Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 25: Paulicians and Bogomils


The Paulicians

In the Fourth Century, Armenian Christianity, despite its idiosyncrasies, offered the same landscape as that of the cities of Latium and Greece, if not the entire Empire: an old Christianity of an ascetic spirit; a pro-Roman clerical party that was better and better structured; Marcionite communities; local Churches like those founded by Paul of Samosata; and archaic cults that were Christianized or that included the Christ in their ecumenism: Naassenes, Barbelites, Sethians, Valentinians, and sometimes all of these beliefs confounded together. (Note that this runs counter to what the majority of historians affirm, and yet is revealed by the sepulcher of the Aurelii.)

In Armenia, the pro-Roman faction tried to free itself from Montanist Christianity, the Marcionite Churches and the schools of Bardaisan. Epiphanius, responsible for keeping track of the movements that resisted Roman Catholicism, mentioned a sect founded by a certain Peter of Kapharbarucha, which he designated “Archontics,” whose doctrine was propagated by Eutactus of Satala. This doctrine was a syncretism of Marcionism and Barbelism. From Marcion, it took anti-Semitism and the dualism according to which the Demiurge, creator of an odious universe, was none other than Sabaoth, the God of the Jews, who resided in the seventh heaven and governed the Hebdomad. To rejoin his original Mother, Sabaoth had to elevate himself to the eighth heaven (Ogdoad). We do not know the type of ecstatic practice by which union with the adept was established, [but it was] no doubt induced through incantations in order to avoid the traps set by the henchmen of the abominable Sabaoth.[1] The Archontics did not bother with baptism or the sacraments.

After 325, the monarchs embraced Catholicism due to complacency and diplomatically imposed it on their subjects. The Roman clerical faction thus took hold of the key posts and repressed all of the isolated pockets of resistance, which were soon after listed in the catalogues of heresy, the identification files that inquisitorial police officers used until the Eighteenth Century.

The Paulicians, who appeared in the middle of the Seventh Century in Armenia (the province that lay between Asia Minor and the Byzantine Empire), seemed to have come from Samosata, from which they were chased by persecution. Fleeing Armenia and the combined zeal of the Church and the princes, they found refuge near Koloneia, under the suzerainty of the Arab caliphate. In fact, a little after 630, the Arabs quickly seized the Byzantine provinces in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria; they then threatened Byzantium, which was torn by internal struggles.

Although Peter of Sicily believed that the Paulician movement went back to Paul of Samosata, it is more credible to link it with Paul the Armenian who, from 699 to 718, consolidated it.

Dualists, the Paulicians did not adhere to the Manichean religion. Instead, their doctrine went back to archaic Gnostic Christianity, adapted to the Paulicians’ status as an embattled minority.

Peasants grouped together in “free” agrarian communities – note that the Paulician communalist model played a role in the peasant uprisings led by Thomas the Slav in Asia Minor (820-824) – the Paulicians became soldiers to resist any power that intended to indenture them. A good God supported their faith; the other, a God of Evil, was identified with Byzantine authority, which was intent on annihilating them. They did not bother with the sacraments or with baptism, communion, penitence, or marriage. They rejected fasting and Catholicism’s feast days. They execrated the cross (an instrument of torture and death), the worship of the saints, and the icons, which perpetuated superstitious practices.

The Paulicians’ Jesus was an angelos-christos. In the Old Testament they saw the work of the Demiurge. As for priests, they judged them to be useless, harmful and corrupt, and they did not fail to kill them if the occasion presented itself.

They themselves had no clergy members, but placed their trust in pastors who were tasked with preaching and in the didachoi (teachers) who explained the sacred texts. Without tipping over into Marcion’s asceticism, the Paulicians allied themselves with his primitive Christianity, which venerated the Apostle Paul and rejected the authority of Peter.

The Paulicians began to be persecuted after their establishment in Koloneia, where the bishop decimated them with the consent of the emperor. The first leader of their community, the Armenian Constantine, died at the stake in 682. His successor, Simeon, suffered the same fate in 688. But the Paulicians found among the Arabs a tolerance that was cruelly absent from the Catholics. Under the influence of Paul the Armenian, their doctrine – until then a form of Christianity that was common in 140 (except for baptism, which they refused, perhaps belatedly) – took on a coloration that was more clearly hostile to the clergy and Catholicism.

Thereafter, their history was confounded with the atrocious war that Byzantium fought against them.

Nevertheless, ravaged by the conflict concerning the icons (726 to 843), the Empire turned its rage from away the Paulicians, in order to focus it on the hostile factions that the quarrel about the icons had set against each other. (Note that the quarrel about these images only aggravated the endemic social war in which two factions confronted each other: the Blues, of aristocratic leanings, and the Greens, artisans mostly, often favorable to heterodoxy.)

In the spirit of Nestorius, the iconoclasts did not tolerate the figuration of the principal divinities but, unlike the Paulicians, they venerated the cross and nourished no sympathy for indications of heresy. Moreover, the worst persecutions took place on the initiative of the iconoclast Leon V (813-823). They continued under Theodora, who reestablished the cult of the images.

Exterminated in Byzantium, the Paulicians asked for the help of the Arab emirs. Some of the Paulicians enlisted in the Islamic troops that harassed the imperial city. In 843, a punitive expedition from Byzantium triggered a rebellion led by an officer named Corbeas, whose father, a Paulician, was impaled. He commanded a group of 5,000 men and founded an independent state in Tefrik, where he made use of the benevolent aid of the emirs of Melitene and Tarsus.

With his militia of soldier-peasants, in 856 Corbeas broke the offensive launched by Petronos, brother of the Empress Theodora. Two years later, he beat the army of Michel III. In 860, raids against Nicaea and Ephesus attested to the power of Tefrik. Killed in battle in 863, Corbeas was replaced by Chrisocheir, previously denounced by the patriarch and heresiologue Photius.

The intervention of an ambassador, Peter of Sicily, who had been sent among the Paulicians, was less an attempt at reconciliation than a spy mission, because, if Basil the First was defeated by Tefrik in 870 or 871, the assassination by betrayal of Chrisocheir in 872 caused the end of Tefrik, which was sacked by the Byzantines. The priests – inquisitors long before there was an Inquisition – organized the systematic massacre of the Paulicians, whether they were men, women or children. The escapees took refuge in the Balkans and Thrace, where, between 1081 and 1118, Alexius I Comnenus undertook to eradicate them.

In the Arab armies that seized Constantinople in 1453, there were Paulician Christians whose hatred of the oppressive Empire fed their spirit of vengeance.

In 1717, there still existed a Christian community in Philippopolis that venerated the Apostle Paul and refused to recognize the authority of Rome due to their hostility to the orthodox Church. Such a community still exists today under the name “Uniats.”


The Bogomils

“During the reign of the very-Christian Peter, there appeared on Bulgarian soil a priest named Bogomil (he who loves God); in truth, he should have called himself Bogunemil (he who is not loved by God). The first [to do so], he began to propagate heresy on Bulgarian soil.” Thus began the Treatise Against the Heretics, by the Unworthy Cosmas the Priest, a precious source of details about the movement that carried the name of its founder.

The one who, with a complacent servility, called himself “unworthy priest” seized upon the terms in a letter sent by Theophylact, the Patriarch of Byzantium, to King Peter of Bulgaria (who died 969); this letter anathematized the representatives “of a resurgent ancient heresy, Manichaeism mixed with Paulicianism.”[2]

In its specificity, and without precisely reviving the Manichean religion, Bogomilism played the role of hub between the Paulician communities, the distant inheritors of Marcion, and the Catharist beliefs that, starting in the Eleventh Century, reached the Rhine Valley, Cologne, Flanders, Champagne, Northern Italy and Provence.

Initially governed by a propertied Boyar aristocracy and founded upon a Slavic rural commune, Bulgaria became feudalized in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. Under the influence of the neighboring Byzantine Empire, its princes adopted Catholicism and, as elsewhere, imposed it on their subjects. Nothing is more false than the idea that there was a spontaneous conversion of the people to the doctrines of Rome and Byzantium. The Nazarene, Elchasaite, Marcionite, Valentinian, Montanist and Tertullianist Christianities had inspired the adhesion of a growing number of the faithful; but Catholicism was always propagated by the high [and mighty] at the persuasive point of a temporal sword. From 325 on, Catholicism ceased to be Christian, as Christianity ceased to be Jewish after 135. And Catholicism, with greater rigor than it had treated the Jews, [severely] dealt with the adepts of Valdes’ voluntary poverty, Michael of Cesena, the Apostolics who dreamed of reviving the Christianity of the New Prophecy, and the Protestants (who, taking up the baton of the abhorred Church, in their turn justified the massacre of the Anabaptists and the dissidents).

Colonized by the Byzantine clergy, Bulgaria was covered with monasteries and saw descend upon the peasantry “monastic vermin”[3] who subsisted on the work of rural communities.

The doctrine of Bogomil did not bother with Manichean complexities. It professed a moderate dualism, in conformity with the antagonism of forces and the interests at stake.

[In Bogomilism] God created the universe, that is to say, the seven heavens and the four elements (fire, air, water and earth). God, the resurgence of the plural God Elohim, reigned harmoniously over a cohort of angels, when one of them, Satanael, rebelled and was thrown to earth, which he separated from the waters, thus creating – under the essentially divine light of the sun – the material universe and mankind. Nevertheless, Satanael included in the human body an angelic fragment, with the result that the duality of good and evil was incarnated in each person.

To aid humanity, God sent the angel Christ – still an angelos-christos. Satanael ordered that he be crucified, but the Messiah was resurrected, confounded his adversary and sent him to hell, thus exiling him from earth, which he ceaselessly tried to reconquer in order to finish his malevolent work. Satanael had allies completely disposed towards restoring his privileges to him: kings, priests, the rich and the Church. Thus Bogomilism rediscovered in dualism the subversive ferment that had been propagated by the Paulicians, who were also attached to the independence and autarky of rural communities.

Hostile to the frequentation of churches, the Bogomils called Saint Sophia the residence of demons. They mocked baptism: if water possessed such power, they remarked, then all of the animals, and especially the fish, were baptized [and thus without sin]. The rites of bread and wine were an absurd symbolism.

Without tilting into the excess of asceticism, the Bogomils criticized the dissolute existence of the priests who summoned others to the sanctification the soul, as Cosmas reported: “If you are saints, as you claim you are, why do you not live the life that Paul described to Timothy? A bishop must not have the least vice; he must marry only one woman; he must be sober, honest, correct and welcoming; he must be neither a drinker nor a quarreler, but a kind person who manages his house well. These priests do the opposite. They get drunk; they steal; they give themselves up to vice in secret, and there are no means to prevent them from doing so.”[4]

And Cosmas specified that, “the Bogomils denigrate the rich; they teach their own not to submit to lords and to execrate the king. They spit in the faces of the notables and criticize the Boyars and think that God shows hatred for all of those who serve the King and they teach all the serfs not to work for their lords.”[5] (Note that Cosmas retorted: “All men must submit to the powerful. It is not from the lords that God comes.”)

Like the Paulicians, the Bogomils mocked the saints, the icons and the relics, which were sources of profitable commerce. In the cross they saw a simple piece of wood that they called “the enemy of God.” To them the miracles of the Christ were fables that, at the very least, had to be interpreted symbolically. (Note that in the Seventeenth Century, the Englishman Thomas Woolston died in prison for supporting this very thesis.)

Rejecting the Old Testament, which was the work of Satanael, the Bogomils preferred a version of the Gospel attributed to John, that was true to its ancient form as a Gnostic text.

Old-time Gnosticism also put its stamp on the Bogomils’ two-tiered organization: the Perfect Ones, or Christians, who were the active and intellectual kernel (those who save), and the believers, who were peasants and bourgeois for whom pistis sufficed.

The Bogomils named consolamentum a form of sacrament through which the neophyte acceded to the status of perfection by having a copy of the Gospel attributed to John placed on his [or her] head as a sign of the assembly’s acquiescence.

The Perfect Ones ate no meat, preached, did not work, and collected no tithes. All of the believers received the consolamentum on their deathbeds or at an advanced age.

Who was Bogomil? A Macedonian priest who was initially loyal to the Church of Byzantium and Rome. Revolted by the situation of the peasants, who were the victims of war, the Boyars and the clergy, he broke with Catholicism and preached in the region of Skopje and in Thrace.

Cosmas opposed Bogomil by repeating the official doctrine: “The priests of the true faith, even if they are lazy, do not offend God,” and “It is ordered that you honor the officiants, even if they are bad [...] The men of the Church are always consecrated by God.”[6]

Concerning the miseries of the world, Cosmas furnished a simple and ecumenically convincing explanation, one that satisfied the Hebrew religion, the papacy and Calvin: “Each among us must wonder [...] if it wasn’t because of them that God put war on the earth.”[7] Such was not the opinion of Bogomil and his partisans, who were more and more numerous.

In fact, events provided Bogomilism with a foundation that wasn’t only social, but national, as well. In 1018, Emperor Basil II put an end to the existence of the Bulgarian kingdom and crushed the nation under the yoke of Byzantine authority. Under the cover of the peasant uprisings, to which the nobility and the towns now gave their aid, the Bogomil influence focused the resistance to the Empire; that influence invaded the cities, crossed the frontiers and reached into Byzantium, despite constant and cruel persecution.

Euthymius of Acmone,[8] who pursued the Bogomils with a completely clerical hatred, called them fundaiagites, that is, “carriers of beggar’s bags,” “truly impious people who serve the devil in secret.”[9] Euthymius’ diatribes still nourished the zeal of the persecutor Alexis Comnenus in the Twelfth Century.

In the Twelfth Century, the Bogomil movement was established in Byzantium. Anne Comnenus, daughter of the emperor, left a narrative that was enlightening for the manner in which one of the town’s Perfect Ones was captured and put to death in 1111.

“A certain monk by the name of Basil excelled in the teaching of the heresy of the Bogomils. He had twelve students whom he called his apostles, and he had attracted several converts, who were perverted women living bad lives who spread evil everywhere. The evil ravaged many souls with the rapidity of fire.

“Some Bogomils were led to the palace and everything indicated that Basil was their master and the leader of the heresy. One among them, by the name of Divlati, was put in prison and interrogated in the hope that he would denounce them; at first, he did not consent to do so, but, after having been subjected to torture, he denounced Basil and the apostles that he had chosen. Then the Emperor sent many people to find him. And one [of them] discovered Satan’s archesatrape,[10] Basil, a man in a monk’s habit, with an emaciated face, without beard or moustache, very tall, an expert in the art of teaching heresy.

“The Emperor, wishing to learn the secret mystery from him, invited Basil under a special pretext. He descended from his throne to go meet Basil, invited him to his own table, held out to him all of the fisherman’s snares, and baited his fishing-hook so that it would catch this monstrous omnivore. Many times tempering his hatred and disgust for the monk, the Emperor overwhelmed Basil with flattery and he feigned that he wanted to become Basil’s student and, not only did he want this, but so did his brother, Isaac, as well; the Emperor affected to recognize divine revelation in each of Basil’s words and submitted himself to Basil in all things, on the condition that the wicked Basil would implore the salvation of his soul. . . . And Basil then unveiled all of the heresy’s doctrines. But what made him do this?

“The Emperor had previously ordered that a curtain be installed in the corridor between the part reserved for the women and the spot in which he found himself [alone] with the demon, so that Basil would unmask himself before everyone and reveal everything that he had been hiding in his soul. Hidden behind the curtain, one of the clerics wrote down everything that was said. Suspecting nothing, this imbecile [Basil] began to preach, the Emperor played the student, and the cleric wrote down ‘the teachings’ . . . But what happened then?

“The Emperor drew back the curtain and snatched away his mask. At the same time, he had convened the Church’s entire synod, all of the military leaders and the entire senate. An assembly was convoked, presided over by the venerated patriarch of the imperial city, Nicolas Gramatik. In front of everyone, the diabolical doctrine was read aloud, and it was impossible to deny the accusations. The leader of the accused did not renounce his ideas and soon defended them openly. He declared that he was ready for the flames, to submit to the punishment of the whip and to experience a thousand deaths. . . .

“Basil, a veritable heresiarch, refused to repent. This was why the members of the holy synod, the most worthy monks and the Patriarch Nicolas himself decided that Basil deserved to be burned alive. The Emperor, who had often spoken with Basil and was convinced that he was of bad faith and would never deny his heresy, adopted this opinion. The order was given to erect a large pyre in the Hippodrome. A deep pit was dug and very tall tree trunks were piled into it and then covered with leaves, one might say [making] a thick forest. When the pyre was lit, an immense crowd entered the Hippodrome and sat on the tiers, impatient for the events to begin. The following day, a cross was erected so that the impure one had the possibility – if he feared the flames – to deny his heresy and head towards the cross. In the audience there were a great number of heretics who came to watch their leader Basil. . . .

“The excited crowd gave him the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the horrible spectacle that the pyre presented; he felt the heat of the fire and saw the flames that crackled, that rose like tongues of fire up to the top of the granite obelisk that was erected in the middle of the Hippodrome.

“This spectacle did not make Basil hesitate; he remained inflexible. The fire did not melt his iron will, no more than the Emperor’s promises did. . . .

“Then the executioners seized Basil by his clothes, raised him up high and then threw him, completely clothed, into the pyre. The flames, which became furious (one says), swallowed the impure one without releasing any odor; the smoke remained the same [color], there only appeared in the smoke a white ray among the flames. This is how the [natural] elements stood up to the impious.”[11]

The execution of Basil and a great number of his partisans did not hinder the progress of Bogomilism. In 1167, another Perfect One left Byzantium for Italy and France, so as to unite assemblies there: the West knew him as “Pope Nikita.”

Despite the extermination-politics of the Serbian and Bosnian princes, the missionary activity of Bogomilism continued to multiply its Churches: [they included] the Bulgarian Church, the Church of Dragovjit (Thrace), the Greek Church, the Patarene Church (Bosnia), and the Church of Philadelphia (Serbia). Bogomilism found popular support among those who reacted against Rome’s prohibition of the use of native languages in the liturgy, but also among fighters for independence.

The Bosnian Church, for a time recognized by the princes, was subjected to new persecutions from 1443 to 1461, and due to its hatred of Catholicism, turned more willingly towards the Turks. “This was why, when Bosnia fell under Ottoman domination, a great number of its inhabitants adopted the Muslim religion.”[12]

Meanwhile, the adepts from Bulgaria, called bougres,[13] tried to instaurate – in opposition to Rome, and from Milan to Languedoc, and from Cologne to Flanders and Orleans – impossible peaceful communities, fraternal and little inclined to martyrdom.


[1] Epiphanius, Panarion, I, 3.

[2] B. Primov, Les Bougres: Histoire du pope Bogomile et de ses adeptes, Paris, 1975, p. 97.

[3] Translator: Cf. “love letter” XXXIV, dated 1 July 1779, by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the Count of Mirabeau (1749-1791).

[4] M. Erbstoesser, Les Heretiques au Moyen Age, Leipzig, pp. 51 and 52.

[5] B. Primov, op. cit., p. 120.

[6] Ibid., p. 100.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Translator: I have been unable to find any references to this person, unless he is Euthymius Zigabenus, a Twelfth Century monk who compiled a work about heresy titled Panoplia Dogmatica for Alexius I Comnenus.

[9] Ibid., p. 157.

[10] Translator: Satan’s primary governor in Persia.

[11] Ibid., pp. 162-164.

[12] Ibid., p. 180.

[13] Translator: Larousse indicates this word means, “Bulgarian heretics who engaged in sodomy.” More modern meanings include “poor buggers,” “blokes,” and “guys.”


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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