Cyril and Methodius

views updated


CYRIL AND METHODIUS . Cyril, also known as Constantine (c. 826869), and Methodius (c. 815844) were called the "apostles to the Slavs" because of their religious and cultural contributions to the people of the Danube basin and later to all Slavic-speaking people. Constantine (who took the name Cyril only in the last months of his life) and Methodius were born into a prominent Christian family in Thessalonica, Greece. The brothers learned Greek and probably also Slavic, since many Slavic people had migrated south into their area of Macedonia. After their father's death, Constantine moved to Constantinople. Then only fourteen, he was cared for by the family of a high government official. He later attended the imperial university and benefited from studying with the leading teachers in the region, including Photius, the future patriarch of Constantinople (858867, 877888). He became librarian of Hagia Sophia, the leading church in the East, and later professor of philosophy at the imperial university. He also participated in religious debates with church leaders and Muslim scholars.

Methodius, meanwhile, had been awarded the governorship of a Slavic-speaking district. After some years as governor, however, he withdrew into a Greek monastery in Bithynia (in Asia Minor), where Constantine joined him in 855. In 860, the patriarch sent Constantine and Methodius on a mission to the Khazars, a people occuping the territory northeast of the Black Sea, who had asked that the Christian message be explained to them. The result of their visit was that two hundred Khazars requested baptism. This success led to another, more important mission shortly thereafter.

In 862, Rastislav, duke of Greater Moravia, sent a request for help to the emperor in Constantinople, Michael III. Rastislav's Slavic-speaking subjects had already been widely evangelized by missionaries from western Europe, that is, from the East Frankish kingdom (modern-day West Germany and Austria). The Slavic peoples, however, had no written language and no strong cultural or church leadership, and Rastislav perceived a danger in the political and ecclesiastical influence of the neighboring Germanic tribes. He hoped that aid from Constantinople would enable Moravia to remain politically and religiously autonomous.

Recognizing the importance of the request, the Byzantine emperor and the patriarch, Photius, agreed to send Methodius and Constantine. In the months before their journey, Constantine prepared for the mission by developing a written language for the Slavs. He formed the alphabet from Hebrew and Greek letters (in its final form, this alphabet, the Cyrillic, is still used in modern Russian and in a number of other modern Slavic languages). Using this alphabet, Constantine translated the Gospels and later the epistles of Paul and the Book of Psalms into Slavic.

In late 863, the brothers began the mission. They sailed around Greece and up the Adriatic to Venice, then traveled overland to Moravia, where they were warmly welcomed. Their work included training a native clergy, instructing them in the newly written Slavic language, and translating liturgical textbooks. The latinized clergy in the area vigorously opposed the Slavic liturgy; they held to a "trilingualist" theory that only Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were acceptable for worship. To win papal support for their innovations, the brothers journeyed to Rome in 867. The also took along some trainees for ordination. On the way, they spent several months south of the Danube in Pannonia (modern-day western Hungary), where another Slavic chieftain, Kocel (r. 861874), welcomed the brothers and entrusted to them a group of young men for training.

When the brothers reached Rome, Pope Adrian II welcomed them and granted full approval to their Slavic liturgy. After some months, and while still in Rome, Constantine became seriously ill. The brothers had been staying in a Greek monastery, and during his illness Constantine took a vow to remain a monk and at that point assumed the name Cyril. In less than two months, at the age of about forty-two, he died.

With papal encouragement, Methodius returned to work with the Slavic princes of Pannonia, Moravia, and the area around Nitra. Wishing to gain jurisdiction over the areas, Adrian II sent letters with Methodius approving the Slavic liturgy. The princes welcomed Methodius back, and in 869 the pope ordained him archbishop of Pannonia and Moravia, with his cathedral at Sirmium (near present-day Belgrade, Yugoslavia). Opposition to this appointment came from the neighboring Frankish (Bavarian) bishops, Hermanrich of Passau, Adalwin of Salzburg, and Anno of Fresing, all of whom had long worked for Frankish ecclesiastical and political influence in the area. In 870, with the help of Svatopluk, the ruler of Nitra, Bishop Hermanrich contrived to arrest Methodius and imprison him in a monastery in Swabia (southwestern Germany). In 873, Pope John VIII ordered his release, reinstalled him in his former diocese, and reaffirmed, with slight reservations, papal support for the Slavic liturgy.

The work of Methodius among the Slavs seems to have prospered, but opposition continued from the Frankish clergy and from Svatopluk, the new ruler in Moravia. Accused of heresy, Methodius successfully defended himself and won from John VIII a bull that praised his orthodoxy, reaffirmed the independence of his diocese, and expressly authorized the Mass in Slavic. During the last years of his life, Methodius continued to meet opposition. Nevertheless, with the help of two disciples, he completed the translation of the Bible into Slavic and codified both the civil and the ecclesiastical law. After Methodius's death in 884, his disciples were expelled by their Frankish opponents but found refuge in southern Poland, Bulgaria, and Bohemia. Through them the work of Constantine-Cyril and Methodius continued, contributing substantially to the growth of the Greek church and Slavic Christian culture in eastern Europe.


A detailed study with notes, maps, and bibliography is Francis Dvornik's Byzantine Missions among the Slavs: SS Constantine-Cyril and Methodius (New Brunswick, N.J., 1970).

H. McKennie Goodpasture (1987)