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The Creation of the Glagolitic Script

The Glagolitic script was the first written form of language of the Slavic nations and there are many questions regarding this unusual lettering system that occupy Slavistic researchers to this day. It was created when the ruler of Great Moravia, Rastislav, sent a request to the emperor of Byzantium, Michael III, in 862 to send missionaries and give his Slavic brethren a written language and help them move into the Eastern Orthodox Church. He wrote:

"We have no teacher who could teach us the Christian faith in our language, so that if other nations see this, they will imitate us. So send us, Lord, a suitable bishop and teacher since good legislation comes from you to all countries" (Tachiaos, 2014, p. 5).

It is believed that Rastislav's motivation was not simply religious, but political (Nikolic, 1984). The Great Moravia region was at that time part of the Salzburg archdiocese and under the heavy influence of Bavarian clergy. By implementing a new Slavic liturgy and scriptures, the Moravians would be rejecting Latin and striving for greater independence (Tachianos, 2014), because at that time political independence was almost equal to the independence of the church (Nikolic, 1984).

Figure 1. Michael III, coin (9th century).

Emperor Michael III responded to Rastislav's request and in the following year, in 863, he sent the Thessaloniki brothers Constantine the Philosopher (St. Cyril), and Methodius on a mission to Great Moravia. They were chosen partly due to the fact that they knew how to speak the Slavic language. Before embarking on the mission, it is said that Constantine-Cyril created the first Slavic alphabet, called the Glagolitic script. This script was supposed to be used to write liturgical and other Christian canonic texts in the Slavic language (Tschižewskij, 1971).

Figure 2. The Glagolitic Letters (2000).

One of the most important documents that attest to this fact is the "Account of Letters" (Za bukvite) written at the end of the 9th, or the beginning of the 10th century by an unknown monk who used the pseudonym Chernorizets Hrabar (The Brave Black Robe Wearer). In this short text which represents a philological dispute in favor of the Old Church Slavonic alphabet, Chernorizets writes:

"Being still pagans, the Slavs did not have their own letters, but read and communicated by means of tallies and sketches. After their baptism, they were forced to use Roman and Greek letters in the transcription of their Slavic words, but these were not suitable." (Chernorizets Hrabar, 9th-10th century, para. 1)

However, the way in which Constantine-Cyril created it and what he based this new script on is shrouded in mystery. There are two broad schools of thought: the palaeographic and the idiographic theory (Uspenkij, 2013). The former postulates a natural origin, meaning Constantine-Cyril created the letters based on previous alphabets (such as the Greek minuscule, Samaritan Hebrew, Coptic, etc.). A bolder theory, the idiographic suggests that Glagolitic letters were an entirely original creation (Uspenskij, 2013). Apart from creating the new script, the brothers took it upon themselves to translate some scriptures into Slavic with the Glagolitsa needed for liturgical purposes, but all of those original texts were lost over time. Some of the most representative examples of scriptures written in the Glagolitic alphabet are Codex Zografensis (10th-11th century) found in the Zograf Monastery on Mount Athos, Codex Marinaus (11th century) kept partly in Vienna and Moscow, and Echologium Sinaiticum (11th century) found in Saint Catherin’s Monastery, Egypt.

Figure 3. Codex Zographensis (10th-11th century).

The oldest documents that describe the mission of Constantine-Cyril and Methodius are their hagiographies, which are known to be a biography of a holy person. Both hagiographies claim that their stay in Great Moravia lasted for approximately 40 weeks or 3 years, after which they journeyed to Rome. At the time, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were considered the holy languages, meaning they were the only ones permitted in the Church. That is why the creation of the Slavic alphabet and the translation of holy scriptures was not well received in the entire Christendom. Upon his arrival in Venice, according to the hagiographies, Constantine-Cyril and Methodius had to engage in philological debates with the so-called trilinguals. His response to them was poetically described in his hagiography "Life of Constantine":

"Does not God's rain fall upon all equally? And does not the sun shine also upon all? And do we not all breathe air in the same way? Are you not ashamed to mention only three tongues, and to command all other nations and tribes to be blind and deaf? ("Life of Constantine", 1983, pt. 16)
Figure 4. Statue of St. Cyril and St. Methodius (2014).

After the death of Constantine-Cyril, Methodius continued their work. He was appointed archbishop of Moravia and Pannonia (Dvornik, 1970). His life afterward was largely centered around his fight with the Frankish clergy who imprisoned him for a certain time (Tschižewskij, 1971). He had many pupils who helped him organize the Slavic church and defend it from outside influence.

"Methodius died in 885, and soon afterward his successor, Bishop Gorazd, and his pupils were expelled from the country. After considerable hardship, many of them found refuge in Bulgarian Macedonia, where they continued their work." (Tschižewskij, 1971, p. 27)

The most notable of Methodius' disciples were Clement and Naum (Dvornik, 1970). They formed two schools in Ochrid and Preslav under the Bulgarian rulers Boris, Vladimir, and Symeon. The Frankish clergy had taken control of Moravia and Pannonia, slowly eradicating the Glagolitic script from those regions. Simultaneously, a new letter system was beginning to take root in Bulgaria where the Glagolitic alphabet was not common. This new alphabet, the Cyrillic, would over time dominate and replace the Glagolitic script because it was created based on the Greek Uncial script (Milanovic, 2004), which presented a compromise with the Greek clergy operating in Bulgaria at the time.


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Jelena Martinec

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