The Bogomils: A Study in Balkan Manichaeism
by Dimirtri Obolensky
Published in 1948
Cambridge University Press
Reprint Anthony C. Hall, 1972
One of the most interesting subject in Medieval history is the persecution of the Cathar heresy by the Pope. Called "the Cathar Crusade" or the Albigensian Crusade, it was the first crusade- before the more famous crusades with the holy lands of the near east as their target. The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect in Southern France and Northern Spain who espoused a Manichean philosophy.
The question I've always asked myself is how a bunch of peasants in Southern Europe were converted to a religion that came from Babylon and had been largely surprised for hundreds of years prior to the 12th and 13th centuries. Manicheanism and neo-Manicheanism are interesting in their own right. Followers of the prophet Mani believed that the world was created by the Devil/Satan and that all matter was sinful. They espoused a strident aestheticism that renounced marriage, wine and meat.
Despite suffering strident persecution from everyone, Manicheanism found a home in Armenia, where a Manichean (or neo-Manichean by this point) group called the Paulicians fought a border war with the Byzantine Emperor, eventually losing in the 9th century AD. After that, groups of Paulicians were resettled by the Byzantines in and around the Bulgarian frontier. Bulgaria was, basically, a tributary of the Byzantine, with a ruling class of central Asian Bulgars ruling over a Slavic underclass.
Bulgaria at the time was nominally Greek Orthodox, but many in the Slavic underclass retained their Pagan religion, and the question of whether the Bulgarians were to be Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic was itself unsettled. The first major point that Obolensky establishes is that Manicheanism came to Europe via the Bulgarian Empire.
Unlike the Paulicians, who were culturally and ethnically distinct- basically Armenians- settled in discreet communities in the Eastern part of the state, Bogomilsim originated in what is today Macedonia, and was a more directly syncretic attempt to merge Manichean ideas with conventional Christian teachings. These Bogomils were very successful in converting the residents of modern Macedonia and Bosnia. They also went out to proselytize and one of the most interesting chapters of the book deals with first hand Byzantine accounts of illicit Bogomil activities.
A very interesting quality of Bogomilism is the conscious effort to disguise themselves as obedient Christians. They would set up Churches and dress and speak like the local approved Christian doctrine in an attempt to deceive hostile authorities. This characteristic is very much a predecessor of ideas about "the Illuminati" and other secret societies inside and outside the Catholic Church.
Obloensky demonstrates that the proselytizing activity was contemporaneous with the Cathar movement in the West, and while he stops short of showing the link between Catharism and Bogomilism, he does demonstrate the western Cathars knew of the most famous neo-Manichean. Obloensky also includes an Appendix which lays out the argument linking Bogomilism with Catharism. There wasn't quite a pan-neo-Manichean church, but it was a network of ideas with the Bogomils at one end of southern Europe and the Cathars at the other.
The major appeal of neo-Manichean religions like Bogomilism was a compelling explanation for why the world was such a shitty place for rural peasants in the out-of-the-way places of southern Europe in the late Middle Ages. The Devil made the world, no wonder it was such a terrible place.