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The invention and the dissemination of literacy and books in the then spoken Bulgarian language


is one of the most significant facts in the political and cultural history of Bulgaria and Eastern Europe. This event is associated with the names of Constantine Cyril the Philosopher and his brother Methodius who invented the earliest Bulgarian alphabet and translated the principal books of the Christian doctrine into the Christian ideological and theoretical heritage.

The scarce historical sources, all of which of West European and Old Bulgarian origin, report that the two brothers were born in Thessalonica, sons of a noble Byzantine family of Slav-Bulgarian lineage. Having received good education, they both made a fast career in the 9th century Byzantine administration. In the early 50s of the 9th century, however, a strange volte-face, by all researchers' accounts, occurred in their life. They retired voluntarily from active social life to seclusion in a monastery where, in the course of several years, they succeeded in devising the Old Bulgarian alphabet and translating part of the liturgical books into Old Bulgarian.

It is not fortuitous that the historians describe this step as being 'strange'. In those days no one needed the Old Bulgarian alphabet and books. For a few more years Bulgaria was to remain a pagan country, whereas the small number of Slavs back in Byzantium had long before been converted to Christianity. The motivation of the two brothers' Christian missionary zeal, as Christian historians saw it, was meant to facilitate the spread and the faster adoption of the Christian faith by the Slav peoples. This could only partly be true for the simple reason that the Byzantine political minds were perfectly aware that the Greek language in public worship was a powerful means for their influence on the Slavs both within the empire and beyond its borders. They would have never allowed and, indeed, they did not, that the Old Bulgarian language be transferred to Bulgaria nor that it be used in the empire. It is then difficult to believe that those two men, occupying high positions and having excellent career opportunities, would possibly abandon everything for the sake of some dubious contentment to indulge themselves in something that stands no chance to be put into practice ever.

Therefore, the assumption of some West European researchers for some preliminary agreement between khan Boris and the two brothers resting on their shared sense of duty to the Bulgarian people, does not seem most unlikely. Reconstruction of the events along these lines suggests that Boris conceived the idea of adopting Christianity at the very beginning of his reign (it truly, coincided with Cyril and Methodius's retiring to a monastery) but he was afraid to take immediate steps in that direction, mainly because he anticipated a threat of this act producing a negative effect on the yet not so strong Bulgarian ethnos. Both brothers committed themselves to inventing the weapon, which would eliminate that threat, and to bringing it in conformity with the laws of the time. For, the invention of the Old Bulgarian alphabet and its introduction in church and state usage could not, in itself, meet the cause of curbing the danger of nationality erosion. In medieval Europe at that time, both in the East and in the West, the so-called trilingual dogma predominated in full swing. According to it the Christian faith could be practiced only in the three languages blessed by God: Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Without the supreme priesthood of Europe, the papacy and the patriarchal in Constantinople sanctioning the Old Bulgarian letters and books, they would have automatically been declared a heresy and the Bulgarians, who had adopted them, heretics. From an international angle this would have certainly detracted a lot from the advantages of Christianization and would have placed Bulgaria and the Bulgarians in an even less favorable position.

The scanty information about those times dose not actually allow to determine with certainty the motivation and the feelings of the dramatis personae concerned. It is, however, a fact that the events have developed according to the above scenario.


In 862 AD Rostislav, the Grand prince of Moravia, who had also anticipated danger for his people from the Christian faith being taught by German priests in Latin, asked the Byzantine emperor to send over Slavonic language preachers. Just at that time the Old Bulgarian language was rather close to all dialects in the family of Slavonic languages. The flexible political leadership of Byzantium sensed an unforeseen opportunity to come into good position in a Central European country, a position it had never had to that date. This prompted Byzantium not to hesitate at the sanctity of the trilingual dogma. With the permission and blessing of the emperor and the patriarch, Cyril and Methodius were sent to Great Moravia where they embarked on organizing not only Slavonic liturgy and the translation of new books, but also on founding schools teaching the new alphabet. The mission of the two brothers faced the fierce resistance of the German clergymen. The latter's attempts to keep the positions of liturgy in Great Moravia being conducted in the native language were encouraged only by the benevolence of the Great Moravian prince. To their own surprise, Pope Hadrian II (867- 872), backed up the idea of Slavonic liturgy for circumstantial political reasons. Cyril died in Rome in 869 AD and Methodius was consecrated as a bishop of Pannonia. Intrigues made by German clergymen sent him into exile to Elvangen. Upon his release by Pope John VIII, Methodius got promoted to the archbishop's order. The Slavonic liturgy received another sanction by the pope.

Boris who kept a close eye on the titanic struggle of the two brothers did not miss to send a few Bulgarians, the sons of noble families, to the school of Methodius. That was a well-timed step for, despite the canonical recognition attained, shortly after Methodius's death in 885 AD, the whole work on the Slavonic liturgy and the Slavonic script was on the brink of complete failure. The pope declared the election of the new Slavonic archbishop Gorazd illegal and void. Slavonic liturgy was banned from the churches. Methodius's disciples, about 200 of them, were arrested, imprisoned and later sold into bondage. Those of the disciples who were Bulgarian nationals - Clement, Nahum, Angelarius, Laurentius and Gorazd were deported to Bulgaria. Later, some of the survivors who had been sold as slaves, led by Constantine the Priest, also returned to Bulgaria, redeemed by Orthodox merchants.

The Bulgarian ruler teamed up with the flock of Cyril and Methodius's disciples to draw up a plan for the gradual replacement of Greek in church service and in state matters with Old Bulgarian. Due to the absence of enlighteners and books this plan was to be implemented for years on end.

Boris's generous financial and political support helped Cyril and Methodius's disciples set up several training centers for Bulgarian clergymen and men of letters. They were taught there in their native tongue. Constantine proved particularly active in the capital city of Pliska, while Clement concentrated on Ohrida. Not only did he educate 3 500 followers for a short time, but also simplified the alphabetical script and called it Cyrillic, in honor of his teacher. This is, as a matter of fact, the alphabet used to this day by the peoples dwelling in the territories from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe: Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Serbians, as well as the nationals of the Republic of Macedonia.

After eight years of strenuous preparation of the Bulgarian clergy and their mastering the Old Bulgarian literary language, in 893 AD the general assembly of the nation, specially convened for the occasion, formally decreed the introduction of Old Bulgarian as the official language of the Bulgarian state and church. The administration of the church passed into the hands of Bulgarians. Thus, the last holdback to the establishment of a united Bulgarian nation and to its consolidation was overcome.


Extract from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History"

Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD., Author
Maria Nikolotva, Translator

Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria




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