Possessors and Non-Possessors

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Possessors and non-possessors were purported rival monastic and church factions, c. 14801584.

The binary opposition stiazhatel/nestiazhatel (literally, acquirer/non-acquirer; translated as "Possessor"/"Non-possessor" in the literature) is misleading. The possessions of cenobites theoretically belonged to their cloister, while hermitages were dependent upon the wealthy monasteries.

The real justification for the movable and landed wealth of the church lay in its economic, political, cultural, ceremonial, and charitable functions. The practical politics of ecclesiastical wealth involved several confiscations of Novgorodian church lands under Ivan III, the concrete provisions of new or revised immunity charters, and the state, church, and combined legislation of 15501551, 1562, 1572, 1580, and 1584, which both protected and limited monastic land. By the early 1500s a new juncture of developments favored state confiscation of lands: the state needed military service lands, and a faction of monks condemned monastic opulence, with some advocating state management of church lands.

The leading "Possessors" were well-placed figures who mobilized coworkers, disciples, employees, and consultants: Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod (r. 14841504); the founder-abbot Joseph of Volotsk (d. 1515); the latter's successor and then Metropolitan of Moscow, Daniel (r. 151515221539); Archbishop of Novgorod and then Metropolitan of Moscow, Macarius (r. 152615421563); and several other prelates, mostly trained in the Iosifov-Volokolamsk Monastery. They defended church lands and Orthodoxy and created an inquisition of sorts. They also promoted commemorations, reformed and rationalized monasteries, strengthened episcopal administration and missionary activity, nationalized regional saints, patronized religious art, allowed allegorical innovations, commissioned a few scientific translations, attempted to introduce printing, contributed original compilations of history, hagiography, and canon law, and aided the state and court with ceremonies, ideology, military chaplains, colonizing clergy, and canon-legal decisions.

The "Non-possessors" are harder to pin down. Vassian Patrikeyev (active from 1505 to 1531 and personally influential from 1511 to 1522) and those in charge of his literary legacy also expressed heated opposition to execution of even relapsed and obdurate heretics, while Artemy of Pskov (active 1540s1550s) disputed that the people on trial were genuine heretics. Other erudite critics of monastic wealth, Maxim the Greek (active in Russia, 15171555) and Yermolai-Yerazm (active 1540s1560s), did not take a stand on these two issues. Furthermore, the roles of Vassian and his "Trans-Volgan" mentor Nil Sorsky (d. 1508) in politicizing the latter's stringent hesychastic spiritual principles are not clear. Recent textual analysis questions the traditional assumption, in place by 1550, that Nil had counseled Ivan III at a synod in 1503 to confiscate monastic villages, and shows that Nil, like Maxim, Ermolai-Erazm, and Artemy, staunchly defended Orthodoxy. As individuals, some "Non-possessors" made outstanding contributions to Russian spiritual, literary, and legal culture and political thought, but as a group they carried little weight.

"Possessors" more or less dominated the Russian Church during 15021511, 15221539, and 15421566. The JosephitesIosifov monastery elders and alumni prelateswere a formidable and often disliked "Possessor" faction, and not only by Kirillov-Belozersk Monastery elders, who patronized the northern Trans-Volgan hermitages. If Nil and Joseph collaborated against dissidence, Vassian and the Josephites were at loggerheads. Daniel had both Maxim and Vassian condemned and imprisoned for heresy. Later Macarius did the same to Artemy and maybe sponsored a purge of hermitages suspected of harboring dissidents.

See also: daniel, metropolitan; ivan iii; joseph of volotsk, st; makary metropolitan; maxim the greek, st.; russian orthodox church


Ostrowski, Donald. (1986). "Church Polemics and Monastic Land acquisition in Sixteenth-Century Muscovy." Slavonic and East European Review 64:35579.

Treadgold, Donald W. (1973). The West in Russia and China: Religious and Secular Thought in Modern Times. Vol. I, Russia, 14721917. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

David M. Goldfrank