Forthcoming: an English translation of Michael the Syrian

The World Chronicle of the 12th century Syrian monophysite (or Syrian Orthodox) patriarch, Michael Rabo — aka Michael the Syrian — is the longest medieval chronicle that has survived.  It was composed in Syriac, making use of extensive earlier chronicle material, reaching all the way back to a now-lost Syriac translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius.  It is a major source for Syriac historical materials. 

It also is a major source for the crusader period.  For Michael the Syrian lived when the crusader kingdom of Outremer and the principality of Antioch were at their height. 

One problem is that no English translation exists.  A French translation was published by Chabot together with an awful transcription of the Syriac (unreadable, at least by me), back in 1906.[1]

Now Matti Mousa, the translator of various Syriac texts, and of The Scattered Pearls by Aphram Barsoum, has taken up the challenge.  The translation is complete, I understand, and he is revising it now.  Working mostly from the Syriac text, he is nevertheless comparing it with the Arabic translation, and also with some Garshuni versions.  He modestly says that this is to ensure that he hasn’t made any terrible mistake.  Dr. Mousa is himself a member of the Syrian Orthodox church, and the text will be published by his bishop, probably through Gorgias Press.

Let us hope that this is made available at a reasonable price.  It is such an important, and interesting work!

Michael was the head of the Syrian monophysites.  The Latin church — still united with the Greek orthodox — was Chalcedonian, and the rejection of the formula of Chalcedon (451AD) was the key demand of the monophysite party.  So Michael and his coreligionists were heretics, at least in theory.  But in practice Michael enjoyed excellent relations with the crusader clergy, and speaks of the tolerant attitude of the crusaders, who treated as Christians all who claimed to be so.   He even wrote an official letter, contributing to a Council in Rome, and supporting the Papal position.

One reason for this mutual good-feeling was the existence of a common enemy.  This was not the moslems, in this context, but rather the plottings of the Greek orthodox church, then firmly under the control of the Byzantine emperor. 

The crusader clergy got on rather badly with the Greeks, despite their supposed common doctrine.  The crusaders had liberated the churches of Palestine from Moslem rule, and naturally appointed their own clergy to the bishoprics and other posts.  But the Greek orthodox demanded to appoint Greeks to these posts, and schemed at Rome to get the Pope to override the appointments made by the crusader lords.  The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem found himself in a strange land, being stabbed in the back at home.

The monophysites, likewise, had a history.  A century earlier, Syria had fallen back under the control of a renascent Byzantine power, and the cities and churches had once again to deal with edicts made in Constantinople.  The Greek clergy had conducted a witchhunt, complete with heresy trials.  This was not politically very clever, and was long remembered even after the Moslems returned.  The Greeks then attempted to organise “reunion” conferences with the monophysites, and Michael himself was invited to one such.  Knowing that he was unlikely to return, whatever “safe-conduct” was promised, he wrote a letter declining in firm tones.

There is a reason why the phrase “Byzantine intrigues” has a very negative flavour, even today.  Faced with such plotting, by a weak and permanently treacherous power — described as “these European Chinese” in one pre-political correctness volume –, Michael and Amaury, the Latin patriarch, found that their mutual interest was far in excess of a minor doctrinal quibble.

In consequence Michael provides an interesting independent witness to the impact of the crusades on the local inhabitants of Syria and Palestine.  The Coptic source, the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, is generally negative, probably out of fear of Moslem reprisals; Michael feels no such hesitation to endorse the incomers.

I hope one day to read what he has to say!

  1. [1]The three volumes of the French translation are accessible on, here.  I did hope to do the fourth volume also, containing the Syriac, but never had the time.