What Was the Great Schism of 1054?

Discover the history behind one of medieval Europe’s most shocking events, the Great Schism of 1054.

Mar 1, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

what was great schism 1054


The Great Schism, also known as the East-West Schism or the Schism of 1054, was the break between the Eastern and Western Churches in the eleventh century. Numerous events led to the splitting of the Church, and the consequences were also hugely significant. The effects of the split can still be felt today, and Christendom was never transformed to such an extent again until the Reformation in the sixteenth century.


A Brief History of the Catholic Church

Constantine the Great, mosaic from the Hagia Sophia, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In order to fully understand the events of the Great Schism, and why they panned out the way they did, it is important to look back at the history of the Catholic Church.


Seven hundred years before the Great Schism, during the fourth century CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. In turn, this made Constantinople the most powerful imperial city.


By the end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was divided in two — permanently — split between Rome and the Western Roman Empire, and Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire.

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In 395 CE, the Emperor Theodosius I died. This was a key turning point in the history of the Empire because he was the last Emperor to rule both regions. Following Theodosius’ death, as well as numerous socio-economic and political changes, the Western Empire was soon brought to collapse.


St Ambrose Barring Theodosius the Great From Milan Cathedral, by Anthony van Dyck, 1619-20, Source: The National Portrait Gallery, London


The Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century for reasons ranging from barbarian invasions on its borders to internal economic problems. The Eastern Empire would survive for almost another thousand years, until the Sack of Constantinople in 1453.


Because the two halves of the Roman Empire were now split, the political, economic, and social characteristics of the West differed greatly from those of the East over the ensuing decades and centuries. One issue that drew them further apart was the language barrier. While Latin was largely the main language of communication in the West, Greek was the predominant language in the East.


New nation-states also emerged throughout the West, and the Pope’s power was increased, too. By the ninth century,  the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (founded by Charlemagne in 800 CE), were both crowned and legitimized by the Pope in Rome.


Naturally, these new Western developments were not copied in the East, where the Eastern Roman Empire lived on much as it always had done. Rome’s political power grew and could be felt strongly over many of the states and countries in the West. The East tried to resist this, but the clawing fingers of the Roman Catholic Church were reaching ever nearer.


The Three “Little Schisms”

Imagined portrait of Arius depicting the First Council of Nicaea, 1591, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Before the Great Schism, there were numerous “little” schisms that had helped to create tension between the East and West. It is also worth noting that the Church had five patriarchs. These were specially selected bishops who held authority over other bishops throughout Christendom. The patriarchs were: The Patriarch of Rome, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Antioch, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem.


The First Little Schism


Because Jesus was God’s son, was he therefore divine? This issue plagued the early medieval church and actually caused a split between East and West in the fourth century.


In the years between 343 and 398 CE, the Church split over the issue of Arianism.


Arianism is the belief that Jesus is not equal to God, and therefore not divine. Arianism was widely accepted in the Eastern Church, but not the Western — hence the split.


The Second Little Schism: A Legitimate Patriarch or Not?

Byzantine mosaic of John Chrysostom, from the Hagia Sophia, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The second of these little schisms happened in 404 CE, thanks to an issue between the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople. In 404, the Byzantine Emperor, Arcadius, refused to recognize John Chrysostom as the Patriarch of Constantinople.


This was an issue because Chrysostom had the backing of the Roman Pope Innocent I. Since the eastern Patriarchs refused to accept Chrysostom as legitimate (because they agreed with Emperor Arcadius), Pope Innocent I broke off all communication with the eastern part of the Church. This problem would not be rectified for another eleven years, when, in 415, the eastern patriarchs finally agreed that Chrysostom was a legitimate Patriarch.


The Third Little Schism: How Should the Church View Jesus?

Coin depicting Emperor Zeno, 5th century CE, Source: The British Museum


Another example of a little schism also occurred in the fifth century, in 482. Following the problems caused by belief (or disbelief) in the doctrine of Arianism, the Byzantine Emperor, Zeno, attempted to reconcile the differences between the way that both the Eastern and the Western Churches viewed Jesus Christ.


Some bishops viewed Jesus as having two natures — that of being human and of being divine — while others thought that Jesus was purely divine, not human.


As a response to these beliefs, Emperor Zeno issued a Christological document called the Henotikon, but it was rejected by Pope Felix III.


The Patriarch of Constantinople, a man called Acacius, had been the one to encourage Zeno to issue the edict. Pope Felix found out and excommunicated Acacius. The excommunication was not reversed until 519 when the Byzantine Emperor Justin I recognized it.


At this point, the two churches had essentially come to an agreement. But even so, the beliefs of those in the Eastern Church were gradually moving away from the beliefs of those in the West.


Issues Around the Nicaean Creed

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Other issues that had arisen that ultimately contributed to the Great Schism of 1054 can be traced right back to the Nicaean Creed, which was established at the First Council of Nicaea, and held in 325 CE. At the meeting, the council established the equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity, asserting that only the Son became incarnate as Jesus Christ.


The statement was revised a couple of times over the following centuries, and an issue arose around the wording of the Creed. In 431, at the Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, the council explicitly stated that any further revisions to the Creed would be disallowed.


Despite this, the Western Church added some revisions. A key one was editing the opening statement, which originally read:


“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.”


The Roman Catholic Church (Western Church) added the words “and the Son” to the end of the sentence. The Eastern Orthodox Church (Eastern Church) disagreed with this statement, stating that it was uncanonical.


Further Disagreements

Hagia Sophia, by Benh Lieu Song, 2010, Source: Flickr


There were a range of other disagreements over the centuries which led to the Great Schism. It is little surprise that the split was inevitable after so many disagreements.


One of these was the jurisdiction over the Balkans. Being a part of Eastern Europe, the Eastern Church felt that they had jurisdiction over this area. On the contrary, because they were close to Italy (and therefore Rome), the Western Church felt that they had jurisdiction over them. This would be a major point of contention for centuries.


Disputes over the patriarchs were also another issue which the Churches clashed over. One example is that the Patriarch of Constantinople was renamed the “Ecumenical Patriarch” by the Eastern Church, which the Western Church vehemently disagreed with, stating that this sounded like the Patriarch of Constantinople was being made the “Universal Patriarch.”


Similarly, the Eastern Church was dissatisfied with how much power the Patriarch of Rome (the Pope) had over the other patriarchs. Although the patriarchs agreed that the Pope should be held in higher honor than other patriarchs, they did not agree that he should have any authority over the other patriarchs.


Disagreements ranged from the Pope to Communion — even right down to the type of bread that was used. In the West, the Roman Catholic Church started using unleavened bread for the ritual. Naturally, the Eastern Orthodox Church disagreed with this, and they started dipping the bread in the Communion wine, which the Catholic Church disagreed with.


The Final Straw: The Events of 1054

The division between the Eastern and Western Churches, c. 1915, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the eleventh century, some churches in Constantinople started using Roman Catholic practices instead of Eastern Orthodox practices. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, demanded that these churches should start using Eastern Orthodox practices instead of Western practices. When they refused, Cerularius had the churches shut down. Following this, he wrote to Pope Leo IX expressing his outrage, and attacking the Western practices.


The Pope had a letter written in response, defending his supremacy. He had this letter sent back to Cerularius, along with a delegation. They arrived in April 1054.


The delegation was unhappy with how they had been treated, and walked out of the meeting — Cerularius was enraged but became even angrier when he realized that the seal on the letter had been broken, and the delegates had published it for everyone to read. Because of this, Cerularius ignored the delegates, refusing to recognize their authority.


Before the issue could go any further, Pope Leo IX died on 19 April 1054, and Cerularius still refused to meet with the delegates. Eventually, the delegates entered the Hagia Sophia Cathedral (the main building of the Eastern Orthodox Church), during the ceremony, and placed a letter on the altar.


This letter contained a bull of excommunication for Cerularius. In response, Cerularius burned the letter and condemned the delegates. Cerularius was excommunicated from the Roman Church, and he excommunicated the Pope from the Eastern Orthodox Church in return.


The Aftermath

Pope Paul VI, 1969, Source: TheDialog.org


Since the Great Schism of 1054, the churches have never been reconciled. Despite this, their relations have certainly warmed over the years. For instance, in 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I lifted the longstanding mutual excommunication decrees made by their respective churches.


Even today, there are still key differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (which is generally split into Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox).

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.