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By Komnenos, 2 September 2006; Revised
Category: Medieval Europe
Part One: Origins of a Medieval Dualist Dissent
Like so many other medieval religious sects, the Cathars would have sunk into historical oblivion had it not been for two phenomena that has kept the name of the sect alive: Firstly, the ruins of the Cathar fortresses have left indelible marks in the land-scape of Southern France. And secondly, the Cathars have joined the ever growing collection of allegedly mysterious medieval ( and post-medieval) organisations that have become the staple diet of conspiracy theories and other pseudo-historical fantasies. Together with the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati and the Freemasons, to name only the most popular, the Cathars have become the subject of myths, fables, and mass-produced literature. The last resurrection of the Cathars from obscurity in the early 80s must be blamed on the authors of “The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail” who began their highly entertaining, but also completely fictional, narrative of the alleged preservation of Jesus Christ's bloodline in the Cathar region of the Languedoc.
But this article will not deal with the escapist myths that have surrounded the Cathars and their history. It will attempt, in this first part, to trace the intellectual origins of a Medieval Dualist faith, and then give an account of their belief system and organisation and tell the history of the persecution and destruction of Catharism in the Albigensian Crusades of the 13th century.
Tracing the origins of the Cathar faith should also establish whether Catharism is indeed “the great heresy of Christianity” of the Middle Ages, or a phenomenon that has no parallel in the Medieval age: the introduction of an essentially non-Christian but Dualist faith into Europe, purely by intellectual dissemination and not by the usual means of being the accompaniment of territorial conquest. Catharism had such unbridgeable deviations from the Christian orthodoxy - such as its cosmic dualism, its insistence of the existence of an evil principle in creation, its interpretation of the role of the god of the Old and New Testament, its view of Jesus Christ, its rejection of the entire paraphernalia of the Christian Church - that it seems, it was not simply a significant variation of the Christian faith, but rather a separate faith alltogether, sharing a few superficial elements, but at heart being incompatible with Christianity.
I. From the East to the Roman Empire and back
Heresies are deviations of accepted and established doctrines of an existing faith and its organisation. A heresy needs an orthodoxy , the “right belief”, in order to able to depart from fundamental tenets of its mother church. Judaism or Islam can not be Christian heresies, as they have never been or have never claimed to be Christian. To be a Christian heresy, a deviation needs to have originated from the orthodoxy, or must have shared at least the basic beliefs of the Christian Church.
In the 11th,and 13th centuries, during the rise and fall of Catharism, the orthodoxy of the Christian faith was guarded by the the Roman Catholic and the Greek (Orthodox) Church which had split from the former in 1054, more for political than for doctrinal reasons. (Throughout this article, “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” will be used in their original meaning, as “rightful belief” or “correct thought,” and should not be confused with “Orthodox” as the epithet of various Christian Churches, as in the "Greek Orthodox Church". When it is used as such, it will be written with a capital letter). Christian orthodoxy was only achieved through centuries of intense struggle over the basic tenets of the faith. From the very first moment of its existence, when it developed in the first half of the first century AD, Christianity had experienced long and very fundamental debates over the exegesis of its founder's teachings which had been passed down in a very diverse collection of texts. And from the very first moment, a myriad of Christian communities had sprung up, many of which held sometimes totally conflicting views, based on sometimes totally conflicting accounts of Jesus' life and teachings. The Ebionites, Marcionites, Montanites and thousands of other now forgotten strands of Christianity contributed to the extremely heterogeneous nature of early Christianity. An orthodox Christian belief did not exist then. Only on the base of their seniority, local Churches like the one of the Bishop of Rome, could attempt to dictate their doctrines to other local groups. Only after the Council of Nicaea in 325, which anathematized Arianism, could one speak of the beginnings of a universal, orthodox Christianity. But apart from the internal discussions about the interpretation of its basic belief, early Christianity had faced another danger: being subjected to non-Christian influences.
Its origins had been in Palestine, from where it spread mainly through the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, thus remaining inside a relative coherent cultural sphere which for centuries had also been the center of cultural exchange, where ideas from as far apart as the Indus regions, Egypt and the coastal regions of Asia Minor had influenced each other. Early Christian groups thus came into contact with religions originated in the East, especially because these outside religions had begun to diffuse into the West. Mithraism was such an example of an extremely successful and serious competitor to the rising Christian church.
In this climate of religious diversity and exchange, religious strands that are very difficult to classify as being exclusive to any one major religion flourished in the region in the first centuries AD. Many of these groups were rather eclectic, taking elements from various religions and blending them into a new system of belief, a “syncretic”, merged belief.
One of such groups were the (BOLD)Elchasaites, a small sect that had amalgamated Jewish, Christian, Gnostic ( see below) and Zoroastrian elements into a new faith. Little is known about their doctrines and rites. Although they had slowly spread westwards into the Roman Empire, they had remained firmly centered in Mesopatamia. There in Mesopatamia, in the year 216, Mani the “Prophet of Babylon” was born into an aristocratic Elchasaite family. Babylon was then part of the Empire of the Parthians, which was in its very last days, soon to be replaced by the Empire of the Sassanids, who took control of Persia and its surrounds in 224/228. The first Sassanid king soon re-established Zoroastrianism as the official religion of crown and state, while practicing a relatively high religious tolerance as his Achaemenid predecessors had done several centuries before.
The Zoroastrian religion is based on the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathrustra), whose biographical dates are somewhat disputed, with estimates ranging from 1000-500 BC. However, uncontested is that in the 6th century BC, under Cyrus II and his successors, Zoroastrianism was adopted as the quasi-official religion of the Persian Empire. Even if the Zoroastrian faith had lost its elevated status under the Achaemenids' successors, the Seleucids and Parthians, it retained its position as the most important religious and intellectual force of the entire region. That the Elchasaites were influenced by it, is proof of the continuing presence and undiminished significance of Zoroastrianism in Mesopatamia in the 3th century AD. As most highly evolved religious systems, Zoroastrianism was far from a monolithic block, but possessed different strands and went trough a series of developments. One of the interpretations was its Zurvanite variant that had redefined the inherent cosmic dualism of Zoroaster's teachings into its radical conclusion. The particular Zurvanite element that the Elchasaites had adopted into their syncretic faith, was at the core of the belief: that the material world is the battlefield of two polar principles being immanent constituents of creation. The good, the light, the truthful is locked in eternal battle with with the evil, the dark and lying. These two opposing forces are embodied in the two divinities, that of Ahuda Mazda, the wise and benevolent , and that of Ahriman, his equally divine malevolent anti-thesis, both created by Zurvan, the personified principle of time and space. Humans are presented with a free will to choose between the two forces, and by taking the right choice, can bring upon the end of the existing world, the victory of the good principle and the millenarian kingdom of Ahuda Mazda. These two notions, that of the cosmic dualism, and that of a linear course of time leading to a definite end, had a profound impact on the religions and philosophies of the entire Middle-Eastern region. Judaism, for example, certainly came into contact with Zoroastrian ideas, possibly during the Babylonian exile. Although the Jewish faith preserved its monist principle that of the one god as the sole and essentially good cosmic force to which Satan, God's adversary, is only subjugated as a mere minor being, the Jewish millenarian prophecies, that of an apocalyptic end of time heralded by a messiah, seem to owe Zoroastrianism a lot.
The Elchasaites in the 3rd century Mesopatamia had incorporated the Zoroastrian cosmic dualism and added another ancient ( gnostic) dualist principle: the notion of the superiority of the soul, of the spirit, over the body, the matter, regarding the latter as the bearer of the evil principle. To be able to join the soul in the upcoming millenarian kingdom, the Elchasaites argued that the body needed to be purified through fasts and baptismal rites. It was this last tenet, that the body could and needed to be cleansed, that brought upon the young Mani's departure from the faith of his fathers. He was still in his twenties, when Mani caused a decisive split in the Elchasaite movement. His rejection of the possibility of bodily purification and his insisting that salvation could only be achieved through a process of intellectual recognition (“gnosis”) of the underlying and dualist principles of the cosmos, let to his expulsion from the Elchasaite church. (The emphasis on "gnosis" qualifies the Manichaean belief as belonging to the very wide and very loosely connected group of Gnostics religious movements that had appeared by the 3rd century in the Near East and surrounding regions. The scope of this article does not follow the Gnostic track, especially as in the historiography of religions, "Gnostic' and "Dualist" are often synonymously used.)
About the next years of Mani's life, little is known a lot has been speculated. It seems he undertook extensive missionary travels, into the Persian East and further into the Indian sub-continent, where he was influenced by Buddhist teachings. It seems also that he had some success during his proselytizing missions. On his return to Persia he found thus the attention of the Sassanid king Shapur I. By then, around 250 AD, Mani's teaching had found its final form. Under the influences of its Zoroastrian, Jewish, Buddhist and Christian sources, it had become an all-embracing syncreticism, containing selected elements from all those religions: At its heart remained a radical Dualist cosmos, with one of the two domains as light and spirit ruled by the “Father of Greatness”, and its opposite, darkness and matter, ruled by the “King of Darkness”. In the beginning, outside space and time thw two domains co-exist, until the darkness, out of its coherent chaos, collided with the light to bring the material universe into being. A perennial battle occurred in which both realms sent a series of demi-gods to fight, with the light element attempting to rescue the “Primal man” from its bondage in darkness, the dark element trying to perpetuate its binding. The first humans are thus created by the King of Darkness, in order to bind the light in a mortal body permeated with desires. The “Father of Greatness” sent the first of a number of prophetic saviours, Jesus “the Splendour” (not to be confused with the historical Jesus, to be followed by Noah, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ et al) to reveal to Adam the true nature of the cosmic struggle and to offer him the path to salvation through man's realisation of the eternal battle between light and dark and his repudiation of the dark. With each saviour having been sent to earth, more souls would be released from their material imprisonment until the last prophet, Mani, would come to announce the immanent, apocalyptic last battle where the the domain of light and spirit would carry the victory, and the dark and matter would be sent to eternal incarceration.
This being the foundations of Manichaean belief, it proved itself however very adoptable to its audience. Manichaeism changed the names of the protagonists of its cosmology according to that of the traditions of prospective believers. For example, Jesus “the Splendour” was identified with the old Persian deity Ahura Mazda. The organisation of the Manichaean church would provide the role model for all successive Dualist religions. The Manichaean believers were divided into two classes, a notion probably adapted from Buddhism: into the elected few, “members of Mani” who would distinguish themselves through the higher state of the “gnosis” they had achieved, and through their radical anti-material asceticism, from the mass of “listeners” who were exempted from the more extreme forms of worldly denials, and who would contribute to the upcome of the selected. (The most prominent Manichaean listener was Augustine of Hippo, who before becoming the most influential theologian of Christian orthodoxy, belonged to the Manichaean community). The elect would enter the realm of light after their death while the listeners had to wait until the last battle, after which they too would be elevated.
Under the patronage of the Sassanid court, Manichaeism, the “Religion of Light” as its adherents called it, flourished and grew steadily in its Mesopotamian heartland and not only continued its missionary efforts in the East, but began to slowly spread westwards, into the Roman Empire. After Shapur's I death in 272, the Sassanid policy of religious tolerance was continued by his immediate successor and son, Hormzid I. But after his half-brother Bahram II usurped the throne in 273, the fate of the Manichaean religion took a dramatic turn for the worse. The success of Mani had become the envy of the established Zoroastrian (Zurvanite) priest-caste, which instigated the new King to undertake a large scale persecution of the faith and its believers. Mani himself was imprisoned and suffered martyrdom in 274. Exiled from the Sassanid Empire, the majority of the Manichaean faithful escaped to the East, from where it moved into Central Asia, to where the center of the religion eventually shifted. Manichaeism thrived on the Asiatic steppes. The Uyghurs and their Khan converted wholesale in 764; it eventually reached China where Marco Polo is said to have encountered a number of Manichaean communities which seem to have survived, despite frequent persecutions by Chinese Emperors until the 13th and 14th century. But it was the westward trek of Manichaean refugees that became most important for the further development of the Dualist belief. The end of the 3rd century wasn't the best of times for a religion coming out of the Persian Empire. Mithraism, another cult that had its origins in the ancient religion of Persia, had been accepted more easily a couple of centuries before. Mithras had soon been incorporated into the ever welcoming Graeco-Roman pantheon and had like other Eastern deities before him, assumed the identity of existing Graeco-Roman gods, ending up as Sol Invictus.
Manichaeism, however, was too alien to the Roman religious principles.Its rejection of polytheism and its exclusivity that barred existing Roman gods and rites to enter its belief system, soon brought it into conflict with the Imperial authorities: not unlike another Eastern religion, Christianity, that had spread through the Empire. Manichaeism was thus subjected, like its Christian counterpart, to a series of Imperial persecutions, most notably under Diocletian, whose religious tolerance, if he indeed possessed any, seemed to have been totally subordinated to the reason of state. There was a brief respite under the relative tolerant regime of Constantine I after the Edict of Milan in 313, but under his successors a relentless suppression of the Manichaean faith began in earnest. It seems that Manichaeism had come in between all fronts. The Roman Empire regarded it as an essentially Persian religion and was unable or unwilling to recognise the fine differences between it and Zoroastrianism, the official state religion of the Sassanid Empire. The Romans regarded the diffusion of Manichaeism as an attempt of its arch-enemies to culturally infiltrate Roman society. Unfortunately, for the Manichaeans, the Sassanids had a very similar view, it over-emphasised the Christian elements of the faith, and simply considered it a variation of Christianity which by the 4th century had become the official religion of he Roman state, and as such had been persecuted by the Persian empire. Manichaeism got stuck in the middle and couldn't really win.
In the East-Roman Empire, Manichaeism suffered its worst oppression under the reign of Justinian I who interestingly and tellingly enough had been accused of being a follower of Mani himself, by Prokopios in his notorious “Secret History”. From these persecutions it never recovered. The Manichaean belief that at its zenith had possessed strongholds in all major cities of the Roman Empire, now either went totally underground, or its adherents escaped into regions where they were relatively safe - caught between the Romans and the Sassanids, it was not an easy undertaking to find one.
Manichaeism in the Roman Empire survived only as an generic term for all kinds of heresies and heretics, regardless of the even slightest connection with the doctrines of Mani's religion, which was mostly not the case. But such terminology was surely proof that Manichaeism had been for a couple of centuries the most dangerous competitor of Christianity, when it became a by-word for all those who did not agree with Christian orthodoxy. The syncretic Dualist faith of Manichaeism however lived on despite all obstacles, and not only in the remoteness of Central Asia. It resurfaced in the Mediterranean/Near Eastern cultural sphere in a region that traditionally had offered sanctuary for religious dissenters.
II. From Armenia to the Balkans
It was in Armenia where the Western Dualist faith was being kept alive. After the independent Armenian Kingdom had become a Roman province in the 1st century, it had become the main battle ground in the perennial wars that the Roman Empire had conducted against its Persian neighbours, the Parthians and later the Sassanids. From the 1st to 7th centuries Armenia was conquered by one side, re-conquered by the other, divided and re-united, annexed as a province of either side, or achieved independence or was granted semi-independence by its conquerors. In all this constant upheaval, an independent Armenian Kingdom was the first nation, in 301, to adopt Christianity as its state religion. By 451, after the Council of Chaldecon, the Armenian Church had split from the catholic orthodoxy and had become part of the Monophysite Eastern Orthodoxy. Never been under continuous control of the Christian orthodoxy, Armenia had also traditionally harboured a number of Christian sects that stood in doctrinal conflict with the official Church. Amongst them was the small group of Paulicians which had started off as one of the many sects that disputed the orthodox Trinitarian dogmas of the nature of Christ. The early Paulicians insisted that Jesus was born in human nature and was only later adopted by God as his divine son , and was thus not fully identical with the latter. When the Armenian Paulicians rose to prominence and notoriety in the mid 7th century, the emphasis of their beliefs seems to have shifted as they had adopted a number of Dualist elements. Two factors played a role in this shift. Firstly, the Paulicians had encountered the remnants of Manichaean belief, present in the disputed and inaccessible areas of Armenia, and had been influenced by them. Secondly, the Paulicians had come into contact with Zoroastrian refugees in the mid 7th century. Under the attack of the Arab Islamic expansion, the Sassanid Empire had collapsed and the Umayyads had established an Islamic theocracy in its stead. The religion of the Sassanids, Zoroastrianism was, while not being completely eradicated, was pushed to the margins of the former Persian Empire. The Armenian border-land remained one of its strongholds, where Paulicianism became the next link in the Dualist chain.
However, it is also the weakest link in the widely accepted sequence that connects Manichaeism (and its Zoroastrian roots) with Catharism of Western Europe. The exact nature of Paulician belief is disputed and not well documented. The Paulician theology even in its later form lacked the radical Dualism of Mani, and its organisation did not possess the hallmark of Dualist groups, which was the distinctive separation of the congregation into a small elite of the select and that of the majority of listeners. The fact that the Paulicians was later denounced by Byzantine state and church as Manichaean heresy does not necessarily signify a similarity with Manichaeism, which had become the epithet of too many unrelated heresies. But the next development in the history of Dualism might give substantial evidence that Paulicianism most certainly did contain a number of Dualist elements, although they might not have necessarily been incorporated in its doctrinal canon.
In the tumultuous religious and political landscape of 7th and 8th century Armenia, the Paulicians soon became a factor to reckon with. Paulicians faithful controlled a number of cities and offered militant and initially successful resistance to all attempts of the Byzantine Empire to destroy the heresy and its communities. Furthermore, Paulicianism trickled slowly but steadily into the Byzantine Empire proper, establishing communities in Asia Minor and in Greece. The spread of the faith was greeted with fierce damnation by the Church and with political suspicion by the Empire which quite rightly doubted their political allegiance to the orthodox Byzantine theocracy, especially those Paulicians that still lived in its Armenian heartland, on the borders to the Umayyad kingdom which had inherited the role of the Sassanids as the Eastern enemies of the Byzantines.
During his campaigns in the region, the Emperor Constantine V Koprynomos found an ingenious solution to the problem that the Eastern heretics presented. In 753, the Emperor decided to resettle entire Paulician communities, to the West of the Empire and closer to home, to Thrace in the Southern Balkans. A feat that was repeated some two hundred years later by Emperor John Tzimisces.
The motives of both rulers for resettlement might have been the same, to de-root the Paulicians from their traditional environment to make them easier to control. Constantine even might have regarded them, being Eastern, as potential allies for his iconoclast policies. But his primary goal was to strengthen the Western borders of the Empire against the Bulgars who had appeared in the Southern Balkans at the end of the 7th century who would turn out to be an as persistent and menacing as an enemy to the Byzantines as the Persians and Arabs. If, however, the main motive was to silence the Paulicians and to erase the Dualist faith from the religious map, the resettlements could not have been a bigger mistake.
Once again the center of Dualism shifted, this time even further to the West. To pursue the history of the origins of the Cathars, we have to follow this track.
In the East, and despite the efforts of Constantine V and John Tzimisces and the horrendous persecutions under Empress Theodora, Paulicianism survived. In the mid 8th century gained the height of its military power when a Paulician principality under its ruler Carbeas was established in Armenia under Arab protection, from where raids as far as to Ephesus were launched. Basil I eventually defeated the Paulicians under Carbeas' successor decisively in 872 who then ceased to be political force. The faith itself survived in the East until the remaining Armenian Paulicians in the 11th century would come to be identified with the newest form of Dualist faith that began to emerge in the West.
III. From Bulgaria into Bosnia
The entire history of the middle and late Byzantine Empire was defined by the two-front war throughout this period. While the Sassanids, the Arabic Caliphates and later the Turkish tribes endangered the Eastern borders, the Balkans faced an endless continuation of migrating Germanic tribes, Huns and other Central Asian people and last but not least, various Slavic nations that came dangerously close to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When the first Armenian Paulicians arrived in 753 in Thrace , the Southern Balkan hinterland of Constantinople, the current threat was that of the Bulgars who had arrived in the region a hundred years earlier. Some remains of the Bulgar Empire, which had flourished in the 7th century north of the Black Sea but had been destroyed by the Khazars, then moved southwards into the Balkans, mixed with Slavic tribes and founded the first Bulgarian Empire around the delta of the river Danube. From there the emerging Balkan power launched a succession of raids into the Byzantine province of Thrace.
And so the Paulicians came from the frying pan into the fire. They had been replanted from one front of the war to another. But what must have seemed at the beginning as yet another catastrophe for the Dualist faith and its believers, being re-planted into a region ravaged by war raids and depopulated by the plague, actually proved to be a stroke of luck. Had the religious climate been complicated in Armenia, it would have been hardly less so in the border regions between the Bulgarian and Byzantine Empires. At their arrival the Bulgarians had been a pagan people, worshiping a multitude of deities either brought from the steppes or picked up on the way to the Southern Balkans. Added to the religious melting pot were a number of heretical Christian sects that had sought refuge in the disputed borderlands from the Orthodox hierarchy., and not at least Jewish communities that had flown from the frequent pogroms in the Byzantine Empire.
Although in theory not yet split and still one body, the two main centers of Christianity even competed against each other in the Bulgarian Empire. The Western Church, represented by the Bishop of Rome whose position had been strengthened after the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 had brought Pope Leo I and his successors under Frankish protection, almost succeeded in introducing Christianity to Bulgaria by the 850s. This would have constituted a clear affront against the Patriarchate of Constantinople which regarded the Balkans as its natural sphere of interest, as it had been for centuries. The delicate nature of relations between the two European Empires, the old in East and the new in the West, were reflected in the squabble over the Bulgarian heathens. However, in 864, Khan Boris converted to the Byzantine variety of orthodox Christianity, a momentous decision that should define the (Southern) Slavic culture and history. His baptism was not so much the result of spiritual contemplation, but more of factual political calculations, a peace offer by the Byzantines he could not refuse.
The Bulgarian people did not welcome the religion of their favourite enemies with open arms. On the contrary, for decades to come, large parts of the peasantry stuck stubbornly to their old beliefs. When they eventually adopted a new faith, most didn't choose Byzantine Christianity, but another belief that was alive in the Southern Balkans, the Dualist Paulicianism that once again had started to evolve.
That the Paulician faith thrived in such times of religious confusion is no great surprise. Its less complicated theology, the simplicity of the Dualist cosmos, must have been more attractive to a people not used to the intricate theological sophistry of the orthodox Churches, both Western and Eastern. Its nature as an outsider, being neither the faith of the Byzantine enemies and sometimes rulers, nor of the Bulgarian nobility, must have secured a few converts as well. Instead of being eradicated as probably planned, the Dualist faith grew in Thrace and began to play a seminal role in the religious development of the Balkans.
Sometimes around the beginning of the 10th century, the Dualist faith, which had still possessed distinctive roots in Eastern traditions upon its arrival in Thrace, went through yet another metamorphosis by taking on a Slavic character, and emerging as Bogomilism. (The distinction between Paulicianism and Bogomilism, both in doctrine and organisation, would remain, especially as the original Eastern dualists in Thrace were reinforced by John Tzimisces resettlement program at the end of the 10th century. Paulicianism, and the "Pavlikeni " as its believers were called in the Slavic languages, would outlive Bogomilism, surviving under Ottoman rule into the 17th century when the majority of its believers was readmitted into the Roman Catholic Church, with a tiny flock remaining faithful well into the 20th century.)
The term “Bogomilism” is derived from the great, but historically elusive, Bulgarian heresiarch Bogomil who is said to have lived and proselytized in Macedonia in the first half of the 10th century. His historical existence is not fully testified. He could have been the synthesis of a number of heretical preachers who populated the region, as most of the documents referring to his name are either posthumous hagiographies or Anti-Bogomil pamphlets by his orthodox enemies, the evidence is considered unreliable or largely apocryphal. But the sheer number of Anti-Bogomil tractates appearing in the mid 10th century must be proof enough that a new Dualist faith had become a rapidly spreading and influential religious movement in the Southern Balkans, even though it is uncertain whether this legendary founder father had existed or not. The Constantinople Patriarchate commissioned a whole series of works that were to condemn Bogomilism and to warn the reigning Czar Petar of the immanent danger to the Bulgarian Christian Church. The most famous of these pamphlets is that of Cosmas the Priest, written around 870. In addition to the expected condemnation of Bogomilism, it gives an indication why the movement enjoyed such rapid growth in Bulgaria and its southern surroundings. Cosmas criticised the state of the Bulgarian Church, its corruption and lust for worldly power, and thus blamed it partly for the rise of a dissent that had taken on another and potentially even more dangerous dimension. Bogomilism had added to its religious opposition that of social protest and subversion. Dualist theology and social disobedience had informed each other to produce a body of belief that contained not only a strong rejection of orthodox doctrines and ecclesiastical hierarchy, but also an equally strong repudiation of the structures of the Medieval societies in the Southern Balkans.
In such a volatile religious and political climate, Bogomilism produced a tenet of beliefs that was far more radical than that of its Paulician neighbour and its own erstwhile influence. It returned to the radical Zurvanite Dualism of the Manichaeans and its uncompromising polarity. The basic pinciples of Bogomilism stated: All matter, the universe and the living world was the creation of the evil principle, of Satanael, God's first born son, who was in eternal battle with his father, who had sent his second son, Christ, to offer salvation. As Satanael had created mankind and its material and visible form, the body, all its functions were an expression of the evil principle. Only the soul, created by the good principle, could be rescued through contemplation, prayer and cognition (“gnosis”). Bogomilism therefore rejected orthodox Christianity completely, both in its Latin and Greek forms, their organisation, dogmas and rites; it rejected the Holy Virgin (so revered in the Byzantine Empire), the cross, the holy sacraments, the ikons, the Old and most of the New Testament until there was very little commonplace left. It regarded both the doctrines and appearance of all orthodox Christianity as yet another Satanic attempt to deceive human kind and to deflect from its only possible path to redemption - the assumption of the Dualist Bogomil faith. Bogomilism further demanded from its adherents an almost total retraction from the obligations of society. All earthly pleasures, sexual intercourse, meat, alcohol etc., were to be abandoned. No earthly duties, paying taxes, performing feudal services etc., should be recognised. The Bogomil movement was quite conscious that such puritan and ascetic existence could not be expected from all its believers as only a selected few were prepared and able to live a life purified from all worldly desires. The ancient Manichaean distinction, largely missing in Paulicianism, between the elite who would come close to a perfect life and all those who were not yet (and possibly never would be) capable of striving for perfection, was thus resurrected in the organisational structure of the Bogomil movement. The (re-)conquest of the Bulgarian Empires under the Macedonian dynasty in the latter half of the 10th century, once again brought the Dualist dissenters under Byzantine domain, with some dramatic consequences.
Firstly, the conquest facilitated Bogomil infiltration into the heartlands of the Byzantine Empire, where it gained footholds in Greece and Anatolia (where it made contact with its origins, the surviving Armenian Paulicians), and into the higher echelons of Byzantine society. Despite all efforts by the Byzantine theocracy to stamp out the faith, it flourished in the 11th century until Emperor Alexios Komnenos took some drastic action. His anti-Bogomil “crusade” in Thrace is well documented in his biography, the “Alexiad”, written by his daughter who made no secret out of her contempt for the Dualist believers. The renewed persecution culminated in the execution of the most influential of all Bogomil teachers, the monk Basil, in 1111. Secondly, the Bogomil faith became somewhat of the spiritual and political ideology of Bulgarian resistance against Byzantine rule. The official Bulgarian Church itself had increasingly become dominated by a Greek higher clergy, naturally allied with the Byzantine Empire, so Bogomilism emerged as a rallying point for Anti-Greek political opposition and social rebellions. Thirdly, and more important for the further development of Dualism in Europe, Bogomilism moved north-westwards, into Serbia and Bosnia, then and now populated by Southern Slavic tribes. After the Bulgarian empire's conversion to the Greek Church, the region had become the new front line between the two rival centers of Christianity in the late 10th and11th century. From the North , the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, which had adopted the Roman faith in 1000, sought to increase their political influence by promoting the Latin variety, while from the South the Byzantines and Bulgarian tried to dictate the Greek version onto the local population. Serbia, and especially Bosnia had been ruled at various points of their mid-Medieval history by all these foreign Empires and would only achieve a degree of independence in the late 12th century under Ban Kuli and his successors. Once again the instable religious and political conditions of the region would provide a perfect breeding ground for a faith not representing the two dominating cultural spheres. Bogomilism, which became attractive for the indigenous Southern Slavic people for the same reasons as it had earlier for the Bulgarians, thus spread easily into Serbia and Bosnia, preserving its character both as an alternative faith and as social rebellion. Although most prominent in the mountainous region of the Bosnian inland, Bogomilism reached also the cities on the Dalmatian coast, Split ,Trogir or Ragusa (Dubrovnik), then important trade centers with connections to the Italian cities across the Adriatic Sea and towns further west in the Mediterranean. In Bosnia itself, Bogomilism would have a distinguished history. It thrived in the sovereign Bosnian Kingdom as an expression of the Bosnian struggle for independence. Together with the autonomous Bosnian Church, which was possibly a moderate Bogomil off-shoot, Bogomilism was regarded as heretical by both the Latin and Greek Church, was the target of crusading efforts by the Hungarians and Byzantines, and would only slowly disappear after the Ottoman conquest.
The Bosnian interlude of Bogomilism would have a seminal effect on the dispersion of the Dualist faith. Through its coming into contact with the Latin Christians in Hungary and on the eastern borders of the HRE, and through its use of the Dalmatian merchant cities as stepping stones, Bogomilism would find its way into Central and Western Europe.
IV. From Bosnia into the West
After the demise of the West Roman Empire in 476 and its division into various Germanic Kingdoms, the Dualist faith, having never penetrated the West as deeply as the East, had all but disappeared and its most prominent version “Manichaeism” had only survived as the common but mostly undeserved label for any heresy that might appear, not that it happened very often. The Germanic tribes had been converted earlier than the Slavic tribes. Although Arianism had been for a while their preferred version of Christianity, in the end and after the German Holy Roman Empire had taken over the protection of the Bishop of Rome, the Roman orthodoxy was well established as the official religion of all states that were formed from the remainders of the Roman Empire in the West. Unlike its counterpart in the East, the Roman Church never had suffered the same frequent outbreaks of heretical deviations from the orthodoxy, or sectarian conflicts like the Iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries that had brought the Greek Church and Byzantine Empire onto the verge of Civil War. The most obvious reason for the absence of significant heresies in the West was the comparable lack of centers of learning that would produce enough theologians or educated congregations with time to speculate about the dogmas of the Church. It was thus more of an unusual phenomenon in the history of the western Church, when around the turn of the millennium, that reports of a new heretical tendency reached the Papal authorities.
It was the French clergy first, obviously being deeply worried, that reported of the appearance of itinerant preachers or small Christian communities that had rejected some element of Christian orthodoxy, be it the observance of the sacraments, or the veneration of the Cross or such. Not surprisingly, such heresies were immediately denounced as Manichaean, still the most convenient insult the orthodoxy could think of. And what began as a series of isolated incidences soon took on the form of a wide-spread heretical wave. Heretics were spotted in Northern Italy, the Low Countries, in the Rhineland, but most often and regularly in Southern France. The most worrying aspect was that they seem to have a common factor.
As with the Balkan Bogomilism, the new western “heresy” was predominantly recorded by its enemies, and thus it is notoriously difficult to determine its true doctrines. While it seems certain that it contained some Dualist elements already in the early 11th century, it was still lacking a coherent theology and any form of wide-ranging organisation. The origins of the new belief was easier to establish.Some of the preachers who had spread heretical ideas had quite obviously come from the East and in want of better descriptions, the new heresy was thus called the “Bulgarian” by its enemies.
By the beginning of the 12th century all that had changed, out of a diffuse assembly of localised beliefs, rose a more homogeneous faith, carried by a more structured organisation, and a few decades later a name was coined for its adherents: “Cathars” ( “the pure” ).
To be continued...
Stephen O'Shea, The Perfect Heresy, London 2000
Geoffrey Barraclough ed., The Christian World, a Social and Cultural History, London 1981
Robert Fossier ed.,The Cambridge History of the Middle Ages, Cambridge 1989
Yuri Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe, London 1994
Peter Bamm, Welten des Glaubens, Muenchen 1959
Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, Cambridge 1977