The origins of Glagolitic go back to ninth-century monks Cyril and Methodius, who were chosen by the Byzantine emperor to convert the Slavs to Christianity. In order to translate the Gospels into the Slav tongue, Cyril and Methodius developed a new alphabet better suited to its sounds than either Latin or Greek. They began their missionary work with a trip to Moravia in 863, collecting a group of followers who then brought the script to the Adriatic seaboard – where it was adopted by Croatian priests.
The script, which came to be known as Glagolitic (because so many manuscripts began with the words “U ono vrijeme glagolja Isus…” or “And then Jesus said…”) is an extremely decorative 38-letter alphabet which borrowed some shapes from Greek, Armenian and Georgian, but which also contained much that was original. Other disciples of Cyril and Methodius made their way to Bulgaria, where they produced a modified version of the script, called Cyrillic in recognition of one of their mentors, versions of which are still in use today throughout Eastern Europe.
Despite the Roman Catholic church’s preference for the Roman script, Glagolitic proved surprisingly enduring on the Adriatic coast. In inland Istria the script remained in use until 1818, when it was banned by the Austrian authorities. The growth of Croatian nationalism occasioned a Glagolitic revival in the late nineteenth century, but the universal dissemination of the Roman alphabet through mass education had by this stage condemned Glagolitic to obscurity.
There is, however, currently something of a Glagolitic revival going on in coastal Croatia, although this is less to do with its everyday usefulness than its visual appeal – the characters look great on souvenir mugs and T-shirts. Aesthetic considerations aside, the number of Croats who could write their name in Glagolitic remains very small indeed.