Byzantium and Bulgaria. A comparative study across the early medieval frontier

Robert Browning





No single factor has emerged as determining the different course of events in Byzantium and Bulgaria in the ninth and tenth centuries.


As usual in such cases, we are left with a series of factors, reflecting, no doubt, the complexity of human affairs. But it is in a way an unsatisfactory situation for the historian to find himself in, as it buries the problem of historical causation under a mountain of contingent causes operating in different directions. What one can do, however, is try to single out those factors whose effect appears to have been deepest and most lasting, and try to establish some kind of priority among them. E. H. Carr, whose life work has been concerned with a period where the historian has to cope with too much rather than too little information, speaks of the


professional compulsion... to establish some hierarchy of causes which would fix their relation to one another, perhaps to decide which cause, or which category of causes, should be regarded ‘in the last resort’ or ‘in the final analysis’ (favourite phrases of historians) as the ultimate cause, the cause of all causes ... the historian is known by the causes which he invokes. [1]


Bulgaria, although almost within sight of the Mediterranean, had evidently a lower level of agricultural and industrial production and of trade than the provinces of the Byzantine empire. Though we need not take at their face-value the occasional Byzantine references to the Bulgarians as skin-clad savages, the record is eloquent enough. The failure to develop a monetary economy points both to a low level of exchange and a small internal market, and to the inability of the state to accumulate precious metals. The limited internal market need not imply that the primary producer made no surplus over and above what was needed to keep himself and his family alive. The surplus could be creamed off by taxation or by various feudal dues. We know too little of Bulgarian taxation to make any guess as to its economic effects. There was probably a fixed assessment on each unit of agricultural land, on the Byzantine pattern, but payable in kind. Such a taxation structure should have encouraged increased production, other things being equal. The failure to accumulate treasure is a feature shared by all European states other than the Byzantine empire in the early Middle Ages.





The gold of Europe and the Near East flowed inexorably to Constantinople and Baghdad.


It might be thought that the primary reason for the economic backwardness of Bulgaria was the physical destruction resulting from the long years of invasion and devastation. This no doubt played its part. But the infrastructure of ancient agriculture and industry was neither complex nor dependent on heavy capital investment. Particular items such as olive or mulberry trees involved a wait of a generation from planting to first crop. But these were not the object of monoculture. They were grown along with a variety of other crops, often inter-sown with cereals and the like. There were few elaborate irrigation or drainage works to restore. And the cities, though damaged, were not razed to the ground like Carthage. They could have been used and up to a point were used by the newcomers. But, as has been seen, the Slavs generally preferred at first to settle near, not in, the physical shells of late Roman cities.


Production requires not only land and raw materials, but skilled labour, and sometimes high expertise. The Slavs and Bulgars when they first appeared in the Balkans lacked skilled craftsmen and technicians. But this shortage could soon have been made up from the numerous prisoners, defectors and immigrants from the Byzantine world, whose skills would be in even more demand on account of their rarity. Where it was important, Bulgarian technology fell little short of that of Byzantium. Krum’s 30,000 men in full armour, or the stone-carvers and ceramic artists of Preslav, remind us that there was nothing inevitable about Bulgarian backwardness. It was a historical, not an ethnological phenomenon.


What did prevent Bulgaria from taking over Byzantine civilisation, as the Japanese took over industrial capitalist civilisation, was above all the structure and organisation of Bulgarian society itself. The Slavs, whatever may have been their organisation in their homeland, were broken up into an infinity of tiny political units during the long years of expansion. The Slav principalities were not only small, they were egalitarian. Even their enslaved prisoners of war were absorbed into the community after a certain number of years. They were not without private property, but it may be doubted how far they recognised individual, as opposed to communal, property in land. Their principalities formed confederations and alliances, but these were short-lived in the period of migration: each group moved and settled on its own. Once they established themselves in the Balkans larger and more lasting political units appear.





And social and economic differentiation within each community becomes greater. Had they been living in a political vacuum the Balkan Slavs would in due course have created one or several large states, with permanent boundaries and more or less fixed political and administrative structure. This was done by the western Slavs in Moravia in the early ninth century (the Moravian state established by Samo in the seventh century seems to have been quite ephemeral ), in Bohemia later in the same century, and in Poland in the tenth century. But such a development would have been difficult in the immediate neighbourhood of the Byzantine empire and on territory which the empire regarded as its own. In the outcome the Slav settlers in peninsular Greece were Hellenised and absorbed, those in the northeast Balkans became subject to the Bulgars, and only in the north west Balkans were they able to develop their own political organisations in some degree of independence.


Such a society in its early days was incapable of accumulating and concentrating the reserves of wealth necessary for the Byzantine way of life. Its basic units—the villages—were largely autarkic, and there was no established class divorced from primary production and able to enjoy leisure and large material resources. After the formation of the Bulgarian state and the extension of its control over most of the northern Balkans the possibility of such a development existed, and was indeed to some extent realised. Boris and Symeon wanted their kingdom to be on a par with the empire. They strove according to their abilities to make Preslav a second Constantinople, with a monarch appointed by God, a patriarch, churches and palaces, the outward trappings of power and the ornaments of advanced civilisation. But in the first place they could only maintain political independence by concentrating a great part of the surplus production of their country in unproductive military activities. And secondly the proximity of the empire distorted their own developing economy by attracting Bulgarian agricultural and other products to Byzantine markets, and turning the country into a producer of raw materials. As the boyars and the Slav chieftains became great territorial magnates they found it more profitable to send their surplus products to Constantinople and Thessalonika in exchange for the prestigious luxury products of Byzantine industry than to encourage the development of industry and commerce in their own cities, which remained small and relatively undeveloped. In this way the grandiose dreams of Boris and Symeon ended in thedreary reality of Peter’s long reign, when Bulgaria became





a harmless Byzantine protectorate, whose citizens shed their blood to keep the Magyars from reaching the imperial city on the Bosphorus. And after Peter’s death the logic of history and the traditions of the Roman empire led the Byzantines to take over their protectorate and reassert their sovereignty over territory which had been lost to them for nearly four centuries.


Even then the take-over proved harder than anyone in Constantinople imagined. Cowed and impoverished, the Bulgarians resisted, and it took a further generation of bitter fighting, under the command of a great military emperor, before the last sparks of Bulgarian independence appeared to be extinguished. They were not in fact extinguished, and Byzantine rule in Bulgaria was marked by a series of revolts which have no parallel in other provinces of the empire and which led, towards the end of the twelfth century, to the re-establishment of an independent Bulgarian Kingdom. And, later, after five centuries of absorption in the Ottoman empire, the Bulgarian state re-emerged in 1878 as a viable political unit.


Some of the more superficial differences between life in Bulgaria and in the Byzantine empire have been outlined in Chapter Ten. But the argument of this book is that there were other, more profound differences between the two societies which were reflected in the situation of the average Bulgarian and the average Byzantine. Some of these may be recapitulated here.


First, Byzantine society was ‘totalitarian’; there were few groups of any significance intermediate between the empire on the one hand, and a man and his immediate family on the other. It was not so in Bulgaria, where the creation of a single political community was relatively recent, and where the old political organisation of the Slavs in village communities, tribes and principalities cannot have vanished overnight. A man’s membership of such a lower group could for most of his life be far more important than the fact that he was a subject of the king in Pliska or Preslav. We know woefully little of the day-to-day administration of Bulgaria. But what we do know suggests that while the king’s government carried out—or tried to carry out —the ‘law and order’ functions of the state, many of its other functions were performed by older groups still playing a quasi political role. We never hear, for instance, of local officers of the king’s judiciary in Bulgaria. Disputes were presumably settled by village assemblies and tribal authorities, with only occasional interference by the central government.





The same must have been true of most of those functions of the state concerned with the distribution of resources on a local scale, minor public works and so on.


Again, a Byzantine, as such, was alone in the world, both as a member of that Christian empire which liked to call itself ‘the new Israel’, and as the heir to Greek tradition. True, there were Christian communities which were outside the political control of the empire. But in the ninth and tenth centuries the average Byzantine had no contact with them and little knowledge of them. In any case their separation from the Byzantine Christian community was regarded as accidental and temporary. Similarly there were Greek-speaking groups outside the empire, notably in Sicily and in Crete. But these were areas of recent Arab conquest which would no doubt be regained by the empire in due course—Crete was in fact regained in the middle of the tenth century. A Bulgarian, on the other hand, was aware, however vaguely, of belonging to a larger, Slavonic community, with which he shared his language and many elements in his culture. Even the Slavonic liturgy which he heard in his church was composed by men from Thessalonika and first used in remote Moravia. We must not exaggerate this sense of Slavonic unity and give it nineteenth-century overtones. Yet it was there. Svjatoslav’s pagan Russian soldiers may have swept through Bulgaria with fire and sword, but at least men could understand what they were saying.


A further point is concerned with the relationship of man to the land. In the Byzantine empire land was a saleable commodity. It could also be rented on various terms, mortgaged etc., and there was a great body of law, much of it of venerable antiquity, which governed such transactions. No doubt most land remained in the hands of the same family or the same community for generations. But the possibility of its alienation was nevertheless there. In a community without money, or in which money found only a very limited use, land is virtually inalienable, not because the law forbids transference of ownership, but because there is in general nothing to exchange it for. Such must have been the case in Bulgaria in the ninth and tenth centuries. Hence the bond between a family, or a village community, and the land which it cultivated must have been closer than in Byzantium, and must have appeared to those most concerned to be part of the eternal order of things. Nevertheless the political and economic forces which drove the powerful to extend their control over their weaker neighbours, and the weak to seek the protection of the strong, continued to operate and to create in Bulgaria what we may loosely term a feudal society.





Yet they could not easily operate by the direct transference of ownership of land, and where they did that transference would have an aspect of illegality and of naked force. In fact various attributes of ownership must often have passed to powerful magnates while the legal title remained with the original owners. We hear a good deal of the social and economic tensions created in Byzantium by the growth of great estates at the expense of peasant land holdings. In Bulgaria, though we hear little of them, these tensions must have been all the greater for the fact that land was not thought of as a commodity.


Finally, the relative inalienability of land is only an aspect of another important respect in which the situation of the individual in Bulgaria differed from that of his counterpart in Byzantium. In a moneyless society a man cannot easily rise in status through economic activity. In the Byzantine empire it was very easy to raise one’s status in this way. True, the position of the merchant was formally a humble one, however rich he might become. But in fact through the contacts he established in the machinery of government he could come to occupy an important situation. The persons to whom the control of Bulgarian trade with the empire was given in 924 are said to have been merchants, and to have been familiars of Stylianos Zaoutzes, the father-in-law and favourite of Leo VI. Other forms of entrepreneurial activity brought more immediate and tangible rewards. The story of St Philaretos, a prosperous peasant or minor landowner in Asia Minor who in the early ninth century rose to great wealth and influence by skilful use of his economic power in an agrarian community is illuminating. He was what in more recent times might have been called a kulak. He can have had few counterparts in Bulgaria. In fact social mobility in general must have been much less in Bulgaria than in Byzantium, and that at a time when the most drastic and radical changes were taking place in Bulgarian society and the Bulgarian state. This relative rigidity explains in part the failure of Bulgaria to become a second Byzantium.


The consolidation in the reigns of Boris and Symeon—exactly 75 years—of a style of life which owed much, including its Christianity, to Byzantine models, but was in many respects quite un-Byzantine, had given the Bulgarians a consciousness of their own distinctiveness which they retained throughout the two centuries of Byzantine rule. I have described this as the development of Bulgarian nationality. Its most striking symptom—and one which set up a barrier against the penetration of Byzantine culture—was the use of Slavonic rather than Greek as the language of administration, worship and literature.





The second Bulgarian Kingdom of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was in a way more Byzantinised than the first. Its princes and notables inter-married with Greek families. Its men of letters were sometimes as much at home in Greek as in Slavonic. Yet it never became Hellenised. Nor did it become provincial. Its monarchs and statesmen seldom acted as Byzantine puppets or felt themselves to be the instruments of Byzantine policy. The growth of Bulgarian nationality, with its own peculiar profile, helped to end the Byzantine myth of oecumenicity, the concept that the empire was a unique instrument of providence whose boundaries, in the fullness of time, must be those of the inhabited world.


Though the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev was a stroke of Byzantine diplomacy whose immediate purpose may have been strategic, the christianising of Russia and the drawing of that great country into the orbit of Mediterranean and European civilisation was largely the work, either directly or through their writings, of men from Bulgaria. And the whole pattern of Russian public life was strongly influenced by Bulgarian models. The Princes of Kiev, and later the Princes of Muscovy, belonged to the Byzantine Commonwealth, to use Obolensky’s phrase. But politically, in their literary cultures, and in the details of their everyday life, the Russians maintained a distance and independence which had been foreshadowed by the Bulgaria of Boris and Symeon, whose literature and ideas they took over and made their own.


Lastly, in the Bogomil heresy the Bulgarians, building their own edifice out of Byzantine materials, developed a view of the universe which answered the hopes— and the despair—of the underdogs of the feudal world better than the subtle dogma and the hierarchical structure of official Christianity. How far the spread of dualist doctrines in medieval Europe is due to direct Bulgarian influence is a hard question to which the present writer would not presume to offer an answer. Certainly Bulgarian missionaries played a role in the spread of Bogomilism in Serbia and Bosnia, where its hold became peculiarly tenacious. Their contribution to the growth of the Cathar movement in Italy and France is much less certain. Yet the French bougre and its English derivative preserve even today the memory of an intellectual and social movement of protest originating in the first Bulgarian Kingdom and stimulated by its confrontation with the empire of east Rome.



1. What is History. The G. M. Trevelyan Lectures delivered in the University оf Cambridge 1961, Harmondsworth, 1964, 89-90.


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