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Slavonic Beyond Byzantium

Posted On August 24, 2020 | 13:20 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Jakub Kabala looks at papal traces in the language of an iconic medieval Christian mission to the Slavs

Jakub Kabala, James B. Duke Pre-Tenure Professor of Digital Studies and History at Davidson College, was a recent fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “The Struggle for Great Moravia: Visions of Space in Byzantium, Francia, and the Papacy, 800–900,” exposed distinct mental geographies and strategies used to assert authority over a contested frontier.


Q&A with Jakub Kabala

What was Great Moravia, and why were major powers interested in it? 

Great Moravia was a Slavic polity that emerged in the first half of the ninth century. There’s debate about where it was, exactly, but most archaeological and written evidence suggests the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers in central Europe. At the crossroads of trading routes, Great Moravia became very wealthy very quickly. The ninth and tenth centuries were a time of European expansion and missionary activity. New states emerging in the Slavic world became Christianized. So very powerful Christian neighbors were interested in Great Moravia: the Byzantine Empire to the east, the eastern Frankish kingdom to the west, and the papacy.


Why was the work of Methodius and Constantine in Great Moravia unusual? 

First of all, their work gave rise to a written culture among the Slavs. The sources tell us the ruler of Great Moravia sent a letter to the emperor of Byzantium requesting teachers who could teach his people in the Slavic language. Constantine, later known as Cyril, was tapped for this job. He had distinguished himself in diplomatic missions for the Byzantine emperor in the past and was incredibly learned and gifted linguistically. His brother Methodius, an administrator and at the time leader of a Byzantine monastery on Mount Olympus, accompanied him. Together, they led the Byzantine project to teach the Great Moravians in the Slavic language, creating the language's first surviving written alphabet (known as Glagolitic) in order to translate Christian texts.

In the year 867, the brothers received an invitation from Pope Nicholas I to visit Rome. We don’t know the pope’s exact reasons, but surely it was partly because the brothers were carrying relics of a revered pope from the first century, Clement I. The brothers accepted the invitation and spent many months in Rome, where Constantine actually died. Then the pope chose Methodius to lead a papal mission among the Slavs of central Europe, with an approval to use the Slavic language in parts of the liturgy. This was another highly unusual step. In the Western world, you didn’t really have vernacular liturgies yet. While you would hear the sermon in the vernacular, you celebrated the mass and the liturgy in Latin. But in the year 870, Methodius became a papally approved bishop, and he spent the last 15 years of his life building a Slavic-language church with the approval of the popes in Rome. 

Nicholas and his immediate successors saw this activity as a great opportunity to extend—reclaim, from their point of view—papal jurisdiction in a contested area. This is because the area where Methodius got to work was also claimed by Bavarian bishops working out of the eastern Frankish kingdom. They had built churches and sent priests there in the preceding decades, operating in the Latin language as was usual. From their perspective, not only was someone coming in and infringing on their territory and missionary rights, but he was doing it in a new language, using a new alphabet. While conflict over ecclesiastical jurisdiction was certainly common at the time, this particular one generated some very interesting and unusual written sources. 


How does your project differ from previous research on the role of language in missionizing the Slavs (for example, work by last year’s visiting scholar Evangelos Chrysos)?

I’m interested in a particular angle on this topic: imagined geographies, or how people conceive of and imagine space. This is part of a broader movement in the humanities over the last several decades, sometimes referred to as the “spatial turn.” There hasn’t been much pursuit of this in the Cyril-Methodian sources. 

Another way I take perhaps a different route: the Cyril-Methodian mission tends to be analyzed and narrated from the perspective of Byzantine interests and history. It seems to me that in the Life of Methodius there are traces of papal Latinity that have gone unnoticed for generations. In some ways, the source is a testament to papal language and metaphor, preserved in Slavonic writing. I suspect the figure studied by Evangelos Chrysos—Anastasius Bibliothecarius—figures prominently in this story.

Let me also say it’s been a privilege working on a Cyril-Methodian topic at Dumbarton Oaks, which has a storied history of research in this field. An entire symposium, The Byzantine Mission to the Slavs, was devoted to this subject in 1964; it was co-organized by Francis Dvornik, a professor of Byzantine history at Dumbarton Oaks for decades. Conversations after my research report were tremendous; I haven’t received that kind of feedback in years. Speaking with visiting scholars, fellows, and staff has really been mind-opening.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.