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Robert Elsie

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1994
Gottfried Schramm:
A New Approach to Albanian History

Gottfried Schramm

Gottfried Schramm

German scholar Gottfried Schramm (b. 1929) studied in Göttingen, Erlangen and Tübingen, and finished his doctorate in 1953. He taught modern and eastern European history at the University of Freiburg (Breisgau) from 1965 until his retirement. Schramm’s German-language book “Anfänge des albanischen Christentums: die frühe Bekehrung der Bessen und ihre langen Folgen” [The Origins of Albanian Christianity: the Early Conversion of the Bessians and its Long-term Consequences], Freiburg im Breisgau 1994, caused furor when it was published because it contradicted the prevailing theory of the Illyrian origin of the Albanian people. Schramm derived the Albanians from the Christian Bessi, or Bessians, an early Thracian people who were pushed westwards into Albania from their original mountain homeland in the present Bulgarian-Serbian-Macedonian border region in the ninth century. Schramm’s theory is still largely rejected, but the prospect of early Albanian (i.e. Bessian) being used as a liturgical language in a monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in the sixth century makes interesting food for thought. Here is a short extract from his introduction.

In 1040 AD, troops provided by the Albanians revolted against a Byzantine military commander in southern Italy and joined an insurgent who planned to overthrow the Emperor in Constantinople in 1043. With this information recorded in the 1080s by Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates, who noted down all the events of his lifetime that seemed of importance to him, a nation entered the annals of recorded history, a people who – according to traditional thinking – had lived for centuries somewhere in the dark, beyond the grasp of historical records. These Albanians, it was thought, were now replacing the ancient Illyrians on Albanian soil who had disappeared from the stage at the end of their subjection to Rome in 168 BC. There was no doubt about it – they had survived about 800 years of Roman rule and then the great Slavic invasions of the seventh century AD, without losing any of their autonomy as a people with a language of their own, at a time when all the other barbarian peoples of antiquity had vanished from the map of Europe. How could it be that this people in Albania could be so doggedly persistent and survive where others did not? Languages survive change best when they are spoken in remote regions that are difficult to reach. But was Albania, that is open to the Adriatic on its coastal plain and was crossed by a major route of transportation, the Via Egnatia, really that isolated?

Albanian postage stamp of Nicetas of Remesiana

Albanian postage stamp
of Nicetas of Remesiana

It is hard to understand the reasons why the Albanians would be such an exceptional case, as described above. However, we need not bother trying to find a convincing interpretation because, if my thesis is right, the course of events generally accepted never took place. The Albanians are not the descendents of the ancient Illyrians who lived on Albanian soil before them, but rather of immigrants from the interior of the Balkan Peninsula. Their real ancestors were the Bessians, an ethnic group that disappeared before the first information about the Albanians was recorded. We only need to attach the Bessian thread, which carried on in the central part of southeastern Europe up to the fall of the Roman Empire, with the Albanian thread that suddenly emerges out of the dark in the eleventh century and can thus put together a story that enables us to understand why the latter people had a completely different fate from all the other barbarians of southeastern Europe.

This is, of course, easier to claim than to prove. In order for the reader to be able to judge for himself as to whether it is worth his time to pursue the initially complex arguments of this thesis, allow me to first introduce the basics of this new history, disencumbered here by arguments and proof. What I offer here should be read as if the protagonists where themselves speaking, after swearing an oath as to the veracity of their words.

Our story begins where the mountains of southeastern Europe form their highest peaks. This region is now divided by a border separating Serbs and Macedonians on its western side from Bulgarians on the eastern side. This region was, in ancient times, the home of the Bessians. That the Bessians had a different fate from many of the other barbarian peoples of southeastern Europe derives from the curious fact that they – and they alone among the ancient peoples of this mountainous region – converted to Christianity at an early stage, in the second half of the fourth century. This new religion was introduced to the Bessians at a time when it had already taken root in the cities in the Roman Empire and was beginning to spread into the countryside. Elsewhere, the conversion of a savage mountain people would not have been regarded as possible or necessary.

A number of circumstances had to come together for the Bessians to change customs. In the town of Remesiana on the northwestern side of the Bessian mountains, there was an important bishop called Nicetas who lived there in the second half of the fourth century. He had made a name for himself in the Latin Church as a theologian and exemplary preacher. Widely known was a series of sermons he held making information on the faith available to adults who wished to be baptized. One realizes in them how determined Nicetas was that the message of the Church be understood and appreciated as much as possible by those wishing to join it. It was the Gothic bishop Ulfilas who gave him an opportunity to spread this message beyond the mountains where he lived. Ulfilas had fled with his congregation from the region north of the Danube River to the Christian southern side in order to avoid religious persecution. These refugees were resettled on the northern slopes of the Balkan Mountain range, above the fertile valleys, a mere 250-270 kilometres from Remesiana. This immigrant group proved to Nicetas that a Christian mountain people could lead a peaceful existence in the tenets of their faith and serve as pass guards for one of the roads leading over the mountains. The Bishop of Remesiana was also impressed by the missionary zeal of Ulfilas’ congregation to convert the surrounding Germanic and other barbarian tribes. This was dangerous because Ulfilas was a homoousian, i.e. a moderate Arian, whereas Nicetas was a determined supporter of Athanasian Christianity. If he did not convert the Bessians, there was a good chance that Ulfilas or his followers would, and would do so in such a way that Nicetas regarded as blasphemous.

Ulfilas’ surprising charisma was based in good part on the fact that he made Gothic an ecclesiastical language by translating the Bible, or a good part of it, and the liturgy, into that language. This resulted in the rapid success of his mission. The hearts and the minds of the Ostrogothic barbarians who could now attend mass in their language and read the Bible in Gothic, were suddenly more receptive to the new faith than they had been with mass in Latin or Greek. Nicetas had no difficulty following this example because he and most of the people of Remesiana were familiar with Bessian and Latin. Among the texts that he wrote or translated into a language that had never been written down were songs and, most likely, liturgical and biblical texts.

Of course, Nicetas had one disadvantage over Ulfilas, whose followers had already been converted when they emigrated to their new homeland on the lower slopes of the Balkan Mountain range. Nicetas’ Bessian heathens housed in isolated settlements high up among the rugged mountain peaks. As bishop, he would not have been able to spend much time in missionary activities up in the mountains without neglecting his work in Remesiana. However, this disadvantage was compensated for when he conferred to monks and nuns – probably for the first time in the history of Christianity – the task of converting a people systematically to the new faith. These pious men and women abandoned their customs as hermits far from human settlements. Their traditional lifestyle, that arose in the contemplative world of eastern Christianity and was originally focussed on meditation and incessant prayer, received a second calling in new missionary activity. By the end of the fourth century, Bessian monks and nuns from the old-established local population that had just been converted to Christianity were recruited for the new mission. Proof of the swift rise of monastic life and the strength and breadth of its effectiveness is the fact that by the sixth century there were colonies of Bessian monks in Constantinople and – as autonomous monastic communities or subgroups of ethnically mixed monasteries, in the Holy Land. They conducted their monastic activities using their own language for the liturgy.

As such, this people, who were long seen as wild and savage robbers in the remote reaches of the mountains and who terrified the inhabitants of the lower slopes and plains, rose to join the small and illustrious circle of monastic nations who, with a liturgical language of their own, not only pursued an active monastic lifestyle at home but also engaged in pilgrimages. Among other such nations as the Copts, Syrians, Armenians and Georgians, the Bessians were, before the emergence of the Christian Irish in the fifth century, the only Christian group to look westward to Rome.

In the sixth century, however, the Slavs invaded the Balkan Peninsula and by the middle of the seventh century they had swept Byzantine rule out of most of southeastern Europe. This caused Christianity in the Balkan Peninsula to wither away and, in many areas it would seem, to die out, although it had been firmly rooted there for centuries. Urban settlements were abandoned or were reduced to a shadow of their former selves. The collapse caused many dioceses to waste away or fall apart entirely. The Church thus lost the basis of its support. The rural and mountain population, increasingly on its own, had been far too superficially converted to preserve its Christian beliefs in the long run in the face of such adversity. With the Bessians, however, things were different because their monasteries and hermitages - pillars of Christianity – as well as their most precious asset, a liturgical language of their own, made this people more resistant to abandoning the faith to which they had converted in the fourth century. The same phenomenon was true for Christians in other parts of the empire who were invaded by heathens or Muslims.

Another factor strengthened the position of the Christian Bessians. Many converted Romans from the plains south of the Drava and Lower Danube Rivers were pushed southwards and only a few of them found refuge in the towns of the Macedonian belt. Many of them had no choice but to flee up into the mountains. There are two reasons why refugees might have been attracted to living close to the Bessians. Firstly, the Bessians inhabited the highest and thus best protected reaches of the peninsula. Secondly, the native Bessian population provided the refugees, their long-time Christian brethren, with support that they would probably not have encountered elsewhere. The ancestors of the Romanians learned the profession of shepherding from the Bessians, and seem to have adopted it more thoroughly than the latter. The Bessians were more involved in farming. The fact that Romanian shepherds grazed their herds in the winter on land they had leased from the Bessians and that, in many cases, they attended the same churches, brought it about that the two peoples and their languages influenced one another and grew together. However, as both had their own liturgical languages – Bessian and Latin – one language did not suppress the other.

Together with a liturgical language of their own and a symbiosis with another Christian people, the Bessians had a third pillar of support for their religious survival, being that they were not cut off from the Byzantine Empire and Church by heathen conquest. Even up to the early ninth century, the Byzantine Empire was present in many parts of the Bessian mountains, even in its eastern and western reaches, although its presence may have been weak. The Empire willingly accepted young Bessians, in particular for military service. The Bessians could also ordain their priests here, and the stream of monks on pilgrimages to the East probably did not subside all at once.

By the sixth and seventh centuries, the fertile plains of southeastern Europe had been settled by Slavic invaders. With time, the invaders also advanced into the higher regions, and the Bessians were unable to resist the pressure that the spread of the Slavs caused to the older native population. Some of them were gradually slavicised and shared the fate of the rest of the native barbarian population of the Balkan Peninsula. Others, however, were forced westwards by the persecution of Christians instigated in the Bulgarian Empire in the first half of the ninth century. The most probable time period for their retreat and movement westwards is 816-817 when a long-term peace agreement was concluded between the Byzantines and the resolute and impatiently heathen, Khan Omurtag.

The emigrant Bessians were given a mountainous region called Arbanon that stretched southwards to the Shkumbin River and northwards at least to the Mat River. Here they were to protect the coastal fortress of Dyrrachion [Durrës], the key to Byzantine power on the Adriatic, from any Bulgarian attack from the east. They also pledged to provide the Empire with troops for other theatres of war, if necessary. In exchange, the Arbanites, as the new immigrants were now known, were given extensive autonomy throughout Arbanon and were promised ecclesiastic support with a bishop, whose took up his see at the mountain fortress of Kruja. As this bishop, and the archbishop of Dyrrachion, were representatives of the Greek-oriented Byzantine Church, the original Bessian form of their Christian religion was soon diluted under Greek influence and their autonomy gradually waned. Arbanites who served as officials in the Byzantine Empire only reinforced this trend. It is still an open question as to when Bessian as a liturgical language and the alphabet in which it was written died out. It cannot, however, be excluded that the church services that the Albanian emigrants of Calabria attended around the year 1600, often in their own language and apparently in a special national form of Orthodox liturgy, were the continuation of an unbroken historical tradition founded by Bishop Nicetas of Remesiana in the fourth century.


[Excerpt from: Gottfried Schramm, Anfänge des albanischen Christentums: die frühe Bekehrung der Bessen und ihre langen Folgen (Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 1994), p. 9-14. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]

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