Episode 59 – The Great Schism of 1054 versus the European Invasion of the Americas

Today, we head on over to the Events bracket where we pit the Great Schism of 1054 between the Catholic and Orthodox churches against the European Invasion of the Americas, which began with Christopher Columbus‘s landing on the island of Hispaniola.

My primary resources for the Great Schism are Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich along with Tried by Fire: The Story of Christianity’s First Thousand Years. For the European invasion of the Americas I’m using 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal – 1500-1850 edited by Peter Mancall and James Merrell and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. Additionally, I’ve used The Great Courses Plus on both subjects to enrich the podcast. I find the classes given by this resource a beneficial adjunct to what I glean from my primary and secondary written sources.

First Council of Nicaea
First Council of Nicaea

The schism in 1054 between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in Constantinople was one that had been brewing for centuries. It has also been called the Great Divorce and, like a divorce, the split isn’t over one sole issue, but a buildup of hatred and distrust over time.  

The lead up to the divorce began centuries before during the time of the Roman Empire and in particular, with the creation of the Tetrarchy by Emperor Diocletian (who we met in episode 49) in 293. The Tetrarchy was a system where there were two Augustus’, one in the east, one in the west along with one Caesar beneath them. They would each have a power center with which to rule over. Then, with the ascension of Constantine the Great and his acceptance of Christianity within the Roman Empire, we have a similar split with four Patriarchs as heads of the Church. The four cities that these men were based out of were Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. When the Muslim Expansion conquered Antioch and Alexandria in the 7th and 8th centuries, it left just two centers of the Christian world, Rome and Constantinople.

The rivalry between these two cities began to intensify. The Patriarch of Constantinople would constantly try to take control over the Pope in Rome, but he would mostly lose those battles. Adding to that, we have the Emperors of Byzantium interfering with church matters and in particular, who the Pope was in Rome.

There were several doctrinal issues to deal with that would eventually lead to the split, with the biggest one being something known as the filioque. The filioque in the respect from the Roman side was that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, rejecting the original teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. While to some, this may seem like a small issue, but to the churchmen of the day, it was a cataclysmic difference. We will return to the question of filioque when we get to 1054.

St. John Chrysostom
St. John Chrysostom

There were two near divorces between the Church of Rome and Constantinople, between 404 and 415, when Byzantine Emperor Theophilus deposed John Chrysostom as the Patriarch of Constantinople. Rome immediately objected to Chrysostom’s removal, causing the temporary separation. The reason Theophilus removed one of the greatest orators of the early Christian Church was his protestations against the corruption of the imperial household.

The second split occurred between 484 and 519 when Pope Felix III excommunicated Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople because of the latter’s support of monophysitism, which is a belief that Jesus only had one nature which was either divine or a synthesis of divine and human. Emperor Zeno of Byzantium had pushed through this belief in 482. This contrasted with the system of dyophysitism, in which Christ has two natures, one human and one divine after the incarnation, and was viewed as proper by Rome. This was a very contentious split. Still, it was reversed in 519 by edict of Justin I, who called monophysitism heretical and upheld the ex-communication of Acacius. It still was a deep rift that would lead to the 1054 schism.

Cultural, language, and doctrinal differences continued for centuries, creating friction and animosity between the two cities and their church leaders. Then in 751, Ravenna, a city controlled by Byzantium, fell to the Lombards changed a long-held dynamic of relying on the armies of Constantinople for protection. Instead, the Pope was persuaded to turn to the Frankish kings for their safety. Pope Stephen II made a deal with King Pepin in 754. Of course, this angered the Byzantines greatly.

Moving forward to the 10th century, we have to focus on the parade of Popes that was to destabilize the relationship between the two great centers of the Christian faith, Rome and Constantinople. I say parade because, on any given year, there could be upwards of five Popes and Anti-Popes roaming the countryside.  

Otto the Great
Otto the Great

The lineup of Pope’s in the centuries before the Great Schism was a significant issue as they were part of political intrigue between many of the powers of Europe as well as the influence of the Emperor of Constantinople. The first that usually comes into mind is the Frankish Kings like Charlemagne. The one that really wielded a lot of power over who the Pope was started with a contestant in this podcast we met in episode 25, Otto The Great. As the Holy Roman Emperor, he was supposed to protect the Pope and Rome; instead, he meddled in just about everything having to do with the city and the Church.

While reading the chapter about the Schism in Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich, it struck me how almost comical the list of Pope’s and how they got their position leading up to 1054. When Otto the Great died in 973 and was replaced by his young son Otto II, we have one Pope after another vying for the top position with Antipope’s excommunicating each other and some fleeing to Constantinople to avoid being murdered. 

When the appointed by Otto the Great Pope Leo VIII died in 965, a person some view as an Antipope in opposition to Pope John XII and Pope Benedict V, we have his successor John XIII take over. But within a few months, the Roman people, unhappy with the new Pope, drove him out of town. Then we have Otto returning with an army, which made the people welcome John back. That lasted until John died, which caused the HRE to name a successor, a priest who would take the name Benedict VI. With the new emperor Otto II taking over, a coup was hatched to get rid of the new Pope and replace him with Boniface VII. As Norwich puts what came next, “Boniface gave immediate proof of his piety and holiness by having Benedict strangled, but a swift counterrevolution obliged him to flee for his life to Byzantine territory in South Italy, with as much of the papal treasury as he could lay his hands on.” 

Another Pope was proclaimed in the name of Benedict VII, who quickly excommunicated Boniface. In 980, Boniface returned and set up shop in the Vatican. Otto II returned to Rome to oust Boniface yet again, and this time instead of returning to Southern Italy, he headed for Constantinople. You can probably guess that the people of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire would be a wee bit pissed off at the Byzantines who were ruled at the time by Basil II is also known as the Bulgar Slayer, along with his great-uncle Basil Lekapenos. 

All the while, the Byzantines were at odds with the Holy Roman Empire, with a major battle being fought in Calabria where the Greeks destroyed the Roman army with Otto II barely making it out alive. You can imagine the animosity between the two sides, both with tremendous influence over the Papacy in Rome and the Patriarchate in Constantinople. Otto II died quickly after the defeat in Rome, likely from malaria, which felled many a northern born noble, unused to the heat and diseases found in Rome.

Castle St. Angelo and the Tiber
Castle St. Angelo (right) and the Tiber

Before Otto died, he named a new Pope, John XIV. Unfortunately, his backer, the new HRE Otto III, was only three-years-old. Guess who returned to Rome? If you picked Boniface, you win. Basil, the Bulgar Slayer, sent him to Rome from Constantinople, where he had Pope John seized and beaten and sent to Castel Sant’Angelo, where he died, either from poisoning or starvation. That was a bit over the top for even the jaded Romans, so about 11 months later, in July 985, Boniface died, likely having been murdered himself.

If you think things began to settle down, you would be wrong. Enter Pope John XV.  While he wasn’t quite as bad as Boniface, this is what author John Julius Norwich said about him, “he was nevertheless greedy, rapacious, and shamelessly nepotistic, and before long had made himself deeply unpopular with Church and people alike.” So disliked in fact, he too was made to flee Rome. Pope John called on King Otto III, now 15 to come help him, which scared the people of Rome enough to allow him back, but strangely enough, but not unsurprising, he died of a violent fever before the King could make it into town.

Otto needed to prop his own man into the Papacy, which he did in 996 naming a cousin of his, Gregory V. As soon as Otto left, the Romans threw Gregory out of town and the power broker at the time, Crescetius named a new Pope, John XVI. John didn’t last long as Otto returned with an army and placed Gregory back as Pope. He was to die just three years later, which caused Otto to name his former tutor, Gerbert of Aurillac, the first Frenchman to become Pope Sylvester II.

This Pope brought back respectability back to the Papacy and a better relationship between Rome and Constantinople. Unfortunately, he would die four years after becoming the Pontiff in 1002. Otto would die just one year later, leaving a significant power vacuum.

From here, we have Pope John XVII, who lasted from May to November of 1003, followed by John XVIII and Sergius IV. None of these men were to amount to anything. The next Pope, Benedict VIII, who rose to the Papacy in 1012, would begin a period of growing animosity between Rome and Constantinople. His armed attacks against Byzantine holdings in Italy angered them, but it was his insistence on including the hated filioque back into the Creed of the Church.

As we mentioned earlier, the creed that was initially adopted during the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century read as follows, “The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Latin side of the Church rewrote it to read, “The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father through the Son.” In 1054, the Pope in Rome, Leo IX, imposed this difference on the Greek Churches in Sicily and southern Italy, which was met with a response by Patriarch Michael I Cerularius, who ordered that all Latin Churches in Constantinople use the old creed.

Patriarch Michael I Cerularius
Patriarch Michael I Cerularius

Leo IX died in April, but he had already ordered his envoy Cardinal Humbert to Constantinople. He arrived on July 16, 1054, where he placed papers of ex-communication on the altar in the Hagia Sophia. Emperor Constantine IX ordered the ex-communication papers burned and called for a Synod of bishops to gather. There they excommunicated Humbert and all of his associates. The Great Schism was complete.

As we have seen, much of the causes of the Great Divorce were really not of a religious nature, but more of a political one caused by centuries of hatred, cultural differences, and petty human shortcomings. 

Time to move on to the second contestant, the European Invasion of the Americas. 

American Discovery as Viewed by Natives
American Discovery as Viewed by Natives

It has been said by the Europeans who came to the Americas, meaning the North and South American continents, that the place was filled with uneducated savages, and it was their duty to spread Christianity to uplift these primitive peoples. That is about as far from the truth as you can imagine. Let me share some facts about the “New World” from the book 1491 by Charles Mann. 


“In 1491 there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe. Certain cities – such as Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital – were far greater in population than any contemporary European city. Furthermore, Tenochtitlan, unlike any capital in Europe at the time, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and immaculately clean streets. The earliest cities in the Western Hemisphere were thriving before the Egyptians built the great pyramids. Pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico developed corn by a breeding program so sophisticated that the journal Science recently described it as ‘man’s first, and perhaps the greatest, feat of genetic engineering.’ Amazonian Indians learned how to farm the rain forest without destroying it – a process scientists are studying today in the hope of regaining this lost knowledge. Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already massively ‘landscaped’ by human beings.”

We could go on and on about how sophisticated the natives were in the Americas before the Europeans arrived. The incredible terraced farms on the mountainsides of Peru, the incredible irrigation systems found throughout South America, or their amazing architecture. The point is, the peoples of the Americas were as advanced as their European counterparts in many ways, except when it came to one technology, weaponry.

Pocahontas Saves John Smith
Pocahontas Saves John Smith

What we’ve been taught in American schools is, as the book American Encounters puts it, “Pocahontas rescuing Captain John Smith, Squanto helping the Pilgrims, Dutchmen buying Manhattan – for generations, a handful of colorful tales like these were pretty much all most people knew about Indians in early America.”

What we need to begin with is the history of the peoples who inhabited the lands before Europeans came over. It is believed that the first settlers in North America arrived between 36,000 and 20,000 BCE, crossing the Bering land bridge during an ice age. It took about 12,000 years before agriculture appeared in the Americas around 8,000 to 5,000 BCE, about the same time as it did in the Fertile Crescent in Eurasia, as we learned in episode 41.

Over the coming centuries, villages and cities were established all over the Americas as the settlers spread southward and all across the two continents. The prehistory or precontact of the Americas has been thought of as “peoples without history.” The problem has been the lack of archeological integrity since the Invasion beginning in 1492. Recently, scholars have changed their methodology of investigation of the old civilizations, respecting their sites as Europeans would of places like Troy and Jericho. We still have much to learn, but at least we are starting to find out more about the people and the culture of those where were here before the Europeans arrived.

The beginning of the Invasion started on December 5, 1492, in the northern part of Hispaniola, where Christopher Columbus landed with his men. I’m not here today to make any judgments about whether Columbus was a good or bad man, that is up to today’s pundits and social warriors. What I do want to stress is that he was the spark that lit the fire of the rush of Europeans coming to the Americas.

The next explorer to lead major voyages was another Italian John Cabot. Well, his name was likely either Giovanni Caboto in Italian, as Zuan Chabotto in Venetian. The reason he is known to history as John Cabot is because, as many of the early explorers, he was sponsored by a foreign country, in his case England, and not by his birth nation. Columbus, of course, was sponsored by the Spanish, who would become one of the leaders of the Invasion.

The term, Invasion, may not go over with all of you, but in reality, that’s what it became. It wasn’t the initial intent, of course; the real reason was to establish a trade route with the Orient as they didn’t know about the landmasses in the Western Hemisphere. It became one when the explorers came upon the native peoples whom they believed were savages and sub-human. They also thought that it was their duty to Christianize the people they came upon whether they wanted to or not. 

Many historians believe that this is the primary motivating reason behind the Invasion, but that is utter nonsense. They came for the riches, the gold, and the silver, the riches that awaited them. Yes, many devout men were driven by religion, but even many of those saw the money that was to be made, made in the name of God and Jesus.

Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro

We have numerous writings that suggest that the conquests that ensued from the Invasion were for God and country. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro and his capture and eventual execution of the Incan God-King Atahuallpa were supposedly done under the guidance of a past contestant of this podcast, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire also known as Charles I of Spain. An account from two of Pizzaro’s men went like this, “The prudence, fortitude, military discipline, labors, perilous navigations, and battles of the Spaniards – vassals of the most invincible Emperor of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord – will cause joy to  the faithful and terror to the infidels.” The peoples of the Americas were considered infidels, unclean, heathens, and somehow subhuman.

But with all of that religion and nationalism, it was money that spurred on the conquistadors. When Pizzaro and his 168 men took Atahuallpa captive, they received the largest ransom in human history. As Jared Diamond puts it in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, it was “enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of over 8 feet…” This was the real motivating factor for the flood of early Europeans that was to come.

Wave after wave of European military men began to cross the Atlantic in search of conquest, gold, and slaves. The problem was, the native Americans were dying in droves. They had no immunities to the many different diseases that the Europeans brought with them. Epidemics of smallpox, typhus, the flu, diphtheria, and measles, flooded the continents and ravaged the natives. Estimates are that between 2/3rds and 95% of the people who lived in the Americas in 1491 were killed by 1650. The number of people that represents is approximately 100 million. 

From the book American Encounters and in particular, the chapter Ecological Imperialism, “A few examples from scores of possible examples follow. Smallpox first arrived in the Rio de la Plata region in 1558 or 1560 and killed, according to one chronicler possible more interested in effect than accuracy, ‘more than a hundred thousand Indians’ of the heavy riverine population there. An epidemic of plague or typhus decimated the Indians of the New England coast immediately before the founding of Plymouth.” They further go on to state, “After a series of such lethal and rapidly moving epidemics came the slow, unspectacular but thorough cripplers and killers like venereal disease and tuberculosis. In conjunction with the large numbers of white settlers, these diseases were enough to smother aboriginal chances of recovery. First, the blitzkrieg, then the mopping up.”

Now that the Europeans had a foothold into the Americas, it was no longer a targeted invasion; instead, it was a migration of unprecedented proportions. One of the little talked about reasons why non-military Europeans decide to take the dangerous ocean crossing was not for riches, but to escape the constant wars, religious persecutions, and severe living conditions. It is this flood of migrants that caused many of the problems that were to beset the native Americans for centuries to come.

Now to move on to the scoring. 

First, we have 15 points for the number of people involved. This is a hard one to score as it is difficult to ascertain what the real numbers are, especially when it comes to the unknown population of the Americas in 1491. From the estimates that I’ve seen in my research, I venture that both are about the same, so I’m awarding both events the full 15 points.

Next up is how it affected the rest of the world at the time. Here is where we have a clear-cut winner in the European Invasion of the Americas. The discovery of the landmasses of South and North America led to one of the great migrations of people from the Eastern to the Western Hemisphere. Not only did people come in droves from Europe, we see, although later on, a large number of Asians, predominantly from China, coming to the west side of North America. The Great Schism really only affected Christian Europe and to a lesser extent, due to its weakening effect on the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim world. For these reasons, I’m giving out 20 points to the European Invasion with the Great Schism getting 8 points.

Next up, we have 25 points for the long-term effects of the two events. This is another lopsided win for the Invasion as it fundamentally changed the world as we knew it. Before 1491, few people, probably only Norsemen, in Europe, even knew there was any land between their continent and Asia. After, the world knew, and it changed the lives of both sides of the Atlantic. The Great Schism has never been repaired as the parties remain apart to this day. Due to the split, it can be said that Byzantium lost its leadership role and became weaker over the coming four centuries, which led to its demise in 1454 with the fall of Constantinople. Because of the rift with Rome, Europe would be unwilling to help the Byzantines in their hours of need. For these reasons, I’m giving the European Invasion 25 points with the SchismSchism receiving 20.

Last, and certainly not least, we have the 40 points for the immediate effect on the country or countries involved. The European Invasion of the Americas catastrophically devastated the native peoples almost immediately after the arrival of the conquistadors. Millions died. While it would be about 150 years before the migrant flood would occur, after Columbus and Cabot arrived, many more would come to plunder the resources of the Americas.

There really was no immediate effect of the Great Schism on either side, it was more of a growing rift that separated the two Christian faiths. The Catholics would have a split within their religion when Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses in 1517 on the church door for these reasons, the European Invasion of the Americas gets the full 40 points with the Great Schism receiving 20. 

The final total is 100 for the Invasion and 63 for the SchismSchism. The European Invasion of the Americas moves on to the second round where it will face off against the winner between The Invention of the Internet and the Civilization of Sumer.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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