MEDIEVAL BULGARIAN CULTURE FROM THE 7th THROUGH THE 17th C.
The medieval Bulgarian culture can be divided into two distinct periods - the first one marked by heathenism (7th-9th c.) and the second, post-Christianization (7th-l7th c.), marked by the conversion of faith. This differentiation is thus made on the basis of the ideological content pertinent to the culture of that epoch, content that draws the demarcation line between two entirely different cultural patterns.
The factors which had affected the development and had delineated the manifestation of Bulgarian culture should not be confined within the influence of the religion predominating in a given space of time. For example, one of the significant factors was the presence, or equally, the absence at times, of independent state and church institutions. Another important factor was the geographical position of the Bulgarian lands at the junction of the routes connecting Europe and Asia, i.e. Bulgaria had to play its allotted part of a two-way passage, linking two culturally strong worlds, exchanging constantly and actively their cultural values. Despite the dispiriting and almost permanent political confrontation between Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages, the Bulgarian culture, along with the Byzantine one, had acted as a laboratory for creative interaction and as an indispensable mediator in the onward transmission of culture in both directions. There is also one very important factor, or rather, a fact which should not be overlooked the Bulgarian people, state and church were never steeped in the xenophobia (fear of or irresponsiveness to anything foreign) that was customary in some other communities, nor were they blinkered by the dogmas of their own beliefs and values.
A characteristic feature of the spiritual development of the Bulgarian people during the Middle Ages was its written culture, i.e. its letters and script. Rarely are we nowadays fully aware of the impact on the overall development made by each people which had created and promoted a written culture, nor of the advantages it could have enjoyed in the antiquity. These are facts which, perhaps, were best illustrated by Voltaire in saying that in the history of mankind there had been only two great inventions - that of the wheel, which had helped eliminate distances and that of the alphabet, which had made it possible to preserve, multiply and disseminate through into the future the information about the achievements both of forebears and contemporaries. Bulgarian culture-studying experts have confirmed the validity of the above statement with examples of the history of the Bulgarian lands. The Thracians whom the authors of the antiquity described not only as the second biggest people on the earth but also as a people which had failed to create its own letters and script, are well-known to have disappeared without trace, by contrast with the comparatively small Bulgarian people, which had survived in spite of its frightfully stormy historical lot in this part of the European continent. The Bulgarians, who settled on the Balkan Peninsula in 681 had brought with them a runic alphabet of their own. Its characters and symbols, appearing in several hundred texts cut out on stone, metal and ceramics had probably had idiographic meaning, i.e. one character signified one notion. The undemocratic nature of that alphabet was all too obvious. It had not been suitable for recording the evolving practices of the state, nor for writing down or spreading knowledge among large communities of people.
That was why, still in the beginning of the 7th century, the Greek language and script were introduced in the Bulgarian state activity and literature. In this respect the Bulgarians were no different from the other European peoples whose medieval literature was bound to be written in either of the classical languages - Latin or Greek. Some of these recorded messages of the past, discovered in Bulgaria, represent an original expression of the medieval sense of patriotism, for they had been inscribed in Bulgarian but by using characters of the Greek alphabet. Such a trend could not have stood a fair chance of success as it had obviously been impossible to transliterate all sounds of the Bulgarian speech into the Greek phonetic symbols.
Nevertheless, the dozens of textual inscriptions containing state decrees, historical chronicles and even philosophical reflections, had laid the beginning of the Bulgarian literature - a unique phenomenon in the cultural life of Europe. No other infant people and so young a state in Europe had ever created through the 7th-9th c. such numerous inscriptions, so diversified in their content, like Bulgaria had. These are quite correctly treated as one of the most significant phenomena of the Bulgarian culture in its heathen period.
In 855 AD, two highly educated Byzantine intellectuals of Bulgarian origin, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, invented the Old Bulgarian (Slavonic) script which is occasionally referred to in literature as the Slavonic alphabet. A few years after, Christianity became the official state religion in Bulgaria. In 866 AD the disciples of Cyril and Methodius brought this alphabet to the Bulgarian lands, and in 893 AD the General assembly of the nation declared it the official alphabet for the whole of the Bulgarian kingdom. About that time (the precise date is not known), Clement, one of Cyril and Methodius's adherents, devised a new graphic system of the Old Bulgarian script, deriving characters from both the proto-Bulgarian runic alphabet (naturally with phonetic meanings attached) and the Greek uncial (official) script. The cryptograhic, rather unintelligible, character of Cyril and Methodius's alphabet should have prompted Clement to devise the new script which had come to be known in history as the Cyrillic - a name given to it by Clement himself as a token of recognition for his teacher. This is the alphabet still used, with minor modifications, by the Bulgarians and other Slav and non-Slav peoples from Central Europe through to the Pacific.
The peculiarities of the Christian religious practices (as is known, it cannot be professed without books and literacy), obliged not only parish priests but also staunch Christians that were the majority of the population at that time, to master reading and writing skills. Failing that they would have been unable to acquaint themselves with the religious dogmas in the basic Christian books - the Gospel, the Psalter and the Book of Common Prayer, the Menologion (litturgical book containing accounts of the saints' lives arranged by months), the recorded accounts of the clergy, and the criticisms against heresies. For the same reason literacy was absolutely compulsory for the adepts in the various heretic teachings, too. Statecraft in general, and, especially, the administrative management of Bulgaria - quite a big state in the 9th-11th c. and again in the l2th-l4th c., also required a given number of literate men. This should be the explanation for the Bulgarian school network of the 9th century, developed early by the then European cultural standards. Every parish priest had a duty to teach all willing adolescents of both sexes to read and write at church-maintained grammar schools. Further education in conjunction with book translations and transcriptions took place in the monasteries and in some of the major city centers (Pliska, Preslav, Dristra, Sredets, Ohrida, Bitolya, Strumitsa, Devol, Prespa, Plovdiv, Sozopol, Nessebur, Pomorie).
All lessons were taught in the native tongue one very important circumstance that rendered literacy courses a lot easier for all comers. Their number should have been quite large, bearing in mind the Bulgarians' eagerness to learn - one of the most valuable features of their ethno-psychological type of race. Illiteracy was by far more difficult to liquidate in Western and in Eastern Europe as teaching there had to be done in the two dead and unintelligible languages - Latin and Greek.
At any rate, the traces of written culture other than the books that had come to light - inscriptions showing possession, graffiti on rock or fortress walls, frescoes, etc., have all indicated that sixty to seventy percent of the Bulgarian population during the Middle Ages, including the lowest social strata, were literate people.
The content of the Old Bulgarian literature in the Middle Ages had invariably been determined by the Christian doctrine, the single dominant ideology in the official workings of the church and the state, the latter being the one and only patron and consumer of this literature. The predominating part of the written, translated and copied literary work was of religious nature or was somehow connected with the practices of the church. A pleiad of talented authors of Old Church Slavonic literature matured in the tenth century - Clement of Ohrida, Constantine of Pleslav, John the Exarch, Gregorius Mnah, Tudor Doksov, Nahum of Ohrida, Patriarch Euthymius, Romil of Vidin and Grigorius Tsamblak. The impressive Christian ideological and theoretical legacy was not difficult to master as Byzantium was almost next-door and contact with its cultural centers was permanent. As a rule, the highly educated intellectual elite of Bulgaria was bilingual, i.e. they were able to read and write in both the Bulgarian and the Greek languages.
The dearth of secular literature in Bulgaria was satisfied chiefly by the translation of any work found in Byzantium, or by the compilation of short saga-novels. The spread of literacy brought with it enhanced interest in knowledge and skills connected with natural history, science, philosophy and rhetoric.
Publicistic journalism-type of work also had some interesting output. Some of it worth a mention is: 'On Letters' by Chernorizetz Hrabur (beginning of the 10th c.) - a vehemently ardent piece in vindication of the right to existence of the Old Bulgarian script; 'A Talk Against the Bogomils' by Presbyter Cosma (middle of the 10th c.) - an alarming analysis of the state, the Bulgarian society was in, at the end of the reign of Tsar Peter I, a society devoured by corruption, immobility, social abstention and anti-state activities on the part of the heretics.
Alongside official literature there were translations and original works written by adherents of heretic teachings, the Bogomils in particular, who expounded the Code of rules and notions of the heresy. Those were the books that penetrated in Western Europe to influence the development of views and ideas adopted by the Cathars in Italy and the Albigenisians in France. The heretics also devised historiography and natural science bibliography of their own.
In the 14th century works critical of the official Church doctrine and based on humanitarian knowledge gradually began making their way in literature. This was a sign that the Bulgarian literature was following a pattern common to the European literature of that time. The imposition of the Muslim rule with all its laws, customs and patterns on independence-bereft Southeastern Europe in the 14th century, led to the detachment of Bulgarian literature from the general European trends. Its ideological, genre and aesthetic development was forced to a freezing point - a level congruent with the medieval literary pattern framework. The thaw would begin to be felt only after the Bulgarian Revival outburst in the 18th century. The emergence and evolution of the medieval Bulgarian national literature is the most interesting phenomenon in the Bulgarian culture as a whole. Its role in the context of the Bulgarian people's historical destiny, i.e. its fall under foreign viz Asiatic and non-Christian, in ideological content, oppression - a standing menace to this people's national identity, had been far and away more important than that of a conventional information medium. In the environment and conditions of apparent foreign barbarianism the role of literacy and literature was that of a steady pillar propping up nationhood and safeguarding it against the inevitably destructive process of erosion.
The role of the Bulgarian literature in the all-European cultural development was of no lesser importance and value. Quite a few peoples of the East (Serbs, Russians, Wallachs, Moldavians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians) had adopted the Old Bulgarian alphabet. Up till the close of the 14th century the Bulgarian literature was generally acknowledged as model ideology and genre pattern.
The very frame and fibre of the Bulgarian literature build-up after the 9th century, i.e. the spoken mother tongue, was a novelty even to the literature of Western Europe which had been written in Latin for centuries on end. The new democratic trend toward the creation of literature in one's own language which was to become prevalent in Western Europe as late as the Renaissance, had undoubtedly been inspired by the medieval Bulgarian literature.
Very few were the monuments of the medieval Bulgarian architecture that were left standing after the outrageous destruction of the Bulgarian towns by the ruthless Muslim conquerors at the end of the 14th through the middle of the 15th century. It took Bulgarian archeologists doggedly hard work and effort to restore some of the rubble leftovers of the once brilliant architecture.
As is to be expected church and rampart building was the heyday of the medieval Bulgarian architects. In the earliest period of church-building the basilica was the most common architectural form. Large and imposing buildings were some of the basilicas in the capital cities of Pliska, Preslav and Ohrida as well as in some other town centers. The royal basilica at Pliska nearly 100 meters long and 30 meters wide, was not only the biggest building dating from the early Christian period in Bulgaria but also the largest church built anywhere at that time.
In the 11th through the 14th centuries, smaller domed churches and single-nave chapels (ossuaries) gradually superseded the solid and austere structures of the 9th and 10th century basilicas. Of a basilican but much more broken-up outline, the facades of the churches were lavishly adorned with multicolored decorations and wall-facings made of glazed and painted pottery. That type of church architecture was tragically interrupted by the Muslim invasion. The conquerors did not allow the erection of churches with complicated architectural design or impressive dimensions. The churches of the 15th through the 17th centuries were small, low and sometimes sunken buildings that would not be any different from the slums in the respective settlements.
The various kinds of fortification building had unanimously been recognized as the prime fame of the Bulgarian architectural skills by both eastern and western medieval choniclers.
This uniquely diversified construction was obviously determined by the permanently ominous situation in which the Bulgarian people, venturing to set up their state in the most contended territory on the European continent, had been living. The biggest fortresses were those which surrounded large town centers and the capital cities. Their walls were erected of immense masonry blocks plastered with mortar. They were 10-12 meters high and were equipped with dozens of turrets. Inside these inner ramparts there was usually another set of walls which enclosed the personal residence of the sovereign, the governor or the feudal in subsequent times. The population had built thousands of bastions on lofty hills and mountain tops 'for the survival and salvation of the Bulgarians', as a medieval inscription reads. The desperate resistance of these small fortresses built of ordinary stone slabs plastered with mortar had frustrated not one invasion of the Bulgarian lands.
Sculpture and stone reliefs in the medieval Bulgarian art were used as an individual or a supplementary element of decoration in secular and church architecture and their grandeur and strict plasticity were outstanding indeed. Long before the appearance of the impressive sculptures as an element of architectural decoration in Western Europe, they had appeared on the facades of palaces and churches in the Bulgarian capital of Preslav. The most remarkable of all monumental plastic art in the Bulgarian lands of that time is, undoubtedly, the stone relief of a horseman, carved high up on a huge cliff at Madara almost within sight of Pliska. It dates back to the beginning of the eighth century and has become famous under the name of the Madara Horseman. It is one of Bulgaria's listed monuments under the UNESCO world treasures scheme.
Monumental painting is definitely the most interesting achievement of the Bulgarian fine arts. The earliest monuments dating from the 9th through the 12th centuries are the churches at Kostur, Ohrida, Vodocha, Sofia and Bachkovo. They were built in the style of Byzantine art, with its stationariness, archaism and asceticism characteristic of that period. Even so, some of the monuments display the original vigour of the Bulgarian artists overriding the monotony of rigid canon.
From the 12th through the 17th centuries fresco and other mural painting was quite well spread. There are many monuments, extant examples of this throughout the Bulgarian lands. The highest achievement of monumental painting is usually considered to be the exceptional set of murals at the Boyana church near Sofia, and the rock-cut church at the village of Ivanovo. They are distinguished for their stateliness, lucidity, truth to nature and humanism. Those two monuments are also listed in the UNESCO treasures register of the world cultural heritage.
Miniatures in color associated with book illustration and icon painting were another manifestation of the achievements of the Bulgarian fine arts in the Middle Ages.
The name of the Bulgarian John Kukuzel, composer of a great number of hymns related to liturgy, is directly connected with the evolution of not only the Bulgarian but also of the medieval Eastern Orthodox liturgical music and medieval Christiandom in general.
- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria
text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding