Serbian Epic Poetry



Jug Bogdan

Jug Bogdan [yoog bohg-DAHN]. An elderly Serbian nobleman. Father of Milica and the Jugovići. (In the Serbian text the name is Bogdan-Juže.)

Vuk Brankovitch

Vuk Branković [vook]. A Serbian nobleman, portrayed as a traitor in the epics. Before the battle of Kosovo, he was an ally of Lazar Hrebeljanović and was married to one of Lazar’s daughters. According to the epics he betrayed Lazar by abandoning him during the battle. Whether this betrayal actually took place cannot be determined. Ottoman accounts report that Branković fought bravely and did not retreat until after the battle was lost.

Branković was the most prominent nobleman to survive the war, and he sought to become the next Serbian leader. That brought him into rivalry with Lazar’s widow Milica and her son Stefan Lazarević. The latter allied with the Ottoman empire, and Branković was defeated. Although the Lazarević-Branković rivalry lasted only a few years, it is commonly assumed that the epic poems about Kosovo originated during these years as pro-Lazarević propaganda, thus explaining the portrayal of Lazar as a saint and Branković as a traitor.


Damjan. One of the Jugovići.


Gojko. A fictitious character, brother of Vukašin and Uglješa of the Mrnjavčević family. In the poems presented here, Gojko gets only a passing mention. Another poem not included here (Uroš and the Mrljavečevići), gives an unflattering portrayal of the other two brothers, in which they are contrasted with the admirable Gojko.


Jugović, plural Jugovići [YOO-go-vee-chee], “sons of Jug”. Sons of Jug Bogdan, brothers of Milica; in the poems there are nine of them. Although Milica is a genuine historical figure, the Jugović brothers in the poems are fictitious. In another poem, about the building of Ravanica, not included here, the Jugovići are portrayed unfavorably.

Ivan Kossanchitch

Ivan Kosančić. A fictitious character. In the poems he is a Serb nobleman allied with Lazar.

Tsar Lazar

Lazar Hrebeljanović [la-ZAR khreb-el-YAH-no-vich]. Hero of the Kosovo epics. A powerful nobleman from the northern part of Serbia. He prevailed in the civil wars of the 1360s and 1370s. After Uroš and Vukašin were killed in the battle of Marica, Lazar emerged as the de facto king of Serbia. He led the Serbians in the battle of Kosovo, where he was killed. In the poems Lazar is given the title of “tsar”, but his real title was “knez” (prince).


Mrnjavčevići [murn-YAHV-cheh-vee-chee], “sons of Mrnava”. Mrnava’s identity is unknown; his sons were Vukašin and Uglješa. A third brother named in the poems, Goïko, is a fictitious character.

Tsaritsa Militsa

Milica. Wife of Lazar Hrebeljanović. In the poems Militsa is given the title “tsaritsa”, but since Lazar was never named tsar, Militsa was never really a tsaritsa either. After Lazar died in the defeat at Kosovo, Milica became regent for their son Stefan Lazarević. For the next few years, she was in a bitter political rivalry with Vuk Branković, the most prominent Serb nobleman who survived the battle. Although the rivalry lasted only a few years, it is commonly assumed that the epic poems about Kosovo originated during these years as pro-Lazarević propaganda, thus explaining the portrayal of Lazar as a saint and Branković as a traitor.


Murad I. Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1360-89, leader of the Ottoman forces at Kosovo. On the evening before the battle, Murad was murdered by Miloš Obilić, a Serb who had entered the Ottoman camp representing himself as a deserter. The sultan’s death was kept secret and not revealed until after the battle was over.

Musitch Stefan

Stefan Mušić. A Serbian nobleman, allied with Lazar Hrebeljanović.

Milosh Obilitch

Miloš Obilić. According to the poems, Miloš was the greatest of Lazar’s warriors, a rival of Vuk Branković, and the man who slew the Ottoman Sultan Murad. One of the poems makes Miloš a participant in the battle at Kosovo, while another legend says that he infiltrated the Turkish camp and murdered Murad in his tent. A 17th century Italian historian [Orbini, probably following Serbian oral tradition] reports that a Serb named Miloš Obilić did indeed desert (or pretend to desert) to the Ottoman side. When brought before the Sultan, Obilić produced a concealed dagger and assassinated the sultan. I know of no references to Miloš Obilić outside of the context of the Kosovo battle.

I believe that some depictions of Miloš in the poems have conflated him with George Balšić, a leading Serbian nobleman of the time. George Balšić is known to have been a rival of Vuk Branković (the two families had been traditional enemies) and he, like Vuk, married one of Lazar’s daughters. The Balšić family’s lands were in the west (in what is now Montenegro). George Balšić submitted to Ottoman suzerainty a few years prior to Kosovo and did not participate in the battle.

Pavle Orlovitch

A Serb warrior at Kosovo. The name is unfamiliar to me.

Voyvoda Stefan

There were many Serbian nobles named “Stefan”. I assume this reference is to Stefan Mušić.


Strahinja. A Serbian nobleman, hero of another poem not included here. Strahinja’s historical identity is uncertain. It has been suggested that he may represent George Balšić. (See Milosh Obilitch.)

Toplitza Milan

Toplica Milan [toh-PLEET-sa MEE-lahn in the English translation; mee-LAHN in the original Serbian text]. A fictitious character. In the poems he is a Serb nobleman allied with Lazar. The name should be read as “Milan from Toplica”. Toplica is a place name for a town, a region, and a river in what is now southcentral Serbia. Toplica was site of one of the original Serbian bishoprics. The river still bears the name.


Uglješa [oog-LYEH-sha]. Brother of Vukašin. A vassal of Stefan Dušan, he remained loyal to Dušan’s son Uroš. As Uglješa’s lands lay nearest to the area threatened by the growing Ottoman empire, it was Uglješa who worked hardest to collect allies to fight for Serbia in 1371. The mention of Uglješa in the poem The Fall of the Serbian Empire is historically inaccurate: The real Uglješa was killed at Marica in 1371.

Voyvoda Vladeta

A variant name for Vlatko Vuković. He commanded the Bosnian army, which fought with Lazar at Kosovo, and was one of the few Serb leaders to survive the battle. (At that time there was little distinction between Serbian and Bosnian nationality.)

King Vukáshin

Vukašin Mrnjavčević [voo-KAH-sheen murn-YAHV-che-vich], brother of Uglješa. A powerful nobleman in Stefan Dušan’s court, he remained loyal to Dušan’s son Uroš. About halfway into Uroš’s reign, Vukašin came to be the real power behind the throne and was named “king” (kralj). (According to the tradition of the time the title for the monarch (Uroš) was tsar, and the title kralj was given to the designated successor.) The mention of Vukašin in the poem The Fall of the Serbian Empire is inaccurate: The real Vukašin was killed at Marica in 1371.

After the deaths of Vukašin and Uroš, Vukašin’s son Marko inherited the title of kralj. In spite of the fact that the historical Marko’s attempted reign was unsuccessful and undistinguished, he is the hero of several later Serbian epics (not published here), in which he is known as “Marko Kraljević”. The same Marko is a hero of Bulgarian poetry as well, in which he is known as Krali Marko.



Kosovo. Today the name “Kosovo” applies to a large region of southwestern Serbia. In the epics it refers specifically to a large plain where the famous battle took place. (The plain was also the site of several lesser battles both before and after 1389.) The plain is about 15 miles wide and 50 miles long (about one-fifth of the Kosovo region) roughly following the Sitnica River. The plain is often called “Kosovo Polje[POHL-yeh], and a town on the plain goes by that name. The word polje means “field”, and kosovo is the genitive form of kos, meaning “blackbird”; thus Kosovo Polje is sometimes called the “Field of Blackbirds”. In this English translation of the poems “Kossovo” is pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable.


Kruševac. Lazar Hrebeljanović’s capital. Today a town in what is now central Serbia, near the confluence of the South and West branches of the Morava river.


Niš. A large town in eastern Serbia. By the time of the events described in the poem The Miracle of Tsar Lazar it was under Ottoman control. Niš is still a major city in Serbia today.


Peć. A large town in what is now western Kosovo. As the seat of the Patriarch of the Serbian church, Peć was considered a holy city — along with Jerusalem and Constantinople, seat of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.


Ravanica. Site of a monastery founded and supported by Lazar Hrebeljanović. At least one modern historian [V. Mošin, 1937] reports that Lazar’s body was indeed moved to Ravanica a few years after the battle at Kosovo.


Sitnica. The river that flows by Kosovo Polje.


Skoplje [SKOHP-lyeh], also spelled Skopje [SKOHP-yeh]. Now the capital of the republic of Macedonia, then a large city in southern Serbia. (At that time there was little distinction between Serbian and Macedonian nationality.) At the time of the battle of Kosovo, Skoplje was within the domain of Vuk Branković; by the time of the events described in the poem The Miracle of Tsar Lazar it had become an Ottoman provincial capital.


Vidin. A city in the northwest corner of Bulgaria, near the Serbian border. In the middle of the 13th century, the area near Vidin separated from the rest of the weakening Bulgarian kingdom. At the time of the Kosovo battle it is the capital of an independent Bulgarian principality, tributary to the Ottoman empire. The usual spelling is “Vidin”, which is how it appears in the Serbian text. I don’t know why it is changed to “Vidni” in the English translation; that may be a typographical error.


Zvečan. A significant Serbian town at the time, at the northern end of the Kosovo plain, where the Sitnica River joins the Ibar, near the modern city of Kosovska Metrovica.



A title for a provincial governor. The term is of Hungarian origin, and thus suggests a vassal of the king of Hungary. In the epics, Uglješa is called a ban; as far as I know, that label is historically inaccurate.


A coin. Coinage in Serbia dates to the early 13th century. The ability to mint one’s own coins was a sign of prestige and independence, and by the time of the battle of Kosovo several of the major Serbian noblemen had done so. Serbs adopted the word “ducat” from the Venetians, who were active in Balkan commerce in the early middle ages.


A type of hat. The word is of Turkish origin, but also used in Serbo-Croatian. “Kalpak” does not appear in the Serbian text of the poem Musitch Stefan; the word used there is klobuk, a Serbo-Croatian word, also referring to a sort of hat. The word kalpak does appear in the poem The Maiden of Kossovo, in a line repeated three times. There, svilen kalpak is translated as “silken cap”.


A Turkish title, indicating a provincial governor in the Ottoman empire.


At the time of the epics, the word “Turk” did not carry the ethnic connotation it does today. The Serbs used the term “Turk” to refer to any Muslim, regardless of ethnicity (as indeed they still do today). The Ottomans at the time did not use the term “Turk” at all, identifying themselves instead according to religion or political allegiance.


Vojvoda. A title, sometimes translated as “duke”. Technically a military commander, but also used to designate a subordinate territorial ruler. The region ruled by a vojvoda is a vojvodina [voy-VOH-dee-na]. Vojvodina is also the name given to a region of northern Serbia, near the Hungarian border.

© Mark D. Lew / May 4, 1999