One of the finest means of communication between peoples is for them to get to know each other's culture. Both sides can only benefit from such an exchange of knowledge. This is especially true of small nations, about whom others know relatively little. The idea of offering a concise review of the history of Serbian culture arose from an awareness of these facts. It is intended for the educated readership in other countries, having first been written in Serbian and then translated into various languages. On the initiative of the writer Djoko Stojičić, a small editorial team gathered eminent experts from various disciplines, aiming to include the broadest possible spectrum of themes from the Middle Ages to the present. From the outset, the position was taken that the texts must be free of all ideology and propaganda. We have attempted to put the book together in the way we would like to have books about other cultures sent to us.
One of the hardest tasks was finding a balance between all the information we wanted to include and our desire to be concise. The number of facts, which deserve attention, is enormous, and yet the book itself dared not exceed a certain length. The selection, which involved sacrificing a great deal of the material, turned out to be a very delicate process. Where does one find the criteria when such diverse subjects are in question, subjects as far removed from one another as medieval architecture and the modern novel? In many cases we cannot be certain that what was omitted is not at least as valuable as what was included.
The line of development of Serbian culture was interrupted at its apex. A sharp deacon during Turkish rule, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries followed its rise in the Middle ages, during the period of the independent Serbian State. The exceptionally difficult circumstances, in which the Christian population was deprived of all its rights and suffered oppression and poverty, made it impossible for them even to think of cultural activity at the level achieved in the preceding period. It was also impossible to preserve the heritage of the past in its entirety. Some of the most beautiful monasteries were razed to the ground, and of those left standing almost none maintained their sacral function continually. Most fell into disuse for a century or more. Many of the monasteries were left for long periods without a roof, exposing the frescoes to the destructive forces of rain and snow. The fate of old Serbian printing is instructive and sad. The last cultural achievement on remaining unconquered Serbian lands was the printing of the first Serbian books at the end of the fifteenth century. All printing activity ended in the sixteenth century, expunged by the misfortunes of Turkish rule. Afterwards, the Serbs had to make up for lost time. They had to race in order to catch up with those who had been advancing at a normal pace. Yet, the culture had not been completely extinguished. At a time when there was no educated elite, the common people kept the culture alive. Literature was created by anonymous authors, spread and transmitted orally from generation to generation. When this literature finally became known to the foreign public, it excited even the most brilliant proponents of European Romanticism. Among those who translated it or who praised it in superlatives, one finds Goethe, Jacob Grimm, Mickiewicz and Pushkin. Prosper M‚rim‚e expressed his enthusiasm in an unusual way: he wrote the book La Guzla, a mystification which he presented as Serbian folk poetry.
The reconstitution of the Serbian State was accompanied by a revival in Serbian culture. Unfortunately, this development did not go unhindered. The Serbian uprisings of the nineteenth century found the Serbs divided between two powerful empires, and the battle for freedom was fought with mixed success, with the incredible sacrifices which are unavoidable when the weaker venture into war with the stinger. History was not much kinder to the Serbs in the twentieth century. The great powers fought over them, and the country was completely occupied twice. The arduous battle to preserve freedom at any cost and liberate the occupied lands brought about more suffering new loss of life and more destruction. History imposed itself on cultural activities as one of the central themes. There are few literary traditions in which so much is written about historical events, which often means, unfortunately, that much is written about human suffering.
In spite of all the misfortunes, Serbian culture has made great advances in modern times. The reader will learn about those achievements in this book.