SERBIAN EPIC POETRY

Usenet Post

I wrote this back in March 1998, in response to a thread on one of the history newsgroups. (I think it was soc.history.medieval.) A reader there picked it up and, after asking my permission, posted it to the ExJugo list.

This is unedited, as written and posted in March 1998, in the usual Usenet style. I'm adding only rudimentary HTML codes.


Kosovo Mythology (longish)

My apologies if I mess up any of the attributions, on this tangled thread.

John M. Atkinson
<< The mythological connotations that have sprung up about the battle. Also the importance is so grossly exaggerated. Anyone here actually read modern Serb propoganda, besides myself? It's entertaining stuff, heavy with references to the Battle of Kosovo in contexts that make more or less no sense whatsoever. >>

I haven't read any modern propaganda, but I did read the original epic cycle (from a dingy old library book published some time around 1920, I don't recall the translator or publisher) when I was studying Balkan history. That was about two years ago, so the details aren't fresh in my mind.

EddieEffie wrote:
<< What mythology? That there WAS no battle? But there was... >>

Alex Milman wrote:
<< Yes, this was a rather strange statement. Battle definitely happened and it definitely was between Serbs and Turks. King of Serbia definitely had been killed in this battle. What's so mythological about it. I had read 2 different versions regarding Sultan's death but this is probably not what this post had in mind. >>

Setting aside for now the poetic/romantic significance that Serbian literature and culture attaches to the battle, the average educated person in America quite misinformed about Kosovo. Among the misperceptions (which continue to be perpetrated in reference books and news accounts): that the battle was crucial militarily, enabling the Ottoman Turks to overrun the Balkans; and that the Serbian nation was united against the Turks.

(There is also the notion that the Ottoman Turks invaded Europe from Turkey. While strictly accurate, this ignores the fact that the Ottomans were no more native to the Balkans than they were to Asia Minor, and in fact in its early years the empire expanded more quickly in Europe than it did in Asia. By the time the Ottomans took Constantinople holdings in Europe and in Asia were of roughly equal size. And following its defeat in Asia by Timur in 1402, the Ottoman state was almost entirely European.)

Kosovo was a mopping-up operation for the Ottomans, and a desperate last-ditch stand for the non-Ottoman coalition. The key battle took place 18 years earlier on the Maritsa (1371) where the bulk of the Serbian army was annihilated. At that time a united Serbian force would have had a good chance to defeat the Ottomans, but the Serbs were hopelessly divided. The heart of Serbia was in the south, ruled by Stefan Nemanja's heir Uros (technically still tsar of Serbia, I think). Uros was well aware of the Ottoman threat and called on the northern nobles to join him in the battle -- they were his pledged vassals, after all. But these northern nobles, these heroes who would later go down so gloriously at Kosovo, were typical barons. They had long been for all practical purposes independent, and they short-sightedly preferred to promote their own independence by abandoning their lord to his fate.

Most discussion one sees about Kosovo, even educated discussion, presumes the existence of a "Serbia." In fact, there was no united Serbian state. Occasionally Serbia would be united under a strong leader like Nemanja or Dusan, and Serbia did have a national consciousness founded in its church and literature, but politically Serbia was generally no more united than Germany or Italy. Nor was there the sense of the Turks as the "other" that prevails today. Both before and after Kosovo, Serbian nobles did not hesitate to pledge suzerainty to the Ottomans any time it served their local ambitions. Only a few years after Kosovo we find Stefan Lazarevic (son of Kosovo's heroic St Lazar) loyally serving as vassal to the Ottoman sultan. One might argue that a defeated prince has little choice but to submit. That's true enough, but it doesn't explain why in 1402 Lazarevic would travel all the way to Ankara to fight with Sultan Bayezid against Timur (Tamerlane). Nor would it explain why Vuk Brankovic, the supposed villain of Kosovo, did not submit until years after Lazarevic did.

This brings us to another point. Besides the obvious pro-Serb bias, the Serb national mythology is warped by a strong pro-Lazarevic bias. The epic poems were written in the court of Lazar's widow Militsa, so naturally Lazar was described as a saint. Lazar's former political enemies are all painted as bad guys, and Militsa's political rival Brankovic gets the worst treatment of all. Someone else on this thread mentioned treachery at Kosovo -- that comes directly from the epics, which tell that Brankovic betrayed the Serbs to the enemy. Outside of the epics, evidence of this betrayal is scarce at best, but the poets' motive for discrediting Brankovic is clear. Militsa favored her son Stefan as heir to Lazar and leader of what remained of the Serbian nation; Stefan's main rival for that position was Vuk Brankovic, who had been an ally of Lazar and was married to his daughter. Thus her partisans' literary campaign against Brankovic.

But what really distorts the Serbian epics -- and now I'm getting back to the true meaning of "national myth" -- is the Christian mysticism. Even more than in most nations, literature in Serbia was closely tied to the church. Serbia had its own independent church, and was blessed with a diligent group of monks and scholars (notably including Nemanja's son, St Sava), busily transcribing and writing at a pace which is astonishing considering the time period (early 13th century). The Serbian church, Serbian state and Serbian language were all closely identified. The epic poetry (although oral, not written) was born out of this tradition, so Christian symbolism was not just a habit but in a sense built into the language. Thus we have Lazar as Christ, Vuk Brankovic as Judas, and so forth.

So the tales of Kosovo are not simple historical accounts, they are spiritual stories about the national identity. This is what we mean when we refer to the "national mythology" of Kosovo. As an example, a key theme in one of the epic cycles: On the eve of the battle, Lazar has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him he may have an earthly kingdom or a heavenly kingdom, but not both. Lazar chooses to have the heavenly kingdom, and by that choice he is fated to lose the battle. This story is offers a crucial insight into the Serbian national consciousness: as a nation, Serbia believes itself to be blessed but doomed.

...

Finally, Donald Tucker wrote:
<< ... Now try and tell all of this on TV without taking somebody's side! >>

I think a reluctance to "take somebody's side" is a big part of what's wrong with a lot of popular history today. That sort of thinking is what made Robert D Kaplan's _Balkan Ghosts_ such a disaster. It's a sad fact of our time that the history book which was arguably the most influential on U.S. foreign policy in the Balkans was written not by a historian but by a journalist. Kaplan seems to favor the MacNeill-Lehrer talking-heads approach to history, where you line up a bunch of partisans and let them each give their spiel....

* "I'll not turn the other cheek if some Albanian plucks out the eyes of a fellow Serb, or rapes a little girl, or castrates a 12-year-old Serbian boy...."

* "Thank you, Ms Serb ... How do you respond to that, Mr Albanian? *Should* she turn the other cheek?..."

Where's the critical analysis? Where's the basic fact-checking? As a journalist, Kaplan no doubt felt it was his job to let all the people tell their own stories, but if all the stories are myth, what does it accomplish except to compile a pack of insidious lies and publish them in the guise of history?

The biggest lie about the Balkans is that nationalism is ancient there. How many times during the war in Bosnia did we see some talk-show pundit opine, "There are age-old hatreds there that one can't even begin to sort out"? That's a nice line if you want to look smart on TV but have no time to do any research. The only problem is that it's total crap. Nationalism in the Balkans is barely 150 years old, and even then it was born only after fertilization by the meddling of French and British diplomats.

mdl


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April 3, 1999