The History Of Cyrillic Script


May 24 marks a rather unique occasion in Europe's history: it is a day set aside to honour two brothers, Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, the progenitors of the Cyrillic script that is used today from the Balkans to Mongolia. This year was somewhat more special as well, because it marks the 1150th anniversary of the event, when the two brothers journeyed to Great Moravia (today's central Europe) at the request of its leader, Rostislav, who asked the Byzantine Empire to send emissaries to teach Christianity to his people in their own language. This article is in turn meant to give some insight into who the brothers were* and  why this day is significant, in order to reinforce the main point: the right to access Christianity in one's own language.

The two brothers were born in the family of a high-ranked Byzantine naval commander, Leon, and his wife, Maria, in the town of Thessaloniki in modern-day Greece. Methodius was the elder, born in 815 and Cyril, in 827; it is interesting to note that Cyril was born as Constantine, but accepted the name Cyril shortly before his death in 869 and it is with it that history remembers him.

Constantine and Methodious were noticed early for their natural talents, most notably in the grasp of languages and their political acuity. As education was tightly linked with the Church in the early Middle Ages, their qualifications as polyglots in Slavonic, Greek, and Hebrew made them invaluable not only as diplomats for the Byzantine Empire's foreign policy goals, but also as emissaries of Christianity throughout Europe and the Middle East; it is at this time that Islam was a newly minted religion and itself entering in competition with Christianity for influence. Some examples of the missions on which the brothers were sent include Moravia, Pannonia, and notably, opening diplomatic relations between the Byzantine Empire and the Saracens with a theistic debate on the theses of Christianity and Islam in the mid 850s. Later in life, diplomacy remained at the center of both brothers' activities, but Constantine is also documented as becoming as instructor at the Magnaura Palace, where he trained prior, and was bestowed with the title of philosopher.

The emergence of the Cyrillic script was preceded by the development of its Glagolitic forerunner, thought to have been transcribed as early as 855 by Constantine and Methodius. While an important cultural artifact, the political calculus behind its development is also brilliant: Christianity was the legitimating power of the Byzantine Empire and in order to use it to spread its influence abroad, the ability to make Christianity accessible through the language of a local peoples would be a much wiser political solution to the challenge. It is the spirit of the Reformation, six centuries before it happened in the rest of Europe. The Glagolitic alphabet was meant precisely as the tool to unite the Slavic populations living throughout eastern Europe and attract them in the Christian sphere of influence.

Despite their  intelligence and acuity, Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, whether by choice or circumstance, remained more diplomats and politicians than scholars. The primary reason their contribution to history did not remain a singular artifact, obscured in time, was that their students kept and spread their legacy. It is at this point where Bulgaria enters the story with Boris I Mihael (in office between 852-889), the first monarch to formally adopt Christianity in 864 and make it the official state religion. It was the first of two defining political moves during his reign, with the second being to accept the students of Cyril and Methodius in 886 in Bulgaria, when they were exiled from Great Moravia, and providing them with the required support to continue the mission of spreading both the alphabet and Christian canon. Both of these acts were a part of a wider strategy to move the country towards Christian civilization for its long-term survival, but also to act as a political and cultural counterweight to the Byzantine Empire. Subsequently, the 900s would see a linguistic and cultural revolution that resulted in Bulgaria becoming a major centre of literary development, utilizing the new script and exporting it throughout the greater eastern Europe.

The transition from the Glagolitic to the Cyrillic script is thought to be the work of St. Clement of Ohrid, one of their students who worked under the patronage of the Bulgarian monarchy in the 9th century. The city itself is in today's Macedonia, on the coast of a lake by the same namesake.

Constantine-Cyril died in 869 in Rome, following a mission to the Eternal City to see pope Nicholas I and his successor, Adrian II, on the matter of making Slavonic equal to Latin in the use of church affairs, not just in the East, but also compelling the pope to use it. The success of the venture upon his death earned him the status of a saint both in the Catholic and Orthodox denominations of Christianity. To this day, he lies buried in Rome. Methodius lived until the mid 880s, continuing his career as a diplomat in spreading the Slavonic script through Moravia, but not without opposition from Rome and support from Constantinople, as part of the early stages that led to the formal separation of the Church into east and west during the 11th century. It is still uncertain where he was buried, however.

The significance in the work of Cyril and Methodius is that Bulgaria became the vehicle for their students' successful efforts to disseminate both Christianity and the written word, to the point where Slavonic, and later, Old Bulgarian, would become the lingua franca of eastern Christianity for several centuries, along with Latin and Greek. The political intrigues of the day may be long gone, but 1,150 years later, the positive legacy remains.

*The source material is a transliteration of the "Life and Times of Constantine," an authored biography of Cyril thought to be contemporary (although there is debate about the identity of the author) and translated directly into Bulgarian by Dr. Kiselkov (1926). I was unable to find an English version at the time of writing.

The sources for this article are supplemented through Wikipedia for the sake of generality and brevity; however, source materials linked off the Wikipedia pages include Greek, Bulgarian and English published works discussing the subject matter in greater detail for those interested.