George Scholaris was born in Constantinople between 1400 and 1405. In some texts he is also mentioned as Kourteses, which might have been his mother’s last name.1 His parents originated from Thessaly and belonged to the middle class of Byzantine society. He received his education in the Byzantine capital, his teachers being Mark Eugenikos, John Chortasmenos and Joseph Bryennios.
2. Unionist and anti-unionist
By 1438, Scholaris had already gained prestige: he was didaskalos, senator, and general judge of Byzantines (katholikos krites ton Romaion). He participated in the Synod of Ferrara and Florence in 1439, supporting the Union. He knew the Roman Church’s doctrine better than most of his contemporary Byzantines. What he actually believed was that the Union should come as a result of honest reconciliation, through mutual tolerance and faith, not as the outcome of Rome’s political terms and pressure.2
Some years later, circa 1443, Scholaris came out as a fervent opponent of the Union. After Mark Eugenikos’ death (1445), he even became leader of the party that opposed the Union of the Churches. His beliefs and the intellectual atmosphere of Constantinople at that time were the reasons he lost his place in 1446/1447. Circa 1450, he was ordained as a monk and was given the name Gennadios in the monastery of Charsianitou in Constantinople.
In the meantime, Scholaris had become obsessed with the fight against the Union of the Churches. When the Union was about to be announced, after the mass offered according to the Catholic doctrine in Hagia Sophia, presided by cardinal Isidore (December 1452), it is known that Scholaris retired in his monastic cell issuing a proclamation on his door, in which he swore to God that he would rather die than betray orthodox faith. He believed that the Union was a work of the devil and that it foreboded the fall of those who turn their back to God.3
During the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Gennadios was captured and for a short period of time he was in Adrianople. After he was released, according to Mehmed II the Conqueror’s wish and with his permission, he became patriarch of Constantinople (January 6th 1454-1456). As the first patriarch of Constantinople under Turkish dominion, he was trying, kat' oikonomia, to find the best way to coexist with the Ottomans. In 1456, he resigned his dignity of patriarch due to various problems and to his deteriorating health. He first retired to the monastery of Vatopedi in Mt. Athos and later settled in the monastery of St. John Prodromos in Mt. Menoikeion, near Serres. In 1463 and 1464-1465, he was summoned to the patriarchic throne, but there is no certain evidence that he actually assumed the patriarchic duties. He spent the rest of his days in the monastery of Timios Prodromos, in Serres, where he was also buried after his death in 1472, or a little later, definitely before the October of 1474.4
3. The scholar’s work
The great literary work George Scholaris left behind shows that he was a highly educated scholar.5 It is a compound literary legacy, containing obituaries, letters, war related texts, speeches, poems, translations from Latin and commendations, liturgical texts and dissertations. As a scholar, he had students of his own; Theodoros Sophianos and Matheos Kamariotis stand out among them.
Scholaris had a perfect knowledge of Latin and valued Latin culture. He appreciated Thomas Akinates and chose some of his texts to translate and to comment on. For this reason, Scholaris mentions: «Θωμάν γαρ τον εξ Ακίνου ουκ οίδα ει τις εμού πλέον τετίμηκε των αθτώ προσεχόντων» (Because I do not know any other that honored Thomas from Akinos more than myself).6 Scholaris even tried to incorporate the interpretation of Aristotle given by the scholars and Thomas Akinates to the Byzantine thought.7
Considering the ancient philosophical heritage, Scholaris was a great supporter of Aristotle, strenuously defending him against the attacks of his older contemporary George Gemistos Plethon. It is known that, between 1460 and 1465, as patriarch of Ottoman Constantinople, he burned the manuscript of Plethon’s Laws, because he considered it impious and antichristian.8The words of Gennadios Scholarios, the “last of the Byzantines” and first patriarch during Ottoman dominion, reveal the predominance of his religious-political views over his national consciousness. When asked what he felt like, he answered: Even though I am Greek by means of language, I would never call myself Greek, because I do not think like the old Greeks,9 on the contrary, I want to be named according to my religion, and if anyone asks me who I am, I will respond that I am a Christian («Ἕλλην ὢν τῇ φωνῇ, οὐκ ἄν ποτε φαίην Ἕλλην εἶναι, διὰ τὸ μὴ φρονεῖν ὡς ἐφρόνουν ποτὲ Ἕλληνες· ἀλλ’ ἀπὸ τῆς ἰδίας μάλιστα θέλω ὀνομάζεσθαι δόξης. Καὶ εἴ τις ἔροιτό με τίς εἰμί, ἀποκρινοῦμαι χριστιανὸς εἶναι»).10 This plain phrase was not uttered by position of authority, but in its simplicity epitomizes the singularity of Byzantine civilization, as well as its decline, through the lens of orthodoxy. On the other hand, it seems to mark the beginning of a new era, a new general Balkan orthodox literature, the ideas of which were Greek and Bulgarian and Serbian at the same time, irrespective of language. It was a new Balkan community that abolished the borders between the nations in the consequent centuries –until the 18th century–11 and kept the orthodox populations in the Ottoman Empire united during the long ages of Turkish dominion. In the same time, it played a very important role in the preservation of the knowledge and traditions of the medieval Byzantine culture. George Scholaris was one of its first preachers.
1. Turner, C.J., “The Career of George-Gennadius Scholarius”, Byzantion 39 (1969), p. 421.
2. Woodhouse, C.M., Gemistos Plethon. The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford 1986), pp. 116-117.
3. Petit, L. – Sideras, X.A. – Jugie, M. (ed.), Oeuvres complètes de Gennade Scholarios III (Paris 1928-1936), pp. 165-166.
4. Trapp, E. (ed.), Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit 11 (Wien 1991), pp. 156-158, № 27304.
5. Petit, L. – Sideras, X.A. – Jugie, M. (ed.), Oeuvres complètes de Gennade Scholarios I-VIII (Paris 1928-1936).
6. Petit, L. – Sideras, X.A. – Jugie, M. (ed.), Oeuvres complètes de Gennade Scholarios I (Paris 1928-1936), pp. 436-437.
7. Podskalsky, G., “Die Rezeption der thomistischen Theologie bei Gennadios II. Scholarios (ca. 1403-1472)”, Theologie und Philosophie 49 (1974), pp. 305-323.
8. Τατάκης, Β.Ν., Βυζαντινή φιλοσοφία (Αθήνα 1977), p. 266.
9. Mentioned by Καζάζης, Ν., Γεώργιος Γεμιστός Πλήθων (Αθήνα 1903), p. 15.
10. Gennadius Scholarius, Refutatio erroris Judaeorum, eds. M. Jugie, L. Petit, and X.A. Siderides, Oeuvres complètes de Georges (Gennadios) Scholarios, vol. III (Paris 1930), p. 253.
11. Bogdanović, D., Istorija stare srpske književnosti (Beograd 1980), σελ. 224