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Polyvyannyy (2014 Congress)

Dimitry I. Polyvyannyy
(Ivanovo State University, Russia)
“Sources and Patterns of State Identity of the Bulgarian Czardom under the Assenids (1186-1396)”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, May 2014)
Session on “A Neglected Empire:  Bulgaria between the Late Twelfth and Late Fourteenth Centuries”
Part I:  “Shaping, Defining, and Reshaping an Empire”

Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Florida
Organized by Florin Curta (University of Florida) and Mildred Budny (Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
2014 Congress Accomplished

[First published on our first website on 20 March 2014, with updates]

Restored after Byzantine domination at the end of the twelfth century and destroyed by the Ottoman Turks at the end of the fourteenth, the Bulgarian Czardom under the Assenids was labeled as the “Second Bulgarian Empire” by modern historiography, thus affirming both its continuity from the reigns of Symeon (893–927) and Peter (927–969) and its position in second place after that First Bulgarian Czardom.

Although the primary characterization of the Assenids’ state was really based upon that continuity, its whole quest for state identity was continuous, complicated, and interrupted both by inner crises and by the changing geopolitical environment of South-Eastern and Central Europe.  The political stage was rearranged several times beginning with the defeat and restoration of the Byzantine Empire (1204-1261), up to Ottoman invasion in the second half of the fourteenth century.  The confessional situation changed as result of the ultimate consequences of the 1054 Schism and the repeated unionist attempts undertaken by Rome toward the establishment of several autonomous Orthodox churches.

Even more important for state identification were the domestic circumstances defined by equally numerous factors, including the centralization and decentralization of the state, dynastic and political crises or periods under the Cumans, and the Tartar, Hungarian, Serbian, and Vlachian impacts upon the state.  Although most of the rulers of the Bulgarian Czardom belonged to the same lineage as the Assenids, the accents or nuances in their identification were due to current interpretations of the state identity.  There were two periods.  The first extended from the second half of the reign of John Asen II (1218-1241) to the rule of Constantine Asen (1257-1277), and the second arose during the rule of John Alexander Asen (1331-1371), when such interpretations were codified both in state acts and in hagiographic, hymnographic, and historical narratives, which allow us the chance to reassess and to comprehend the main features of the state identity and the mechanisms of its formation.

An especially important role in the creation of the state identity was played by the Bulgarian capital Tărnovo, often called the “new” or “second” Czar’grad (“Imperial City”).  Together with the monastic community of the Holy Mountain (Athos), Tărnovo constituted the axis of the Bulgarian Czardom’s cultural identity.  In its turn, this axis comprised the vertex of the triangle “Tărnovo–Athos–Constantinople” which formed the main setting for Bulgarian culture as a whole under the Assenids.

This paper addresses such key issues as the notion of Czardom and its direct and indirect manifestations under the Assenids; and the formative mechanisms of both their dynastic continuity and the territorial identity of their state.  Since the main corpus of narratives and official acts is quite scant and incomplete, the fundamental base provided by these sources must be expanded with epigraphic, archeological, and archeographic material, as well as with some artefacts.

The models of state identification within the “Byzantine Commonwealth” (using the term coined by the late Sir Dmitry Obolensky and further promoted by his disciple Jonathan Shepard) in its later modification were shaped mainly by two paradigms.  The first, originating from East Roman imperial ideology, continued to consider Bulgaria, Serbia, and Rus’ even in the Palaeologue period as parts of the imperial Commonwealth headed by Constantinople both politically and confessionally.  The second, shaped by the decline of the Empire at the end of the twelfth century and exacerbated especially by the Fall of Constantinople in 1204, imagined every Orthodox state as one of the “Czardoms”, juxtaposed to the others.  Labels like the “Third Rome”, “Second Constantinople”, “Last Czardom”, etc., despite their eschatological meaning, had changing political connotations, affirming whichever specific Czardom as the only true heir of the fallen and split Empire.

It is worth mentioning that the notion of Czardom (basileia, ЦАРСТВО) was based not upon territorial dimensions in Byzantium, Bulgaria, nor in Serbia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but meant a certain rank of dignity among earthly rulers.  On the Byzantine model, supreme power should have been vested in both the Czar and Patriarch, but in time it could be accordingly embodied in the Imperial City (as in Bulgaria), or in the holy dynasty (as in Serbia), in God’s chosen people or land, etc.

The sources, patterns, and mechanisms of Bulgarian state identity are revealed against the background of the above-mentioned circumstances, as exemplified in three mini case-studies.

1) The first demonstrates how the first Assenids managed to overcome the gap between the falls of the Bulgarian Czardom under the power of John Tsymisces in 971 and of Basil II in 1018, using old traditions of the dialogue between Bulgaria and Byzantium as well as their contemporary rites and models.

2) The second explains the mechanisms for establishing the dynastic continuity of the Assenids.

3) The third examines the territorial identity of the restored Bulgarian Czardom.

All three examples bear definite traits of this author’s conviction that medieval Bulgaria, in any period of its rise or decline, was an indivisible part of the Byzantine community, having no cultural pattern more influential than the model of Eastern Rome.  In this way, a permanent dialogue between Tărnovo and Constantinople, on both synchronous and asynchronous levels, emerges as the most appropriate context for reconstructing the state identity of the Second Bulgarian Czardom.