A Concise History of Bulgaria, Second Edition by R. J. Crampton (Cambridge University Press) yields us some thoughts on fiction from an intriguing and, as Crampton labels them, heretical group of Christians called the bogomils. All this below is a riff on material from his chapter on Mediaeval Bulgaria. When I quote, it’s from Crampton as well.
Bulgaria once held an empire. In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, King Simeon the Great conquered and kept all lands west to the Adriatic, south to the Aegean, and northwestward to encompass most of present-day Serbia and Montenegro. But, just as with present-day empires, pressures tarnished and effaced the luster of the golden days. Magyars to the north invaded; Byzantines to the south did likewise. Over the long reign of Simeon’s son King Petûr, wealth concentrated dramatically in the hands of a few landowners and in the coffers of the church. And the clergy became deeply committed to sous rather than souls. “Whilst the few grew rich, times became even harder for the poor. Inevitably alienation set in.”
Seeking answers and a balm, the disaffected peasantry embraced bogomilism. “The bogomils argued that the entire visible world, including mankind, was the creation of Satan; only the human soul was created by God, who sent his son, Christ, to show humanity the way to salvation.” All bodily pleasures were an expression of the diabolic, and the bogomils “preached a formidable asceticism which enjoined poverty, celibacy, temperance and vegetarianism.” The few “Holy Ones” who met the mien drew tremendous respect from a recently Christianized populace who saw hypocrisy in the church’s grasping and its glittering accumulation of wealth, and who needed some explanation for the deterioration of their lives while the few nobility, once their protectors, fattened and thrived.
A fiction. All of mankind’s institutions—church, king, army, village, tax collector—every one a fiction of Satan. All bodily pleasures, likewise, affirmed and reinforced the fiction created by the Evil One. Like the earliest Christians, bogomils did preach the communal and anonymous holding of property and the levelling of all men by hard, shared agricultural labor. But “in declaring all institutions irredeemably evil” and all effort to fix them irrelevant, bogomils did not foment creative, reformist rebellions.
On the very blackest days in our own times, in sloughs of secret despair, have we not sometimes wished this were “all a dream,” something created rather than lived, a dark mess that will evaporate on waking in a new, sunny day? Do we not, in despair, sometimes give up entirely on the notion we can be governed by the institutions and politicians we have in place? Be wary of comforting, cosmic fictions then. All the victory the bogomils obtained on this earth was a smile on seeing the landowner’s head thumped by some big, marauding Magyar. And even the pleasure of that smile bore the sweet and deadly allure of a dangerous fiction.