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Projekat Rastko Gračanica - Peć: Umetnost: Serbian Epic Poetry: Notes

Note on Spelling

Within the poems themselves, I follow the spellings used in Ms. Rootham's translation. I also use those spellings for the keywords in the glossary. Everywhere else I use the standard spelling for Serbo-Croatian names, which is to say the Croatian spelling. Serbo-Croatian is a single language. Serbs write [mostly] using the Cyrillic alphabet and Croats write [mostly] using the Latin alphabet. Other than that, there is no more difference between the Serbian language and the Croatian language than there is between the language of New York and the language of California.

Pronunciation of Serbo-Croatian names is much easier than it looks. It is very much like pronunciation of any Romance language, with the following exceptions:

The haček is a symbol that looks like a small "v" placed over a letter. Similarly, an accent mark over a "c" is indicated by an apostrophe after the "c".

Further confusion arises from the fact that in Serbo-Croatian the letter "r" or (less often) the letter "l" can behave like a vowel -- a phenomenon which leads to the jocular observation by Americans that Serbo-Croatian words tend to be deficient in vowels. In many English words, too, "r" and "l" sometimes act as vowels; we simply choose to spell them differently. For example, our word "circle" might logically be spelled "srkl".

For some of the more confusing names in the glossary, I have offered a pseudo-phonetic guide to pronunciation. The names in the English translations are all easy to figure out, provided one remembers to pronounce "j" like "y".

Historical Background

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.



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.

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.

["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.


1. Although the size of forces at Kosovo was indeed very large for the time, the figures given in the epic poems are greatly exaggerated. Typical estimates vary from 12,000 to 20,000 on the Serbian side, and 27,000 to 30,000 on the Ottoman side.

2. The ravens here are "vrana", not to be confused with "kos" (blackbird).

3. It's a stretch to say that the Ottoman army came "from Turkey" if by that is meant Asia Minor. At the time of the battle of Kosovo (1389) the Ottomans had been established in Europe for three decades. Since 1377 the Sultan's primary residence (one hesitates to call it a "capital") was Adrianople, in Europe.

4. I recognize only some of these place names, and they are primarily in central and northern Serbia, within Lazar's realm. In the mid-1380s Ottoman military activity in Europe was primarily in Thrace and Macedonia, but there were several raids further north as well, both by bands of independent marauders and by the Ottoman army itself. Although the places listed here may well have been raided by Turkish forces, I don't believe the list should be read as a historically precise account of Ottoman military movements.

5. Records indicate that Lazar and Milica did indeed have a daughter named Mara who married Vuk Branković. I'm not aware of any record of a daughter named Vukosava. The latter, who in the epic is married to Miloš Obilić, I believe represents Lazar and Milica's daughter Helen (Jelena), who was married to Branković's rival George Balšić.

6. Written accounts [e.g., Herodotus] record the presence of lions in the Balkans during the age of classical Greece. Exactly when lions became extinct in Europe is not clear, but it seems to be around the time of Christ. They were certainly gone by the time of the battle of Kosovo.

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Copyright © 1999, Mark D. Lew

May 4, 1999

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