Rises and Falls of the Serbian Statehood in the Middle Ages
by Sima Cirkovic
UNDER THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
The preconditions for the creation of the Serbian nation came about in the seventh century when part of the Serbian tribes settled in the Roman province of Dalmatia, along with some of the other groups of Slavs. It is not known what differentiated those groups at that time or what the basis was for their individuality. Narratives about their origins played a role in distinguishing them. Among the Balkan Serbs the tradition was long held that they came from the north, from "White" Serbia, whence also came the oldest ruling family.
The Slavs spread out widely across the Balkan peninsula, forming a large number of small principalities. Byzantine writers of the day took notice of their number, and described them with the characteristic name "Sklavinija". Members of the Serbian tribes participated in the development of several principalities. Apart from Serbia which (in the ninth century)stretched from the Sava to the Dinaric massif, approximately from Ibar in the East to Vrbas in the West, they settled in mountainous regions and karst areas which would give the inhabitants special names: the Tribes of Neretva - those who settled between the Cetina and the Neretva and on the islands of Brac, Hvar, and Korcula; the Tribes of the Zahumlje region - those who settled between the Neretva and the hinterlands of Dubrovnik; the Tribes of Travunija and Konavli - those who settled between Dubrovnik and Boka Kotorska. In the eleventh century, one of the centres of Serb political life was the Principality of Duklja, which spread around Lake Scutari and the valley of the River Zeta.
Along with the other territories occupied by Slavonic tribes, the Serbian tribes were exposed to the attempts of their neighbours to rule them. In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Avars of Pannonia tried to dominate them, while the Byzantine Empire had aspirations for all the lands which had once belonged to the Roman Empire. After 680 A.D., the Slavonic tribes between the Danube and mountains of the Balkans were ruled by the Proto-Bulgars who created a state which would rapidly expand, absorbing all the Slavonic tribal principalities. From the middle of the ninth century onward, Serbia found itself in the path of the Bulgar expansion, and it became the scene of rivalry between the Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria. Pretexts for foreign intervention were given by numerous conflicts in the ruling dynasty, as the descendants of Prince Viseslav were struggling for power and frequently replacing each other on the throne.
The Byzantine Empire achieved a great success in 870 when it managed to baptize the Serbian rulers, thus opening the way to the mass conversion of the Serbs to Christianity, accompanied by strong political and cultural influences from the Empire. The Serbian principalities were subordinated to the ecclesiastical metropolises in Split and Syrmium. With Christianization, some of the differences among the tribes were pushed into the background, especially those which were rooted in pagan beliefs, and the path to unification was opened up on the basis of a common Christian culture. A significant role in that was played by the translation of biblical and liturgical texts, and by the alphabets which were adapted to the specificities of Slavonic languages, first Glagolitic and then Cyrillic. However, Christianity also caused the appearance of some new differences among the Slavs as a result of the disparate influences of the ecclesiastical centres under whose jurisdiction they found themselves. The church's attitude toward the use of Slavonic in the liturgy had deep roots and far-reaching consequences. It placed the Serbs in a position where they could maintain, develop and further adapt their literacy.
Resistance to the Bulgarian expansion stopped in 924, when Serbia was conquered; the occupation lasted only for a short time, because Prince Caslav (927-ca.950) managed to revive the Serbian state immediately after the death of Tsar Simeon. Caslav expanded the borders to the coastline, and he repelled the attack of the Magyars who had settled in Pannonia at the end of the ninth century, imposing their rule over the predominantly Slavonic population they found in the area. In the subsequent period, the Serbs very strongly felt the consequences of the Byzantine conquests. The battles to subordinate Bulgaria lasted for four decades, for Bulgaria was the greatest of the Byzantine opponents in the battle for rule over the Balkan Slavs. By the time those battles had finished in 1018, the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire had reached the Danube and Sava.
At that time, the territories settled by the Serbs cut across the borders which separated the regions under direct Byzantine rule, east of the line from Syrmium (Sremska Mitrovica) - Ras (Novi Pazar) - Prizren, and west of that line was a region under native rulers, with a traditional structure grownout of its Slavonic background. Those territories subordinated to the Byzantine Empire belonged to the archbishopric in Ohrid, so that the Serbian lands were split by the boundary between the jurisdictions of Rome and Constantinople even before the Great Schism in the church (1054).
In the territories under direct Byzantine rule, ancient cities were revived such as Syrmium, Belgrade, Branicevo, and Nis as they became the sees of ecclesiastical and secular rule, and which constantly had an influence on the surrounding population for over two centuries. North of the Danube and Sava in the Hungarian Kingdom, sparsely populated, ethnically heterogenous territories were given townships, fortresses, organized government (districts) and bishoprics.
After the subordination of Bulgaria, pressure came only from the Byzantine Empire, especially from its bastions in Dubrovnik and Drac, and the centres of Serbian resistance were formed in the vicinity of those towns. In Duklja (Zeta) and in Zahumlje, Prince Stefan Vojislav (1037-1051) managed to overthrow the Byzantine rule, and his descendants Mihailo (ca.1055-ca. 1082) and Bodin (ca. 1082-1101) expanded and stabilized the state through reconciliation with the supremacy of the emperors, and by temporarily subordinating themselves to them. After the end of the eleventh century, a greater role was played by the regions in the interior, the centres being in Bosnia and in the fortress of Ras.
After the beginning of the twelfth century, the Hungarian Kingdom conquered Croatia and began to rule over the Byzantine towns in Dalmatia, and thus began the long-lasting battle between the Byzantine Empire and Hungary for dominance in the Balkans. The Serbs found themselves caught between two powerful opponents, so that those in Bosnia under rulers who carried the title of "ban" were subordinated to the Hungarian kings. Meanwhile, those in the eastern territories under the rule of the "great Zupans" (regional rulers), were wards of the Byzantine emperors. In battle they would sometimes desert and join the opposing forces. Closer ties were formed between the Hungarian and Serbian ruling dynasties during this period.
The final triumph of the Byzantine Empire during the rule of Emmanuel Comnen (1143-1180), when Hungary and the surrounding Serbian territories were subdued, was paid for by greatly sapping the empire's strength, so that after the death of the militant emperor there was a long period of crisis. The great Serb leader of that time, Stefan Nemanja (1166-1196), took advantage of the weaknesses of the Byzantine Empire as it struggled through hard times and extended his authority to the South Morava and Great Morava, then into the territory of what is now Kosovo, and also to the plains around Lake Scutari and to the coastal towns from Kotor to Scutari. The territories which had once belonged to the principalities of Zahumlje and Travunija fell under the rule of Nemanja's brothers and sons, so that the Serbian state stretched from the River Neretva to South Morava, and from Mt. Rudnik down to the Adriatic. Stefan Nemanja abdicated the throne, appointing his middle son, Stefan, to replace him; Stefan was the son-in-law of the Byzantine imperial family. Nemanja became a monk at the monastery of Studenica (built under his own patronage), and soon after joined his youngest son Sava (who was also a monk) in Athos. Together they built the monastery of Hilandar for Serbian monks. This monastery would play an important role in the development of the Serbian church and of Serbian culture.
As the son-in-law of the emperor and bearer of the title "Sevastokrator" ("Sublime Ruler"), Stefan Nemanjic (1196-1227) enjoyed the support of the Byzantine Empire and managed to maintain the heritage left him by Nemanja. Yet, when the situation changed from the ground up, since the western crusaders led by the Venetians conquered Constantinople and over threw the Byzantine Empire, Stefan turned to the West. Through clever political maneuvering he managed to remove all the dangers threatening from Hungary, from the Latin Empire, from the revived Bulgaria and from the newly independent rulers in the Byzantine provinces. In this period of turbulence and violent change, he managed to keep his own state intact. He improved its reputation and rank by receiving a royal crown from the pope (1217), which among his descendants and heirs brought him the title of "first-crowned king" - Stefan Prvovencani.
Due to the activities of the king's brother, Sava, the position of the church changed significantly within the Serbian state, having a bifurcated tradition: it was Roman Catholic in the towns on the Adriatic coast and in their vicinity, and it was Byzantine-Orthodox in the territory of the archbishopric of Ohrid. The Catholic territories were under the jurisdiction of the archbishoprics of Bar and Dubrovnik, while in the Orthodox territories the churches were under the bishoprics in Ras, Lipljan and Prizren. Attempting to obtain a unified ecclesiastical framework within his kingdom, under local leadership, the king supported the Orthodox tradition of the regions in the interior in spite of his relationship to the Catholic Holy See.
In Nicaea a, the centre for Greeks in Asia Minor who safe-guarded the tradition of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and attempted to revive the Byzantine Empire, Sava Nemanjic obtained agreement from the emperor and patriarch to form a separate archbishopric. Sava was appointed archbishop in 1219 in Nicaea, while it was foreseen that his successors would be chosen and appointed in Serbia. The boundaries of the Orthodox territories were moved to the west and the south all the way to the coastline, not including the ancient coastal cities and their districts. New bishoprics were founded, with their see sin the monasteries where the priests were educated, and the books necessary for the life of the church were copied. Sava I provided for a translation of the Byzantine code of church laws and rules for the use of the clergy, named Nomokanon (Krmcija, Svetosavska krmcija).
The Serbian kingdom and autocephalous church were a framework in which renewed cultural activity developed specific traits. This can be seen in the churches and other ecclesiastical buildings of the Raska School of architecture (Studenica, Zica, Mileseva, Sopocani, Gradac, Arilje, and elsewhere), and also in the great strides made in scribal and literary activities. The inherited language of literary expression began to take on traits of the vernacular, while the corpus of translated and copied works and genres began to include works written by the Serbs themselves. As in the construction and furnishing of the monasteries and churches, the members of the ruling dynasty stood out here as well: Stefan Prvovencani and Sava I both wrote vitae of St. Simeon (Stefan Nemanja), their father and the founder of the dynasty. These vitae played an important part in the founding of the cult, which later included St. Sava and some of the other rulers who were revered as saints in the Serbian autocephalous church. The cult of holy rulers raised the authority of the dynasty and made it possible for a distinctive Serbian tradition to arise with the further development of Christianity, under the protection of the church.
Along with developing specific cultural values, the territories in the Serbian archbishopric expanded toward those who had remained outside of their boundaries, most of all toward the citizens of coastal towns and the subjects of the Bosnian bans. Having arisen from the foundations of Serbian tribes, the Bosnian state developed separately and expanded to include parts of the neighbouring Croatian and Serbian territories. Its distinctiveness was evidenced by the "Bosnian Church" which was judged to be heretical by those in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The confessional difference sand occasional conflicts of the bans with the Serbian kings led to divisions among the population. Only did the expansion of Bosnia into the territories of the Nemanjic state make it possible for Bosnia to play a significant role in the safeguarding and development of the Serbian tradition in the second half of the fourteenth century.
After Stefan Prvovencani, his sons Stefan Radoslav (1227-1234) and Stefan Vladislav (1234-1243) played a subordinated role in the complexities of Balkan politics, but they managed to preserve their state intact. Their youngest brother, Stefan Uros I (1243-1276) attempted to expand the territories he had inherited northwards (the banate of Macva) and to the south(Skopje). He achieved more long- lasting results in stimulating mining operations, in the coining of silver coins, in the strengthening of mercantile trade, and in the unification of the different parts of the state.
It was actually Uros's sons, Stefan Dragutin (1276-1282, died 1316) and Stefan Uros II Milutin (1282-1321), who achieved greater success in the expansion of the Serbian state. Milutin conquered northern and central Macedonia (up to the town of Prosek, today known as Demir Kapija), while Dragutin was given the banate of Macva and Belgrade with its environs because he was the son-in-law and vassal of the Hungarian king. Together the brothers conquered the territories of what is now northeastern Serbia from the local Bulgarian magnates, territories which were known as Branicevo and Kucevo at that time. The Serbian state thus temporarily expanded to the Sava and Danube, thereby creating the conditions necessary for better settlement and ties with the central regions of Serbia. The ground was prepared for the later movement of the centre of political and cultural life to the north.
The beginning of
the fourteenth century was shaken by the long years of struggle between
Milutin and Dragutin, brought about as both of them tried to secure
the Serbian throne for their heirs. This dynastic struggle caused the
state to weaken and some territories were lost upon the succession of
Milutin's son Stefan Uros III Decanski (1321- 1331). The policy of conquering
was not taken up again until the succession of his son Stefan Dusan
(1331-1355), who took advantage of the militancy of the feudal lords
and the internal disintegration and troubles within the Byzantine Empire.
In several vanquishing waves southward, toward the wealthy and urbanized
regions of the Byzantine Empire, Dusan's territorial authority extended
even further: from Macedonia and Albania (1334, 1342-1345) to Epirus
and Thessaly (1347- 1348).
The political expansion which was characteristic of Dusan's time made stable internal growth possible, above all in the flourishing of the economy, which also added to the wealth of the rulers. Due to the interest in the products of the Serbian mines, especially in silver, Serbia took part in the economic development of the Mediterranean through the mediation of merchants on the coast. From the mines opened up till this time, urban centres for trade and business, were developed. This was especially the case with the opening of a large number of mines at the end of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth centuries.
From the time of Milutin onward, Serbia had been open to the influences of the Byzantine Empire in the construction of a system of government, in the creation of institutions, and in the establishment of law and order. As emperor, Dusan conscientiously and consistently transplanted the models of the Byzantine empire onto Serbian soil, especially in the organization of the royal court and its appointments, the system of ranks and titles, and the work of the offices. As head of the state he spread a system of government which was founded on "kefalija", governmental appointees in the towns and regions.
Dusan's kingdom was made up of a wide range of territories. Some of them had Byzantine law and governmental structure, others had never been under direct Byzantine rule. Some lived under Byzantine law, and others under the law of custom. The emperor's legislative activity, the main product of which was Dusan's Code (1349, 1354), was intended to enhance the unification of government and perfection of the functioning of governmental authority. The two hundred articles of the Code regulated a wide range of legal issues of the time, and it acted as a bridge between the imported laws of the Byzantine Empire and the Serbian law of custom. The law-maker accepted the great inequality in society as a starting point, in which a widespread and heterogeneous peasant class stood opposite to the nobles; he ensured the role of the government in establishing law and order and in uprooting crime, but he had to accept the jurisdiction of the aristocracy, of the autonomous districts and of groups with special rights.
The cultural trends of this period indicate the long-lasting consequences of the previous conquests. From the time of Milutin, emulation of the models of Constantinople were prominent in architecture and art, which led to the creation of a distinct Serbian- Byzantine style. In scribal, translation and literary undertakings the number of genres increased, including translations of Byzantine world chronicles and legal manuals which served as a popularization of the ideology of the Empire.
The policy of conquest was interrupted after Dusan's unexpected death (1355). During the time of Dusan's successor, Stefan Uros (1355-1371), noblemen who were appointed to certain regions grew more powerful and gradually became independent lords. The development of the state was reversed, so that the first parts to break off were those which had last been conquered. Dusan's half-brother Simeon Uros Paleologos pro- claimed himself emperor and founded a separate state in Thessaly which was maintained until the end of the fourteenth century. Dusan's appointees became the basis for the establishment of dynasties of local lords in Epirus and southern Albania. However, they were not related to the Serbian state.
had even greater consequences because somewhat earlier the Turks had
established footholds on European soil. In opposition to them stood
disunited, quarrelling local lords instead of the powerful, united empire
of Dusan. The first to face the Turkish expansion was the lord of the
town of Ser and its surroundings, Despot Jovan Ugljesa. His brother,
Vukasin, who was the lord of the territories in western Macedonia, had
become co-emperor with Uros, with the ancient royal title of the Serbs.
The brothers tried to repulse the Turks, but they were defeated and
killed at the Battle on the Maritsa River (September 26, 1371). The
Turks grew stronger. The regions of their vassals extended to Macedonia
where Vukasin's sons were, and to the borderlands between Serbia and
Bulgaria, where Dusan's nephews of the Dejanovic family (the Dragasi)
had their own territory.
The lords in the central regions were also attacked by the Turks. After several local conflicts, Prince Lazar, his son-in-law Vuk Brankovic and King Stefan Tvrtko I (1353-1391), who sent a unit to help, all tried to repulse the Turks. In a bloody battle at Kosovo polje on June 15, 1389, Prince Lazar, the Turkish Sultan Murad, and thousands of warriors on both sides were killed. In later historical tradition, this battle would be remembered as the decisive defeat of the Serbs, the end of the Serbian state.
The Turks quickly recovered and imposed their own rule over Lazar's successors, and after 1392 over Vuk Brankovic, who had become a leading figure until the Turks overthrew him and imprisoned him in 1397. In this wave of conquest, the Turks took what had been a vassal state in Macedonia (1395).The reversal did not come about until the Turkish defeat at Angora (1402) at the hands of the Mongols. Internal struggles among the pretenders to the Turkish throne ensued, which allowed the Balkan states a respite of several decades in which they developed independently.
The son of Lazar, Stefan Lazarevic (1389-1427) managed to gain a stronghold in the territories he inherited and gradually to gather in the other territories of what had once been the Serbian state. In 1402, he was granted the title of despot by the Byzantine emperor, and Serbian rulers would bear that title till the end of their independent state. He accepted ultimate rule by the Hungarian king, thus obtaining Belgrade and Macva which Serbia and Hungary had been quarrelling over for ages. His position was weakened by conflicts with his brother and with his nephews - the sons of Vuk Brankovic. After a truce in 1411, the regions under their control were unified, and Vuk's son, Djuradj, was appointed to be the successor to his uncle. Stefan's other nephew, Balsa III, thelast of the Balsic family, willed Stefan his lands just before his death. So, Zeta as well (although it was reduced in size because part of it was held by the Venetians) came to be part of the Serbian state, thus ending a long period of fragmentation. The lands of the Serbian despots stretched from the Sava and Danube down to Sar- planina and Lake Scutari, and they were centralized in the north: Belgrade was the capital during the reign of Stefan Lazarevic, and Smederevo during the reign of Djuradj Brankovic (1427-1456).
In spite of the difficulties and dual vassal responsibilities to Hungary and Turkey, the despots managed to establish internal stability in the state, along with economic prosperity and the flourishing of culture. Apart from the old-established mines, new ones were opened thus attracting merchants and increasing the rulers' incomes more than ever. Along with their economic and governmental functions, the towns gradually became centres of society and culture. The tradition of the Nemanjic family as founders and builders was taken up by Prince Lazar, and that tradition was continued by his successors and by the noblemen of the time. The artistic monuments of the epoch are grouped in the northern territories, and they bear the common characteristics of the Morava school. In literary and translation work, there was special interest in historical themes.
The short-lived prosperity of the era of the despots was built on a weak foundation because Serbia did not have the strength to defend its independence at that time. Caught between Hungary and Turkey, Serbia depended on the relations between those two states. In one period of enmity, the Turks conquered Serbia (1439), but Serbia was revived in the war of 1443 and the truce of 1444. However, the last era of independence did not last long. Under the rule of Mohammed II (1451- 1481), the Turks began to conquer the vassal states systematically and Serbia found itself under attack every year (1451-1459). In those assaults, the territory of Serbia grew ever smaller, until Smederevo finally fell on June 20, 1459. Soon after that the Serbian territories in Bosnia also fell (1463-1465). The mountain areas of Zeta held out the longest, up until 1496. Then under the rule of the local dynasty of the Crnojevic family, which safeguarded the old traditions and symbols, Zeta was known as Crna Gora (Montenegro) from that time forward. The printing shop at the monastery at Cetinje, which published in Cyrillic, was a unique cultural achievement of the time (1493-1496).
The Turkish conquest radically changed the conditions for the development of the Serbian nation. The dynasty and most of the nobility was uprooted. Secular institutions were destroyed, so that only the church carried on the continuity of tradition, because it alone could go on functioning, albeit in poverty and under incomparably more difficult circumstances than previously. Now under the guises of an Islamic theocratic empire, the Serbs (like all other subordinate nations) were placed under constant pressure to adapt themselves to the Moslem social order, including the state and legal apparatus as well. The Ottoman state tolerated those of other faiths, Christian citizens were considered to be wards of the sultan, but the way to social acceptance was open only to those who accepted the religious confession of the conquerors. From the very beginning of the Turkish rule, up till its very end, individuals and groups from various layers of Serbian society accepted Islam, sometimes to make their life easier or to retain their property, sometimes to obtain a place in the military or in the governmental machine. Most often, conversion to Islam was a marginal process, usually accompanied by ostracism of those who accepted Islam from the Serbian milieu. In exceptional cases, compact groups of the Moslem population were formed, separated from their compatriots not only by their faith, but also by the accompanying cultural differences(names, clothing, eating habits, ambience, the rituals and rites which frame life from birth to death, etc.). Even if they remained in the same milieu and retained their language, those who accepted Islam changed their relationship to historical traditions. Their separation was reinforced by their different attitudes toward the Ottoman empire.
Immediately after conquest, the lands were divided between the Turkish warriors among whom, for a time some, some were even Christians. Part of the lands was reserved for the sultan and the high dignitaries (especially the mines and merchant centres in the towns). Territories were divided into administrative units known as sanjaks, nahias, and qadis. Their centres were in towns which took on an oriental appearance and Islamic character more quickly than the villages, especially because of the military garrisons, officers and Turkish artisans.
The Turkish conquests were preceded and followed by great migrations which swept the Serbs far from their homeland of times past. They moved into the neighbouring territories along the Danube, settling in what is now Vojvodina where the state traditions under the despots (the Brankovic family, the Berislavic family and Pavle Bakic) were maintained until the fall of Hungary (1541). Some of the Serbs were forcibly moved and led from the Turkish to the Christian side, where they were made a part of the system of defence (the Military Border)which was formed in the sixteenth century. They spread into Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, parts of Slovenia, distant regions of Hungary, and Transylvania. In some areas, the Serb settlers were small in number and sparsely settled, so that in later times they were assimilated by the more numerous and denser local populations of colonists brought in from abroad.
Scattered out over a vast territory, divided between two empires at war, the Serbs were kept together by a strong historical tradition and by the unique framework of the Orthodox church. The patriarchs and council disappeared soon after the Turkish conquest, the metropolitans were chosen by local councils, and titles were obtained from the sultan. The Patriarchate of Pec was not revived until 1557, encompassing an enormous area with more than 40 metropolitans and bishops. Significant juridical responsibilities in terms of marital and inheritance rights also fell to the church. Although the church had lost most of its lands, it still managed to carryout its mission by supporting itself on the small contributions made by a large number of believers. In spite of the official ban on the construction of new Christian places of worship, numerous churches and monasteries were erected in the period of Turkish rule.
In architecture and in art the traditions of the Middle Ages were retained, and the old monuments served as models. Despite the unsuitable conditions, scribal and literary activities remained vital, and many important works were saved due to the copies made in the period under the Turks. With the passing of time, the territories with tribal societies in the mountainous areas of what are today Herzegovina and Montenegro became the greatest keepers of the medieval tradition, because they were cut off from direct Turkish interference and pressure. The tribal chiefs and church hierarchy worked together in organizing the battle against the Turkish rule at the end of the sixteenth century, and they were inspired by the idea of a revived Serbian kingdom.
The period of peace, after the uprising against the Turks at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries during the time of Patriarch Pajsije (1614-1647) was filled with activity in the realm of culture; the main aim of that activity was to maintain and continue tradition. Old texts were zealously gathered and copied, the Patriarch himself wrote the Vita of Tsar Uros (thereby founding his cult),and churches were renovated and iconography revived. Among the characteristic fruits of this revival there was also a new revision of Dusan's legislation, which was more a memorial to the old Serbian state than a real factor in the every day life of the seventeenth century.