medieval history

January 22, 2015 (Source:

January 9, July 3, October 5

-December 23, 1569

When in 1480 Moscow’s Grand Prince Ivan III forced the Tatars to renounce their claim to the Russian tribute, it signaled Russia’s liberation from the Mongol yoke and confirmed Moscow’s ascendancy over the other Russian principalities. Indeed, whether by diplomacy or force, by 1517 Yaroslav, Rostov, Perm, Tver, Viatka, Novgorod, Pskov, Riazan–all had come under the aegis of Moscow. It was with some justification, therefore, that in 1547, when Grand Prince Ivan IV of Moscow reached his majority, he chose for himself the title “Tsar (Caesar) of All Russia.

Moscow absolutism may be said to have come of age under Ivan IV, but it had been developing already for some time. With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow inherited Byzantium’s position of preeminence in the Orthodox Christian world, and gradually adopted the Byzantine model of government–a holy alliance between Church and State-in which ultimate authority over both the secular and ecclesiastical realms reared with the political ruler. Such a concentration of power demanded the restraint of a profoundly Christian conscience-something which few rulers, Byzantine or Russian, were able to exercise with any constancy.

As one historian has justly observed, “The purest, sublimest ideal is subject to deterioration when it is realized concretely.”  The Byzantine model was wide open to abuse, and in Russia’s first “tsar,” Ivan IV, this weakness was exploited to an extreme. True, his bloody excesses can largely be explained by a pathological fear of intrigue, a fear rooted in the traumatic circumstances of a childhood which witnessed the volatile treachery of boyars constantly jockeying for power during his mother’s regency (his father Basil III died in 1533 when Ivan was only three years old). But his despotic temperament–which earned him history’s epithet “the Terrible” or “the Dread’–was not simply the tragic outcome of a tormented Psychology. It was unwittingly nurtured by the virtual absolutism which the Byzantine model conferred upon the reigning sovereign. This absolutism was supported by certain Church figures. St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, a vigorous proponent of the close connection between Church and State, wrote to Ivan’s father:. “If the sovereign is like to all men as regards his human nature, he is like to God as regards his power.”

In theory, of course, St. Joseph recognized the Church as supreme; the sovereign’s highest duty was to concern himself with the good of the Church. But in thus idealizing the role of the sovereign, the Church effectively cornered itself into a position of submission; hierarchs who criticized the misdeeds of their sovereigns were all to frequently silenced with a reminder of the sovereign’s divine right, and those who nobly challenged this interpretation courted deposition, banishment, even death.

Given this historic background, we can more fully appreciate the lofty spiritual exploit of Metropolitan Philip of Moscow, whose defense of the Church’s sovereignty was rewarded by a martyr’s death.

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January 22, 2015

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