'The London Tetraevangelion' (BL Add. 39627), brought to London by the English traveler Robert Curson from the Monastery of St Paul, Mt Athos. Commissioned by Tsar John Alexander, written in official liturgical Trnovo uncial (1355/6). Donor portrait of the tsar with his second wife, Sarah-Theodora, and their two sons, John Shishman and John Asen, 1355/6 (BL via Wiki Commons).
Boris A. Todorov
Centre for Advanced Studies, Sofia


Trnovo had been the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire since the late twelfth century, but it is only in the second half of the fourteenth that it became a center of literary creativity comparable to Preslav (capital and literary center of the First Bulgarian Empire, flourishing since the tenth century). This new growth did not correspond to military power, nor did the Bulgarians of the period belong to networks of dynamic exchange with the Latin West, the Mediterranean, or the steppe. They were isolated both economically and culturally, but at least no longer paid annual tributes to the Tatars in the steppe – a heavy burden that had depleted the country’s resources in the later thirteenth century. 1348 saw Tsar John Alexander sitting on the Bulgarian throne (r. 1331-71), the first ruler in a century who managed to pacify the country and integrate provinces that had earlier behaved like independent principalities. He was also the first ruler to leave traces of his patronage of works of art, including books. Although it is very unlikely that writers, translators, scribes and illuminators were entirely secular, we can at least imagine, for the first time in centuries, scriptoria working directly for the palace and not just for monastic and episcopal institutions. Books composed as votive gifts were supplemented with others containing texts for ethical or aesthetic appreciation-- primarily translations from Greek, perhaps meant to be read out aloud in front of guests. One such work directly associated with John Alexander is the Synopsis historikē, a chronicle in verse by Constantine Manasses, translated into Church Slavonic in the 1340s. By the time John Alexander passed away, Trnovo had grown into a major literary center where a program for the purification of language went hand in hand with the adoption of hesychast spiritual practices and a trend for the ‘internalization’ of faith. We thus see signs, for the first time, of south Slavic Christians being asked not only to observe the canons and strive for precise, and Orthodox, definitions of faith, but also to adapt faith as the basis for proper ethical behaviour. Those same years, however, saw the rapid Ottoman advance in the eastern and central Balkans which was to prove particularly devastating for the city: after its capture by the Ottomans in 1393, Trnovo practically disappeared as an ecclesiastical center for many decades, and the upholders of its cultural legacy were forced to  seek out other Slavic Orthodox realms, such as Serbia, Wallachia, Rus, and Muscovy.

Trnovo was the focus of Bulgarian social life: its area was small, the city limited to two naturally protected hills and the lower ground between them, yet with more than forty churches, most of them private chapels and small urban monasteries, it seems that much of the riches harvested from the countryside ended between its walls (where the elite stood next to the tsar). If never particularly rich, the city nonetheless made a display of self-confidence through conscious imitation of Byzantine imperial ideology. These imperial claims were underpinned by Trnovo’s claims for autocephalous status among the Eastern churches – a status that was not always easy to defend, or even conceptualize. Silent struggles over Bulgaria’s autocephalous yet imperial status appear indirectly in the fortunes of the liturgical calendar. In the earlier half of the fourteenth century, the Bulgarian church had accepted the Jerusalem typikon, as seen most clearly in numerous copies of the Stišen prolog, the Church Slavonic translation of the Greek verse synaxarion attributed by some  to Constantine of Mokissos. This translated work – shared by the Serbian, Bulgarian, and Rus churches – obliterated earlier particularly Bulgarian cults, suggesting a sense of ecclesiastical solidarity that contradicted the claims of Bulgarian patriarchs for independence from Constantinople. The reign of John Alexander and the literary production of his time, and that of his son John Šišman (r. 1371-1393), saw consistent efforts to legitimize the tsar’s imperial claims. One aspect of such imperial imitation was the seeking out of parallels between Trnovo and the city of New Rome, and its holy relics. Tsars of the Second Bulgarian Empire had collected relics of various saints from all over the peninsula since the late twelfth century-- but it is only with Patriarch Evtimii (Euthymius, d. c. 1400), the last head of the autocephalous Bulgarian church, that a consistent hagiographical program appeared. Following metaphrastic models, yet enriching them with the power of rhetoric and the richness of his sophisticated, reformed Slavic, Evtimii dedicated liturgies (akolouthiai), vitae or panegyrics to the various saints whose relics were laid in the different churches of the city. This hymnographical, hagiographical, and encomiastic tradition was continued by Evtimii’s disciples Grigorii (Gregory) Camblak (who moved between Wallachia, Serbia and Kiev), and the metropolitan of Bdin (Vidin), Ioasaf (Joasaph).

Enforcement of a properly Bulgarian calendar, focused on the cults developed in Trnovo, left the door open for  possible schism with Constantinople. Evtimii’s program for the purification and standardization of language was directly related to the problem of Orthodoxy. This was taken up  in the work of a much younger follower of his, Constantine the Philosopher (d. after 1430), from Kostenec in southern Bulgaria, who wrote a treatise On the Letters during his long career in Serbia. Trnovo, it seemed, was encroaching onto the domain of Orthodoxy:  and yet, its ideological imperialism did not lead to a break with Constantinople, but rather stimulated unprecedented intellectual exchange between Bulgaria and Byzantium. Evtimii spent some time in Constantinople, in the monastery of Stoudion, and it was perhaps here that he commissioned the translation of particular works, including the Chronicle of Symeon the Logothete. Evtimii’s disciple Kiprian (Cyprian), metropolitan of Moscow (1381-1406, with breaks), was the very model of a philorhomaios, as the Patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos called him: a Slav who identified with the entire Eastern Orthodox community, and who worked for its cultural and political cohesion. Such contacts with Byzantium had been stimulated by the hesychast movement, particularly in the person of Gregory the Sinaite, whose disciples included Bulgarians like Teodosii (Theodosius) of Trnovo, and Teodosii’s own disciples – Evtimii himself, and Romil of Vidin. Creation of bonds of solidarity and belonging stimulated new genres among Bulgarian-born hesychasts and ecclesiarchs, such as epistolary literature (as between Evtimii and his disciples), and funerary oration (as exemplified by Kiprian’s encomium of Gregory Camblak). Even Byzantines were integrated into the circle of Bulgarian hesychasts: the patriarch of Constantinople Kallistos I (d. 1363), for example, who wrote the Life of Teodosii of Trnovo, soon translated into Church Slavonic.

The literary life of fourteenth-century Trnovo ended abruptly with the destruction of the city in the late fourteenth century. Its overall production was not very big or particularly diverse: but it was precisely because of its own internal coherence that it outgrew its own period and location, forming the basis for further literary developments in Serbia, and in Rus and Muscovite lands.