Medieval Bulgarian heresy rebels against earthly powers, creating spiritual movement that almost won over Europe

boyan the magus

What do you do when the events of the day overwhelm you? When you feel that you have lost control of your own life? You might overeat, rant on social media or buy stuff you do not need. You might call your shrink.

Medieval Bulgarians invented a heresy instead. In what was at the time am equivalent of social media harangue they declared that all earthly powers were the work of the Devil. The only way to save one's soul was to refuse to bow down before any authority or institution, monarch and church included. Do not pay taxes, they preached. Do not toil without pay in your local fief. Do not join the army. The general message of the Bogomils was so seductive that it spread in medieval Europe as far as France.

The reason why you may have been unaware of the Bogomils is that, for various reasons, the establishment won. In France, Bogomils were massacred. In the Balkans, although persecuted less severely, they eventually disappeared.

The story of Bogomilism began in 10th century Bulgaria. The aggressive policies of King Simeon the Great (893-927) had spread Bulgaria's borders far and wide, from sea to sea and to the gates of Constantinople, but in an overstretched medieval state with limited resources you could wage only so many wars before you exhausted your economy and manpower to the point of collapse. Under Simeon's heir, King Petar (927-969), Bulgaria struggled to survive, a slow-motion implosion of shrinking borders and political relevance. The king was clever enough to play friends with the arch-enemy, Byzantium, but a number of young, ambitious nations flexed their muscles at the Bulgarian borders, ready to take what they could. Hungarians raided on a regular basis. The Serbs broke free from Bulgarian rule. Russians were eager to try their luck and would eventually invade, in coordination with Byzantium. Two of Petar's brothers rebelled repeatedly, and his own wife, a Byzantine princess, actively meddled in state affairs using the time-honoured tradition of Constantinople-style court intrigue.

It looked as if Bulgaria had lost its way for the first time since its foundation in 681.

For ordinary people political instability meant insecurity and poverty, a violent life of suffering and sudden death. Unsurprisingly, the Bulgarians grew disaffected with the institutions that were meant to protect them. It was probably the moment in history when the nation's trademark scepticism towards anyone in any sort of power was born, and would eventually become an integral part of the national psyche.

Radimlja necropolis, Bosnia

The unusual tombstones at the medieval Radimlja necropolis, Bosnia, have also been interpreted as belonging to followers of Bogomilism

Overwhelmed by events, medieval Bulgarians sought solace and escape in mysticism and outlandish spiritual movements. They had become Christians reluctantly less than a century before, under pressure from their government. Pagan traditions were still strong and the richness of the Church rituals and its dogma appeared alien, goaded and somewhat baffling. Some Bulgarians opted to save their souls by embracing an ascetic life far from the crowds. They did not renounce the establishment – they just removed themselves from it. This movement's most prominent figure, St Ivan of Rila, eventually became Bulgaria's patron saint. It speaks volumes that the Bulgarians identified themselves not with a warrior saint or a canonised prince but with a peasant who quietly said "sod off" to the world and retreated into the mountains to become a hermit.

The Bogomil movement was the more radical reaction to the Bulgarian disaffection with the establishment. Reportedly founded by either an ordinary man named Bogomil, "Dear to God," or by the extraordinary Boyan the Magus, a son of King Simeon and a shapeshifting shaman, it believed in a dualistic universe where the Devil ruled over the material world and God over the spiritual one. Hell was here, on earth, with its rampant poverty, cruel wars, and endless suffering. It is hardly a surprise that the Bogomils refused to have anything to do with the established social and religious order. They lived in small communities of equals. The only authority they recognised was that of their spiritual leaders and a democratically elected bishop. The Bogomils replaced the scriptures with their own sacred texts, like the enticingly named Secret Book. Of all the sacraments they practiced only baptism, and of all prayers they uttered only the Pater Noster. They were vegetarians, did not drink and believed that the fruits of honest labour were sacred. Exploiting another person was deeply immoral.

Or that's what we think they did. In the case of the Bogomils, the cliché that history is written by the victors is true. The main sources of what the Bogomils did and believed in are the passionate and hardly objective writings of their enemies – clerical authors and court historians.

The quiet village of Nea Chalkidona, near Thessaloniki in Greece, is the home of another supposed Bogomil necropolis

The quiet village of Nea Chalkidona, near Thessaloniki in Greece, is the home of another supposed Bogomil necropolis. In fact, tombstones of crosses in circles are not uncommon in the Balkans, Bulgaria included, and are dated to the 18th century, long after Bogomilism disappeared

The reason why the Bulgarian Orthodox Church did not declare Bogomilism a heresy until as late as 1210, at a council in the capital Tarnovo, was that soon after Bogomilism gained prominence Bulgaria fell under the Byzantines for two centuries.

The Byzantine Empire itself was less than happy to have Bogomilism spreading across its territory and even among its aristocracy. In 1118, the movement's leader Basil the Physician was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. The rarity and severity of his punishment signified that his teachings were seen as a major threat to the imperial order.

Today, historians believe that the Bogomil ideas were not that radically new. The heresy was probably influenced by Paulicianism, a manichean sect which had been present in Philippopolis, today's Plovdiv, since the 8th century and remained strong for centuries afterwards.

In Medieval Bulgaria, the Bogomil doctrine electrified people and quickly spread westwards. Bogomilism gained hearts and souls in the Western Balkans and – according to some interpretations that clearly contradict the Bogomil aversion towards earthly power – became the official religion of Bosnia. By the 11th century, Bogomilism was present in France as far as Languedoc. Across time, geography and different languages, its Slavic name – and probably its doctrine – evolved. In Western Europe, its followers were called Cathars, Albigensians and Bougres. The latter derives from "Bulgarian" and with time and propaganda became the slur "bugger."

By the 12th-13th centuries Cathars were present in the north of France and along the Rhine valley. In the southwest, they controlled whole cities, such as Toulouse, Carcassonne and Narbonne. After some failed efforts to seduce them back to the Catholic fold, in 1209 Rome declared a crusade against them. It ended 20 years later with the mass murder of countless Albigensians.

Bogomils, or Celts, have been promoted as the creators of this necropolis in Garlo village, western Bulgaria

Bogomils, or Celts, have been promoted as the creators of this necropolis in Garlo village, western Bulgaria. The cemetery dates back to the 18th century and has nothing to do with either

Meanwhile, in the Balkans, the Bogomils faced another type of hardship. The so-called Bosnian Church suffered a Rome-sanctioned crusade and inquisition. In Bulgaria, ravaged by yet another political crisis, the Bogomil influence waned, unable to compete with a new generation of spiritual movements, both Church-friendly and heretical.

When Bulgaria and Bosnia fell under the Ottomans, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Bogomils disappeared altogether.

But did they, really?

Many historians now believe that the sect's strong anti-establishment sentiment made Bogomil communities across the Balkans more susceptible to convert to Islam. According to this theory, that was how the Muslim communities of Slav-speaking people in the region, like the Pomaks in Bulgaria and Bosniaks in Bosnia, appeared. Why did they not just return to Orthodoxy or Catholicism instead? The Paulicians did just that – under the Ottomans, they adopted Catholicism instead of Orthodoxy, and their descendants are still present in pockets in north and south Bulgaria. Probably the centuries of persecution made this an unattractive choice for the Bogomils.

As people who did not believe in worldly possessions, the Bogomils have left us little, if any, material evidence about themselves. Some researchers now claim that a specific type of imagery found on Bosnian tombstones, Bulgarian churches and stone crosses in Greece depict Bogomil ideas about the universe: crude suns, moons and stars, spirals and rich vegetation, men with arms raised. In most of these cases, this is probably not true.

Bogomil ideas, however, proved to be more vital and seductive, and later generations imposed on them their own ideas about Bulgarian history and the national character. In the 19th century, when Bulgarians defined themselves as a nation, Bogomils became a symbol of Bulgarian "uniqueness," embodying spiritual and intellectual superiority. Bogomil ideas were even "discovered" in Bulgarian folk songs and rites. Communist Bulgaria hailed the Bogomils as "early Communists" and labelled them one of Bulgaria's greatest contributions to human civilisation, along with the Cyrillic alphabet.

A 14th century underground church in Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina

A 14th century underground church in Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, believed to have belonged to local Bogomils. The reasoning is partially based on the unusual altar without any icons but featuring a sun and a moon that might be interpreted as a symbol of Bogomil dualistic views on the universe

Today, researchers have pointed to the democratic ideas of the Bogomils while vegetarians extoll their refusal to eat animal flesh. At the more extreme end, some "researchers" have mixed nationalism with the lure of the esoteric and Dan Brown fiction, and now "find" Bogomil traces in any church or ritual they lay eyes on. They believe that Bogomils possessed some secret knowledge. Some are really frustrated that Bulgaria has failed to produce a site as spectacular, "inspirational" and national-confidence-boosting as the supposed Bogomil graves in Bosnia or the Château de Montségur in France where the Cathars reportedly hid the Holy Grail itself.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the Bogomils.

The Bulgarian Church still condemns them as heretics. Some intellectuals blame them for the deeply-ingrained Bulgarian scepticism towards any power or authority that supposedly impedes the nation from achieving anything great. Are they right? After enough time has passed, it is as easy to blame a medieval movement for what you dislike in the modern world as it is to hail it as the incarnation of the perfect social order – and diet. 


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