The mysterious Bosnian Church: What did Bosnians belive in in the Middle Ages

In Bosnia’s long tradition, rich history, one thing really stands out. The medieval Bosnian Church, institution like no other that had its own form of christianity.

It was independent of and considered heretical by both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox hierarchies.

Adherents of the church called themselves simply krstjani (“Christians”) or dobri Bošnjani (“Good Bosnians”). The church’s organization and beliefs are poorly understood, because few if any records were left by church members and the church is mostly known from the writings of outside sources – primarily Roman Catholic ones.

After the schism of 1054 divided Western (Latin, or Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox) Christianity, most of the Bosnian territory (excluding modern Herzegovina) was Latin, but during the long period of isolation from Rome the Bosnian church fell into its own de facto schism, electing its own leaders from among the heads of the monastic houses. A combination of poor theological training, lax observances, and Eastern Orthodox practices led to frequent complaints from neighbouring areas, beginning in the 1190s, that the Bosnian church was infected with heresy.

In 1203 a papal legate was sent to investigate these charges, and Ban Kulin gathered a special council at Bilino Polje (near modern Zenica), where the church leaders signed a declaration promising to undertake a series of reforms.

Most involved correcting lax religious practices; in addition, however, they promised not to shelter heretics in their monasteries. The extent to which these reforms were observed is very uncertain, since over the following century the church in Bosnia became increasingly isolated.

Occasional complaints from the 1280s onward still referred to “heretics” in Bosnia, and, by the time the Roman Catholic Franciscans began to operate there in 1340, the official view from Rome was that the entire Bosnian church had fallen into heresy, from which its members needed to be converted.

It was not until Pope Nicholas’ Bull Prae Cunctis in 1291 that the Franciscan-led inquisition was imposed on Bosnia. Bogomilism was eradicated in Bulgaria and Byzantium in the 13th century, but survived in Bosnia and Herzegovina until the Ottoman Empire gained control of the region in 1463.

The Bosnian Church coexisted with the Catholic Church (and with the few Bogomil groups) for most of the late Middle Ages, but no accurate figures exist as to the numbers of adherents of the two churches. Notwithstanding the incoming Franciscan missionaries, the Bosnian Church survived, although weaker and weaker, until it disappeared after the Ottoman conquest.

Outsiders accused the Bosnian Church of links to the Bogomils, a stridently dualist sect of dualist-gnostic Christians heavily influenced by the Manichaean Paulician movement and also to the Patarene heresy, but many historians disagree, saying that the Bosnian Church was different from the Roman Catholic Church by organisation, not by believes.

The Bosnian Church used Slavic language in liturgy, as did the Orthodox. The church was headed by a bishop, called djed (“grandfather”), and had a council of twelve men called strojnici.

The monk missionaries were known as krstjani or kršćani (“adherents of the cross”). Some of the adherents resided in small monasteries, known as hiže (hiža, “house”), while others were wanderers, known as gosti (gost, “guest”).

It is difficult to ascertain how the theology differed from that of the Orthodox and Catholic. The practices were, however, unacceptable to both.

The Church was mainly composed of monks in scattered monastic houses. It had no territorial organization and it did not deal with any secular matters other than attending people’s burials.

It did not involve itself in state issues very much. Notable exceptions were when King Stephen Ostoja of Bosnia, a member of the Bosnian Church himself, had a djed as an advisor at the royal court between 1403 and 1405, and an occasional occurrence of a krstjan elder being a mediator or diplomat.

Hval’s Codex, written in 1404 in Cyrillic, is one of the most famous manuscripts belonging to the Bosnian Church in which there are some iconographic elements which are not in concordance with the supposed theological doctrine of Christians (Annunciation, Crucifixion and Ascension). All the important Bosnian Church books (Nikoljsko evandjelje, Sreckovicevo evandelje, the Manuscript of Hval, the Manuscript of Krstyanin Radosav) are based on Glagolitic Church books.

With the arrival of the Ottomans in the 15th century, the Bosnian Church was already weakened, and soon, most of the Bosnians accepted Islam and the Bosnian Church died out.