Rebecca West


Old Serbia

Extract from the book: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a Journey through Yugoslavia

OUR road from Skoplje to the Kossovo Polye, the Field of the Blackbirds, took us towards grey hills patterned with shadows blue as English bluebells by a valley that had the worn look, the ageing air that comes on the southern landscape as soon as the fruit blossom has passed. Soon Dragutin made us get out because we had come to a famous well, and we found sitting by the waters a couple of old Albanian Moslems, paupers in rags and broken sandals, who were quietly merry as the morning. "Good day to you," said Constantine. "What are you doing here?" It was a natural question, for this was far between villages, and they did not look to be persons of independent means. "I am doing nothing," said the older of the two. "What, nothing" "Yes, nothing," he said, his grin gashing his beard widely. He had received moral instruction somewhere, he had learned enough about the obligation of honest toil to find a conscious joy in idleness. "Shame on you!" mocked Constantine. "And your friend?" "He has come to help me!" said the Albanian; and over our glasses of stinging water, risen virile from mountainy depths, we jeered at industry.

But back in the car Constantine slumped. It was as if he were a very sick man, for he was sleepy, fretful, inferior to himself, and quarrelsome. He could put nothing in a way that was not an affront. Now he said, "We will stop at Grachanitsa, the church I told you of on the edge of Kossovo Plain, but I do not think you will understand it, be- cause it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners can never grasp. It is too difficult for you, we are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness. That is why most foreign books about us are insolently wrong. In my department I see all books about us that are published abroad, because I mast censor them, and usually I am astonished by their insolence, which for all the pretences made by Western Europe and America to give our peoples culture is nothing more than the insolence of a nasty peasant who has learned some trick that lifts him up above the other peasants, who lends them money at usury and then lifts his chin at their misery and says, `Penh! What a stink!' but who is still ignorant like the worst of peasants. Did you read John Gunther's Inside Europe? Well, was it not a disgusting, a stupid - book! How glad I was to forbid the sale of this imbecile book!"

"But it was not a bad book," I objected. "It was altogether bad," said Constantine, "it was ill-informed and what he did not know he could not guess." "Yes, I know some of it was not as good as the rest," I said, "but there were two things in it which were quite excellent: the descriptions of Dollfuss's death and the Reichstag trial. And in any case you should not have censored it." "And why not?" screamed Constantine. "And why not?" "Because," I said, "you know perfectly well that you could not censor Inside Europe except by applying standards so strict that they would prevent the publication of any sincere book on any subject." "You are wrong'," he shrieked, "there is something your English brain does not know that our Serb blood is sure of, and that is that it is right to stamp on books written by such fools. Why should Western cretins drool their spittle. on our sacred things?" He had, of course, censored Inside Europe in defiance of his own convictions just as Voltaire might, once in a while, have grimaced and put his liberal conscience to the door just for the sake of taking a holiday from his own nature. But Constantine was pretending to be somebody totally unlike himself, a stupid Prussian officer, a truculent Italian clerk, with whom he had so little in common that he could not persist in his imitation very long, and slumped into silence, his chin on his chest and his belly falling forward in a soft heap. He looked years older, and congested. It was as if in his abandonment to Gerda's nihilism he had withdrawn his consent to every integrating process, even to the circulation of his blood.

Nothing' interested him on our journey. He did not leave the car with us when we got out to take some meadowsweet and wild roses, though it was his usual custom to follow us while we gathered flowers, relating to our bent behinds stories of his sexual or academic prowess. "And when I closed my bedroom door that night," we would hear as our fingers closed round the innocent stems, "the wife of the Swiss minister jumped out of the wardrobe, dune naked," or "Do you understand truly the theory of prime numbers? It is something that throws a light on history. I will explain it to you, for I am a mathematician, I." But now he sat in the car, neither asleep nor awake, but simply unhappy. We had to laugh alone when we were given a proof, more absolute than could be given by any homing bird, that the year had come to its kind ripeness. In a field outside one of die dullish Moslem villages which dappled these hillsides with poplars and minarets, we saw an old peasant look up into the sunshine and wipe the sweat from his brow, with the air of one observing clinical symptoms, and enact his verdict by changing from his winter to his summer clothes. No process could be simpler. He stepped out of a fine pair of those white serge trousers with allusive embroideries round the loins and the mysterious affixment to the hipbone, and he took up his hoe again. He was of the opinion that his shirt, which now showed a neat waist and a handsome gathered tail, and his underpants made as good a summer suit as anybody needed, and he was right. But to the Western eye the publicity of the adjustment was very diverting. It was as if a stockbroker, talking to a client, should mark a patch of brightness on his office wall and should therefore strip off his coat and waistcoat and trousers, continuing his talk the while, serene in a common understanding that from now on all sane men faced a warmer world in their underclothes.

But Constantine came to life again when the car stopped under a little hill surmounted with a new white church. "This is our church that we Serbs built for Kossovo," he said; "from there we will see the plain where the Turks defeated us and enslaved us, where after five hundred years of slavery we showed that we were not slaves." He was red, he was passionate, he panted, he ryas as he was when he was happy. We followed a path to the church through the long grass, and as our steps brought us higher there spread before us a great plain. Dragutin clenched his fist and shouted down at the earth, where the dead Turks lay. To him the dead Christians were in Heaven or were ghosts, but not under the ground, not scattered lifeless bones; only the Turks perished thus utterly. Then we were stilled by the stillness of Kossovo. It is not one of the plains, like the vega of Granada or the English fens, that are flat as a floor, it lacks that sly look of geological aberration, of earth abandoning its essential irregularity. Its prototype is Salisbury Plain: the land lies loosely, like a sleeper, in a cradle of featureless hills. Not by any means is the ground level. There a shoulder rises, here a hand supports the sleeper's head. But it is obviously prostrate and passive, it has none of the active spirit which makes mountain and forest and the picturesque valley. It is active only as a sleeping body is, with that simplest residual activity, without which sleep would be death, without which the plain would be a desert: the grass pricks the sod, the fallow field changes its substances in biding its time, the green corn surpasses its greenness, but there is no excess beyond these simple functions.

It is the character of the skies that overarch plains to be not only wider than is common, but higher; and here one cloudy continent rode above another, under a vault visible yet of no colour except space. Here light lived. Its rays, brassy because it was nearly the summer, mild because it had been a bad spring, travelled slowly, high and low, discovering terraces of snow beyond the cradling hills on peaks of unseen mountains, the white blocks of a new settlement in a fold of falling fields, and the passage over downlands of a flock of sheep, cream-coloured and nigger-brown and slow-footed as stupidity. Those houses and those herds showed that there was here a world of human activity: thousands of men and women, even tens of thousands, lived and worked and sweated on Kossovo. But the plain absorbed them and nullified them by its own indifference, and there was shown before our eyes the first of all our disharmonies, the basis of our later tragedies: the division between man and nature. In childhood, when we fall on the ground we are disappointed that it is hard and hurts us. When we are older we expect a less obvious but perhaps more extravagant impossibility in demanding that there should be a correspondence between our lives and their setting; it seems to all women, and to many men, that destiny should at least once in their lives place them in a moonlit forest glade and send them love to match its beauty. In time we have to accept it chat the ground does not care whether we break our noses on it, and that a moonlit forest glade is as often as not empty of anything but moonlight, and we solace ourselves with the love that is the fruit of sober judgment, and the flower of perfectly harmonious chance. We even forget what we were once foolish enough to desire. Then suddenly at some crisis of incongruity, when we see the site of a tragic historical event that ought to be blasted and is green and smiling, or pass a garden in full blossom when we are carrying our dead to burial, we recall our disappointment at this primary incongruity, and feel bitter desolation. The earth is not our mother's bosom. It shows us no special kindness. We cannot trust it to take sides with us. It makes us, its grass is our flesh, it lets us walk about on it, but this is all it will do for us; and since the earth is what is not us, and there- fore a symbol of destiny and of God, we ace alone and terrified. Kossovo, more than any other historical site I know, arouses that desolation. It spreads peacefully into its vast, gentle distances, slow winds polishing it like a cloth passing over a mirror, turning the heads of the standing grain to the light. It has a look of innocence which is the extreme of guilt. For it is crowded with the dead, who died in more than their flesh, whose civilization was cast with them into their graves. It is more tragic even than its own legend, which with the dishonesty and obstinacy of a work of arc commemorates one out of several battles of Kossovo. That battle which was fought under the leadership of Tsar Lazar in 1389, and placed the Serbs under the yoke of the Turks, was followed by three others of a major character, in which the Serbs stood up before the Turks and had their death demonstrated to them, the complete annihilation of their will established. Fourteen years later the son of Tsar Lazar fought here for the shrunken title of Serbian Despot against another Serb noble, George Brankovitch. They were competitive parasites of the Sultan's court and each led the half of a rent people. Definite victory was impossible, they both lived on in an undignified compromise; only Kossovo was the richer, and that by many graves. Forty-five years later the conditions of defeat had so thickened that, though there was another battle of Kossovo, the Serbs could not fight. They, who of all peoples feel the least reluctance to fighting, had to stand inactive on the field where was natural they should determine their fate. Now another George Brankovitch, nephew of the first, was Despot of a diminished Serbia; he joined with the famous John Hunyadi, a Roumanian in the service of Hungary, and King Vladislav of Poland, and they: formed a great expedition to recover Serbia and Bulgaria from the Turks. Bulgaria could not be saved, but Serbia came into full freedom. A solemn treaty was signed by all the belligerents, binding the Hungarians and the Poles to stay on their side of die Danube and the Sultan to stay on his, and giving George Brankovitch the whole of Serbia, as well as returning to him his two sons, who had been captured and blinded by the Turks. But as the Turks were then being attacked in Asia Minor it seemed to the Pope that this was the right time to drive them out of Europe, and he sent an army under the Cardinal Julian Cesarini to urge the Christian forces to take up arms again. When they protested that they had just signed a treaty pledging themselves to peace, the Cardinal told them that it is lawful for Christians to set aside and break an oath made with an infidel.

The peculiar flavour of the Western Church lies strong on the tongue in that declaration. George Brankovitch refused to join the Poles and Hungarians in availing himself of this licence to perfidy. 1t is easy to explain this by pointing out that he had done better out of the treaty than the other signatories; but the fact remains that, although such a ruling would have been a great advantage to the Christian subjects of Turkey, at no time during their enslavement did the Eastern Church encourage them to cast away their honour. Therefore George Brankovitch stood by while the Catholic armies advanced on the Turks at Varna in Bulgaria, whose Sultan prayed as they carne, "O Christ, if thou art God, as thy followers say, punish their perfidy." His prayer was answered. Both the King of Hungary and the Cardinal fell on the field, with most of their soldiers. Rut the war dragged on with interruptions for another four years, and came to an end here on Kossovo, in a battle that lasted for three days and gave the plain about fifty thousand more dead. By this time the Serbs were demoralized by the division of the Christian world and by comradeship with their pagan enemies, and it is said that they waited on the hills around the plain till the battle ended and they could rob the dead.

So in the first battle of Kossovo the Serbs learned the meaning of defeat, not such defeat as forms a necessary proportion of all effort, for in that they had often been instructed during the course of their history, but of total defeat, annihilation of their corporate will and all their individual wills. The second battle of Kossovo taught them that one may live on such a low level of existence chat even defeat cannot be achieved. The third taught them that even that level is not the lowest, and that there is a limbo for subject peoples where there is neither victory nor defeat but abortions which, had they come to birth, would have become such states. There was to be yet a fourth battle which was to prove still another horrible lesson. Very shortly after the third battle, in 1453 Byzantium fell; and the Turks were able to concentrate on the task of mastering the Balkans.1'he Serbs were constrained not to resist them by their fear of the Roman Catholic powers, who venomously loathed them and the Bulgarians for their fidelity to the Eastern Church and their liability to the Bogomil heresy. The night fell for four centuries, limbo became Hell, and manifested the anarchy that is Hell's essential character.

It happened that the Slavs who had become Janizaries, especially the Bosnian Serbs, who had been taken from their Christian mothers and trained to forswear Christ and live in the obedience and enforcement of the oppressive yet sluttish Ottoman law, had learned their lesson too well. When the Turks themselves became alarmed by the working of that law and attempted to reform it, the Janizaries rose against the reformation. But because they remembered they were Slavs in spite of all the efforts that had been made to force them to forget it, they felt that in resisting the Turks, even in defence of Turkish law, they were resisting those who had imposed that Turkish law on them in place of their Christian system. So when the rebellious Janizaries defeated the loyal Army of the Sultan in the fourth battle of Kossovo in 1831, and left countless Turkish dead on the field, they held that they had avenged the shame laid on the Christian Slavs in the first battle of Kossovo, although they themselves were Moslems. But their Christian fellow Slavs gave them no support, for they regarded them simply as co-religionists of the Turkish oppressors and therefore as enemies. So the revolt of the Janizaries failed; and to add the last touch of confusion, they were finally defeated by a Torkish marshal who was neither Turk nor Moslem-born Slav, hut a renegade Roman Catholic from Dalmatia. Here was illustrated what is often obscured by historians, that a people can be compelled by misfortune into an existence so confused that it is not life but sheer nonsense, the malignant nonsense of cancerous growth.

Kossovo speaks only of its defeats. It is true that they were nullified by the Serbs of Serbia, who snatched their own liberty from the Turks under the leadership of Karageorge and Milosh Obrenovitch in the early nineteenth century, and pressed on, against the hostility· of the great powers, until they gave liberty to Old Serbia and Macedonia in the Balkan wars. But of this triumph Kossovo says nothing, for the battle which gave it to the Serbs in 1912 was fought not there but at Kumanovo, some miles to the south-east; and even after that it knew defeat again, for here the retreating Serbian Army was bombed by German aeroplanes as they fled towards the Albanian border, and though they pursued their enemies across it when they returned three years later it was without spectacular event. Here is the image of failure, so vast that it fills the eye as failure sometimes fills as individual life, an epoch.

The white church we found had been built to celebrate the recovery of the lost land, by a society of patriotic Serbian women. Inside it many plaques of thanksgiving, ardent beyond the habit of inscriptions, hung on the whitewashed walls, and outside it, darkened by its short noonday shadow, there lay the grave of this society's president who, her head- stone said, had worked all her life long to fire her countrymen with the ambition to free their enslaved brothers, and had expressed with her last breath the desire to be buried within sight of Kossovo. As we stood beside the cross two little boys came out of a white house lying under us on the Kossovo side of the hill, caught sight of us, and stalked us, as though it were we who were wild and shy, not they. They moved in circles about us through the long grass and paused at last about ten yards away, their thumbs in their mouths, their eyes like little dark tunnels down to their animal natures.


Nadezda Petrovic - Old Prizren

Constantine called out, "Little ones! Little ones!" and charmed them to him, step by step; and when they were still some feet away they told him that the white house was an orphanage, founded by the same patriotic society, and that they were all alone there, because they were too young to go to school. It would not be in accordance with our Western ideas that two boys, hardly more than babies, should he left in an orphanage for a morning by themselves, or that they should be bare- foot; but they looked quite aninstitutionalized and very healthy and serene. Very likely there was here a wise Slav disorder, as in the sanatorium in Croatia, drat allowed human processes to develop according to their unpredictable design. When Conscantine's enchantments had brought the children to his side, he asked them, "Why was the orphanage built here?" and they answered him in a tender and infantile version of official oratory, couching as the flags and wreaths used for a patriotic celebration in a very little village. 'I hey spoke of the glorious ancient Serbian Empire, of its shameful destruction by the Turks at Kossovo, of the agonizing captivity that lasted five centuries, of the liberation offered through courage by the Serbian people, and the founding of Yugoslavia, that should be as glorious as ancient Serbia. "And do you know," asked Constantine, "the songs that our people have sung about the terrible day of Sc. Vitus?" They began at once, with the inexhaustitble, almost rank verbal memory of the Slav child:

"Musitch Stephen his cool wine was drinking,
In his palace, rich with purest silver,
In his beautiful and lordly dwelling;
And his servant Vaistina poured it,
When of his cool wine he had drunk deeply,
Then said Musitch Stephen to his servant
`Vaistina, thou my child beloved,
I will lay me down a while to slumber.
Drink some wine and cat some supper,
Then walk before my lordly palace,
Look upon the clear night sky and tell me,
If the silver moon is sinking westward,
It the morning star is shining eastward,
If the time has come for us to travel
To the fair and Ievel Plain of Blackbirds."

The little boys looked noble and devout as they recited. Here was the nationalism which the intellectuals of my age agreed to consider a vice and the origin of the world's misfortunes. I cannot imagine why. Every human being is of sublime value, because his experience, which must be in some measure unique, gives him a unique view of reality, and the sum of such views should go far to giving us the complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny. Therefore every human being must he encouraged to cultivate his consciousness to the fullest degree. It follows that every nation, being an association of human beings who have been drawn together by common experience, has also its unique view of reality, which must contribute to our deliverance, and should therefore he allowed a like encouragement to its consciousness. Let people, then, hold to their own language, their own customs, their own beliefs, even if this inconveniences the tourist. There is not the smallest reason for confounding nationalism, which is the desire of a people to be itself, with imperialism, which is the desire of a people to prevent other peoples from being themselves. Intense nationalist spirit is often, indeed, an effort by a people to rebuild its character when an imperialist power has worked hard to destroy it. Finnish nationalism, for example, is a blood transfusion given after the weakening wounds inflicted by Tsarist Russia, and it is accompanied by defensive but not aggressive feelings in relation to its neighbours. Here certainly I could look without any reservation on the scene, on the two little boys darkening their brows in imitation of the heroes as they spoke the stern verse, on Constantine, whose Jewish eyes were full of Serbian tears, on my husband, who bent over the children with the hieratic reverence Englishmen feel for boyhood that has put its neck under the yoke of discipline, on the green bed and stone cross of the happy grave, on the domes of the native church, and the hospitable farmlike orphanage. This was as unlikely to beget any ill as the wild roses and meadowsweets we had gathered by the road.

The scene was exquisite; but it was pitifully without weight, without mass, compared to the plain that spread for forty miles before us, thickened by tragedy. If a giant had taken Kossovo in his right hand and us and the church and the farmhouse and the grave in his left hand, his right hand must have fallen to his side because of the heaviness of the load, but it would have seemed to him that in his left hand there was nothing but a little dust. It is flattery of nature to say that it is indifferent to man. It grossly disfavours him in quantity and quality, providing more pain than pleasure, and making that more potent. The simplest and most dramatic example is found in our food: a good oyster cannot please the palate as acutely as a bad one can revolt it, and a good oyster cannot make him who eats it live for ever though a bad one can make him dead for ever. The agony of Kossovo could not be balanced by the joy that was to be derived from it. The transports of the women who built the church must dull themselves in continuance, and even if they generated the steady delight of founding a new nation chat itself was dulled by the resistance offered to the will by material objects, and by the conflict between different wills working to the same end, which is often not less envenomed than the conflict between wills working to different ends. But the agony of Kossovo must have been purely itself, pain upon pain, newly born in acuteness for each generation, throughout five centuries. The night of evil had been supreme, it still was supreme on a quantitative basis.

Above the plain were the soft white castles of the clouds and a blank blue wall behind them. Into this world I had been born, and I must resign myself to it; I could not move myself to a fortunate planet, where any rare tear was instantly dried by a benediction. This is my glass, I must drink out of it. In my anxiety to know what was in the glass, I wondered, "The world is tragic, but just how tragic? I wonder if it is finally so, if we can ever counter the catastrophes to which we are liable 'and give ourselves a workshop of serenity in which we can experiment with that other way of life which is not tragedy, but which is not comedy. Certainly not comedy, for that is merely life before tragedy has fallen upon it, ridiculous as a clown on the films who grins and capers without seeing that there is a policeman behind him just about to bring down a club on his head. That other way of life must transcend not only comedy but tragedy, must refuse to be impressed by its grandiose quality and frustrate it at every point."

But I found my mind wandering from the subject, which was surely the nature of tragedy and the points at which it attacked man, to indulge in some of that optimism which serves us in the West instead of fortitude. Life, I said to myself, was surely not as tragic as all that, and perhaps the defeat of Kossovo had not been a disaster of supreme magnitude. Perhaps the armies that had stood up before the Turks had been a huddle of barbarians, impressive only after the fashion of a pack of wolves, that in its dying presented the world with only the uninteresting difference between a live pack of wolves and a dead pack of wolves. That is a view held by some historians, notably the person so unfortu- nately selected by the editors of the Cambridge Medieval History to write the chapter on the Serbian Empire; and it seems to receive some support when one drives, as we did after we left the church, along the fringes of the plain. The population of Old Serbia is sunk far deeper in misery than the Macedonians, and at a superficial glance they justify the poor opinion of the Christian rayahs held by nineteenth-century travellers. Their houses turn a dilapidated blankness on the tillage street; their clothes are often dirty and unornamented by a single stitch of embroidery; and they gape at the stranger with eyes empty of anything but a lethargic fear which is quite unapposite to the present, which is the residue of a deposit left by a past age, never yet drained off by the intelligence.

Actually I knew that there were many reasons why these women should be so, other than the predisposition of their stock. They were not a fair specimen of the Slav population as it had been at the time of the tattle of Kossovo, for most of the noble families had died on the field, and the cream of what were left emigrated to Austrian territory within the nest three hundred years. Such as were left suffered from all the disadvantages of Turkish rule without enjoying any of the advantages that had made the ruin of Macedonia so far from absolute. It had no rich capital like Bitolj, nor such trading centres as Skoplje, Veles, Tetovo, and Gostivar; and it had no picturesqueness to tempt wealthy Turks to build country houses. It was purely agricultural land. The Tucks raped it of its crops and sent them back to Constantinople, and took the peasants' last farthings in taxes, and gave nothing in return. This plain might have blossomed like the rose with civilisation and nothing would have remained. It yeas also probable, in view of the falsity of the face a house and a peasant turn on the world, that these women were not as they seemed. But for this moment I looked on them idiotically, as if I were Gerda, imputing to them worthlessness instead of difference; and 1 alleged to myself that probably nothing had fallen at Kossovo that was an irreparable loss, that perhaps tragedy draws blood but never lifeblood.

BUT I could not keep chat up for long. It happens chat there stands on the plain of Kossovo, some miles south of the actual battle-field, a building which demonstrates what sort of civilization fell with the Serbs. It proves it as no nationalist rhetoric could hope to do, it leaves no room for differences of opinion, for it is a chunk of the Nemanyan Empire, irrefutable testimony to its quality. We drove along the straight road, through low-spirited villages, past herds and flocks, all of them ornery, plain ornery, and slouching peasants, so few that the Land was almost empty as the sky; and we turned into a lane leading towards the hills, through fields whose crops were smothered by those aromatic flowers which are half-way to being scrub. I would fear to say that it was not rich ground, but it is being reclaimed after centuries of avid and ignorant farming, and the effect is destitution. There was no sufficiency anywhere save in the scented handsome sprawl of honeysuckle in the hedges. 'Then, across a field grey-green with the young maize, we saw a settlement of smallish farms lying among low trees, and in the midst of them a rose-red dome upheld by four lesser domes of the same warm and transparent colour. These made, as the dominant shape of a religious building should do, a reference to the reality which lies above the world of appearances, to the order which transcends the disorder of events. Even from this distance it could be seen that Grachanitsa was as religious a building as Chartres Cathedral; though it made a simpler and smaller statement, the thought and feeling behind it were as complex, and the sublime subject matter was the same. But it was as if Chartres Cathedral should stand alone on a Land that has been shorn of all that was France when it was built and has been France since then; with no Paris, no Sorbonne, no Academie Francaise, in fact not a single modern representation of the culture that built the cathedral, and not a single trace within miles of the well-being that affords a physical basis for this culture, not a plump chicken, nor a pound of butter, nor a bottle of good wine, nor a comfortable mattress. Such spectacles are commonplace in Africa or Asia or America, which have their Pyramids and Angkor Vat and Inca memorials, but in Europe we are not accustomed to them. Our forms of historic tragedy have blotted a paragraph here and there, but they have rarely torn out the leaves of a whole volume, letting only a coloured frontispiece remain to tease us. Of Grachanitsa, however, catastrophe has left us nothing but Grachanitsa.

At the moment when we reached the church its ruin of surroundings was emphasized by attempts to repair it. Grachanitsa lies in a bare enclosure shaded by a few trees, pitifully different from the gardens that surround the mosques of its conquerors, with their fountains and conduited waters and marble seats. It was now stacked with heaps of masonry, and on the further side a half-finished building stood among its scaffolding; and on benches in the shadow of the church twenty or thirty young soldiers sat at a meal, while an officer stood beside them, talking m a tall white-bearded priest and a man in townish clothes. They turned to look at us, and the man in townish clothes clapped his hands and ran cowards us, crying, "Constantine! Constantine!" "You see, he knows me, all people know me," said Constantine, as he always did in such circumstances, but without his usual vivacity. Formerly he said it as if he could remember the exact taste of the pleasure he had shared with his friend; but it was now as if he could think of it only as a payment from a fortune he had exhausted. "He is a very wellknown architect from Belgrade," he explained. "I know all such people. No doubt he is in charge of the new building, whatever it is."

That this was so the architect explained, clinging happily to Constantine's coat lapels. He was putting up a new guest-house, which was needed because the monastery was so miserably poor and wanted a new opportunity to raise funds. 'lens of thousands of pilgrims come here every year on St. Vitus's Day, the anniversary of the battle of Kossovo. There could be, of course, no question of housing all of them. These pilgrims, who would be half rosy with Bank-Holidayness and half agonized by the contemplation of the national tragedy, would continue to sleep on the summer-baked soil of the fields, as they had always done. The plan was to catch the few pounds now spent by the richer peasants at the inn at Prishtina, which is the nearest town. The architect went on, speaking French for our benefit, "And it is the greatest boy to be here, for I have some little things to do also for the marvel, the pearl, the church itself. Look at her! "

It has been a wonderful thing for me to work here, because in Belgrade one forgets what one's people is, what paprika we really are. Look at this old monk here. You know, when I first came here, I had some hope of persuading the Abbot and the monks and their Bishop to let me talc off the porch, for I knew that if they consented the Government would permit it. So I told them what a shame it was not to have Grachanitsa in its beauty as it was when King Milutin founded it, but they would not listen to me, and perhaps they had a little of the right on their side, for indeed the porch is historically interesting. It was built when the Turks in theory prohibited all building of Christian churches or repairing of them, and the reason it could be done is romantic. A member of the Sokolovitch family who had been taken by the Turks when a child to be a January had become the Grand Vizier, and he used his position to protect all Serbs, and in particular to grant any favour asked him by his brother, who saw a priest and whom he had appointed Patriarch of Petch. But I am an architect and not a historian, fand I became very angry when the monks would not grant me my wish. I turned my back on them and walked out of the room where we were, and I came out here and sat on the scone seat that runs along the wall of the church, fuming and kicking the pebbles in front of me. Presently this old one with the white beard came out and told me that they felt I had better know at once that if I came by night and did what I wanted to the porch they would get me excommunicated. The brave old one, he belongs to the days of comitadji and smuggled rifles and bombs and night raids, and that is the way he thought life was conducted, particularly by people who are angry. And indeed that is a way not in- appropriate to this place, for it is fierce, very fierce, as you will see when you go inside. There you will see, if you have eyes in your head, that we were not barbarians, yet very fierce."

He halted us again as we crossed the dust towards the church. "No, certainly we were not barbarians," he said. "Look, look at her. Nothing about her is accidental. She is built not out of simplicity but out of the extremest sophistication. She is full of tricks, so elaborate that I can hardly explain them to those who are not trained architects. The towers supporting those cupolas are pulled out of their proper axes by some- body who knows-and it is unbelievable what theory and practice one would have to have mastered before one could know it-that thus there could be achieved an effect of airy lightness. Ah, but what this builder knew. think of it, there is water, and much water, under this ground. At one point it lies within three feet of the walls. But he was calm, he was sure of his knowledge. I would not dare to build a building of such a sire and importance so near water. He dared, and he was right in his daring, for after six hundred years the church is lying level. as she was built, and she is not an inch nearer the water. Such things barbarians cannot do at all, such things hardly any of the cultured races have been able to do." There was evidence of the unfortunate position of the Balkans in his realization that we had probably doubted the value of the culture which Kossovo had destroyed. "But you must go inside. The interior of Grachanitsa tells you all about the people who built her." That was true; and what it told us was, to our surprise, not unfamiliar. From the immense height of the cupolas light descends on three naves, divided by gigantesquely sturdy columns, and arrives there multicoloured, dyed by the frescoes which cover every inch of the walls. There is here a sense of colossal strength, of animal vigour, of lust so lusty that it can sup off high pleasures as well as low, and likes crimson on its eye as well as wine on its tongue, and a godhead as well as a mistress. In face, here is something very like the spirit of the late Tudor age; and this is the kind of church that the architects of Hampton Court might have built if the Gothic obsession had not laid its hand on their end of Europe. This was a startling correspondence, because the Serbian king who built Grachanitsa some seventy years before the tattle of Kossovo closely resembled our Henry VIII.

A field of tulips around Gracanica
Nadezda Petrovic, a field of Kosovo tulips
There is a Serb legend which says that Kosovo red tulips - bozuri - grew from the blood
of the Kosovo battle knights after the famous battle in 1389

This was King Milutin. In the twelfth century the Nemanyas, a family of chieftains who lived in a petty fortress on the Montenegrin border near the Adriatic coastline, produced a genius in the person of St. Sava and a man of great talent in his brother, King Stephen die First-crowned, who together founded a stable Christian Serbian state, which their descendants expanded north towards the Danube, east towards the Vardar river, and south into Byzantine territory. When the dynasty had been under way about a hundred and fifty years Milutin came to the throne, and in himself and his royal functions his likeness to Henry VIII was very strong.

He worked marvels for his country, but was untender to many of his subjects. He hungered hotly for women, but was cold as ice when he discarded them or used them as political instruments. He was ardently devout, but used his religion as a counter in his international relationships without showing a sign of scruple. There is a robustness in him that charms from the yonder side of the grave, but without doubt his vitals were eaten by the worm of melancholy. His picture is among the frescoes here. He stands, deeply bearded, in the costume worn by Serbian royalty, which is clearly imitated from the Byzantine mode: a stiff tunic of rich material studded with jewels, which disregards the frailty of the enclosed flesh and constrains it to magnificence. That costume power- fully recalls the later Tudor portraits, the gorgeous robes that held together the grossness of Henry VIII and the brain-raddled emaciation of Elizabeth and presented them as massive monarchs. Such vestments speak of a world founded on the idea of status, which regarded a king as the beloved deputy of God, not because he was any particular sort of man, but because it was considered obvious that if he were crowned a king he would try to act like a beloved deputy of God, since society had agreed that was how a king should act. There stands beside him, equally sumptuous, his wife Simonis, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II. She was Milutin's fourth wife. He had had to work up to her, earning the right through a long life to avenge an early disappointment.

Of that disappointment we read in the writings of a contemporary who was on the side of those who inflicted it. Pachymeres, the Byzantine historian, relates that the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologus wished for an alliance with King Stephen Urosh of Serbia, and to that end offered his second daughter, Anna, as wife to King Stephen's second son, who was this same Milutin. Michael's wife, who was not only Empress but a great lady by birth, had a poor opinion of this proposal, and before the bride and her train started she sent some officials and a bishop as scouts to see if the Serbian court was fit for her daughter. Their adventures were sad. They were shocked by what seemed to them the poverty of the land; and for some reason this invariably happened in the Middle Ages when anybody visited any country other than his own, and Byzantines were likely to receive this unfavourable impression with peculiar poignancy. There was an authentic reason for this which held good over a long period. For hundreds of years their standard of living was higher than in most other countries, so much higher that when one of their ladies went to Venice to be the wife of the Doge Selvio in the eleventh century, the luxury of her habits, which included eating with a gold fork and wearing gloves, led her to be regarded as fit for Hell. But later, when this superiority was nothing like so marked, the Byzantines grew soft and insular and complaining, like a certain type of well-to-do English person who grumbles at French coffee, at American trains, at German bedclothes, to a degree far beyond what is justified by the amount of irritation these can cause in the sane. The Byzantine emissaries evidently belonged to this class, for they reported that the Serbians subsisted solely on what they brought down hunting and what they stole; but it is known that at that time they conducted a lively trade in timber and livestock and wheat and oil, that there were several rich mines, and that the organization of artisans set up by the Romans still flourished.

The insularity of these Byzantines was further alarmed when they came on a manifestation of the West with which they were unfamiliar. King Stephen Urosh was married to a French princess, Helene of Anjou, who was a Roman Catholic zealot of an austere type. She is said to have been an admirable woman of great benevolence and intelligence, who did much excellent work in restoring the lands which had teen laid waste by the Mongols, but she practised that extreme type of Catholic asceticism which is the root of Puritanism. Under her influence her elder son, Dragutin, who was a cripple, formed a habit of sleeping in a grave lined with thorns and sharp flints. Her husband, although he remained within the Orthodox Church, was governed by her ideas. When the officials and the Bishop arrived at his palace he received them coldly, and on hearing that they were part of Princess Anna's train and that many more were following, he said sourly that he was sorry to hear it, for he and his family were not accustomed to such luxury. Then in a spirit with which we are all familiar, particularly if we were young before the war, he took them to see the wife of his elder son Dragutin, who was the daughter of the King of Hungary. She was plainly dressed and was spinning wool. "Now that," said King Stephen, "is the sort of wife that we like here." The touch can be recognized by those of us who were brought up on relays of princesses who were all but dropping dead under the continuous effort of public simplicity, who wore shirt-blouses unusual for gauntness, who had no fires in their bedrooms, who went to bed so early that, even allowing for the early hour at which they rose, their slumbers must have been inordinate.

But the Byzantines did not understand. Leaving a had impression behind them by their obvious perturbation, they rode back hastily and stopped the Princess at Ochrid. Not certain what to do, whether to take her straight back to Constantinople or wait for orders or let her go on and be recalled, they hung about die district till there arrived a Serbian ambassador named in the chronicles George, simple George. He seems to have been a person of great resource. He had plainly been sent to discourage the expedition from proceeding, since the Serbian court had liked the Byzantine emissaries as little as they had liked it. He began by telling them that on the way he had been robbed, and they naturally asked themselves what mercy they as foreigners could expect from robbers who did not spare notables of their own country. George also started a conversation in ambiguous teens which led them to question him sharply as to whether the conditions of the marriage contract to be signed between Michael Paleologus and Stephen Urosh were likely to be faithfully observed. He answered with transparent evasiveness. And in the night the Byzantine emissaries' horses were stolen. They found the local police unhelpful in the search for them, though ready enough to provide extremely inferior substitutes. Princess Anna and her train left in haste for home.

This incident cannot have pleased Milutin, though he probably liked the bit about the horses. He had a marked distaste for his family's ideas. Simplicity he abhorred, and throughout his life he showed that Roman Catholicism was to him simply a means of winning the support of a man called the Pope who exercised an enviable amount of power. He worked to become inarguably great, in terms that would be understood across a continent, that would be understood even by gorgeous Byzantium. There was a certain amount of preliminary waiting m be done, while his family life broke into curious blooms. His pious elder brother Dragutin rebelled against his father King Stephen; with the help of his brother-in-law, King Ladislas IV of Hungary, bear him thoroughly in a great battle in Herzegovina, and seized the throne for himself. He was so completely under his Roman Catholic mother's influence that it cannot be doubted she was in sympathy with his revolt, which they both probably justified by Stephen Urosh's fidelity to the Orthodox Church, although King Ladislas, a notorious scoundrel descended from an unlovable Asiatic tribe, was an odd ally in a Holy War. When Dragutin had won he threw his father into prison and proceeded to manoeuvre his country towards the abandonment of the Orthodox Church and conversion to Roman Catholicism. These plots were detected and resented by his people, and after he and King Ladislas had made an unsuccessful attempt on Byzantine territory, for which he had to male amends by the surrender of a large tract of Serbian land, he abdicated in favour of Milutin. He then settled in Bosnia, which his Hungarian wife had brought him in her dowry, became a Roman Catholic, and asked the Pope to send him a mission of Franciscan friars to convert the Bogomil heretics and the members of the Orthodox Church within his territory. Thus there was initiated the period of savage religious persecution which made the distracted Bosnians prefer Islam to Roman Catholicism, and enabled the Turk to entrench himself in a key position in South-East Europe. This was a truly lamentable rascal.

When Milutin ascended the throne he felt under no necessity to set his father free. He, a Lear who really had something to worry about, died in an Albanian prison a year lacer. Thereafter Serbia prospered steadily, for no other apparent reason than that Milutin was a fortunate ruler, like a garden whose owner has the "green finger." The mines gave up their riches, wine and wheat and oil and livestock flowed out of the country in a fat river of well-being. Abroad, he carried on a continuous policy of expansion at his neighbour's weakest points. He ate southwards into the disordered Byzantine Empire, his first marriage helping him. He had married the daughter of Duke John of Neopatras, the most powerful of the despots who mere setting up for themselves here and there on the Greek islands in defiance of Constantinople. Then Byzantium sent the Tartars against Milutin, and on the plea of consolidating his position in the West he sent Duke John's daughter packing, quite in the manner of Henry VIII, and married Elizabeth, the sister of Dragutin's wife and his old ally, the Asiatic King Ladislas of Hungary. But this new marriage was remarkable for the number of ways in which it was bound to displease people. The Roman Catholics outside and inside the Serbian Empire were scandalized, not only because Milutin was divorced but be- cause the bride was a nun. The members of the Orthodox Church were equally scandalized because she was the sister of Milutin's brother's wife, thus falling within the prohibited degrees. She was also unpopular with Milutin's party because she was Hungarian, and the alliance between Dragutin and her brother had meant a defeat for Serbia and the loss of territory. It is impossible to believe that this marriage can have secured more support for him than it lost, and that the motive was not passion. One must compare it to henry's impolitic and impassioned marriage with Anne Boleyn. It resembled it too in brevity. Before long Milutin dismissed her and married Anna Terteri, the daughter of George Terteri, a fierce and able Emperor of Bulgaria, who was part Slav, part Asiatic. East and West found it not at all impossible to meet in South-East Europe after the barbarian invasions.

But soon Anna also was dismissed. Under Milutin's government Serbia had become so rich and his disingenuous statesmanship so notoriously successful that the Byzantine Empire regarded its power with alarm. But the Turks, massing decade by decade in Asia Minor, were a graver danger. So the Emperor Andronicus II, who had succeeded his father Michael Palaologus, .signed a treaty of peace with Milutin, and offered to seal it with the hand of his widowed sister Eudocia. This offer could not have been made unless Milutin had composed a masterly fantasia on legalist themes comparable to Henry VIII's divorce of Katherine of Aragon. On the face of it Milutin could not marry anybody, because the canon law of the Orthodox Church definitely forbids fourth marriages. But Milutin overcame that difficulty. He now claimed that his first divorce had been illegal. In support of this he brought it forward that the Orthodox Church officials would never permit the name of his second queen to be mentioned in the liturgy, though the real reason for this had been that she was connected to him within the prohibited degrees. This pretence that his first divorce had been invalid meant that not only his second but his third wife had never been really married to him, and that their children were all bastards. That did not distress him, for though he had two sons who were affected by this decision, a mere heir was not what he wanted. He wanted an heir who should have a title through himself to the Serbian crown and through his mother to one of the Byzantine crowns. Also there was at last to be won revenge for the sneers of Michael Paleologus's eunuchs, sent to see if he were a fit bridegroom for Princess Anna. The precise moment had arrived when he could pursue these ends because his first wife, the very first of all, had died; and although the Orthodox Church looks on the remarriage of widows and widowers hardly more favourably than if they had been parted from their spouses by divorce, now chat he had succeeded in wiping out his second and third marriages, the one he contemplated counted as only his second, and he was free to make it after performing a slight penance.

The Emperor's sister Eudocia, however, refused this opportunity. She put in the alternative pleas drat she dearly loved the memory of her husband and would not for the world marry again, and that when she married again she wanted a more respectable bridegroom than Milutin. For public opinion was profoundly shocked by his matrimonial casuistries. It is to be noted, however, that there is nothing in Milutin's reign comparable to the beheading of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. In certain respects Milutin was far more civilized than Henry VIII, though he lived a hundred and fifty years earlier in a country that had been Christianized three hundred years later. Few would care to say that Henry VIII might not have forgotten the duties of filial piety if he had had an energetic mother who led a campaign against all his divorces, and never ceased to act as a Roman Catholic propagandist in both his own realm and neighbouring territories. But although Helene of Anjou denounced all Milutin's marriages bur the first, and not only supported her Roman Catholic son in Bosnia on the western frontier of Serbia, but tried to convert the Emperor of Bulgaria on its east, she outlived Milutin. We know also what happened to Sir Thomas More; better luck attended the Archbishop Jacob, who was fearless in his opposition to Milutin's tortuous matrimonial policy, yet lost neither his life nor his archiepiscopate. Still, sufficient unto the day was Milutin's barbarity. It was in sorrow and shame that the Emperor Andronicus resolved to buy Serbian adherence at a higher price than he had meant to pay. Since his sister Eudocia refused to be sacrificed he had to offer up his daughter Simonis, who was only six years old.

Their services are insufficiently recognized, those girl children who Geld together the fabric of history by leaving their nurseries and going into far lands to experience the pains of rape and miscarriage, among strangers talking unknown tongues and practising unhomely customs. The practice has not been so long in desuetude that we can despise it as a remote barbarity; it was thought a pity that the Belgian Princess who married the Crown Prince Rudolph of Habsburg had not shown the signs of womanhood at the time fixed for her wedding, but the ceremony was nor for that reason postponed. Nor is it necessary, in order to feel its horror, to exaggerate the infamy of early sexual activity; it is sheer humbug to pretend that a girl of twelve who is married to a kindly young bridegroom is in worse case than a woman in her forties, of the kind that would like to marry, who is not married. If child marriage were as fearful as the modern world pretends, the white race would be extinct by now. Erasmus declared in a sermon that, though it was usual for-little girls of ten to marry and straightway have children, he himself thought it too young; and our own Henry VII was born of a thirteen-year-old mother who lived to be a vigorous woman with scholarly interests.

But the export trade in these little princesses was indubitably and totally repulsive. For a child-wife to be happy she must have a gentle husband of her own kith, and familiar faces round her when she comes to childbirth. But these royal children were sent out into strange lands, not to see their kinsfolk again for years and perhaps for ever, to be handed over to men who would not have been able to compel such precious gifts if they had not proved themselves bloody in mind and deed. Often such marriages marled the signature of peace between powers that had been savagely at war, so that little girls were sent to the beds of enemies who had been the Bluebeards of their nursery tales. Every child in the Byzantine Empire in the thirteenth century must have shuddered at nights to think of the Tartars, the little yellow men that passed over the land like living flames from hell. But when Michael Paleologus needed the support of the Tartars against the Bulgars, he sent superb presents to their chief, Prince Chalaii. There was chosen as ambassador the priest and Abbot of the monastery of Christ Ruler of All, who took with him, among much else, a portable altar, screened with magnificent curtains and embellished with images of the saints and with a superbly worked cross, and furnished with costly chalices and plates for the celebration of the mysteries; and also an illegitimate daughter of the Emperor called Euphrosyne who had been promised to the Tartar chief as his bride. She was well under ten years of age. When the train arrived at the South Russian camp of the Tartars it was found that Prince Chalaii was dead, so his son Nogai married her instead. The bridegroom looked curiously at the pearls on the Byzantine bonnets of her suite and guessed them to be charms against thunder. Nothing is known of Euphrosyne's later life save that one of her sons was strangled in some convulsion of Bulgarian politics. Michael Paleologus had another illegitimate daughter, Marya, whom he sent even further afield on the same sort of errand. She went to marry the Khan of Tartary who lived at Baghdad, a grandson of Genghis Khan. It is to be remembered that these Asian invaders were as shocking to that age as they are to this, for in spite of the greater social violence of the Middle Ages there was a stricter chivalry observed in war. No prisoner was put to death or held to ransom unless he was royal or noble, captured common soldiers were disarmed and turned loose, and there was no killing save in actual battle. A society which held this code would plainly be appalled as we axe by the 'tartars' massacre of millions and their destruction of all property and disregard for all human rights in the territories they ravaged. It is not to be believed that Euphrosyne and Marya were unafraid, either as children or as grown women.

So Simonis, for a little girl born to a lofty place in the hierarchy of Byzantium, was not faring so badly; but she fared ill enough. A historian of her day has described the manner of her going out to her martyrdom. It was at the beginning of Lent that the Emperor Androuicus left Constantinople to take her to Milutin. There had been a long and cruel winter which had killed many trees and plants. The land was still under snow and the rivers were frozen. The imperial train travelled slowly towards Salonika, halting sometimes to attend to local matters of state. One night they stayed at the monastery where the Patriarch had his residence, and in the morning all attended Mass. Afterwards the Patriarch tried to rebuke the Emperor for the scandal of the marriage and asked if he might talk to Simonis about it. But Andronicus, with the curtness which is the weak man's substitute for strength, told him they must be on their way, asked him to give himself and his daughter the benediction, and set out on the northward journey through the frozen country. Later he wrote to the Patriarch and told him chat he would not take Communion from his hands at Easter, according to custom. The task must be deputed to another priest. Rut at the same time he sent hire the present of a thousand crowns which it was his habit to send him at that season.

His heart must have been heavy as he rode away from the monastery, for he knew well that the Patriarch was right. And the little girl was very dear to him, for she had been born after he had been greatly grieved by the loss of several other daughters in their infancy. Her name recorded his concern for her, since it was given her by reason of a magical device he had practised lest he lose her like her sisters. When she was born twelve candles of equal size and weight were lit before the images of the Twelve Apostles, and while these were burning prayers were said for the child, and she was put under the protection of the saint whose candle lasted longest. It was St. Simon who preserved her life, for the curious end that at the age of six she should be handed over to a bride- groom some forty years her senior who was, by consummating their marriage too soon, to render her barren. Yet Andronicus cannot be blamed. Over the sea, in Asia Minor, there were massing Turks, and more Turks, and yet more Turks, surpassing the Mongols in dreadfulness because of the reinforcement of their ferocity by persistence, in their stabilization of massacre by settlement. There was nothing a Christian king could do but swallow the vices of other Christian kings if they were possible allies in the defence of Europe against the Ottoman invaders.

At a gorgeous festival in Salonika the child and Milutin were married by the Archbishop of Ochrid; and hidden behind the crowds and the banners and the trumpeters and the processions of soldiers and eunuchs a second sombre and infestive ceremony took place. Two people were handed over to the Emperor Andronicus as some compensation for the loss of his daughter. One was a Byzantine deserter who had of late very successfully led King Milutin's troops against certain towns on the fringe of the Emperor's territory: Milutin had his Wolsey. The other was the daughter of the Bulgarian Emperor Terteri, till lately Milutin's wife. She was to be filed for reference with Andronicus, to be brought out or forgotten as political expediency was served. Hardly less than the bride she proved to what a limited degree it is possible, without falling into the most savage irony, to describe women as the protected sex. It is said that Milutin showed so little compunction in discarding her because her father had lately been driven from the Bulgarian throne: but he had been succeeded by her brother. For women, however, blood is constantly as thin as water, and nobody seems to have anticipated chat her family would come to her defence.

Later Simonis was to face for some time the destiny of her predecessor. She was to survive Milutin, as Catherine Parr survived Henry VIII; but both were to have moments when it seemed that they too were going down into the abyss chat suddenly fissured the uxorious ground on which they had seemed secure. Time brought certainty that Simonis could never bear Milutin an heir to the Byzantine throne; it also brought evidence that her father, the Emperor Andronicus, was an incompetent ruler who year by year became a less valuable ally. So Milutin entered into negotiations with Charles de Valois, titular Emperor of the Latin Empire and brother of Philip the Fair, with the purpose of forming an alliance to depose Andronicus. As a necessary prelude Milutin had to rake steps towards being converted and converting his country to Roman Catholicism, and to that end entered upon a long correspondence with the Pope; and he also proposed marriage to a relative, and possibly any relative, of Charles de Valois. The project failed, because Charles lost interest. Had it succeeded Simonis would have been sent home to her father's court, which would probably itself have been removed to exile, to be despised as a failure as diplomat and breeder; and this disgrace would have befallen her because the hateful old man who had married her had abandoned himself to the Roman Catholic Church, which she, like every Byzantine since the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, regarded as a band of criminal enemies. Simonis had always loathed Serbia, and it is no wonder char she attempted to escape. When her mother died she took the body home to Constantinople and refused to return, and Milutin, to whom her flight must have recalled the contemptuovs withdrawal of Michael Paleologus's ambassadors in his youth, forced her back by threats of military action and would not listen to the plea which she reiterated through the years, that he should allow her to become a nun. In the routine of daily life he appears to have treated her kindly, and even with devotion. But it is no wonder chat she leaves the same ugly mark on the fabric of Serbian history as Mary Tudor on our English record. She presents the same spectacle of piteous martyrdom not flowering into sanctity but withering into peevishness and hate. A fresco here at Grachanitsa shows her being crowned by an angel, tense as a cat under an .undesired caress, full of that lack of peace which passes all understanding, recognizable in the shrew and the prisoner. She left behind her an undying legend of hatred and malice. Any Serbian peasant will tell one that Queen Simonis was an evil woman though he may know nothing else about her. The name "Bloody Mary" has a similar independent existence in the English popular mind.

It is probable that Simonis caused this ill fame by the part she played in alienating her husband from his son Stephen. In the popular calendar of the old Serbian saints and kings which was reprinted from ancient sources for the first time about a hundred years ago, it is definitely stated that that was her offence. The story as it is told there cannot be true, for it represents her as trying to oust Stephen from his position as heir to the throne, and replace him by a son of her own, whereas she had no son, and not until she was rnanifestly barren did Milutin acknowledge Stephen as his heir. But the outline of the story seems to be correct. This Stephen was probably the son of Milutin's second wife, Elizabeth of Hungary, the nun of Asiatic descent. When he was quite young he had seen his mother displaced by the daughter of George Terteri the Bulgarian Emperor, but he himself remained at court and did valorous work for the state. He went as hostage to Nogai, the Prince of the Tartars, who had married the little Byzantine Euphrosyne, and he remained there in that dangerous capacity for some years. When he returned he was given as bride the daughter of Smilatz, a Bulgarian noble who for some years was the emperor, like many of his fellow-countrymen, fox the Bulgarian throne was then as often and diversely occupied as the last chair in musical chairs. Stephen was also given a part of his father's kingdom as his own principality.

Then civil war broke out between Milutin and Stephen. It is possible that the son rebelled against the father, for there was a party in the state which thought that Milutin showed unpatriotic weakness in his relations with the Byzantine Empire, and it would have supported Stephen. But in a solemn document connected with the foundation of a monastery Stephen accused Simonis of having lied about him to his father; and it is significant that the campaign began by an invasion of Stephen's principality Milutin. If this first guilt lies on Sunonis, then later and blacker guilt lies on her too. For at the behest of his Byzantine advisers Milutin ordered his son to be banished to Constantinople, and to be blinded before he went. This was not a Serbian punishment; there the code punished criminals either by simple banishment or by the confiscation of their goods. But the Byzantines used mutilation of one sort and another as a penalty for many crimes, and blindness was often inflicted on persons of high position who might be dangerous to the state if left in possession of all their faculties. So Stephen, with his son Dushan and his daughter Dushitza, was taken by guards from his father's palace, and borne along the road to Constantinople. Before they left Serbian territory, at that same Sheep's Field where I saw the slaughter of the lamb at the rock, the guards halted and put out his eyes with red-hot irons. I do not know why they chose that particular spot, but tradition is certain chat they did. The legend runs that that night St. Nicholas came to him in a dream and said, "Fear not, Chine eyes are in my hand." In fact, as quite often happened when the men who used the irons were merciful or clumsy or bribed, the sight had not been destroyed. But Stephen said nothing.

At Constantinople the Emperor Andronicus received him with a kindness hard to explain, save that to such a gentle temperament as his to do a gracious act in this bloodthirsty age must have been like an hour of rest under a shady tree. Stephen was comfortably lodged in the Monastery of Christ Ruler of All, where he sat in affected blindness, facing the sunshine as if it were the night for more than five years. Such virtuosic performances of fearful cunning did the Tudors inspire in the flesh of their flesh; so did Mary Tudor hold her breath to keep it while her father lived, so did Elizabeth when she was Mary Tudor's prisoner. At last Stephen dared tell Andronicus chat he could see; and Andronicus bade him continue to bandage his eyes and to tell no one else.

The legend says that shortly afterwards Andronicus sent a mission to Milutin to consider common measures of defence against the Turks, and that he added to the train the Abbot of the Monastery of Christ Ruler of All, with instructions that he should find a chance to speak well of Stephen to his father. It is certainly true that two great Serbian church- men, the scholar Daniel and the statesman Nicodemus, worked on Milutin year after year rill he was reconciled to his son. We get here a hint regarding the nature of Simonis: her father Andronicus befriended her enemy Stephen, and though she was devout the ecclesiastics of her Church were not on her side. At last, thanks to these intercessions, Milutin asked Andronicus to send his son back to him. So Stephen travelled home with his little Dushan - his daughter had died during his captivity - and was taken to his father's palace. There he was led to the feet of his father, and he kneeled down and clasped his stiff, jewelled robes, and cried out that whatever his father said he had done he had indeed done, and had long repented of it. Then his father bowed down his bearded bluffness to him and raised him up, and gave him the kiss of forgiveness. But Stephen did not unloose the bandage over his eyes. When Milutin gave him another principality in place of the one he had lost, and bade him go to it and leave his son Dushan at court to be reared as a prince, he went blindfold to claim his possessions. A year or two later nobles came and told him Milutin was dead. But Stephen did not put aside the fiction of his sightlessness till he knew that his father was not only dead but buried. So would a child of Henry VIII have acted, had his father formed the intention to blind him and not succeeded at the first doing.

All this story is implicit in Grachanitsa, in the lavished treasure of its colours and the vigorous fertility of its form. "But," a Western reader may object, "it is a story of barbarism, it shows that it is perfectly correct to say that nothing worth grieving over perished at Kossovo." That judgment applies standards that have never been valid save in die reign of Queen Victoria, which must now be recognized as an oasis in the moral desert of ordinary time. If the amount of violence habitual to society is admitted it can be seen that the reign of Milutin was the great age that came before the greater age, as Henry VIII's morning came before the noon of England which is called Elizabethan. Milutin was a true king. He tilted his land towards the sun, wherever that might be in its course across the heavens. This can never be done without negotiation, the spirit must deny its appetite for principle. This is more of a sacrifice than would appear, for all men have a letch to live by principle; the good man would live by virtue, the bad man would live by vice, but both alike want a fixed rule for their happiness. The ruler, however must have none. He muse ask himself of every ace the opportunist question, whether it tilts his land towards the sun or the shadow, and abide by the answer. This obligation prevents him from being a bad or a good man, but it makes the people feel for him as if he were a loving father.

Hence such a king brings glory and confusion to his country. Conduct breaks its established bounds and covers the whole gamut of conceivable action, not because of laxity, but because of a spirit of inquiry. The king is bewildered by the effects of his own deeds, which work well on the bodies and minds of his subjects, although they are contrary to the accepted moral code. He imagines that he must have discovered a new principle of morality, and feels about for it by a number of experimental acts, of a kind not previously sanctioned or even anticipated. His subjects share his sense of triumph and bewilderment, knowing him to be right when he could be proven wrong by all the authority they know. So they too give all events their chance to happen, and since their land is tilted towards the sun all seeds planted in the soil come to a prodigious growth.

Such a crescent age can be distinguished from decadence by its discussion of fundamentals. The people that rots declares with every breath that all is already known; the people that is young falls into the other error of declaring that nothing is yet discovered. There is a testing of the capacity of women's bodies fox pleasure and pain, which might be pronounced simple voluptuousness, were it not for the simultaneous exploration of their minds and respect for their wills shown in the art of the time. There are excesses of loyalty and treachery which might be put down as mere animal reactions, were it not for the speculative inquiries into the bases of faith and conduct sometimes conceived in a head that was to fall for treason to the axe, sometimes written in the hand that had signed the headsman's warrant. Such an age is moral, not because it conforms to a moral code but because it is in search for one.


Turkish bridge

Doubtless Milutin was a murderer and a lecher, as red-fanged a husband and father as our Henry VIII; but like him he made war here and treaties there as it profited his country, nourished commerce, and built higher the fortress of the law. This last achievement was neither safe nor simple. He was surrounded by nobles who wore magnificently furred and jewelled garments made from the costliest stuffs sent out by Greece and Italy and Flanders, and practised an etiquette based on the exalted ceremonial of Byzantium, but for all that were apt to fall into common banditry when away from court. Milutin gentled them, diverted their ferocity to the service of the state, and opposed their lawlessness by an increasing elaboration of the lain. Here Serbia never took its inspiration from Byzantium. It drew on the juristic achievements of the kingdoms of the North, of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia, and even borrowed here and there from the codes, which were not so simple as might be supposed, of the Mongol invaders. One sign of the Northern influence was the establishment of trial by jury, which under Milutin appeared and developed. We can see him dealing with a specifically Macedonian problem in arranging for the representation of the various races of the district on these juries.

In religion also he had renounced all animal simplicity, no matter what his sword arm and his loins might prefer. Though the Kingdom of Heaven will have to be broadminded indeed to receive him, he might even be called an adept in the Christian faith. With a dualism more often found in the realm of sexual relations, he constantly considered the advisability of betraying the Orthodox Church by capitulation to the Papacy, though he was loyal to it in his soul. His age found proof of his loyalty in his charity, which was indeed impressive; he maintained an army of what were then called lepers, which probably included some victims of true leprosy, but which would consist for the most part of those suffering from skin diseases and those appalling ulcerations due to the Puritan theory, still active and working incalculable harm in the Balkans, that to drive out an infection of the skin it is proper to apply a fiercely irritant ointment or lotion. But these good works may have been what Americans compactly call fire insurance, or even a mechanical continuance of the routine set up by his pious mother. His participation in the life of the Church, however, admits of no such rending. He was certainly not moved by fear of ecclesiastical power, for he never hesitated to defy it when it was a question of policy, of tilting his land towards the sun. Throughout his reign he ignored the hostility between the Orthodox Church and the Papacy by permitting six Roman Catholic sees in his kingdom. It is more likely that, after the strange fashion of Henry Vlll, he believed. Both of them, longing to be free for all possible courses of action, might have prayed, "Lord, I believe, help Thou my belief."

That Milutin was a believer is proved by the fiercely, passionately- it might almost be said unnecessarily-religious quality of the churches he built. Grachanitsa speaks first of all regarding the union of church and state. Its architect saw in his mind's eye, when there was but the bare site, the Godhead shining from the secret darkness behind the iconostasis; and he saw, advancing towards the iconostasis to draw power from the hidden Godhead, to derive authority for their rank, Mlilutin and Simonis and their courtiers, dressed in glowing purple, girt with belts of gold studded with pearls and precious stones, multicoloured as flowers of the field. He permitted earthly glory to state its case, to establish its value; but he demonstrated the supremacy of the Godhead's glory by a paradox of forms which were solid as the rock, yet light as the spread wings of a bird. It would he improbable that a society, particularly a small and coherent society, should cause such a church to be built and should afterwards frequent it, without participating in the passion which had engendered it and which it engendered; and its records prove that many among Milutin's courtiers became so enamoured of the hidden Godhead that they could no longer bear to be divided from it by the iconostasis. The Serbian aristocracy included, as well as many sheep-stealers, many saints. Young men fled from the court to become hermits and monks, taking irrevocable vows far stricter than those imposed in the Roman Catholic Church, in such numbers that dangerous gaps began to appear in the governing class; and a law was passed which forbade a religious order to accept any novice, male or female, save with the consent of a bishop.


In the church the ardour of these young men becomes comprehensible. About us were the thick pillars, cold with their great mass, so like virgin rock that we might have been standing deep under the earth, among the sources of rivers. Above us the light, dripping down through the narrow windows of the cupolas from the simple unmeaning amplitude of the sky, lay on the frescoes, and revealed an age of perception so delicate, of speculation so profound, that it is almost outside our Western understanding. They do not represent the perfect classical Byzantine art as it was seen in its two great periods, the fourth to the sixth and the ninth to the twelfth centuries. It is not classical in spirit: it does not celebrate the completely comprehended discoveries which a civilization has achieved by mastering all available information about its environment. But before classicism there must come a preparatory phase of romanticism, in which the age feels its way towards such discoveries, by formulating all conceivable theories and fantasies, to the end chat those which are not valid can be distinguished from those that are; and to such an experimental period, based on the remains of a substantial classicism, belong these frescoes. When Grachanitsa was built, Byzantium had already lost the firm and massive character of supremacy: too many of its forces were divested by apprehension of the Turks. The spirit of the Empire had therefore found several provincial lodgments, in such places as Salonika, Trebizond, Mistra, and Serbia, among populations too different and too distant to be able to carry on the Byzantine tradition without adapting it to their alien natures. Hence Serbo-Byzantine art is a fusion of classicism and romanticism and of two racial spirits, unlike in age, intensity, and experience. It is therefore not a unified and completely satisfying art: but it presents many beauties that have never been surpassed by later ages.

There is in these frescoes, as in the parent works of Byzantium, the height of accomplishment in technique and of ambition in content. The Mother of God prays, her lifted hands far apart, in the fashion of those born not far from Asia; and her nature is as prodigious as might be expected from the mother of a god, the destiny which perplexes her is as amazing as we know it to have been. Two women meet, and a strong wind blows their red and blue cloaks about them. It is the Visitation, and the wind is the Will of God, blowing them to marvellous fruitfulness. An angel stands before the young Mary and gives her a sharp military command; she shrinks basic, not in refusal, but because she realizes more fully than he does how the fulfilment of that order must affect destiny. This version of the Annunciation has an originality, what our grandfathers would have called piquancy, which is noticeable in others among these frescoes; for nothing here is not profoundly considered, and as the likeness of men lies on the surface and their uniqueness in their depths, this makes for unpredictable vision. Here and there this originality was exploited by the romantic element in this art till it substituted strangeness for beauty, and instead of making a revelation started a debate. It was so with the fresco that made my husband say, "Look, here is something extraordinary. Do you remember at Neresi the fresco of a woman washing the Infant Christ, which looked like a Blake illustration to The Mental Traveller? Well, here is another fresco that looks like a Blake illustration to Urizen or Los."

That was true, if one could imagine a Blake from whom there had been remowed that discordant element which obliged him to see the naked body as an unharmonized assembly of muscles and begin all the prophetic books, and indeed interpenetrate them, with terrific groaning family rows among the supernatural beings. This fresco takes the breath away by the unanticipated beauty of the represented natural forms; it says, "This is how you would see if you were not as bad as blind." Against a background of great architectural magnificence, such as one sees in the works of the early Italians, a supernatural youth stands naked on a high and narrow altar, an old man is prostrated in adoring shame before him, and a bishop stands a little way off, worshipping in less humble ecstasy. The nakedness of the youth is depicted with extreme solemnity, as if the human body were the copy of a divine image, and whosoever could completely realize it could completely realize the form of God. The garments of the old man are a thin clothing for his limbs, his limbs ace a dun clothing for his spirit s turmoil. The Bishop's cloak, a superb example of that early adventure in abstract art, the play that the Byzantine artists loved to make with the crosses on ecclesiastical garments, wraps an impressive man in greater impressiveness. The relations of these figures and their background are so proper that when we left the church we could not remember whether it was vast or minute, whether it covered half the chapel wall or only a fraction of it. Yet it lacked the effect of sufficiently great arc. It raised the question -What are these people, and what are they' doing? This would be asked by any spectator, however well he were acquainted with the subject, which is, in fact, an episode in the life of St. Peter of Alexandria, a martyr in the persecutions of Diocletian: Christ appeared to him in nakedness, to foretell that his garment, the Church, was to be refs from him by the Arian heresy. It remained true, after that historical fact was known, that these three people's strange demonstrations of their being, tire opinions they are expressing on divinity and humanity and the fusion of these in ecclesiastical authority, required an amplification which can only be made in language. This new and experimental age had not discovered the limits of each are, it had not learned that painting. must not touch a subject on which literature has still an essential word to say.

This resemblance of Serbo-Byzantine art to the work of Blake, which seems to me entirely mysterious, not to be explained by any conceivable theory, has nothing to do with romanticism; for it is strongly apparent in the most classical fresco in Grachanitsa. This depicts a mystic, and both the Orthodox Church and William Blake knew very well what mysticism was. The Orthodox Church had drawn its knowledge direct from Christ and the Apostles and had developed it in the monasteries of Mount Athos; and Blake was one of the long line of mystics which England finds it so much easier to produce outside the Church than inside. This fresco shows Elijah sitting in one of those caves to which El Greco has accustomed us, an enclosing womb of rock. Beyond it are signs of a forest that makes its own night in the day; and at its mouth are two highly stylized little trees, symbols of barrenness. The old man's clenched right hand supports his bearded chin; his head is thrown back in an ecstasy of thought; his left hand grips his bony knee. He is wrapped in a sheepskin, his tired feet are bare. "This is a study of what our people alone know," said Constantine, "this is mysticism without suffering"

In that he named a distinction between the modern Western world and this Byzantine world, which is at bottom a distinction between poverty and wealth. The West imagines a hermit in the desert as inconvenienced by lack of material objects. He is always assumed to have so few ideas about the spiritual world that he has difficulty in keeping his mind on them, and therefore has to regard die mere exclusion of physical comfort as a positive victory which has constantly to be rewon. This actually was the state of many of the Western mystics. St. Jerome shows in his letters that his animal preoccupations were always bursting into the sparsely populated area of his spiritual life; and St. Augustine describes in his Confessions how the sight of a lizard catching flies or a spider entangling them in his web was enough to distract him from contemplation. But in this fresco of Elijah and in another which shows St. John, wild-eyed with more wisdom than a man can carry, there is depicted the mystic who went into the desert because his head was so full of ideas about the spiritual world that everyday talk was in his ears as a barrel-organ playing outside a concert-hall is to a musician, the mystic who does not want to eat or drink or sleep with women because that is to take time off from the ecstatic pleasure of pursuing the ramifications of good and evil through his bosom and through the universe. There is a raven alighting in Elijah's cave, food in its beak; he will hardly thank it. If a naked woman appeared before him she would be not a temptation but an offence, offending as a person in a library who begins chatting to a student who has found a long-sought reference a few minutes before closing time. Life is not long enough for these men to enjoy the richness of their own perceptions, to transmute them into wisdom.

Their wealth is past our computation. Our cup has not been empty, but it was never full like those in this world, at a spot where Asia met Europe, at a time when the governing civilization had known success as well as failure, and there were these new Slav races to give the sensibility and vigour of their youth to exploiting this inherited treasure of experience. Across one of the walls of Grachanitsa is shown the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary, the state which preceded her Assumption, a subject often treated by the Byzantines. There is no man living today who, exploring his mind in the light of that idea, could draw out so much.

In the foreground of the fresco is the Virgin lying on her bier. By the lax yet immutable line is rendered the marvel of death, the death which is more than the mere perishing of consciousness, which can strike where there is no consciousness and annul a tree, a flower, an ear of corn. Above her bier there shines a star of light; within it stands Christ, taking into his arms his mother's soul in the likeness of a swaddled child. Their haloes make a peaceful pattern, the stamp of a super-imperial power, within the angles of the star. Abort them throngs a crowd of apostles and disciples, come hastily from the next world or from distant lands to attend the Virgin's death, wearing their haloes as bubbling yet serene spheres. On the edge of the crowd stand some bishops in their crosscovered mantles, rock-like with the endurance of the Church, which cannot be perturbed by the most lacerating grief, and still others, also in flowing garments but with bodies liquid with grief, and others, also in flowing garments but with bodies tautened by effort, low under the weight of the bier. One astonished man is attached to it by both arms; he is a Jew of the party that killed Christ, who has tried to upset the bier, and will be glued to it until an angel cuts off his hands with a sword. The background is full of angels as the Eastern Church loved to conceive them, ethereal messengers who are perpetually irradiated by the divine beauty and communicate its laws to flesh-bound man, who embody, in fact, a dream of perfect vision and unfrustrated will, unhampered by the human handicaps of incomplete information and clumsy faculties. Without a taint of labour but with immense force they throw open the doors of Heaven, and light blazes on its threshold, a light inhabited by welcoming saints.

The huge imaginative space occupied by this small fresco is washed by two swinging tides. There is a wave of such sincere and childish grief as children feel when their mothers die, that breaks and falls and ebbs; there is a rising sea of exaltation in the Son who can work all magic and cancel this death or any other, making glory and movement where stillness and the end seemed to be ineluctable. The sides of the fresco are filled in with buildings, distorted with the most superb audacity in order to comply with the general pattern, yet solid and realistic in effect; we are amazed, as we all so often are during our lives, that our most prodigious experiences take place in the setting of the everyday world, that the same scenery should be used For the pantomime and the tragedy. Behind these buildings there is a firmament which evokes another recurrent amazement. It is the most astonishing of all the things which happen to us that anything should happen at all. It is incredible that there should be men and women, mothers and sons, biers and buildings, grief and joy; it would seem so much more probable that the universe should have as its sole packing empty nothingness. Existence in itself, taken at its least miraculous, is a miracle.

But this fresco, though it is inspired by these ideas and communicates them, is pure painting; it essays no task proper to another art. These ideas manifest themselves because they were part of the intellectual and spiritual wealth which the painter had inherited from Byzantium, and he could engage in only the most superficial activities without being reminded of them. But he was wholly loyal to his art. He restricted himself to dealing with certain problems of form and colour, but such was his command over his technique that these restrictions gave him as much liberty as most men's talents and allotment of time are likely to need. He knew how to put circle by straight line and straight line by circle, and pattern by pattern within an enfolding pattern, in a design which by a certain angularity never consented to renounce its nature, always refused to pretend to be a plain copy of material objects; he knew how to exploit the Near Eastern palette of strong colours which have had their strength eroded by stronger sunlight to pale virile essences, or obscured in the labyrinths of Byzantine palaces and only half revived by the glow from torches and candelabra. It is a convention of form and colour which we of the West know through its use by EI Greco, and which we are tempted to mistake for his self-made fortune, if we do not know the treasure house of tradition where he found it. In Grachanitsa, where the painting of these frescoes and the architecture of the church illustrate two arts proceeding from the same late Byzantine culture, we can see how inexhaustible were the treasures of this tradition. Here artists knew the supremest wealth their kind can know; they were rich in crea- tion and they worked for an audience rich in perception. These people were born into a kingdom which was as kingdoms of earth should be, yielding good grain and good meat and good wine; and they had had enough of everything for long enough to forget starvation and outgrow excess. Before their eyes was a kingdom of the mind, founded by another people, which, like all kingdoms of the mind, had never been completed, but was unique in beauty. Well nourished and full of power, the Serbs went forth to know the new pleasures of art and thought, and to complete this culture with a richness that should match the richness of its first intention.

And when we went out of the church there was nothing. Defeat had taken all. Across a dusty yard which had once been a garden, soldiers wheeled barrows full of stones, not to rear again the vanished palaces, but to put up a hostel to divert pence from peasants that might otherwise be spent at a poor inn. On the footboard of our car Dragutin sat smoking, and by him there stood a dull-eyed boy, wearing an unbuttoned shirt of stained linen, patched breeches, and broken sandals. A sore on his lip was smeared with sky-blue ointment. "Go now! Go now!" Dragutin said to him, and crushed his cigarette under-foot. "Look, he is foolish. He knows you are going on to the Trepcha mines, because most English people who come to Grachanitsa are on their way to Trepcha, or have been there. So he wants you to give him a letter to the manager, the great Gospodin Mac. But I ask you, what would they want with the likes of this poor little one? For everything there is fino, fino, vrlo fino, and they can have anyone they like to work fox them, for they pay well and are just people, all dukes." The boy said, "There is nothing for me to do here. I want to work in the mines. Lady, gentlemen, there is nothing at all for me to do here, I want to go to the mines."

Outside the walls of the compound rose the shabby, empty hills which in Milutin's time had been covered with villages. They receded into distances that were truly vast, for a traveller could penetrate them for many miles before he came on life that was gentle, where the meals were full and delicate, and there was clerly knowledge. Yet when Grachanitsa was built the people on these plains and hills had eaten game and fine fattened meats off gold and silver and pewter, and the noble men and women, of whom there were a great number, closely kin to the peasantry, spoke Greek as well as Serbian. But because the Christians had lost the battle of Kossovo all this life had perished. Only there remained the pious gravity of the soldiers, which is something the West does not know. An English soldier is more cynical than an English civilian; but when the Serbian puts on uniform he becomes quiet with a deep unformulated faith, which is perhaps a memory of a Casaropapist empire whose emperor was the Vicar of Christ. Also there was in Dragutin a kind of lordliness that might have been an inheritance From a nobility which, because it was half peasant, did not lose its force when its possessions were rapt from it. Nothing else was left on this scene of what had once been there; the residue was pitifully thin, thin as a shadow cast by a clouded sun. The boy shifted his weight from one leg to the other, and said, "There is nothing here for me to do."

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - Rebecca West (additional extracts)