Excommunication has always been a strong suit in the Church’s hand in order to keep the flock in line. While churches worldwide are reluctant to use it nowadays, it used to be more prevalent in medieval times and were used in variety of situations; preemptively to guarantee support, punitively to control unwanted behaviour and, of course, as an act of post mortem revenge (collectively recognized as the most contemptible). The Orthodox Church’s excommunications were not nearly as devastating as in the West, but it still carried a stigma for the sufferer and while the Church was always quick to condemn, it often forgot to forgive (bureaucracy can do that, I suppose). Here’s an nice example that recently surfaced.
It appears that in the 1530s, the Ecumenical Patriarch excommunicated fishermen that were encroaching upon the eel fishing grounds of a monastery in the Amvrakikos Gulf in Western Greece, near the city of Vonitsa. The monks of the monastery of the Virgin Mary of Koronisi were furious by the fishermen who were making their eel fishing more difficult and petitioned the Patriarch for help. The result was the following excommunication:
JEREMIAH, GRATIA DEI ARCHBISHOP OF CONSTANTINOPLE
NEW ROME AND ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH
To the most god-loving Bishop of Vonditza and honourable clerics and the finest Christians there. Grace be upon all of you and peace from God Almighty. Let it be known by you that the former [bishop] of Janina Gennadios, along with the monks residing in the divine and respectable monastery of the Virgin Mary in Korakonesia, reported to Our Mediocrity that at their location from times of old there were eels, from which they derived some pleasure; and some of the so-called Christians living there, instead of giving support and aid as they should to the monstery for the salvation of their own souls, threaten to put an end to them once and for all. They take and remove them for their holy monastery and for this reason we write and decree unto them, whether they are priests or laity, to stay away from the eels of the monastery and turn away from their devious and evil desire and not stand against the monastery and the monks therein; but to support and aid and defend it. Should they turn against this and visibly or clandestinely desire to cause damage and bring and not bring an end to their removing of eels, Our Mediocrity has them excommunicated and cursed and unforgiven and after their deaths unforgiven and insoluble. Thus we decree with [the aid] of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the present writing of our mediocrity was written to you.
Month of July of the 3rd IndictionThis letter of Patriarch Jeremiah I, was originally written on a piece of paper 30×31 cm and is located in the General State Archive (registry No 253)
Byzantine Studies Yearbook, Vol.1937, p.192
Run of the mill stuff, really… unforgiven, cursed and of course, your body will not decompose after your death (the 16th and 17th centuries were rife with vampiric scares, especially in the aegean archipelago). All this for fishing eels that the monks believed were entitled to… and to remind the local populace that it was their duty to support the monastery.
Obviously choosing to cut yourself from the world for prayer and meditation means that the rest should hand you stuff… a remnant from the mentality of the Byzantine Empire, when the emperor would offer monasteries lands and privileges, so the monks would pray for them; old habits die hard, I guess. Not to say that this entitlement has faded completely, as the entanglement of Church and State in Greece reigns supreme even during our current financial problems.
Anyway, it is unknown whether the citizens of Vonitsa really cared about this or even if they stopped, but the excommunication remained in effect till this very day, June 9th 2013, when the Metropolitan of Aetolia and Acarnania, Kosmas officially lifted the anathema. It’s reported that the citizens of Vonitsa were informed of this during mass and most were flabbergasted, since they had never had of the incident.
Their surprise is hardly… surprising since the monastery mentioned in the excommunication lies deserted since the late 1800s and only the chapel of St. Onufrios remains as a tourist attraction. Better late than never, I guess.
It’s also heartwarming to see that in a country hovering at the edge of an economic chasm, the local clergy concern themselves with the really important issues.
ΙΕΡΕΜΙΑΣ ΕΛΕΩ ΘΕΟΥ ΑΡΧΙΕΠΙΣΚΟΠΟΣ ΚΩΝΣΤΑΝΤΙΝΟΥΠΟΛΕΩΣ
ΝΕΑΣ ΡΩΜΗΣ ΚΑΙ ΟΙΚΟΥΜΕΝΙΚΟΣ ΠΑΤΡΙΑΡΧΗΣ
Θεοφιλέστατε Ἐπίσκοπε Βονδίτζης καὶ ἐντιμότατοι κληρικοὶ καὶ οἱ καλλιστεύοντες ἐν αὐτῇ Χριστιανοί. Χάρις εἴη ὑμὶν ἄπασι καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ Θεοῦ Παντοκράτορος. Γνωστὸν ἔστω ὑμὶν, πὼς ὁ πρώην Ἰωαννίνων κὺρ Γεννάδιος μετὰ τῶν ἐν τῇ θείᾳ καὶ σεβασμίᾳ μονὴ τῆς Παναγίας μου τῆς ἐν τὴ Κορακονησία διακειμένων μοναχῶν, ἀνέφερον εἰς τὴν ἠμῶν μετριότητα, ὅτι αὐτόθι ἔχοντες χελοκοφινοβίβαρα ἔκπαλαι ἐξ’ ὧν ἔχωσι μικρᾶν ἀπολαυσιν, τινὲς ἐκ τῶν αὐτόθι τάχα χριστιανοὶ, ἀντὶ συνδρομῆς καὶ βοηθείας ὡς ὤφειλον ποιεῖν εἰς τὸ Μοναστήριον, διὰ ψυχικὴν αὐτῶν σωτηρίαν, ἐπαπειλῶνται καὶ λέγωσι δοῦναι δὶ αὐτὰ τέλος αὐθεντικόν. Καὶ ἀποσπᾶσαι καὶ ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτὰ, ἀπὸ τῆς Ἱερᾶς αὐτῶν μονῆς, διὰ τοῦτον γράφομεν καὶ ἀποφαινόμεθα πρὸς αὐτούς, ἴνα καν ὁποῖοι εἰσὶν ἱερωμένοι ἢ λαϊκοὶ ἀπέχωσι ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν βιβαρίων τῆς μονῆς καὶ μεταβληθῶσι ἀπὸ τῆς τοιαύτης πονηρᾶς καὶ κακίστης βουλῆς καὶ μηδ’ ὅλως αἴνωνται ἐνάντιοί τοῦ Μοναστηρίου καὶ τῶν ἐν αὐτῷ μοναχῶν , ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον συντρέχωσι καὶ βοηθῶσι καὶ ὑπερασπιῶνται αὐτὸ. Εἰ δὲ καὶ ἔτι φανῶσιν ἐνάντιοι αὐτοῦ καὶ φανερῶς ἢ κρυφίως κινηθῶσι καὶ θελήσωσι βλάβην προξενῆσαι αὐτὸ καὶ δοῦναι τέλος εἷς τὸ ἀποσπᾶσαι τὰ βιβάρια ἐξ αὐτοῦ, ἔχει αὐτοὺς ἀφωρισμένους ἡ μετριότης ἠμῶν καὶ κατηραμένους καὶ ἀσυγχωρήτους καὶ μετὰ τὸν αὐτῶν θάνατον ἀσυγχωρήτους καὶ ἀδιαλύτους . Οὕτως ἐν ἁγίῳ παρακελευόμεθα πνεύματι . Τούτου οὒν ἕνεκα ἐγράφη πρὸς ὑμᾶς καὶ ἡ παροῦσα γραφὴ τής της ἠμῶν μετριότητος.
Μηνὶ Ἰουλίῳ Ἰνδικτιῶνος Γ΄Τὸ ἀνωτέρῳ ἐκδιδόμενον γράμμα τοῦ Πατριάρχου Ἱερεμίου τοῦ A΄, σωζόμενον ἐν πρωτοτύπῳ ἔχει γραφεῖ ἐπὶ χάρτου διαστάσεων 0,30 χ 0,31 τοῦ μέτρου καὶ ἀποκεῖται ἐν τοῖς Γενικοῖς Ἀρχείοις τοῦ Κράτους (ἀριθμὸς γενικοῦ εὑρετηρίου 253)
ΕΠΕΤΗΡΙΣ ΒΥΖΑΝΤΙΝΩΝ ΣΠΟΥΔΩΝ τ.1937 σ.192