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The Glagolithic and Church Slavonic alphabet

The Glagolithic alphabet is the oldest of the Slavic alphabets. It was created by St Cyril (c. 836-69). He and his brother Methodius (c. 815/16-85) were known as the Apostles of the Slavs. The alphabet probably originated in the 860s, in connection with the brothers’ mission to the kingdom of Great Moravia. They translated the Gospels and the most important liturgical books into Slavic, creating a new script for the purpose. The language in its most ancient form is called Old Church Slavonic.

The name of the Glagolithic alphabet derives from the Old Church Slavonic glagolъ, meaning ‘word’. Certain characters have been borrowed from Greek minuscule script and Oriental scripts, but otherwise the Glagolithic alphabet is Cyril’s own creation. Two variants have evolved: the ‘round’ one, which disappeared in the eleventh century, and the ‘square’ one used in the Croatian territories until relatively recently. A missal printed in Rome in 1905 is the last Croatian-Glagolithic book to have come off the press.

The earliest Glagolithic manuscripts date from the end of the tenth century and the beginning of the eleventh. Abecedaria, i.e. lists of all the characters, are very important sources for reconstructing the original Glagolithic script. The two oldest, now in Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, are datable to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The Cyrillic alphabet, confined to the Christians of the East

The Cyrillic alphabet is named after St Cyril (Constantinus Cyrillus), although it was not actually invented by him, but probably by a pupil of Cyril and Methodius. It goes back to a ninth century Greek majuscule script. Characters have been borrowed from the Glagolithic alphabet for Slavic sounds which do not exist in Greek. The use of Cyrillic script was confined to the Eastern Christian rite, whereas the Glagolithic script was also used for Catholic liturgical texts. Between the tenth and twelfth centuries the Cyrillic alphabet supplanted the Glagolithic alphabet in the South Slavic regions, i.e. Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria. It reached the Russian kingdom of Kiev in the tenth century by way of Bulgaria.

Ninth century stone inscriptions from Bulgaria rank as the first memorials. The most important manuscripts include the so-called Book of Savva, a book of Gospels with texts adapted to lessons for the Church’s year (áprakos gospels or evangelaries) and Codex Suprasliensis, a selection of sacred legends to be read during the Church’s year (menologium). Both these manuscripts date from the eleventh century.

The Abecedaria in Codex Gigas

Codex Gigas contains both alphabets. They are written on two separate, partly damaged pieces of parchment which originally may have belonged to a leaf that has since been lost. Later they were cut out and attached to the inside of the cover. The piece with the Glagolithic alphabet was glued onto a note from 1295 but removed from there and moved further down by George Stephens in the nineteenth century. To bring out the text of the note he also treated it chemically.

The Glagolithic alphabet is followed by an entry, in both Glagolithic script and Latin translation, stating that this azbukinidarium (abecedarium) was commissioned by Abbot Divissus (Lat. also Dionysius, Cz. Diviš). The name Diviš also comes under the Cyrillic alphabet. It is hard to tell whether the reference here is to Diviš I, Abbot of the Monastery of Břevnov between 1360 and 1366 and a known doctor of theology, or Diviš II, Abbot between 1385 and 1409. The presence of the two alphabets in the Codex Gigas, however, must be connected with the upsurge of interest in Slavic liturgy during the fourteenth century and the foundation in Prague of the Catholic-Slavic monastery of Emmaus (Cz. Emauzy), which obtained papal permission to hold its services in Church Slavonic. Monks from Croatia were called in to teach the Czech monks both the Church Slavonic language and the Glagolithic alphabet. The missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius were nominated the monastery’s patron saints, together with St Procopius. It was he who in the eleventh century founded the monastery of Sazava, a Benedictine community with a Slavic rite. Procopius’ successors, however, were expelled from Sazava, and in 1097 the Slavic monastery was captured by the crusaders and its library destroyed.

The Codex Gigas Glagolithic alphabet is of the ‘square’ type and closely resembles fourteenth century Croatian practice. The Stockholm abecedarium is the third oldest, later than those in Paris and Munich.

The Cyrillic alphabet was not altogether unknown in fourteenth century Bohemia, due mainly to contacts with Russia. The abcedarium in the Codex Gigas does not appear to be in a very proficient hand, and the alphabet includes a number of archaic features. Even so, as the oldest extant example it is a very important source.