A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman




Appendix IX

The Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets



The earliest Slavonic MSS. were not all written in one alphabet; but some employed the Cyrillic alphabet, on which all the alphabets of the orthodox Slavs to-day are based, and others a more complicated script known as Glagolitic, now only surviving in a few out-of-the-way villages in Croatia. The question has often been raised as to which was the earlier and which was Saint Cyril’s work.


Professor Minns has shown [1] that Saint Cyril, from a a pun that he made on a misprint in the Hebrew version of Isaiah, must have known Hebrew—Snoj’s previous attempt to prove that he knew Coptic must be accounted failure. [2] If he knew Hebrew it is easy to understand from what source the Cyrillic letters were framed, for which the Greek alphabet was of no use: the sole exceptions are a few vowel sounds which bear the air of an arbitrary invention. It seems, therefore, unreasonable to



1. Minns, Saint Cyril Really Knew Hebrew, passim.


2. Snoj, Staroslovenski Matejev Evangelij, passim.





suppose that Cyril did not invent Cyrillic. But the whole question has been befogged by the assumption, based chiefly on palimpsests, that Glagolitic must have been made before Cyrillic, and by an earnest and somewhat uncalled-for longing to make it a development out of Greek or Latin or Runic [1] — anything except a definitely and arbitrarily created alphabet. The priority of Glagolitic has been also maintained because of a passage in a MS. life of Saint Clement, [2] which said that Clement invented an alphabet different to Saint Cyril’s—Clement therefore invented Cyrillic, it was said. But the authenticity of this passage is highly suspect.


We must consider the historical evidence. When the Moravians asked for a teacher, the Emperor sent off Cyril, after an infinitesimal interval during which the saint apparently translated one of the Gospels and made a lectionary, besides inventing the alphabet. But Cyril’s version of the Bible is written, it is now universally agreed, in the dialect of the Macedonian Slavs, and both alphabets, Cyrillic and Glagolitic, are adapted to suit that dialect. The only possible conclusion that can be drawn is that Cyril, who was an enterprising philologist, had already been experimenting with the Slavonic language in use round his home at Thessalonica, and had evolved the Cyrillic alphabet for it. When he arrived in Moravia, he found that an alphabet so closely akin to Greek met with powerful opposition; so he disguised it, reversing most of the Greek letters, but retaining most of his invented letters, and he tidied it up into a vague uniformity with a free use of loops. [3] From this it seems likely that the



1. Taylor and Jagić derive it from cursive Greek, Wessely (Glagolitisch-Lateinische Studien) from cursive Latin. See references in Jagić, Grafika u Slavyan and Entstehungsgeschichte. Cursive Latin is an unconvincing source, and Rahlfs (Zur Frage nach der Herkunft) has shown cursive Greek to be historically impossible.


2. Found by Gregorowitz at Athos in 1825. It is generally recognized now as valueless.


3. I follow Minns’s explanation (op. cit.)—the only one that seems to employ common sense.





Imperial Government was already planning, with Cyril’s help, to evangelize the Balkan Slavs, the Bulgarians probably as well as its own subjects, when unexpected events called the great missionary farther afield, and altered the whole situation. [1]


In Bulgaria, Glagolitic MSS. are found dating from up to the thirteenth century, chiefly from the Ochrida and Rila districts. Almost certainly Clement brought the alphabet with him from Moravia; and, if there is any truth behind the interpolation in the Athos MS., it refers, not to his invention of Cyrillic, but to his introduction of an alphabet that was different from what the local inhabitants knew as Cyril’s. The Bulgarians educated at the Slavonic schools of Constantinople would, however, obviously employ Cyrillic; which became the official alphabet used at Preslav [2] — Khrabr’s treatise seems to refer to it, not to its rival—and which, from its greater simplicity and suitability, succeeded in time in superseding Glagolitic— an alphabet whose only merit was that it suited a particular political crisis.



1. Bruckner (Thesen zur Cyrillo-Methodianischen Frage, p. 219) pushes this theory to the extent of rejecting Rostislav’s mission. Bury (op. cit., pp. 396–9) takes a more temperate view.


2. A few Glagolitic inscriptions too mutilated to read have been unearthed at Preslav and Patleïna side by side with Cyrillic inscriptions, but the latter are far more numerous.


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