Background: The Banate of Bosnia
After Croatia entered a personal union with the Kingdom of Hungary in 1102, the territory of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina found itself contested between the Roman Catholic Kingdom of Hungary and the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire. Both powers sought to control Bosnia in order to establish a buffer zone in the western Balkans, each against the other. Due to its mountainous geography and difficult terrain, however, neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy managed to gain a firm foothold in Bosnia. As a result, the country remained a no-man’s-land between the two rival doctrines.
King Béla II of Hungary succeeded to bring Bosnia under his rule around 1136, creating the title Ban of Bosnia for his six-year-old son Ladislaus (solely an honorary title). Ladislaus never ruled Bosnia even after he came of age; instead, a Hungarian vassal named Borić appeared to be the first actual Ban of Bosnia. Borić was appointed to his position around 1154, when the religiopolitical tensions between Hungary and the Byzantine Empire escalated into a series of military conflicts. By 1166, Emperor Manuel I Komnenos managed to defeat Ban Borić and the Hungarians, and brought Bosnia under Byzantine rule.
Borić disappeared from history after this event and was replaced with Kulin, a Byzantine vassal. Hungary did not give up its claims over Bosnia, however, and after Manuel I Komnenos passed away in 1180, Béla III invaded and reclaimed the country. The Byzantine Empire also experienced massive turmoil and civil strife at the time, so Kulin immediately switched sides. In 1183, he invaded Byzantium together with Béla, securing Bosnia’s borders. Kulin was then appointed Ban of Bosnia and ruled until 1204 when presumably, he died. Although the Banate of Bosnia was now a part of the Hungarian Crown Lands, in reality it was a de facto independent state.
The Bosnian Church and Heresy in Bosnia
Ban Kulin’s reign marked the beginning of a period of peace and prosperity for the Banate of Bosnia, but at the same time rumors of heresy started surrounding the Bosnian Church. Since the Bosnians – including the ruling elite – were overwhelmingly illiterate and consequently ignorant of Christian doctrine, it is possible that whatever heresies infested Bosnia were unwitting religious deviations and nothing more – a side-effect of Bosnia’s illiteracy and ignorance. Nonetheless, the Bosnian Church was considered heretical by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox prelates alike throughout its existence.
The exact status of the Bosnian Church, its organization and its beliefs are poorly documented and even more poorly understood. While neo-Gnostic influences from the dualistic Bogomil sect (which spread throughout the Balkans and all the way to France) cannot be confirmed, they cannot be denied either. What is certain is that Ban Kulin, who adhered to the Bosnian Church, considered himself a pious Catholic: he built Catholic churches, sent gifts to the Pope and maintained close relations with the Catholic Archbishop of Dubrovnik (Ragusa). If Kulin was any sort of heretic, he was an unwitting one because of his lack of education and – almost certainly – the same situation would have applied to all Bosnian “heretics”. It is doubtful that Kulin or anyone else in Bosnia save for maybe a few educated theologians, if there were any, could even discern between a “good Christian” and a heretic.
There is, indeed, the possibility that some Bogomils, “true” heretics who were violently persecuted wherever they went, found refuge in the Banate of Bosnia. The mountainous regions of the country, very difficult to access, combined with the population’s general ignorance (of Christian doctrine) provided an ideal safe haven for the Bogomils. Vukan, the future Grand Prince of Serbia at the time, wrote the Pope (Innocent III) in 1199 that Ban Kulin and his entire family, plus 10,000 other Bosnians, were corrupted by heresy without giving any details concerning the nature of the alleged heresy.
Vukan, who had converted to Catholicism and allied himself with the Hungarians in 1198, had ulterior motives to accuse Ban Kulin and to conspire against his realm. Vukan was a partisan for the Hungarian Crown which had become more and more irritated by Bosnia’s de facto independence. King Emeric of Hungary, Béla III’s successor, together with his brother Andrew, Duke of Croatia and Dalmatia, were struggling to reassert Hungarian control over the Banate of Bosnia. To this end, they had their underlings, most notably Vukan and the archbishop of Split, spread rumors about heretics in Bosnia.
The Thwarted Crusade
Verbal attacks against Ban Kulin and Bosnia continued until 1202, when Pope Innocent III ultimately took action and dispatched a legate to Bosnia. Kulin was accused of granting asylum to heretics who had been expelled from Dalmatia. Whether these exiles were truly heretics or not, Kulin defended himself by saying that he thought they were “good Christians” and that he sent some of them to Rome for examination. Regardless, as we have already pointed out, uneducated Kulin could not have been able to tell heretics apart from “good Christians” anyway.
Innocent III was seriously concerned and – incited by Hungary, Vukan and Split – called for a crusade against Bosnia; Hungary finally found the pretext it needed to reassert its domination over its vassal. But Kulin averted any military intervention by calling a Church council in 1203 where the Bosnian Church acknowledged its errors and renounced them. Interestingly enough, most of these errors were errors in practice which almost certainly arose from the Bosnians’ ignorance of how Catholic practices should be carried out, rather than heretical degenerations of Catholicism. The Bosnians then promised to correct their ways and reform their Church. The Pope was recognized as the head of the Church and allegiance to Rome was reaffirmed. Ban Kulin also reaffirmed his loyalty to the Hungarian Crown and even sent envoys to renew his oath of fealty at Emeric’s court.
It is noteworthy to mention that (at Hungary’s insistence) Pope Innocent III instructed Kulin to remove the Bosnian Church from the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Dubrovnik and to place it under that of the archbishop of Split, a Hungarian partisan. Kulin blatantly ignored this order and refused to even invite prelates from Split to the Church council. Instead, he invited an archdeacon from Dubrovnik who acted as the Catholic Church’s representative. By doing so, Kulin ensured the survival of the Banate of Bosnia as an independent state. Had Split managed to gain control of the Bosnian Church, it would have undermined Bosnia’s independence by spreading Hungary’s influence.
Despite everything, however, nothing actually changed; Hungary’s authority over the Banate of Bosnia remained purely nominal and the Bosnian Church continued as before. Yet, the Church council was enough to convince the Pope of Kulin’s loyalty to him and Rome. As a result, whatever crusade the Pope was preparing was canceled. Ban Kulin died the very next year, in 1204, or so it seems because no sources mention him after that year.
The Crusade that couldn’t be
Almost nothing is known of the situation between Kulin’s death in 1204 and the 1220s, when tensions between Bosnia and the Pope flared again. Kulin was succeeded by his son who renewed the resolution of the 1203 Church council and swore loyalty to the Hungarian Crown. The Bosnian Church remained under the jurisdiction of Dubrovnik as well, despite Hungary’s repeated efforts to terminate the relationship between the two. Sometime after 1210, Hungary changed tactics and began a campaign to subordinate the Bosnian Church to the archbishop of Kalocsa (located in Hungary) instead of the archbishop of Split.
Documents from the 1220s started mentioning heretics in Bosnia again, but no details concerning the nature of the heresy were given. Concerned, (the new) Pope Honorius III dispatched one of his legates to investigate the situation in Bosnia. He visited some “contaminated” areas in 1221 and 1222, and his finds seem to have confirmed the rumors and accusations, for in 1225 the Pope was urging Hungary to launch a crusade against Bosnia. Ironically enough, Hungary which had been eagerly awaiting such an opportunity for the past two decades, found itself unable to act. Emeric’s brother, Andrew, who had taken the throne as King Andrew II of Hungary was overburdened with other, more pressing matters within his own kingdom. Thus, the Banate of Bosnia managed to avoid – or postpone – another Hungarian invasion.
Pope Honorius III died in 1227, being succeeded by Gregory IX. Like his predecessor, Gregory IX took the accusations of heresy in Bosnia quite seriously. He carried out his own investigation and tried to solve the issue peacefully. In one of his letter written in 1232, Gregory IX expressed his concerns regarding the Bosnian Church, describing its head, the Catholic Bishop of Bosnia, as an illiterate, uneducated man who was so ignorant of Catholic doctrine and practices that he was not even able to acknowledge his errors. Apparently, the Bosnian Bishop attained his position not through merit, but through simony, buying his office. He was completely ignorant of the baptismal formula and did not perform the mass, nor did he carry out the sacraments in his church. Furthermore, he surrounded himself with heretics and publically defended them.
We cannot overlook the serious and great faults of our brother . . . bishop of Bosnia, which have been recently brought to our apostolic notice, lest we should appear to make his failings our own, and risk our soul for him by encouraging himself in his evil. As we learn, he has been quite unable to acknowledge his imperfections, that is, that he is illiterate, a public defender of heretics, and that he arranged for himself to be appointed bishop by the vice of simony, through the agency of a known heretic. Since what begins from an evil origin can scarcely attain a good end, he who should appear to be a skillful cultivator of the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, one who profits his subject both by word and by example, never celebrated the divine office in the Church, nor administers the sacraments of the Church, and, it is said, he is so much a stranger to the offices of the Church that he is wholly ignorant of the baptismal formula. That is not surprising if, as is claimed, he used to stay with a heretic on a certain country estate, and his blood brother is a known heretical leader – one whom he ought from the start to have recalled the path of the truth, whereas…he damnably encourages and defends him in his error…Make an accurate account of your findings, and send it under your seal to our presence, so that with adequate information from your report we may proceed forthwith as it is God´s will that we should proceed, having first arranged a suitable time within which he should present himself before us to receive what he deserves.
– Gregory IX’s indictment of the Catholic bishop of Bosnia, 5 June 1232
The Pope quickly dispatched one of his apostolic legates to remove this unrighteous prelate from his office and had him replaced with a German bishop. What happened next is not known; it is very likely that the German never even set foot in Bosnia. What is certain is that nothing actually changed and the Bosnian Church continued as before. Just as the Banate of Bosnia was under Hungarian rule in name only, the Bosnian Church and its hierarchy was under foreign control on paper only.
The Actual Crusade
Around the same time when the German prelate was appointed Bishop of Bosnia, Kulin’s son was removed and replaced by Matej Ninoslav. The new Ban was swift to “renounce heresy”, trying to defuse the religiopolitical tensions with the Pope. His renunciation and reformation meant nothing, however, and in 1234 the Pope called on the Hungarians to purge Bosnia of heresy. This time Hungary, freed from its internal problems, eagerly obliged. Coloman (a son of Andrew II), the Duke of Slavonia, was chosen to lead the campaign which, for all intents and purposes, was a war of conquest sanctioned as a crusade. The Crown of Hungary was finally able to bring the Banate of Bosnia, its vassal, back into the fold.
Coloman launched his invasion in 1235, striking from the north. The size of his force, the route he had taken and the battles he had fought, among many other details, are not very clear. It seems that Coloman spent three years fighting various groups of “heretics” (who remain unidentified) in both Slavonia and on the northern fringes of Bosnia. The region between the Sava and the Banate of Bosnia was allegedly swarming with heretics and Coloman took his time to vanquish them. The difficult terrain must have also slowed down the crusaders considerably, especially if they were constantly harassed by the locals who resisted the invasion.
By 1238, the crusade finally penetrated into the Banate of Bosnia, seizing its western regions. Whether or not Ban Ninoslav faced Coloman on the field of battle is unknown, what is known, however, is that Coloman took Vrhbosna (modern-day Sarajevo) and erected a Catholic cathedral there. It was consecrated by a group of Dominicans who accompanied the crusaders and who soon assumed control of the Bosnian Church. Vrhbosna was only a small, peripheral town at the time, so the construction of the cathedral there indicates that Coloman failed to subdue Ninoslav and his entire realm. If the entire Banate of Bosnia had been conquered, the cathedral would have certainly been raised in Visoko, the “capital”.
The fact that parts of the Banate of Bosnia remained independent is attested by a charter of trade privileges issued by Ninoslav, as Ban of Bosnia, to Dubrovnik in 1240, two years after Coloman seized Vrhbosna. How much of Bosnia came under Hungarian control and how much of it remained independent under Ninoslav is hard to determine. The rugged, mountainous territory and the absence of any real infrastructure must have made progress painfully slow for Coloman, while at the same time facilitating the Bosnians’ resistance. By the end of the year, the Hungarians extended their control over vast portions of the Banate of Bosnia, while the Bosnian Church was taken over by the Dominicans who wasted no time reforming the Bosnian Church and purging heresy from the land.
The German Bishop of Bosnia who had been assigned to his office by the Pope in 1232/1233 was relieved of his duties and replaced with a more zealous prelate, a Hungarian named Ponsa. The German must have been delighted with this development since he never wanted his office in the first place. The new bishop, Ponsa, was assigned Hum (Zachlumia) in addition to Bosnia, although it is unlikely that Coloman and his crusaders reached that far south. Perhaps Ponsa’s title of “Bishop of Hum” was purely honorary, or one awarded in advance in case the crusade was planning to seize the region. Whatever the case may be, Posna’s jurisdiction would have only extended to western Hum because the eastern part belonged to Serbia.
End of the Crusade
Under Posna’s watchful eye, the crusaders continued to cleanse Bosnia of heresy. Many Bosnians were rounded up and burned at the stake, while others were simply killed on the spot. However, despite the heavy presence of Hungarian troops and Catholic clerics in Bosnia, absolutely nothing is known about the nature of the so-called heresy. Dominican sources mention heretics numerous times, including their burning at the stake, yet fail to provide a single concrete fact about the exact nature of the heresy and what it consisted of. Perhaps it did not matter; what mattered, at least for the Hungarians, was subjugating the Banate of Bosnia, while the Pope only wanted to contain whatever heresy plagued those lands and eradicate it.
Coloman continued his military operations determined to conquer the whole of Bosnia. Then in early 1241 grave news arrived from his brother, King Béla IV: the Mongols who had devastated the Kievan Rus’ and conquered Kiev were now attacking Hungary. In an irony of fate, the Hungarian invaders had their own country invaded and were now forced to respond. Having no other choice, Coloman immediately gathered his troops and withdrew from Bosnia in order to meet the Mongol threat. Thus, the Bosnian Crusade came to an abrupt end.
The Hungarians engaged the Mongols on April 11 near the Sajó River in what is now known as the Battle of Mohi. Coloman was killed in action, as were most of the Hungarian commanders, while almost the entire Hungarian army was wiped out – it was a complete disaster. King Béla barely managed to escape, fleeing through Slavonia and Croatia to Dalmatia where he took a ship to safety on an island in the Adriatic Sea. The Mongols who pursued him took their time plundering these regions, wreaking havoc in both Croatia and Dalmatia. They only stopped when news from Karakorum reached them, announcing the death of the Great Khan later that year.
There are various other theories which strive to explain the Mongols’ sudden retreat. A prominent theory connects the event to the meteorological conditions in Europe. Regardless, the Mongols returned to Central Asia heading east through Serbia and Bulgaria, destroying everything in their path. Bulgaria suffered most from these incursions, but the entire Balkans were in ruins, except only for Bosnia which remained untouched. In fact, Bosnia benefitted greatly from the Mongol invasion – perhaps another irony of fate – since it forced the Hungarians to abandon their crusade and pull out of Bosnia. These crusaders were now gone forever, including Coloman, so Ban Ninoslav was able to reclaim all lost territories with no resistance and reassert the independence of his country.
A few years later, around 1247, Pope Innocent IV called for another Bosnian Crusade trying to achieve what his predecessor could not. Ban Ninoslav wrote to him in order to explain that he was not a heretic, but a devout Catholic. He admitted to associating himself with heretics, but only because he had no other choiceas he desperately required help in defending his country from foreign aggression, i.e. Coloman and his crusaders. The Pope was intrigued,and feeling honesty in Ninoslav’s words, he ordered the Hungarians – who were ready to launch another crusade – to take no action until he was able to ascertain the exact status of Bosnia.
This time, a Franciscan was tasked with carrying out the investigation, but his reports did not survive. However, no other Bosnian Crusade occurred in history, so perhaps it would be safe to assume that the accusations of heresy against Bosnia were grossly exaggerated by Hungary.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Curta, F. (2006). Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250. Cambridge University Press.
- Fine, J. V. A. (2007). The Bosnian Church: its Place in State and Society from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Century. Saqi Books.
- Fine, J. V., & Fine, J. V. A. (1994). The Late Medieval Balkans: a Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. University of Michigan Press.
- Hamilton, J., & Stoyanov, Y. (Eds.). (1998). Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: Selected Sources. Manchester University Press.
- Loos, M. (1974). Dualist heresy in the Middle Ages(Vol. 10). Springer Science & Business Media.
- Malcolm, N. (1996). Bosnia: A short history. NYU Press.