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Michael Cærularius

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Patriarch of Constantinople (1043-58), author of the second and final schism of the Byzantine Church, date of birth unknown; d. 1058. After the reconciliation following the schism of Photius (d. 801), there remained at Constantinople an anti-Latin party that gloried in the work of that patriarch, honoured him as the great defender of the Orthodox Church, and waited for a chance of renewing his quarrel. The only explanation of Michael Cærularius's conduct is that he belonged from the beginning to the extreme wing of that party, and had always meant to break with the pope as soon as he could. Belonging to one of the great families of Constantinople, he held in his youth some place at the Court. He began his public career by plotting with Constantine Monomachus, the future emperor, to depose Emperor Michael IV (1034-1041). Both conspirators were banished, and, in their exile, formed the friendship to which Cærularius owed his later advancement. Cærularius was known as a dangerous person, so the Government tried to stop his political career by making him a monk. At first he refused; then suddenly the suicide of his brother caused his conversion, and he voluntarily entered a monastery. In 1042 Monomachus became emperor peaceably by marrying Zoe, a descendant of Basil the Macedonian (Basil I, 867-86) and widow of both Romanus III (1028-34) and Michael IV. He remembered his old friend and fellow-conspirator and gave him an ambiguous place at court, described as that of the emperor's "familiar friend and guest at meals" (Psellus, "Enkomion", I, 324). As Cærularius was a monk, any further advancement must be that of an ecclesiastical career. He was therefore next made syncellus (that is, secretary) of the patriarch, Alexius (1025-34). The syncellus was always a bishop, and held a place in the church second only to that of the patriarch himself. In 1034 Alexius died, and Constantine appointed Cærularius as his successor. There was no election; the emperor "went like an arrow to the target" (Psellus, ibid., p. 326). From this moment the story of Cærularius becomes that of the great schism.

The time was singularly unpropitious for a quarrel with the pope. The Normans were invading Sicily, enemies of both the papacy and the Eastern Empire, from whom they were conquering that island. There was every reason why the pope (St. Leo IX, 1048-56) and the emperor should keep friends and unite their forces against the common enemy. Both knew it, and tried throughout to prevent a quarrel. But it was forced on them by the outrageous conduct of the patriarch. Suddenly, after no kind of provocation, in the midst of what John Beccus describes as "perfect peace" between the two Churches (L. Allatius, "Græcia orthod.", I, 37), Cærularius sent a declaration of war against the pope and the Latins. His agent was Leo, Metropolitan of Achrida in Bulgaria. In 1053 this latter sent a letter to Bishop John of Tranum in Apulia, complaining of certain Latin customs, especially fasting on Saturday and the use of azyme (unleavened) bread for the Holy Eucharist. He says that the letter is meant for "all the bishops of the Franks and for the most venerable pope" (published by Will, "Acta et scripta", 56-60). There is no doubt that it was dictated by Cærularius. John of Tranum sent the letter on to Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, who translated it and showed it to the pope. Cærularius then sent to the other patriarchs a treatise written by Nicetas Pectoratus (Niketas Stethatos in Greek), a monk of Studion, against azyme bread, fasting on Saturday, and celibacy. Because of these "horrible infirmities", Nicetas describes Latins as "dogs, bad workmen, schismatics, hypocrites, and liars" (Will, op. cit., 127-36). Cærularius's third move made it plain that he meant war to the knife. Still entirely unprovoked, he closed all the Latin churches at Constantinople, including that of the papal legate. His chancellor Nicephorus burst open the Latin tabernacles, and trampled on the Holy Eucharist because it was consecrated in azyme bread.

The pope then answered the letter of Leo of Achrida. Knowing well whence it came, he addressed his answer in the first place to Cærularius. It is a dignified defence of the customs attacked and of the rights of the Holy See. He points out that no one thought of attacking the many Byzantine monasteries and churches in the West (Will, op. cit., 65-85). For a moment Cærularius seems to have wavered in his plan because of the importance of the pope's help against the Normans. He writes to Peter III of Antioch, that he had for this reason proposed an alliance with Leo (Will, 174). Leo answered this proposal resenting the stupendous arrogance of Michael's tone, but still hoping for peace. At the same time he wrote a very friendly letter to the emperor, and sent both documents to Constantinople by three legates, Cardinal Humbert, Cardinal Frederick (his own cousin and Chancellor of the Roman Church, afterwards Stephen IX, 1057-58), and Archbishop Peter of Amalfi. The emperor, who was exceedingly annoyed about the whole quarrel, received the legates with honour and lodged them in his palace. Cærularius, who had now quite given up the idea of his alliance, was very indignant that the legates did not give him precedence and prostrate before him, and wrote to Peter of Antioch that they are "insolent, boastful, rash, arrogant, and stupid" (Will, 177). Several weeks passed in discussion. Cardinal Humbert wrote defences of the Latin customs, and incidentally converted Nicetas Pectoratus (Will, 93-126, 136-50). Cærularius refused to see the legates or to hold any communication with them: he struck the pope's name from his diptychs, and so declared open schism. The legates then prepared the Bull of excommunication against him, Leo of Achrida, and their adherents, which they laid on the altar of Sancta Sophia on 16 July, 1054. Two days later they set out for Rome. The emperor was still on good terms with them and gave them presents for Monte Cassino. Hardly were they gone when Cærularius sent for them to come back, meaning to have them murdered (the evidence for this is given in Fortescue, "Orthodox Eastern Church", 186-7). Cærularius, when this attempt failed, sent an account of the whole story to the other patriarchs so full of lies that John of Antioch answered him: "I am covered with shame that your venerable letter should contain such things. Believe me, I do not know how to explain it for your own sake, especially if you have written like this to the other most blessed patriarchs" (Will, 190).

After the schism Cærularius became for a time the strongest man at Constantinople. He quarrelled with his former patron, Constantine IX, who appeased him by abject apologies. He became a kind of king-maker. When Theodora succeeded (1055-6), he "tried to rule over the empress" (Psellus, "Enkomion", 357). Michael VI (1056-7) was not sufficiently submissive, so Cærularius worked up a revolution, deposed him, went himself to cut off his hair, and shut him up in a monastery. In his place he set up Isaac Comnenus (Isaac I, 1057-9). Isaac knew well to whom he owed his place and was at first very docile. At this time Cærularius reached the height of his power. He appointed all the officers of state, and was the real sovereign of the empire. So little did he disguise this fact that he began to wear the purple shoes that were always the prerogative of the emperor. "Losing all shame", says Psellus, "he joined royalty and priesthood in himself; in his hand he held the cross while imperial laws came from his mouth" (in Brehier, op. cit., 275). Then Isaac got tired of being the patriarch's puppet and wanted to reign himself. So once again Cærularius worked up a revolution. This time he meant to have himself crowned emperor. But Isaac was too quick for him; Michael Psellus was employed to bring the charge against him. He was accused of treason, paganism, and magic; he was "impious, tyrannical, murderous, sacrilegious, unworthy". He was condemned to banishment at Madytus on the Hellespont. On the way there was a shipwreck from the effects of which he died (1059).

As soon as he was dead his apotheosis began. The emperor professed much regret for what had happened; his body was brought back to Constantinople and buried with great pomp in the church of the Holy Angels. Psellus, who had brought the charges against him, now preached a panegyric in his honour, describing him as the best, wisest, holiest, most misunderstood of men (this "Enkomion" is published by Sathas; see bibliography). It seems that, as soon as he was dead and therefore no longer dangerous, the Government found it more prudent to pretend to share the popular enthusiasm for him. From Psellus's two accounts (the indictment at the trial and the funeral oration) it is not difficult to form an opinion about Cærularius's character. He was by far the strongest man in the Eastern Empire during a time of its general degradation, far more capable than the contemptible emperors he set up and deposed. His life was austere. He had unbounded ambition, pride, and savage vindictiveness. It was said at the time that he never forgave an injury. He was not a scholar, nor in any way so great a man as his predecessor and model, Photius. It seems that his breach with Rome was a part of a general scheme. He wanted to make himself autocrat of at least Eastern Europe. He could easily cow the feeble emperors; he could and did dictate orders overweeningly to the other Eastern patriarchs, but he knew that he could not frighten nor persuade the pope to tolerate such a position. A breach with the West was thus the first necessary step in a career that was meant to end in a combination of patriarchate and empire in his own person. He did not succeed in that plan, but he did something much more momentous; he founded the schismatical Byzantine Church.


     WILL, Acta et Scripta quæ de controversiis ecclesiæ græcæ et latinæ sæculo XI composita extant (Leipzig, 1861); PSELLUS, History, ed. SATHAS, in Byzantine Texts (London, 1898); PSELLUS, Enkomion in SATHAS, Bibl. medii ævi, IV (1875), 326 sqq.; also in P.G., CXXII, 477-1186; BRÉHIER, Le schisme oriental du XIe siecle (Paris, 1899); HERGENRÖTHER, Photius, III (Ratisbon, 1869); PICHLER, Gesch. der kirchl. Trennung zwischen den Orient u. Occident (Munich, 1864-5); NORDEN, Das Papsttum und Byzanz (Berlin, 1903); FORTESCUE, The Orthodox Eastern Church (London, 1907), chap. v, The Schism of Cerularius.

About this page

APA citation. Fortescue, A. (1911). Michael Cærularius. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fortescue, Adrian. "Michael Cærularius." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert and St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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