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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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The conversion to Catholicism of Emperor John V.

        Towards the seventh decade of the fourteenth century the Turks were the masters of Asia Minor and the peninsula of Gallipoli in Europe, and were beginning to advance through the Balkan peninsula and threatening to encircle Constantinople. John V Palaeologus put all his trust in the pope.

        The fourteenth century was the epoch of the so-called “Babylonian Captivity;” from 1305 to 1378 the seven popes consecutively occupying the throne of St. Peter had a more or less permanent residence on the Rhone, at Avignon, and were practically dependent on the French kings. The papal appeals to the western rulers for aid against the Turks were fruitless or brought about only small expeditions, sometimes temporarily successful, but of no permanent help. There was no longer any crusading enthusiasm in the West. Also, in the opinion of the west Europeans of that time, the schismatic Greeks were more repulsive than the Muslim Turks. Petrarca wrote: “The Turks are enemies, but the Greeks are schismatics and worse than enemies.”[280]

        In 1367 Pope Urban V decided to move from Avignon to Rome. On his way to the Eternal City he was met by Byzantine envoys who notified him that the Emperor was anxious to adopt Catholicism and for this purpose was ready to come to Rome. John V arrived in Rome by sea, via Naples.[281] That John in his decision to adopt Catholicism had no support from the Byzantine Church is clear from the fact that among the high officials who accompanied him to Rome there was not a single representative of the Byzantine clergy. In October 1369, in Rome, he solemnly read aloud his confession of faith in full accordance with the dogmas of the Roman Catholic church. In the temple of St. Peter the pope celebrated a solemn service during which John V once more read the confession of faith and confirmed again the dogma that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and Son, and that the pope was the head of all Christians. On the same day the Emperor dined with the pope; all the cardinals were invited to the table. Through Naples and Venice, the Emperor returned to Constantinople. His stay at Venice ended in humiliation. He was arrested by the Venetians as an insolvent debtor and released only when his noble and energetic son, the future Emperor Manuel, came in person to Venice and redeemed his father. Shortly after the Emperor’s departure, Pope Urban V returned to Avignon.

        In his encyclical letter the pope expressed his joy at John’s return to the Catholic faith and abjuration of the schism, and declared his hope that this example would be imitated by “the numberless peoples who followed the schism and the errors of the Greeks.” At the same time, however, the patriarch of Constantinople Philotheus, sent messages not only to the population of the Empire but also to the Orthodox Christians beyond its confines, in Syria, in  Egypt, in the South-Slavonic countries, and in far-off Russia, urging them to be constant to the Orthodox faith. There was to be a stubborn resistance to John’s religious policy. His conversion in Rome had no real results, and he could receive from the pope nothing but attention, presents, and promises.  Despite the papal appeals, western Europe sent no help against the Turks. John’s conversion, so solemnly proclaimed, was merely a personal affair; the overwhelming majority of the population of the Empire remained faithful to the Eastern Orthodox church.[282] Nevertheless this journey of the Emperor is of interest as an episode in the history of cultural intercourse between Byzantium and western Europe in the epoch of the Renaissance.


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