The development and impact of the Monastic Republic of Mt Athos on the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine world.
In the 9th Century the Mt Athos peninsula was granted a Chyrosobull ( a seal of approval) by a succession of emperors. Almost a century later, in 972, the Emperor John Tzimiskes solidified Imperial support of a Monastic republic on the region by signing and approving the first Typikon (founding document) of Mt Athos.*1 While most monasteries have a Typikon, the Tragos as it was called became akin to a constitution for every monastery on the peninsula. Eventually 20 monasteries, dozens of sketes (smaller communities) and hundreds of solitary cells would all fall under the purview of this document.
Though this and other documents imply that the Monastic Republic was inextricably reliant on imperial power and authority to survive, following the final conquest of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Mountain did not fall. While it did not escape the Ottoman period without suffering depradations, attacks, financial decay and a shrinking of its capacities, it remained a bastion of Eastern Christianity amidst a now Islamic ruled state. Prior to the fall of the empire, Mt Athos produced many charismatic individuals who later become Saints of the Orthodox church, men who came down from the mountain to correct moral decay, reassert “Orthodox” (true or correct) belief and reinstill religious fervour amongst the people. This did not cease during the Ottoman period, rather the role of Mt Athos as a spiritual center and quasi “Holy Land” only grew greater. The monastic academies of Mt Athos were amongst the few schools across the formerly Greek world that were still permitted to teach both the Greek language and Christian theology, while also teaching western sciences.
My project aims to interweave these two narratives, that of the pre-Fall Mt Athos, growing and flourishing under the patronage of emperors, and the post-Fall center of Greek thought and religion. I’ve teetered back and forth over which exact element of byzantine monastic history I should focus on, and one of the main problems I had was feeling this need to keep the discourse and research “ancient”. That is to keep focusing on monasticism only as it was rather than what it became. But my own interest in byzantine monasticism was not started by stories of ancient monks, but the living relationships I and others around me have today with this ancient insititution. In the last 30 years, with a growing interest in Byzantine scholarship, there has been much written regarding monks and nuns within the empire. Yet little has been discussed about the massive impact that monasticism has had on post-byzantine world. To give an example of this sort of teetering, early in my current semester, prior to really solidfying my topic, I played with looking at different theoretical frameworks and their relationship with monasticism, this visualisation gives a good idea of the sort of keywords that would come up again and again.
I’ve finally honed my theoretical framework down to the use of what is known as the “post-processual method” which essentially is post-modernist approach to history that accepts the influence that society and politics has on history… and vice-versa.
I’ve found this approach perfect for skirting the line between traditional history research and a more adventurous use of religion and culture to investigate the topic. Its also helped me get over the fear of crossing over to the dark side: the field of Modern History.
In terms of actual research, the vast majority of my work will be text based and I will be setting aside adequate time to not only identify my primary texts (though I have a fairly good idea of the major ones already) but also make myself as acquainted with them as possible. As I am integrating elements of modern monasticism into my research, I will be proposing a request for ethical review for an interview with monks that live in Sydney, who practice an “Athonite” way of life. This has also been accounted for in my timetable.
For data management, I already frequently use the cloud software “Onedrive” that is integrated with Microsoft Word and I frequently save copies of the cloud-saved documents on my own hardrives, so as to ensure I never lose access to my work. I have a second non-academic Onedrive account that I use for its cloud storage, and I plan to keep a second set of backups on that account as well.
Byzantine Monasticism is an often overlooked, yet incredibly influential institution, that I hope to bring just a little more light too.
If anyone is interested in learning more about the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos, there is an excellent and famous (among some circles at least) American 60 Minutes documentary on a visit to the “Holy Mountain”.
- Rosemary Morris, Monks and Laymen in Byzantium, 843-1118. (Cambridge University Press, 1995): 296.
- Tragos, Typikon of Mt Athos, sourced from https://athosweblog.com/2010/02/28/1004-tragos/
- Mount Athos Part 1, CBS News, YouTube. https://youtu.be/6mXl8C4-M_4