High Noon of the Serbian Empire



The thirteenth century was a period of steady expansion and consolidation for Serbia and the Nemanjas. The tribal zupans became lords and nobles, while peasants were increasingly reduced to serfdom on the feudal estates. Apart from agriculture the mainstay of the medieval economy was mining. During the reign of Stefan Uros I (1243-76) several new lead, copper and silver mines were opened. Saxon Germans were brought from Transylvania as miners and commercial links with Italy were strengthened. Throughout the middle ages Ragusa (Dubrovnik) played a key role in the economy of the region as its main commercial and entrepôt port city.

Abroad, in 1261, the Byzantine Empire was restored in Constantinople. Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus won back some of the old imperial lands, but his state was to remain weak.

The Serbian kings continued to seek immortality in their monastical bequests. Uros I was the founder of Sopocani, and Milutin (1282-1321) of Gracanica, which is close to modern Pristina. Under Milutin, the gold mines of Novo Brdo started work, and lead is still mined there. Milutin’s fourth wife was Simonida, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor. She had originally come to him as a child bride despatched from Constantinople at the age of six. In Gracanica’s church her frescoed portrait shows her perfect oval face topped by a magnificent crown. Her body is wrapped in sumptuous bejewelled robes. Under Milutin, Byzantine tradition, court customs and institutions came ever more to be emulated and Simonida’s mother, the Empress Irene, in Constantinople would shower her son-in-law and daughter with precious gifts. Milutin’s claim to the throne, which he in fact wrested from his brother Dragutin, who had in turn seized it from his father Uros I in war, is emphasized by means of another frescoed Nemanjic family tree. It shows him at the top with angels bringing him the crown and other symbols of his power and majesty. Milutin was clearly no longer content with being just the king of a peripheral Balkan backwater, even if St Sava had buttressed the Serbian kings’ claim by invoking divine right. He had begun to hunger for something more. Desanka Milosevic, who has written about Gracanica, notes that Milutin’s portrait atop the family tree contained in it an important political message for those who could decode such symbolism:

With this act, with this painting, the king had all the prerogatives of power of the Byzantine Emperor, except for the title. The crown, the garments, the lros and the sceptre were all identical to the Byzantine Emperor’s. Before Milutin, something like this would have been absolutely unthinkable, for only the Byzantine Emperor was Christ’s regent on earth and only he ruled by God’s grace.

Today Gracanica, like the other Serbian monasteries of Kosovo, stands like a small Serbian island in an Albanian sea. By the time of Serbian Nemanjic rule in Kosovo and Metohija, to give the region its full Serbian name, the majority of its population was most probably Serbian. As the British historian Noel Malcolm has written, ‘all the evidence suggests that they [Albanians] were only a minority in medieval Kosovo.’ Albanian historians dispute this claiming they were in the majority while Serbian historians claim that, if there were any Albanians in Kosovo at all, only insignificant numbers were present. Whatever the true proportions, difficult to assess anyway because of assimilation and the more fluid nature of identities then, things began to change after the Ottoman conquest and especially after the great Serbian migrations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this period the movement of Albanians, mostly Muslim converts, into Kosovo began to change the region’s ethnic make-up, leading inexorably to a situation by which Serbs were eventually to become a small minority.

There is something pathetic then in the small clusters of people who gather for mass in Gracanica’s vaulted gloom of an icy-cold winter’s evening. Before the war in Kosovo they were a poignant reminder of past glories. Now, in what has become a Serbian enclave whose physical security at the dawn of the twenty-first century was only assured by Swedish troops, they had become a living remnant of Serbian history.

When the English writer Rebecca West visited Gracanica in 1937, twenty-five years after the Serbs had recaptured Kosovo from the Turks and in an era when the Serbs still bathed in the reflected glory of their First World War heroism, she saw the church in an entirely different light:

From the immense height of the cupolas light descends on three naves, divided by three gigantesquely sturdy columns, and arrives there multicoloured, dyed by the frescoes which cover every inch of the wall. 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.

Although the Nemanjic monasteries were all of course Orthodox there was still not the total alienation between the two branches of Christendom that in this region was to develop later. The Nemanjas married Catholic princesses and, during the several conflicts between brothers or between sons and fathers that plagued the Nemanjas, one side often allied with a Catholic party such as Hungary and would pledge to bring Serbia into the Roman fold.

Born in 1307 Dusan was to be the greatest of the Nemanjic monarchs. He seized power from his father Stefan Decanski and had him locked up in the fortified town of Zvecan. In 1331 Dusan was crowned king of Serbia and two months later Stefan Decanski was strangled.

Dusan had his father buried in Visoki Decani High Decani, the monastery Stefan Decanski himself had begun to build and which his son was to continue. It is one of the most striking of all the Serbian monastery churches. While indubitably Byzantine and Orthodox inside, its outer walls are lined with strips of polished marble recalling the western, Dalmatian and Italianate styles of the time. Indeed its main architect was a Catholic, Fra Vita from the coastal town of Kotor. Stefan Decanski is celebrated as a saint, and his sarcophagus is opened on important feast days. Although Dusan was to be the greatest Serbian leader to date, he was not canonised because of his presumed part in the murder of his father.

With Byzantium at the time plunged into civil war, Dusan now seized the opportunity to expand the old Serbian state based around Raska and Kosovo. Soon he had taken all of Macedonia save Salonika and also much of Albania. After that Epirus and Thessaly, deep in modern Greece, were to fall to him. In 1343 Dusan supported John Cantacuzenus as a claimant to the throne of Byzantium. Cantacuzenus’ daughter had already been married to Orhan, the leader of the increasingly menacing Ottoman Turks. After his alliance with the Serbs broke down, Cantacuzenus called on the Turks to help fight the Serbs. It was a turning point not just for the Balkans but for the whole of Europe too, for in this way the Turks made their first major incursions on to the continent. Cantacuzenus had appealed to the Turks because Dusan’s ambition now embraced the throne in Constantinople itself. Such divisions within the Christian ranks were of course characteristic of the times and could only profit the Turks. Within just over one hundred years they had not only overwhelmed what remained of the Serbian state but had taken Constantinople as well.

In the meantime Dusan had himself crowned the ‘Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks’. The coronation took place in Skopje, in Macedonia, on Easter Sunday in 1346. Later he added the Albanians and Bulgars to his title. Only a patriarch could crown an emperor, but as Dusan * was in conflict with Constantinople the patriarch there clearly could not approve such a move. Dusan therefore had to create his own patriarch. He convoked a council of Serbian and Bulgarian churchmen and had them promote the most senior Serbian archbishop, Joanikije, to the status of patriarch. This led to a schism with the church in Constantinople. Dusan did not fulfil his ambition to take the city as he died suddenly in 1355.

Dusan has come down through history with two suffixes to his name. One is ‘the mighty’ in recognition of his short-lived empire. The other is ‘the lawgiver’ because of the new legal code he introduced in 1349 and which was expanded in 1354. The code, like Sava’s Nomocanon, was based on Byzantine models but adapted and expanded. Its first part deals with church matters and the ‘Latin heresy’. However, a large section is devoted to the medieval fight against crime, including bribery, theft and the forging of coins. Other portions deal with issues ranging from taxation to border lords, who are to be punished if they fail to prevent enemy incursions. Punishments were severe but no more so than elsewhere in Europe. Juries were selected from the defendant’s peers, but there was no question of equality before the law. Slaves, serfs, nobles and others were punished according to a sliding scale, with the lowest classes bearing the heavier punishments. Article 51 is a good example:

If any lord take a noblewoman by force, let both his hands be cut off and his nose be split. But if a commoner take a noblewoman by force, let him be hanged; if he take his own equal, let both his hands be cut off and his nose split.

Retreat from Empire

By 1355 Serbia was an empire which stretched from the Danube to the Peloponnese. It had a strong ambitious leader, an established dynasty and a national church, and it was by far the most powerful state in the Balkans. After Dusan’s death everything began to unravel. He was succeeded by his son Stefan Uros V, who had neither the authority of his father nor his military abilities. He is often dubbed Uros the Weak. John Cantacuzenus wrote at the time that Uros’ first challenger for power was his uncle Simeon, who sought:

to rule over all the lands of Serbia, thinking that his claims were stronger, and many of the Serbian landed aristocracy supported him. And Uros, the king’s son, gathered an army to protect his fatherland from his uncle. But his mother, Jelena, did not join either him or her brother in law, Simeon. Instead she took many cities for herself. . . . The most powerful members of the aristocracy drove out the humbler and the weaker members, seized any of the surrounding towns they could grab; some then joined the king and some Simeon, his uncle, not as vassals and subjects to their master, but rather as allies and friends offering support. . . . And thus broken and divided into a thousand parts, they started quarrelling.

While the general picture painted by Cantacuzenus is accurate, his time scale is blurred. He does not say for example that the first attacks on the empire came, not from within the Serbian camp, but from outside. With support from the Venetians a local ruler managed to wrest areas now in modern Albania from Serbian control. Those parts of Greece which had been part of the empire soon fell away too, with Simeon declaring himself emperor there. In the north Serbia was attacked by the Hungarians. In Zeta the Balsic family, whom both Serbs and Albanians claim as their own but were most probably intermarried, managed to take power, which they held until 1421.

By 1361 two brothers, Vukasin and Jovan Ugljesa, known to literature as the Mrnjavcevics, had emerged as leading actors on the political stage. These great feudal landowners from Macedonia were later to be condemned for usurping power from Uros. In fact, according to Rade Mihaljcic, a leading expert on the period, they at first worked with him, unlike his treacherous uncle Simeon. However, the Mrnjavcevics did have ambitions and, to the fury of the nobility of Raska, Vukasin was declared king under the nominal sovereignty of Emperor Uros. As Uros had no children this placed the Nemanjic succession in jeopardy. After 1365 Uros faded from the political scene, remaining emperor in name only. Slated for succession then was the son of Vukasin. He is known to history and in the legends that were to be woven around him as young King Marko or Kraljevic Marko.


Battle on the Maritsa

In the end there was to be no final power struggle. As Dusan’s empire crumbled away, it soon became clear that the balance of power in the Balkans was shifting. The main threat to the Serbs was no longer the Bulgarians or the Byzantines but the military might of the Ottoman Turks, who were rapidly advancing from out of Asia Minor. In 1371 Vukasin and Jovan Ugljesa died at the Battle on the Maritsa river, where the Serbs met the Turks in battle. Soon afterwards Uros died and with him ended the rule of the Nemanjic dynasty. The Battle on the Maritsa was a crushing victory for the Turks, and as a consequence Bulgaria, Macedonia and parts of southern Serbia fell under their sway. In strategic terms its consequences were far greater than those of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, but because of the myths and legends that have grown up around the latter the first has tended to be forgotten.

As there was obviously no native Turkish or Muslim population upon which to base the Ottomans’ Balkan rule at this time, the first stage of conquest was generally to leave a defeated territory under the control of its native rulers. Some did not even wait to be conquered, bowing before the overwhelming force of the Turks and submitting to the sultan’s authority. The price of power though was that these rulers became vassals. This meant that not only did they have to pay tribute to the sultan but they had to fight alongside him when called upon to do so. Kraljevic Marko became the first Serbian leader to fight with his men in the army of Sultan Murad I (136089). His career as a Turkish vassal did not preclude him from becoming one of the central figures of Serbian folklore, in which his character often defies his master, the sultan. One legend about him has him saying on the eve of battle: ‘I . . . pray God to help the Christians, even if I am the first to be killed in this war.’

After the Battle on the Maritsa, what remained of Serbian land was divided between several feudal lords. The Balsic family had already taken control of Zeta. The feudal lord Vuk Brankovic held parts of Raska, Kosovo and northern Macedonia, while one Lazar Hrebeljanovic rose to prominence in the region covering today’s central Serbia and parts of Kosovo including the citadel and mines of Novo Brdo. Lazar also greatly expanded his territory on the border of Bosnia when, in alliance with the Bosnian leader Ban Tvrtko Kotromanic, he fell upon the zupan Nikola Altomanovic, partitioning his lands between them in the autumn of 1373.

As the hero of the Battle of Kosovo and the figure that above all others bestrides Serbian history from the downfall of the Serbian state to modern times, it is striking that so little is known of Prince or Knez Lazar until 1371. Later eulogies and chronicles sought to magnify his origins, but apart from the fact that he was born around 1329 near Novo Brdo little is known for sure. He appears to have served at Dusan’s court in a noble capacity, and he clearly distinguished himself, acquiring the title of knez and marrying Milica, who came from a junior branch of the Nemanjic family.

With his successful conquest of Nikola Altomanovic’s lands Lazar was now emerging as the most powerful of the lords ruling the territory of the former Serbian kingdom. He made alliances through marriage, Vuk Brankovic was his son-in-law, and he came to be supported by the church ‘as the most suitable person for uniting the traditional lands of the Nemanjics and for restoring their state’. Lazar welcomed many churchmen to his territory who had fled the lands now under Turkish rule. Clearly seeing the coming danger, they encouraged him to seek a reconciliation between the Serbian church and the patriarchate in Constantinople. Relations had been broken after Stefan Dusan’s coronation in 1346. Lazar mended the breach, and formal renunciation of Dusan’s excommunication was read over his tomb in Prizren in Kosovo. Lazar was generous in giving to the church. Among the most important of his foundations was the delicate Ravanica monastery church which stands in the Morava valley in central Serbia.

As his power grew, Lazar started to describe himself as the ‘ruler of all Serbs’, though this was an ambition rather than a reality. At the same time Ban Tvrtko had had himself crowned ‘King of the Serbs and of Bosnia’ at the monastery of Mileseva in 1377. Despite this apparent clash of aims the two remained on good terms. Possibly Lazar deferred to Tvrtko here because the latter had Nemanjic blood in his veins while Lazar did not. At the time it was widely believed that Vukasin had died at the Battle on the Maritsa because he had taken the title ‘king’ without springing either directly or indirectly from the Nemanjic ‘holy root’.

The Turkish advance through south-eastern Europe was greatly aided by the divisions among the Christian leaders. By the time of the fateful Battle of Kosovo, Lazar may have been the biggest lord on the Balkan block but that was not enough, despite the support he was to receive from Vuk Brankovic and King Tvrtko. Lazar’s Serbia had been strengthened by the arrival of refugees from the lands which had already fallen under the Turks, but still this did not mean his principality had power enough to resist for any length of time. Moreover, the system of Christian vassal princes ensured that Serbs, among others, made up a part of the force which faced Lazar’s army at Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, on 28 June 1389.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *