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August 18, 2012

Is it a quail or a buttonquail? Coptic theology has often been misrepresented by other Christian sects. The picture: Coptic tapestry-woven panel showing a quail from the 4th or 5th century.[1]

As we have seen in a previous article,[2] Jacques de Vitry (or James of Vitry) was a Crusader and Bishop of Acre at the time of the Fifth Crusade (1213 – 1221 AD), which was directed at the Ayyubid state in Egypt.[3] During that Crusade, de Vitry provided Pope Honorius III (1216 – 1227) with information on its progress, and at the same time he busied himself writing a history of the Holy Land and crusades, past and present. The Fifth Crusade had already been launched when the Lateran IV Council (1215), with its wide-sweeping reforms programme, was held, and de Vitry, writing only a few years later, in 1220, treated that council as a turning point.  He called his book Historia Hierosolimitana (History of Jerusalem), and intended to divide it into three books, but he managed to write only two: Historia Occidentalis (History of the West) and Historia Orientalis (History of the East), where in the first, as Jessalynn Lea Bird says, he “outlined what he hoped the Fourth Lateran Council’s reform program would achieve in Europe”, while in the second he “treated past and present circumstances in the Holy Land and surrounding regions. This second book’s impressive popularity was ensured by its descriptions of the East’s geography, holy sites, peoples, and natural wonders, teamed with a history of the crusades and an appeal for the reform of its inhabitants.”[4]

Jacques de Vitry does not come across in his writings as a nice man; and as Robert Payne writes about him in his The Crusades, A History: “His [de Vitry’s] was not an altogether pleasant character, for he was moralistic to a fault, pompous, self-assured, and apoplectic. His hatred bordered on biting contempt. Heretics, schismatics, half-castes, lawyers, usurers, and women dressed in finery received violent tongue-lashings from him.”[5] He considered the Copts, who were termed Jacobites[6] by the Crusaders, heretics because they did not recognise the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. But it seems that much of his prejudice was due to the disinformation he had received from the Melkite[7] ‘Greeks’: “When we questioned the Greeks closely…to understand why they so detest the Jacobites and avoid their company, they explained the main cause of their contempt: the Jacobites fell into a condemnable and very pernicious heresy, proclaiming that there was in Christ but one single nature, just as there was but a single person. This type of heretic was condemned and excommunicated at the Chalcedonian council. Some of them believe, in a perverse way, that Christ, after having assumed human form, no longer possessed two natures but only the divine nature residing in him. It was Eutyches,[8] a monk originally from Constantinople, who was the author of this error.”[9]

What de Vitry was told was that the Copts were Monophysites and followers of Eutyches, intentional misinformation that has been used by the opponents of the Copts since the days of Patriarch Dioscorus I (444 – 454). Despite all the faults of Jacques de Vitry, he, however, had an inquisitive mind, albeit limited; and so, rather than rely on the reports of the Greeks, he tried to find for himself; so he immediately add: “Nonetheless, although I informed myself diligently among the Jacobites to learn if it was true that they thought that there was but one nature in Christ, they denied it, compelled I knew not whether by fear or some other reason.”[10] So, as it seems, de Vitry was told by the Copts the truth about their Christological doctrine, and that they did not believe in Monophysitism and the teachings of Eutychus, but rather in Miaphysitism; however, instead of taking their confession seriously, he suspected that they might be hiding their ‘true’ beliefs for “fear or some other reason”. [11]

It is a tragedy that no one tried to listen to the Copts and understand what they really were, or what they truly believed; and ignorance, intellectual malaise and prejudice triumphed over open-mindedness and understanding, with very serious consequences to the Copts, the Greeks and the Franks – in fact, Christendom as a whole.

[1] This beautiful Coptic tapestry is at the V&A Museum, London (no. 284-1891). The museum’s note reads: “These small naturalistic woven motifs were produced in the 4th to 6th centuries by early Egyptian Christians called Copts. The textiles are referred to as Coptic textiles. The motifs used include a quail, a basket of fruit and a dolphin. Another example includes flowers, and has birds and heads of women in the centre. These pieces were used as decoration on tunics, covers or hangings. The central brown square in which the basket of fruit is placed, and the border of fruit round the edge, are stitched at both sides but not at the top and bottom, where slits that occurred during weaving have been stitched together later.”

[2] See: Dioscorus Boles (28 January 2012): The Copts and Circumcision – A History: Part I

[3] The Ayyubid State in Egypt was inaugurated by Saladin in 1171 and ended in 1250. During the Fifth Crusade, Egypt was ruled by al-Malik al-Adil (1200 – 1218) and then his son al-Malik al-Kamel (1218 – 1238).

[4] Jessalynn Lea Bird, The Historia Orientalis of Jacques de Vitry: Visual and Written Commentaries as Evidence of a Text’s Audience, Reception, and Utilization, Essays in Medieval Studies, Volume 20, 2003, p. 56.

[5] Robert Payne, The Crusades, A History (London; Robert Hale; 1994); p. 290.

[6] By Jacobites is meant the anti-Chalcedonian Christians, those who rejected the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD, mainly Copts and Syrians. They were called Jacobites after the bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradaeus (543 – 578 AD), who had an important role in consecrating bishops in the Coptic Church during its persecution by the Byzantines.

[7] Melkites is a Syriac word that means followers of the king, by which the anti-Chalcedonians labelled the Chalcedonians, as they saw them as followers of the Byzantine emperor, Marcian (450 – 457), who presided over the fateful Council of Chalcedon.

[8] Eutyches (c. 380 – c. 456) was archimandrite at Constantinople. His strong opposition to another heretic, Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople (428 – 431), made him take an extreme opposite position in the Christological debate, which ended up by him being labelled as heretic too.

[9] The quote is from Historia Orientalis in Christian Cannuyer, Coptic Egypt: The Christians of the Nile (New York, Abrams, 2001), p. 131.

[10] Ibid.

[11] This is not the place to explain the differences between Monophysitism, Dyophysitism and Miaphysitism; however, we shall talk about all these important doctrines, which have had a tremendous impact on our history, in a separate article.

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