The Kosovo Field - June 15, 1389
Kosovo battle can be classified among those events which, in the true
sense of the word, have been fixed in people's memories. Participants
and contemporaries, as well as their heirs, talked about the great
bloodshed. Just a small part of the story, which had been told and
sung, remained in written form and was preserved for future generations.
That preserved part forms a long and rich tradition, composed
of numerous and various genres and forms of presentation, such
as echoes in contemporary letters, historical narratives and detailed
epic poems. Taken all together, the texts represent a very important
testimony to the Kosovo clash, to the power and duration of the
tradition. But, taken in such a way, they cannot be used to establish
the circumstances under which the battle took place, or to define
its most important moments. Among all these sources, there are
those - not just a few - which were created very late, with very poor
information, there are legendary ones also, and additionally those
in which we can recognize the colour of later-times experience.
disparity between the reports and stories was not a result of the
inadequacy of technical means at the end of XIV century, but because
the rumors reflected the attitudes of some of the participants, because
they had conveyed only a part of what had happened, and because
the majority of the reports, from the very beginning, were coloured
by partisan attitudes. In later representations, the versions
from the standpoint of later experience were expressed fully, but
different to those from 1389. Only after 1459, when the Serbian state
had collapsed, was it possible to attach to the Kosovo battle, the
importance of a vital turning point, and add the conviction of
"failure of the Serbian empire".
It is natural that scholars and the general public are interested primarily in the concrete circumstances, in which the Serbs and Turks clashed, but it is also quite natural to preserve an interest in the changes within the tradition. It is interesting to search for the personality of a soldier who killed the Turkish ruler Murad, but it is more challenging to reveal how the views on him changed - how, from a knight at the end of XTV century, he became a mythical personality of supernatural power.
A contemporary historian does not have any reason to oppose history to tradition in connection with the battle, as the study of former histories has shown him that both get equally interesting and significant tasks, which he must solve by a variety of methods and forms of research. No matter whether he has chosen one or the other way, he must pay attention to the time and circumstances in which some of the sources have been created. It is not possible to draw a clear and sharp line between the sources which speak of the event, and the sources which throw light on the event's tradition, as it is possible that some correct contemporary detail appears in a later source and is found only there as well, as it is possible that some unfounded rumor is connected to the first months after the battle. However, we must divide the sources of the battle from the sources of tradition, mostly to avoid the distortion which can occur under the influence of a later period. The example of Turkish sources, made a whole century after the battle, serves as a warning; it gives the ways of fighting, types of armament, and even the most important Turkish enemies, represented in the light and experience of the end of XV century.
The influence of later epochs can be eliminated, if the researcher limits himself conscientiously to the most ancient sources, from 1400 or 1402, which were created in the world in which the battle took place. By such a self-limitation, the researcher will free himself from many picturesque details, but the few important ones will be reliable. The analysis of the sources from the First decade after the battle are not insignificant, but as they are of a general character, they will satisfy only a distant perspective; they will give only an outline of the event, placed in a wider context; losses will be noticed only when we try to examine the battle closely, trying to conjure up its drama and richness of detail. Completely reliable and authenticated facts are the time and place of the battle: the day of Saint Vitus /Vidovdan/, 15th June, 1389;
That part of the Kosovo field where Murad's turbe /tomb/ is placed, the place where Murad's entrails had been buried, and which remained marked constantly, although the present monument dates from a later period. As "Murad's grave", the turbe is marked in XVI century maps. The other object, the "great marble column", built on the spot where Prince Lazar was caught, is not preserved on the field. The majority of contemporary and most ancient sources put the battle into the framework of the war between the Serbian Prince Lazar and the Turkish emir Murad. Some rhetorically coloured texts tell of the battle between the Christians and Moslem infidels, but one letter from the Bosnian King Tvrtko I /1353-1391/ sent to the Municipality of Trogir on 1st August, 1389, and the answer from Florence to the letter of the same King /20th October, 1389/, reveal that King Tvrtko had informed his friends and allies, that he had defeated "the Son of Satan and a servant" of Murad. A detachment of the Bosnian King, without doubt, took part in the Kosovo battle. Some of his warriors were killed there, the others were taken prisoners and transferred to Turkey, and their families, helped by the Dubrovnik go-betweens, did their best to free them. The explanations for these certainly authentic letters, in which Prince Lazar was not mentioned, and the number of Serbian casualties was minimized, can be found in Tvrtko's legislative principles. In 1377 he himself, as the heir of his oldest ancestors - "Serbian Lords", had himself been crowned by "a double crown" as "Stefan, the King of Serbs in Bosnia, the littoral Pomorje and Western areas", and saw himself in the role of the Serbian ruler, on the throne of the Nemanjics, who - long ago "ruled the Empire" and then "moved to Heaven". His real power was limited to the inherited Bosnia and the Nemanjic territories gained in 1373, 1377 and 1385; in the territories of Prince Lazar and Vuk Brankovic, he did not have any power, but, he had been accepted, certainly, as a high rank ally because of his King's title. So, he did not without reason represent himself as a Serbian ruler, as he had been one - by his detachment represented in Kosovo - but the basic perspective of his share in these affairs has been altered. It is also positive that Vuk Brankovic, in whose territory the battle took place, took part in it. On the Turkish side, there was Murad along with his two sons, one of whom was killed in the battle with his father, according to the most ancient reports. The Sultan was followed by vassals, those from the South-Slav and Byzantian areas, but their names were not mentioned till the end of XIV century. For the study of the circumstances under which the Kosovo battle took place, the very important fact is that Murad did not possess common frontiers with territories of Prince Lazar and Vuk Brankovic, and that he was separated from them by the belt of territories of his vassals in Bulgaria, South-Eastern Serbia and Macedonia. That is why the territories of Prince Lazar and Vuk could not come directly under the rule of the Turkish government, while the territories of Dragas or Vukasin's sons were not transformed into Turkish sanjaks, in 1395. On the other hand, the rulers of Hungary, Bohemia, Germany and some others, could not enter the Christian camp, as later Turkish sources revealed, for Tvrtko I was, at that time, in severe dispute with the Hungarian King-Sigmund of Luxemburg /1387-1437/. Tvrtko supported the Kmg's rebels, conquered parts of Croatia, and managed to subjugate Dalmatian towns. In his negotiations with Split, he allowed it to be the last of the towns to surrender to his power, and it was done on the same, St. Vitus Day, in 1389. On the other hand, King Sigmund decided on the month of July, of the same year, for gathering an army against the Bosnian ruler. In the summer of 1389, Tvrtko and his allies fell between two fires, and the practical realities of this situation are rather remote from the romantic view of sacrifices for the defence of Europe. Restricting research to the most ancient sources does not help too much in efforts to establish the number of warriors in the Kosovo battle. A contemporary, French knight Philippe Messier, in his epistle written after the Nikopolis battle, in 1396-97, wrote that both the Turks and Prince Lazar had lost 20.000 soldiers. Being aware of the disability of people in the Middle Ages to estimate approximately at least the number of soldiers, animals, goods or money, we must be very suspicious of Messiers information. In some later sources, even greater exaggerations can be found: that there were a hundred thousand Serbs, and three hundred thousand Turks. The official data on military power, from the middle and the second half of XV century, might give a somewhat realistic appraisal and approximate scale of values. From one, frequently checked document on the military power and Sultan's incomes dating from the period of Murad's great-grandson, a great conqueror Mehmed II /around 1475/, we know that the Sultan, from the European part of the territory - an area that was much larger than that of the countries of those who directly, as vassals, took part in the Kosovo battle, could raise 20.800 cavalrymen-landowners. A few decades earlier, a Serbian Despot, whose territories were approximately that of Prince Lazar and Vuk Brankovic's territories, in a plan for the defence of Hungary against Turkish attacks, had an obligation to raise 8.000 cavalrymen, while the Bosnian King and three feudal lords gave 9.000 cavalrymen. It is not possible that either one or the other side had greater potential during the Kosovo battle.
In most ancient sources, there are few details on the course and most important moments of the battle. In the above mentioned reply of the Florence Municipality to King Tvrtko, Murad's death was mentioned along with the congratulations for victory "gifted by Heaven". There, the feat of twelve noblemen, who, gathered by mutual oath, made their way to Murad's camp, and where one of them thrust a sword into the ruler's throat and loins, was praised. In that letter, written on the basis of the King's message and of the facts heard and known from rumors and letters only four months after the battle, the historical basis of the event, which would be talked and sung about in future centuries, lies. It is not possible to conclude from this, most ancient source, anything of the heros personalities, and we cannot even tell to which part of the army he belonged - Lazar's, Vuk's or Tvrtko's. Only in sources a decade later is his name - Milo or Milos - mentioned. From the most ancient sources, we get to know just a few facts about Prince Lazar's death. He was probably killed during the typical Turkish slaughter, after the battle, as a sign of revenge for their killed warriors.
texts from the later period, undoubtedly, speak of Turkish victory
and Christian defeat, and even in Serbian tradition this defeat was
connected to the "collapse of the Serbian Empire".
On the contrary, in the most recent sources we find a view that the
Turks were defeated. Some of the sources are very explicit in this
assertion, and this can be concluded from some others, indirectly.
This difference sharpens the gap between the tradition and critical
history, and raises some basic questions as to methods of forming
opinions and discussions in history. In order to understand and explain
differences of narrative in our sources, we have to ask ourselves
what was the basis for earlier centuries' criteria of success
of the battlefield - fewer number of casualties, power over land,
exploitation of the aftermath of a battle, the number of captured
enemies, booty or some other factors, which are not important today?
We also have to ask whether it is easy to establish the important
facts: that the ruler or commander's death was more significant, among
warriors, than the number of casualties, which is very difficult to
define. According to the mediaeval understanding, the management over
a battlefield, remaining there when the enemy was forced to run
away or withdraw, was one of the most impressive signs of a successful
end to a battle. This seems very easy to establish. But, if a battlefield
was in a country of the enemy side which had been forced to abandon
its territory and if the one who remained the owner of the battlefield,
after a short period, started moving back to his own country, matters
would not be as clear as it seemed, at first sight. Would the conditions
immediately after the battle be remembered, or the ones established
later, after the departure of the real winner? In that case, there
would be the possibility of exchanging roles. If the result was judged
according to which side had benefited from a battle's then later events
should be taken into consideration; this opens up the possibility
of distortion of the battle, under the influence of later perceptions.
The family and territories of Prince Lazar were the most affected by the consequences of the Kosovo battle. The ruler had been killed, and the country came into the hands of a widow and weak sons. In the autumn of 1389, the Hungarian King Sigmund invaded their territory along with a huge army, which hardened their position towards the Turks. Contrary to the writers of hagiographies and praises to Prince Lazar, who saw him not only as a hero crowned by religious martyrdom, but also as a "new David" - which meant - a victor aided by God, the Prince's son Stefan remembered the conditions after his father's death in a much more gloomy light. In the preface to the Law on Mines /1393,1412/ he mentioned that in the beginning of his rule "the infidels attacked the Christians", that he saw "a great victory of my country"; also, how, following the advice of patriarch Spiridon /died on 18th August, 1389/, other Bishops and his mother, he had gone to "the great emir Bayezid", and how, according to the latter's requests, he had liberated the country and towns - which undoubtedly meant that he had become Bayezid's vassal. Lazar's heir claimed that his destiny had been decided by the consequences of the Kosovo battle. The most important fact for understanding the differences among the most ancient sources was that not all the participants were affected by the Kosovo battle in the same way, and so it is quite normal that they experienced it and talked about it in different ways. Knowing, generally, the further development of Serbia, and bearing in mind the leading role of Stefan Lazarevic after 1402, and also knowing that the long-term hostility between the Lazarevics and Brankovics as Stefan's heirs /1412/, remembering how Zeta had fallen to Stefan as an inheritance /1412/ - we can easily understand why the views of Lazar's heirs predominated and gave a mark to the whole of future Serbian tradition. In the narration of Konstantin Philosopher, a biographer of Despot Stefan, we can recognize attempts at a reconciliation of the two views: "Lazar's forces at first resisted the attacks and prevailed. But, the hour for rescue was expiring. That's why the son of the Czar became strong and won that very battle, as God allowed /.../". But this could be classified as a study on the development of the tradition of the battle, which is another different but very attractive task.