The Bogomils in Macedonia — Medieval Roots of Protestantism, Renaissance and Socialist Movements

The medieval heresies were convulsive reaction on the feudal oppression and widespread corruption of the Christian church. When Constantin I the Great made the Christianity official religion of the Roman empire he couldn’t predict that the Christian church will became one with the power of the government. At first it was meant to be in the service of the state and its supreme ruler, the emperor, but the things went wrong, for the rulers and for the Christianity as well. Further, following the division of the Roman empire in Eastern and Western parts, the church refined its political doctrine, and developed its structure in a way that could penetrate and absorb the function of the government to its purposefulness. Thus abandoning its own foundations based on the teachings as recorded in the Old and New Testament.

In the 5th century the western Roman empire crawled and was sacked by the invading barbarian tribes. What happened after was that the new order emerged from the rubble — the Roman popes. Imperial Rome became Papal Rome. The church profited by the void of power created after the destruction of Rome and its emperors, and combined the previous authority of Caesar, who in the old empire was called Pontifex Maximus (the Pontiff) with the . Same as the emperor, who was considered a divine personage, they became the head of both church and state, with the authority of Christ. Using the title Vicarius Christi (the ‘Vicar of Christ’) meaning “the substitute of Christ,” the church clergy toke the role of emperors and entitled themselves as “Christ substitutes” on earth, seemingly enthroned by God himself. Soon they started to exert limitless power over their subjects. Through the Papacy, the claims of spiritual power over heaven and hell combined with their earthly power as supreme ruling institution rapidly grew, and the church became an entity which enthrones and deposes rulers, castigates and condemns people, and exerts tyranny through religion in the name of god.

The situation was similar in the Eastern Romeian part, with its holy see in Constantinopolitana Nova Roma (the City of Constantin New Rome’), where the church became the omnipotent executive body of the ruler’s power. The only difference here was that the Pontifex Maximus remained the emperor, as the head of both church and state, and unlike the new Holy Roman Empire on the west, he remained the supreme bearer of the authority of Christ as well. The Eastern Romeian emperors had uninterrupted lineage of dynasties, since the old Roman empire, and like in the old times of late antiquity here the Romeian emperor was the pope and the holy king, supreme ruler with claims of spiritual power over heaven and hell, which legitimated his undisputed and limitless earthly power. Introduced by Constantine I the Great this dogma in some sources is designated as “Caesaropapism”, which implicates that the emperor was the head of the church too. This is only partially true, as the eastern church had its own authority, represented by the Patriarch.

East or west, with Romeian emperor or Roman pope, the church effectively silenced those who opposed any of its corrupt doctrines or dirty practices, and truly became an undisputed and exclusive religious enterprise of the Middle Ages. Together with the local feudal rulers, they gathered in ruthless exploitation around their helpless prey, impetuous of human suffering and misfortune. The perversion of the faith that followed was only result of the general alienation of the Christian church from the human being. Various ‘heretics’ rebelled against this despotic behavior, both by the feudal rulers and high religious offices that entered the political sphere. Of course, there were also heresies that dealed exclusively with the internal dogmas of the Christianity, like for example the Arianism.[1] But this heresy, of the Alexandrian priest Ariy (lat. Arius; AD 250- 336), as well as the and other church centers heresies, were only inflicting with the divinity of Christ, regardless of the majority of believers, their life conditions or thoughts.

Nevertheless, there were other heresies that stood in defense of the common citizens and peasantry, who became helpless victims of both the feudal rulers and Christian church. Above all, they organized themselves in religious movements, because, essentially, the religion was the only mass-medium practiced by all the people in those times. In their antagonistic effort to withstand against the cleric tyrants, on the whole, they were religious-fashioned movements. Of all heretic movements in Europe first appeared the movement of the Bogomils, i.e. Bogomilism, a mass anti-clerical, religious-socialist group. Born in Macedonia in the middle of 10th century this dualistic movement spread very quick across the Balkans and further in Europe. In an effort to steer their new credo away from the corruption of the church, Bogomils were able to constitute their own religious doctrine, beliefs and practices. They had no special orders and priests, nor complex institutional hierarchy. Instead, they elected spiritual guides among one another. Bogomils rejected all material aspects of church service (e.g. church buildings), baptism, icons, wealth. Prayers and chanting hymns, the sacraments and ceremonies were not to be part of any public religious service or institution. Rather, the Bogomils felt that prayers were private matter and only to be said within the confines of private houses. The Bogomils rejected monasticism, and were iconoclasts. Finally, the Bogomils believed that God (not Jesus) would execute the final judgment.

But, because their rebellion endangered the wealth, luxury and power of their oppressors, they were incessantly persecuted and condemned to death by the christian church and ruling monarchies. Severely chased and equally anathematized by both Eastern-Rightfaithful and Western-Catholic church, the Bogomils were hunted like dangerous animals. The centennial onslaught that followed culminated in western Europe, with the creation of Inquisition, a special court designed to punish the followers of the theories considered perilous for the powerful church institution. As such it was a threat to the catholic church and after numerous failed attempts to sway Cathar followers away by persuasion, Pope Innocent III sponsored a crusade to put down the heretic faith in 1209. The bloody campaign lasted for 50 years and was led by French warlord Simon de Montfor who also perished during this massacre.

The Bogomil doctrine in the centuries to follow gave the birth of many other anti-clerical and social movements. The Bosnian Patareni, Croatian Glagolitic Benedictans, French Cathars and Albigenses, etc. are only some of the mediaeval heresies that were initiated by Bogomilism. They later resulted in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century — a religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered the Catholic Europe, setting in place the structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era.

No event in the medieval history of the Macedonian peninsula has attracted more interest and investigation than the Bogomil spiritual movement. Originating in Macedonia about the middle of 10th century it spread to many other European countries (especially in the Balkans) and for five centuries shook the whole feudal order in Europe. The Bogomil movement is one of the most important and interesting cultural and social manifestations in the Middle Ages. As a socio-religious movement, Bogomilism was a real heresy in the eyes of the official church, which regarding it as its major adversary took severe measures to suppress it. These were aimed above all at destroying of all the most important sources for the ideas of the Bogomils, so that historians have been obliged to obtain information about them from indirect sources, namely from the polemical acts of their bitterest enemies.

Manifestations of the spirit and intellect of man like that of the Bogomils, whose doctrine shook the mediaeval social relations to their foundations, are rare in the history of human progress and thought. The official church was seriously hit, because she was the principal guardian of the feudal order, and found great difficulty in the fight against the Bogomil teaching, which preached freedom of conscience, brotherhood and equality among all people and all nations, that the kingdom of God and perpetual peace might be realized on earth. The Bogomils repudiated all the mysticism and manipulative symbolism of the official church and brought real faith to the feelings and understanding of the people. As all men were equal in their eyes, no one had the right to command others, his equals, his brothers. And therefore every power contrary to the teaching of Christ on equality and brotherhood must be abolished.

As the bottom line of Bogomil gnosticism was introduced the principle of unity in nature and the inviolability of laws; that is to say, at its basis there is the law regarding the correlation between the cause and effect-fact. This shows that priest Bogomil and his school did not remain outside the influence of classical philosophy: he follows in the footsteps of Pitagora (lat. Pythagoras), who taught that there is a general order in the world, and also Aristotel, who showed that everything in nature has a beginning and an end, a cause and an effect. As a dualistic doctrine, Bogomilism is akin to the anthropomorphism of the apostles, the spiritualism of the Middle Ages, and the mythology of the ancient pantheons.

All these premises of Bogomil teaching concerned the very basics of the mediaeval politico-social reality, so that the leaders of feudal society were directly hit and threatened by it as regards their material interests. These immediate allusions to the concrete injustice of the feudal reality also contained the fundamental principle of the dualistic teaching of the Bogomils on the existence of the two opposing forces: light and darkness, good and evil, the antagonism between the God and the Devil.

Since the whole cultural and social life of the Middle Ages was governed by the church, the new teaching of the Bogomils was bound to assume a religious form. The Bogomils knew that, with their adversary’s weapons, they would unmask all its greatest weakness more quickly and more easily. The adherents to the doctrine of the Bogomilism were divided into various categories: the perfect (lat. perfectii; i.e the babuni — ‘elder leaders’), the semi-perfect, and simple hearers. The “perfecti”, also known as ‘isihasti’ (hermits), couldn’t get married, nor have property or money, and they sacrificed themselves for the salvation of the world. They campaigned against universal violence, preaching perpetual peace. Accordingly, the christian church launched crusades against them.

Looked at in this way, Bogomilism was essentially a particular religious sect which the Christian church proposed officially for its own improvement. With its principles, its clear straightforward ideas, Bogomilism was a completely original social and cultural teaching, which arose out of the feudal and social conditions of mediaeval life in Macedonia. Then, from being a religious sect in opposition, Bogomilism became to a large extent a movement for social tendency, it was quickly able to attract a mass of followers among the lowest classes, especially among the peasants and, with its preaching of equality and its struggle against feudal abuses, it incited them to open rebellion against the feudal power. Thus Bogomilism prepared the way for many peasants revolts not only in Macedonia and the Balkans, but also in the rest of Europe.

The Bogomils proposed to expropriate the lands and all the goods of the monasteries, the churches and the feudal landlords, and also to abolish the differences between the classes and distribute private property fairly. By thus safeguarding and defending the interests of the masses, Bogomilism appeared as one of the most advanced social and cultural movements.

[1] Arianism maintained that the Son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither coeternal with the Father, nor consubstantial.