Nerses Shnorhali: consolidating foundations of statehood
Armenian News Network / Groong
November 8, 2021
Nerses Shnorhali (Nerses the Gracious 1102-1173), one of the great 12th century Patriarchs of the Cilician-Armenian Church, was a remarkable man; an intellectual, teacher, poet and musician he was also a profound socio-political thinker. His 1166 ‘Epistle to the Community’ written some seventy-four years after the 1080 establishment of the Armenian-Cilician monarchy is a withering survey of the unbridled conduct of the ruling and privileged classes in the new state. It is of remarkable relevance for our times, especially for the post 44 Day War crisis ridden Third Armenian Republic.
The Cilician Armenian monarchy and its associated principalities evolved and established themselves during the course of the 11th century. Deep into the 12th they remained dangerously vulnerable both to internal disintegration and external predators. A militant spokesman for a wiser segment of the feudal elites, Shnorhali grasped well that the new state had little future unless it established internal social cohesion that was then being recklessly destroyed by a rampantly egotistical, oppressive and exploitative parvenu ruling class.
In its angry indictment of Cilician-Armenian bishops, abbots, monks, priests, princes, soldiers, merchants and indeed cheating artisans ‘The Epistle’ reveals a cancer of ruling class greed, pillaging, plunder, thieving, debauching and extreme abuse. It is a condemnation of the wild extortions and contemptuous disregard for the poor, the homeless and the powerless that was reducing the common people and the peasantry to impoverishment and starvation. It is a caution against the degeneracy of Church officials that was discrediting its authority.
A Churchman representing one of the most powerful estates, preeminent in religious, educational, legal, intellectual, cultural spheres and in the organization of community life Shnorhali opens with an indictment of the Church and its servants. He is aghast that the riches of monasteries – supposedly educational, spiritual, and cultural centers - have become targets for unscrupulous, amoral and grasping monks seeking the easy life at the expense of both Church and society. Men previously without property don the monk’s garb, inherit Church legacies and are enriched with possessions (p42). Monastic life has been transformed into a business with monks ‘infected with the disease of avarice’. They work hard, ‘but only to accumulate riches (p44, 46)’. Unquenched greed drives opportunist monks to ‘from one monastery to another in search of the wealthiest upon which they can parasite (p52)’.
As for rural priests ministering to the village peasantry, ‘with few exceptions they are lawless, without decency and disobedient to their superiors (p53)’. Engaged in ‘miserliness, theft, plundering and other misdeeds they are often worse than the secular population (p55)’. The urban clergy are just as woeful with ‘their foul mouths, their ill deeds, impudent gluttony, dissolute alcoholism and their endless disorders (p40)’. Shnorhali’s ambition is to bring this clergy back to order (p53-53), lest its immoral behavior destroy the Church’s reputation and influence (p51).
At the head of the Church are greedy, selfish, and venal Bishops (p70-78) in which ‘the undeserving’ ones ‘are given authority as against the deserving (p77)’ and ‘vice-ridden ones are made to appear as saints and the saintly as evil (p77)’. In these ‘wretched times’ ‘Bishops have little in common (with the apostles). They seek positions…with the single aim of accumulating wealth (p81)’. Worse still some collaborate with foreign powers ‘tolerating numerous blows and damages as well as humiliation in expectation of vain gain (p82)’. Many have made ‘tax offices’ of Churches to ‘transfer to the tyrant the taxes they collect from the Church and the poor (p82).
Charges against the secular elites, the feudal lords, soldiers, merchants and traders also describe a landscape of cruelty and impoverishment. The aristocracy ‘treat (their) subjects unjustly imposing on them heavy burdens of taxation they cannot pay (p111)’. They ‘persecute the impoverished and homeless’ and are indifferent to ‘the widowed and the poor (p112, 113).’ Though not as large as the aristocracy, the merchant and trading class are little different ‘cheating and deceiving…with lies and false oaths’ and going about business ‘using two weights and two measures.’
Parasitic organisms eating away at the wealth, the body and the foundations of state and nation - such were the prominent segments of new Cilician-Armenian ruling and privileged elites. Shnorhali detested them. ‘Unless’ the aristocracy ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, then on the Day of Judgment Christ will say to them “Away from me damnable ones! Away to eternal fire (p116)!”’ Merchants and traders who fail to mend their ways will have ‘the curse of their victims come to burn their possessions (p126).’ Displaying an acute awareness of the harsh reality of unequal social and economic relations, Shnorhali even applies different moral criteria to the rich and the poor. The former who lie are more culpable than the small person for the latter lies only because he/she is powerless (p119).
As with Shnorhali’s thought in general, ‘The Epistle’ is an imperative call to action. ‘Faith without action…is valueless (p31)’. Faith is but a foundation; action constitutes walls and the ceiling. ‘Faith is dead in those who profess it but do not follow it with action (p31)’. To inspire action, elsewhere he calls on examples from history. Speaking of potential Cilician-Armenian prowess he cites the accomplishments of pre-Christian Tigran the Great. Referring repeatedly to Moses of Khoren, 5th century founder of Armenian historiography, Shnorhali signals grander days of past as landmarks for current ambition. But here he is preoccupied with practical measures that would sustain social harmony and thus social order.
To improve the wretched state of affairs that he witnessed, Shnorhali's proposals for action resembled a sort of Christian-feudal welfare programme to reign in ruling class excess. Urging adherence to Christian Scripture that he interpreted in a generous, humanist fashion Shnorhali sets out some of the social and economic actions he expects from the privileged.
‘Do not treat your subjects as if they are dumb animals…do not burden them with heavy and intolerable labour…do not leave them hungry….limit their working hours, feed them generously during their working hours and do not burden them excessively so that with their earning they can look after their poor homes, secure their children’s lives and pay their royal taxes… and do not reduce the wages of your soldiers and your servants (p113, 119)’.
Animated no doubt by Christian moral principles, Shnorhali's modest proposals were designed to protect the Cilician feudal order and the power and privilege of its elites against the potential wrath of the people. He was not a proponent for the elimination of class exploitation even though he grasped its reality clearly calling as he did on the wealthy to ‘be satisfied’ that ‘you get rich through their (the common people’s) labour and you are thus softened (p113)’. Nor was Shnorhali a democrat. He demanded complete subordination by all to the dictates of Church and its clergy (p25) and instructed the common people to bend to every command of their secular lords, unquestioningly.
For Shnorhali the exploitative and hierarchical foundation of the Cilician Armenian social order was a natural, unchangeable reality. But he did grasp that super-exploitation and untrammeled oppression of the lower classes were obstacles to their subordination to the feudal order. The fear of mass discontent and even popular revolt arising from unfettered exploitation and oppression of the peasantry was never far from the mind of any medieval thinker. Among Armenians the turbulent history of dissident Paulicians and later Tontrag movements with their often mass following was etched sharp in the memory. Hence Nerses Shnorhali’s ‘The Epistle’ with its flourish of ‘Christian-reformism’.
Shnorhali’s ideological standpoint may have been common to the better medieval Christian thinkers. But what was significant, even if not universally unique was that Shnorhali’s worldview was developed in an era of early state formation when newly ascendant ruling classes were proving reckless and dangerous in the extreme as they grabbed from the masses without concern for the future of state or society. Today the ruling elites are as greedy and reckless. In the face of acute and growing social and economic inequalities they tolerate and indeed encourage, the future of Armenia is threatened by mass emigration as the common people left with no hope in their homeland back their bags for more promising futures in Russia and beyond.
In his ‘feudal reformism’ and his defence of the feudal elites, Shnorhali displays acumen a thousand times superior to our ruling elites who display all the wretched features that Shnorhali denounces. They would shudder at the burden of responsibility and duty Shnorhali places on the elites. A resurrected Shnorhali would certainly attempt to deal with these modern elites. But dare we say it, as with the most moderate UK Corbyn or US Sanders, Shnorhali’s programme of limited social reforms albeit also designed to protect the elites and their social order would today be subjected to the same vicious onslaught. Perhaps we should today learn from Shnorhali, if only to go a step more radical and get rid of elites altogether rather than seek to rein them in. Perhaps we should think about centralizing all national resources, devoting them exclusively to rebuild the lives of the people and the foundations of the nation in the wake of our defeat in the second Artsakh war.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.