Bloody Buggers: A Light History of a Heavy Word

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After discovering this morning that the very first criminal trial in Australia, back in 1788, was kinda word-related (more precisely, for calling prison guards “bloody buggers!”), I decided to look at the word “bugger” in more detail. Where does it really come from and is there any real truth in the “unnatural” sex allegations that people are generally aware of? Today, of course, the word bugger is completely innocuous; cute even. “You’re a tough little bugger!” can be said equally to a dog or a boy. There are even bug control agencies named after the “little buggers” (if you’re wondering, no, “bug” is not derived from “bugger” – it is derived from old English “bugge” – something scary like a scarecrow). It’s such a commonly accepted word that this TV ad is still a favourite after many years – the “Bugger” ad for Toyota: But if you could be imprisoned for it then its meaning must have been pretty, pretty bad. And it is bad. It’s bad as in Inquisition-level bad. Its origin stretches back at least ten centuries into a deeply religious Eastern Europe. Starting from the mid-14th century and working our way backwards, the word “buggery” comes from the Old French word “bougrerie”, from “bougre” which actually means heretic. Heretic! Nice.  The word “bougre”, going back even further came from the medieval Latin word for a Bulgarian – “Bulgarus”. But what have the Bulgarians got to do with anything and why would they be heretics?

Meet the Priest Bogomil: Heresiarch!

Great word isn’t it? Heresiarch is a word invented by the Church to mean the founder of a heretical sect. Makes sense and looks great on a business card. It’s 10th century somewhere in Macedonia, then part of the Bulgarian empire. The Government and the Orthodox church are united in their eternal quest to rule people. The essential “Two Pillars” of Game of Thrones lore, as attested to by one Cersei Lannister:
“The faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world. One collapses, so does the other.”
Bogomil, whose name literally means “dear of God” (“bog” = god and “mil” = dear), wasn’t so much interested in social stability. He wanted a return to true™ Christianity, proper Jesus style, like the Gnostics of yore. He began a movement that would rebelliously question the legitimacy everywhere of state religion, and of the State itself. For five centuries his movement rattled Europe, eventuating in to the Protestant Reformation and other social movements which paved the way for the enlightened Europe we know today.

The Bogomils: Cheeky Gnostic Buggers

These guys were serious. They didn’t drink wine, they didn’t eat meat and the priesthood, the Perfecti, abstained from sexual relations. They would be seen with their heads half covered, bent over, mumbling prayers as they walked around. They were sullen looking and pale, emaciated from fasting and it’s said that they looked like they had nothing to do with this world whatsoever. They didn’t want attention so you wouldn’t hear them laugh out loud, inquire about people’s affairs or dilly-dally around the markets. They also had an aversion to manual labour, but we’ll come back to that later. The Bogomils really did seem to be the true Christians of the day, as compared to the Orthodox clergy who the Bogomils accused of being idle, greedy, liquor-drinking thieves. Which they probably were.
Modern-day Orthodox leaders in a “Look Like Jesus” competition. Note the acute aversion to gold. [source]
Inspired by Gnosticism, the Bogomils were dualists. There are only two principles operating in the universe: good and evil. God is good, Satan is evil. Spirituality and morality was good, matter was evil. God made the soul but Satan made the earth. Therefore, the earth was crap and full of evil while everything of the spirit or soul was blessed and full of goodness. To expand upon their cosmology a little further, the Bogomils held that God had two sons: Michael who would later be known as Jesus, and Satanael. After his rebellion from God, Satanael created the earth and everything in it but had to appeal to God for help in the creation of man. Satanael allowed Adam and his progeny to work the earth so long as they as they sold themselves to him. The other son Michael was eventually sent in the form of man who would be known as Jesus. When Michael again appeared in the form of a dove, Jesus was given power to break the covenant between man and Satanael. The “el” (of God) part of of Satanael’s name got dropped so he became known only as Satan, and every good believer should avoid the pleasures and excesses of this evil world as much as they can. This dualism was a major difference between them and the Orthodox church who said that all things come from God, good and bad. Orthodoxy holds that every vile, stinking, poisonous, ugly wretch of a thing was made by God and it is good. To disagree was to be called a heretic and possibly burned at the stake. Because that is good. The idea of not ascribing bad things in the world to a good god goes way back before Christianity to the Zoroastrians, and well after the dominance of the Church, with Monty Python‘s “All things dull and ugly”.

The Bogomils were fairly rational.

This dualism was pretty reasonable. How could a good God create and maintain a world which is so painfully evil at times? They used this kind of reasoning against basically all of Christianity’s tenets. Take the cross for example. Questioning the reverence of an object on which the supposed Son of God was tortured on, a quote attributed to the Bogomils says:
If somebody killed the son of the king with a piece of wood, would this wood be pleasant to the king?
Edward Woodward had no comment but Bill Hicks definitely agreed: They considered most of the church’s prayers and liturgy to be mere ‘babbling‘. They used “The Lord’s Prayer” as their one and only prayer, because, unlike a certain Mel Gibson movie, at least it didn’t glorify the gruesome murder of a spiritual guy.  They had no time for churches, saying that prayers should be said at home, God lives within and churches only led to corruption. Jesus’ miracles were merely spiritual in nature, not actually real. Virgin birth? Nope. Trinity? Don’t think so. Mary was not to be venerated. Confession was to be made to each other, not to a priest.
I didn’t say anything.
Religious icons were just paint on wood and the Eucharist (the blood and body of Christ) was just bread and water. No man could be holy, only God is, so the bishops can go elsewhere. God needs no mediator, so again, the bishops can get lost. They despised baptism on kids and it is charged against them that when they saw a child they would turn and spit, which is hilarious and something that we should bring back. For the Bogomils poverty was a virtue and material wealth and those who possessed it were deemed evil. Satan created the Orthodox church with all its ritual, vestments, sacramentsHence, the state and the Orthodox church were pure evil and Bogomilism encouraged resistance to this evil. They railed against the hierarchy of the Christian church which used fear of God to make the people submissive and they railed against the state authority which relied on the Church to give them authority. This anti-authoritarianism made them very popular to the common folk but a complete pain in the ass for the evil establishment. Of course, something had to be done about the growing menace.

Beginning of the End

By the end of the 12th century, despite some often times harsh punishments for their heresy, the Bogomil sect had spread over much of the Byzantine empire. The Balkan region in particular being the epicenter. In a country that no longer exists, once called Ruthenia, the Bogomils found fertile ground. More heresiarchs were named and eventually imprisoned. Several thousand Bogomils were thrown into the army – a career path they didn’t particular care for so they rebelled and were thrown back in prison.  Bogomilism would continue growing in Serbia and Hungary, and Bosnia even made it the official religion. The Hungarian Orthodox Church persecuted the Bogomils of Bosnia, then also known as Patarenis, even sending in crusades against them. But the Bosnians were fiercely independent and never let go. It was only when the Ottoman empire came in did it end their persecution. They were initially allowed to remain Christians so long as they paid tax and recognized the Sultan, but later on they converted to Islam because: money. It was easier to do business and trade as Muslims in an Ottoman empire than not, so the “world” eventually got the better of them.
Bogomil graves in Bosnia had unique engravings and sentiments like “I lived a peaceful life, I prayed to God and did no harm, but on this very spot where my tomb stands, I was struck by lightning. Why, oh God?” [img source / text source]
In Constantinople, Bogomilism was a hit. So popular that their leader Basil got burned at the stake and thousands of his followers were imprisoned. The dualist heresy continued to spread so that by the end of the 13th century there was a network of like-minded sects stretching all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. This included the Paulicians and importantly, the Cathars of southern France. These were also known as Albigensians, coming from the town of Albi. For a couple of hundred of years, the Cathars’ religion became the dominant religion in the Languedoc region of France. Catholic churches were abandoned and the clergy who did remain Catholic hid their Cathar beliefs within. The Roman Catholic Church at first sent in preachers to have public debates with the Cathars but they would end up being decisively humiliated. Catholics don’t like being humiliated so in response, in 1208, the first of a series of wars against the Cathars began. This was the Albigensian Crusade; arguably the world’s first “ideological genocide“. Directed by the pope, crusaders were offered complete forgiveness of sins, a certified spot in Heaven and possession of the lands they took from the Cathars. Sieges, terror, pillages, mass-burnings and indiscriminate slaughter followed. It is officially held that the Crusade ended in 1244 with the mass-burning of over two hundred Cathar Perfectis, however records show that Cathars were still being burned alive well into the 14th century.
Always look on the bright side: a quick giggle at his tormentor’s boots and undershorts combination.
The Cathar Inquisition was set up following the crusades to find any remaining vestiges of Cathar belief and expunge it from history – replete with every horror imaginable. This was to serve as a morbid inspiration for the Medieval Inquisition two hundred years later, and every totalitarian regime since. Sheer, ruthless terror and complete disregard for justice will definitely work in ridding the land of ‘evil’.

What happened to the buggers?

As the decline of the Bogomils in Bulgaria was occurring, their dislike of manual labour started to vex some people. Some writings referred to them as “idlers of no fixed abode” or “parasites”, wandering from house to house “devouring the food of those who they try to convert”. Then you have both the Catholic and Orthodox churches accusing them of sodomy and other sexual depravities. People talk, rumors brew, and the once ‘dear of God’ are now the hated, sickly, perverted and parasitic “bougres”. The power of belief, or faith, can “move mountains” but can also make permissible the cruelest, most heinous tortures. This is possible by making the enemy the “other”: a bad name, something of no import. This may have played a large part in people willing to join the crusades and fight against the bloody “bougres”, for who cares about one more dead bugger? A few centuries later, perhaps somewhere in France, a man with an ale in a cobbled old pub cracks a dirty joke about anal sex, “like the bougres”, he might quip; and soon enough, to “bugger” becomes a verb just like to “google” became a verb not long ago. Eventually the word would be carried on to the convict ships across the vast oceans all the way to the new country called Australia. A man will be punished for calling his guards buggers but the word will go on to make a new home for itself in a dozen different ways until it is as harmless as the Toyota ad and the Bogomils are as forgotten as the last bugger who ever shot a dodo.

Interesting Naming Side note

There is some evidence that the Bogomils were called Babuni in Macedonia. “Babun” came from the word “baba”, meaning “old lady” which implied magic, superstition and witchcraft. The little village called Bogomila has a small population of under 500 people. Nearby there is a river and a mountain both bearing the name Babuna. At tehe end of the Babuna river you will find the Bogomila falls which looks like a lovely little spot. If you’re ever visiting this part of the world, spare a thought for the poor old buggers called the Bogomils, what they experienced under religious persecution and how lucky we are today to even be allowed to call our presidents, prime ministers and priests “bloody buggers” openly.
Bogomila Falls near the springs of the Babuna River. Photo by Vesna Markovska –, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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