Serbian Epic Poetry

Historical Notes

Throughout most of its history Serbia has not been a united nation. During the three centuries preceding the Ottoman conquest, the king of Serbia was merely the first of several noblemen, and in many cases not even the most powerful among them. Under a strong king — such as Stefan Nemanja, who founded the Serbian kingdom circa 1167, or Stefan Dušan, who reigned in 1331-55 — the kingdom achieved a strong political unity, but at other times Serbia was a loose collection of powerful noble families who in theory acknowledged the king as overlord but in practice ruled their own lands independently.

When Stefan Dušan died in 1355 he was succeeded by his son Uroš, a young and weak ruler who came to be dominated by certain powerful barons. This led to a period of civil war in Serbia, in which a handful of the most powerful noblemen (including Vukašin Mrnjavčević, Lazar Hrebeljanović, and Vuk Branković) fought openly for land and power. This civil strife continued for more than 30 years, right up to the battle of Kosovo.

It was during this time of disunion that the Ottoman army came to Serbia. The decisive battle was not the legendary battle at Kosovo; it was the battle at the river Marica (Maritsa) eighteen years earlier, in 1371. There the Ottoman army was opposed by the forces of the Serbian king and his allies. However, several Serbian noblemen — including Lazar, whose lands lay further to the north — refused to join with their sovereign. Possibly they believed their own positions would be strengthened were the king and his allies defeated.

The Serbian army at Marica was surprised by the Ottomans and was slaughtered. In the short term, the Ottomans gained very little territory as a result of the battle. The power vacuum was filled instead by the independent Serbian nobles who had stayed out of the battle. The various families continued to fight among themselves. Lazar ultimately ended up with the lion’s share of Serbian lands and was acknowledged by the others as the new leader of the nation. But the damage to the Serbian kingdom had been done, through internal division and the loss at Marica.

Ironically, the battle at Kosovo, in spite of its reputation as a crushing defeat for Serbia, was militarily more like a draw. Both sides suffered great losses, and the Ottomans withdrew following the battle. Indeed, one Serb participant (Vlatko Vuković) represented the battle at Kosovo as a Serbian victory, and that is reflected in some contemporary Italian reports. The Ottoman Empire conquered Serbia (and the rest of the Balkans) not by means a single brilliant victory, but by a steady strategy of divide-and-conquer. Rivals were politically isolated and eliminated one at a time; others were welcomed as vassals and gradually absorbed into the empire.

After Lazar was killed at Kosovo, the two pre-eminent Serbian political leaders were Lazar’s widow Milica (who acted as regent for Stefan Lazarević, her son by Lazar), and Vuk Branković (who had married one of Lazar’s daughters). Following the defeat, what remained of Serbia was threatened not only by the Ottoman Empire in the southeast, but by Hungary in the north as well. The Lazarević lands, in northern Serbia, were attacked by Hungary immediately after Kosovo. In response, Milica and her son submitted to the Ottoman emperor in exchange for military help against Hungary. Stefan Lazarević went on to become a loyal vassal, and even a close friend, of Sultan Bayezid.

Branković, whose lands were in the south of Serbia, attempted the same strategy in reverse — seeking alliance with Hungary (and later Venice) against the Ottomans. This proved to be of no avail, however, and the Ottomans soon helped their vassal Stefan Lazarević to annex Branković’s lands.

© Mark D. Lew / May 4, 1999