians, true to their ancient Orthodoxy, were strengthened in their aversion to the Latin Church.
The calamitous state of the Eastern Empire, bereft of its strength, at one and the same time open to the ravages of barbarous and rude nations from the north and east, while it suffered no less from the encroachments of its own brethren of the West, more than once engendered a wish in its rulers to restore the former spirit of love and peace between the Churches, hoping by these means to find effectual aid in the head of Western Christianity against enemies threatening the Empire with ruin and desolation. The Popes were nothing loth to receive such demonstrations from the East, always keeping their own object in view, that of attaining supremacy and dominion over the four Eastern Patriarchates. Nevertheless, it was very evident, that as long as the Pope retained such an object in view, and refused to return to the pure ancient doctrine and practice of the Church, no such efforts of reconciliation would prove successful.
The fruit of these efforts during the existence of the Eastern Empire, was a Council, which, convened at Ferrara, was afterwards removed to Florence, and there came to a close. Twenty years of preparation for this Council, the presence of the Eastern Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople with other Patriarchal Vicars (‘Epitropoi) and Bishops, on one side, and that of the Pope, with his numerous suite of Cardinals and Bishops on the other; then, against, the long duration of the conferences on the principal causes of the division; lastly, the very minuteness with which the points in dispute were brought under the notice of the Synod—all this together enhances the special value of a history of the Council. Whereas, again, its close, so contrary to the hopes and expectations nourished at its opening by those who came from the far east, contrary to the evident superiority of the last named in Truth and justice, gives rise to a very laudable curiosity as to how affairs were really carried on in this assembly. A son of the Orthodox Graeco-Russian Church has besides this a more special inducement to acquaint himself with the history of this Council, not only because it included among its members a Russian Metropolitan, who took no little interest in the acts, though himself no great defender of the ancient Orthodox of his Church; but also because the decrees of Florence served as a foundation for the so-called “Unia” organised in the south-eastern provinces of our country, thanks to the Jesuits of the sixteenth century. An impartial history will show how unjustly the canons of the Council of Florence were, and even are, counted as the production of Greeks, ever the true sons of their Orthodox Church.
The contemporary description of this Council by Syropulus, known by the name of a “Truthful History of an Unjust Union,” is the first and principal source for the History of this Council. Sylvester Syropulus, a Greek by birth, was the son of a Church-teacher, by whom he was educated, and soon formed an intimate acquaintance with many pious and learned men of his time. Ordained deacon of the Constantinopolitan Church, with the title of Ecclesiarch and Dikeophylax, he accompanied the Patriarch to the Council of Florence, was present at it in the capacity of a member, and thus saw and heard all things transacted there, even taking part in many of the minor meetings of the Bishops; lastly, he was more than once sent by the other members of the Council to the Pope. His steadfastness in the Orthodox doctrine and aversion from the union drew on him the Emperor’s anger, and was the cause of much indignation on the part of the Latins and the Greek apostates from Orthodoxy. At the urgent demands of the Emperor’s offices, he signed the Council’s decrees; but shortly afterwards sincerely repented of what he had done; and, withdrawing himself from the union and his Church office, wrote his history of the Synod.
The history of Syropulus closes with the events of the year 1444 and 1445; we can, with great likelihood, suppose that it was written just about this time; and consequently, during the lifetime of the Emperor, John Paleologus, and many other members of the Council. This circumstance attests the truth of his history. He himself affirms in many places, that there is nothing but truth in his history, that he even wished to omit many things, but could not do so, as the witnesses of these events were still alive. Without going into the details of the public disputes, written down during the very sittings of the Council, he relates the private conferences of the Greek Bishops, generally using their own expressions. When describing the preliminary intercourse of the Emperor and Patriarch with the Popes, he makes use of the “grammata” entered into the Church codex; he also finds place in his history for some of the genuine acts of the Council, e.g., the opinions of the Patriarch and the Emperor on the Procession of the Holy Ghost; also for the objections of the Latins against the exposition of the same doctrine made by the Greek Bishops. With rare honesty he refuses witnessing to subjects more or less unknown to him, but narrates what he himself had heard. Speaking of the principal authors of the union, he is far from concealing their good qualities, remarking that it is unjust to pass them over in silence; neither is he silent upon many injudicious acts of the defenders of Orthodox; he then relates, with great frankness and sincerity, how he was obliged to sign his name to the Council decree, and tries to exculpate himself, by saying, that it was not done for money. Lastly, we must say that the memoirs of Syropulus correspond in the principal points with other Greek and Latin narratives of the Council. All these circumstances attest the sincerity of the writer and the truth of his history.
We have already mentioned, that Syropulus does not give place in his history to any of the public disputes at the Council; but to make up for this he endeavours to disclose the object held in view by the Emperor, the Pope and their party, and the motives from which they acted at the Council. His description of the private, secret intercourse between the Latins and Greeks after the public sittings of the Council, brings to light many of their dark doings, which, were it not for Syropulus, would have remained until now unknown to us. Generally speaking, were it not for his memoirs, the description of this Council by other authors would hardly have proved satisfactory.
Out of all the annals of this Council, published by the Church of Rome, the best is very rightly reckoned to be,—the “History of the Council of Florence,” written in Greek by one of its members, Dorotheus, Metropolitan of Mitylene. It principally consists in an exposition of the Council disputes, very likely composed with the help of notes, made at the very Council, and to which the historian now and then refers. On finishing the Acts of the Council, the author commences his own diary of the chief occupations of the Greek Bishops until the close of the Synod. The diary is short, because the writer, who was one of the most active partizans of the Church union, only finds place for such subjects as seemed most important for his object in view, and looks upon them besides in his own light. In the course of our history of the Florentine Council, we can, under the guidance of Syropulus, also avail ourselves of the memoirs of Dorotheus, endeavouring as far as possible to clear the truth from falsehood, and to amplify one narrative by the other.
The Russian annals and memoirs, on the voyage of the Metropolitan Isidore to the Council, may also be of use in showing several circumstances, touching the Russian Metropolitan, of which there is no mention made in Syropulus, or in the Latin descriptions of the Council.
A complete history of the Council of Florence must not only show the progress of the Council and its results; but also give an introductory sketch of the contemporary state of the Eastern Empire and the Church of Rome. By doing this it will serve to explain the reason of the strenuous efforts made by the Emperor and Pope to convene a Council and accomplish the union of Churches.