Can you make too good an impression on someone important? Theophylact may have thought so.On this day, January 6, 1088, he gave an enthusiastic speech before Alexius, Emperor of Byzantium, warmly praising the emperor and his mother Anna Dalassena. He crowed over the emperor's conquest of parts of the Balkans. The emperor was a diplomat and servant of the church, said Theophylact. His speech had unintended consequences.
Evidently the emperor was pleased. In Byzantium (the eastern half of the old Roman Empire), church posts were under government control. They were often given as rewards. The emperor promoted Theophylact to be archbishop of Ohrid in Bulgaria (now Macedonia).
For Theophylact, who was a cultured man, the promotion was like a sentence of exile. In Constantinople, he had libraries, palaces, and shimmering architecture. He taught the sons of important men. Theophylact even taught prince Constantine Doukas, who was expected to become emperor; and he was a friend to the boy’s beautiful mother, Maria of Alania. By transferring to Bulgaria, he would have to leave all that behind and many friends, too. Like other snobby Byzantines, he considered Ohrid a barbarian backwater. But churchmen were civil servants, who had to go wherever the emperor ordered, so he went.
As Theophylact soon found out, he was leaving behind even more than he had thought. When he drew near to Ohrid, a horrid stench stunned his nose. Evidently sanitation standards were not as high as in Constantinople.
Byzantium's conquest of Bulgaria still rankled Ohrid. Theophylact's coming rubbed salt in the wounds of its defeat. Formerly, the Bulgarians had had their own patriarch. Resentful of their loss of independence, they greeted Theophylact with jeers and insults. To spite him, they sang a victory song, extolling their nation's past triumphs. They were not consoled by the fact that the emperor had given local bishops the privilege of consecrating Theophylact or that the emperor had confirmed that Bulgaria's church would be independent of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Theophylact was an outsider, and they knew he was expected do his part to keep Bulgaria glued to the empire.
For his part, Theophylact did not like Bulgaria, which he called "of all provinces of the empire, the most pitiable." He was homesick and begged friends to help get him released from the place. After a visit home, he wrote, "So I return to the Bulgarians, I who am a true Constantinopolitan and, strange though it is, a Bulgarian."
Yet he had compassion on Bulgaria's poor. In several letters he pleaded for tax relief and pointed out that one child in five was seized to be sold into slavery as payment for taxes. He urged a show of mercy "lest the patience of the poor be finally exhausted."
One way that Theophylact tried to forget his homesickness was to write. 130 of his letters were published. These are hard to understand today because he wrote in a "puzzle" style used by educated men of that era. Even so, they are full of useful bits of Byzantine and Bulgarian history and satirical comments. He came to love Slavic literature and Slavic church heroes and wrote a life of St. Clement of Ohrid and retold the story of the fifteen martyrs buried at Strumitsa, not far from Ohrid. In "exile," he also wrote commentaries on the gospels and on Paul's epistles.
Amazingly, four hundred years later, Theophylact's January 6th speech was still generating fallout. A German scholar named Erasmus discovered the archbishop's writings. He borrowed some of Theophylact's ideas for a satire called In Praise of Folly. That book, by poking fun at wrongs in the church and society, helped bring about the Protestant reformation in Europe.
- New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Thomson, Gale, 2002.
- Obolensky, Dimitri. Six Byzantine Portraits. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
- "Theophylact." New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954.