Mark Gottfried

The events surrounding the Battle of Kosovo 1389 and its cultural effect on the Serbian people

Source: Kosovo — Land of the living past

The Serbian culture endured through five centuries of Turkish occupation, although the Turks offered security and prosperity, for conversion to Turkish life styles. This Serbian culture was retarded for five centuries, after the Serbian defeat on the plain of Kosovo.

From a culture that led Europe and the Balkans during the Medieval period, the Serbian culture degenerated and stagnated, to the point that when it regained its freedom it had centuries to recover. The Turkish victory at Kosovo, was not as much political as it was cultural. "Turkish historians lay more stress on the Battle of Maritza eighteen years before, which they call Serb Sindin (Serbian defeat)." The military destiny of Serbia was sealed at Maritza. Contemporary chroniclers, without the benefit of hindsight, felt that Kosovo was only one of a series of bloody engagements, leading to the collapse of the Serbian kingdom.

What then is the importance of the Battle of Kosovo? It was a cultural defeat, a religious defeat. It became the symbol of Turkish power and Serbian defeat, not to be forgotten . . . revenge was always over the horizon. The grand Serbian culture, which flourished under Tzar's Dushan and Milutin, was only a memory, after Serbia's knights, armies and hopes died at the field of Kosovo.

"The State was destroyed, but underneath was born from pain and from battle a strong people." It was this strong people, that clung to their own culture, or a remnant of it against time and the Turks. The Battle at Kosovo Polje is one of the focal points of their memories, and as such played a vital role in the Serbian culture.

The binding force in Serbian Culture is its national religion. When in 1190 Nemanja set up a state, from the chaos of the third crusade, the people's religion was not a national concern. His son, now known as St. Sava, brought the Eastern Orthodox Church to Serbia, and set up an oriental culture, leaning toward Byzantium. St. Sava also separated the church from Byzantine rule, and placed the church establishment in the service of the nation. This was the first national church, untied to either Greek Orthodox or Roman dictates. This policy of separation was continued through Tzar Dushan's reign (1331-1355) when he planned and executed all possible activities halting the influence of the Roman church in his state.

This national religion needed a base, or platform to be effective. The monastery was "chosen" for this purpose. In fact by 1430 there were 3,000 monasteries and churches in Serbia. These institutions were the basic educational and cultural establishments of their day. An example of the high culture prevalent in the monasteries at the end of the thirteenth century, Queen Jelena founded a type of "womans' home keeping school" at Brnjeval near today's Kosovska Mitrovica. The building and maintaining of monasteries and church institutions are shown in many of the ballads from the period, "The Building of Ravanitsa" (a monastery) is one example. This poem speaks of the construction of a church institution as a duty of the Tzar.

In the Serbian society literacy was limited to a narrow circle, mainly religious in character. However, there are proofs that literacy often passed the bounds of the religion sector. An example of the literature of the time is a biography of St. Sava written by Monk Teodisije in the thirteenth through fourteenth centuries. The monasteries besides being centers of education and literature were centers of art.

In these monasteries were created beautiful frescos, paintings, tapestries and handicrafts. The art of Serbia of the thirteenth century is considered independent and "convincingly superior" to the art of Byzantium. "On the vast territory of Dusan's empire there were a number of smaller provincial centers of art . . . in spite of their local character, the works produced there had two great assets; they were numerous and of high technical accomplishment," The architecture of the monasteries also represents a special achievement for its time.

Other cultural achievements of the Serbs lie in the field of politics and government. Militarily the Serbs had been on the rise continually and under Tzar Dushan they controlled Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and parts of Greece. At the time of his death, Tzar Dushan was planning to resist the Turks and attack Constantinople. Under Tzars Milutin through Dushan, Serbia was moving toward its real mission as a nation with wealth and power. The advances were not only in military spheres. Tzar Dushan also gave to the Serbs a law which has importance to the Serbs and to Southern Slave in general. This law, the Zakonik, was born of Byzantine and other prevalent laws of the time, and can be said to be a picture of the Serbian social structure of justice based on law.

After Dushan's death the military strength of the autocracy decreased. In 1377 Knez Lazar (ruler of Serbia) was forced to accept the crowning of Tvrtka I at Milesevo (St. Sava's grave) making him (Tvrtka I) king of Bosnia, with rights over Serbia. The clash with the Turks found the Serbs at the teak of their national feeling and culture.

When fourteenth century Serbia achieved its political peak most European countries were second-rate powers. Individual nation states were only evolving in Europe at the time when Serbia's star was already falling. The "countries" of Europe were still subservient to the church of Rome, until the seventeenth century, while Serbia developed a national church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This superior culture faced the Ottoman Turks. This was a clash of not only military strength, but of faiths and ways of life.

Though the major motivating forces were political, cultural and religious feelings and motives also played a part in the battle of Kosovo. "The Turkish system of occupying conquered countries with military colonies and carrying off the original inhabitants, excited a great national opposition in the year 1389." This policy which would destroy the culture and religion of Serbia as well as the state, enraged the people. They felt that "the Ottomans were alien barbarians with a lesser civilization and a religion totally different from that of the conquered." Both the Turks and Serbs were motivated by religious Ideals; the Turks for Islam, and the Serbs for Christianity.

Barring other motives, both parties were politically opposed. The conflict had begun with small marauding raids the Turks pushed across the Dardanelles. When they established a foothold in the Balkans the conflict ". . . progressed too more serious . . . and finally to a full scale campaign."

It is felt that Tzar Dushan might have held back the Turks, but at his death his empire fragmented. Lacking a common culture or political tradition the empire collapsed, leaving. Its remnants open to Turkish encroachment.

"Of course the great task for the Serbian statesman of that time was, how to stem the further progress of the Ottoman Turks and drive them back to Asia." Knez Lazar as elected chief of Serbia tried to unify tie country and stop the Turks. "While Prince Lazar was Infusing fresh vigor into the Serbian State, the danger from the Turks was becoming increasingly pressing." Knez Lazar began to form a Christian league against the Turks. It was revealed to Sultan Murad, who promptly invaded Bulgaria and Serbia to destroy the Christian league. The political desires of the two nations were diametrically opposed; the Turks wanted Serbian lands, and the Serbs survival.

The final military struggle, the clash at Kosovo, was a conflict of both empires, economic systems, religions and hopes. Bulgaria was subdued first and then in 1339 Amurath (Murad I) marched against Knez Lazar, ruler of Serbia. "A great assault on Serbia was organized by the Sultan Murad I . . . he penetrated to the field of Kosovo." "In great haste he (Lazar) had to summon his noblemen to hurry with their retinues to Kosovo to meet the Turkish army." Though Knez Lazar called all his vassals, only some came, some were late, and some never started.

Lazar wished to delay the battle, hoping more reinforcements would arrive, but on July 15 (28), 1389 the Turks surprised the Serbs with an unexpected attack. (The date discrepancy is due to the acceptance of the Gregorian calendar by the Serbs later than Europe). The Serbs led an army of Bulgarians, Bosnians, Skepitars of Albania, with men from Hungry, Wallachia and Poland. It appeared that in the beginning, the Turks with an array of their vassals, were losing. In truth, history knows little or nothing of the facts. It appears that the battle was one of courage rather than tactics.

"It was not a fight to the bitter end." Before the battle started, it was lost, for the Serbs fearing treachery, lost courage. "Victory is never won by those who feel they are going to lose." "All the legends agree in suggesting that the Issue of the battle was determined by treason. A certain Vuk Brankovitch Is represented as the Serbian Judas who led his forces over to the enemy at the crucial moment." However, the treachery of Vuk Brankovic is not a proven historical fact. "Treachery is always the excuse of the vanquished, for it assuages the bitterness of defeat."

Beyond excuses and legend, both leaders, Knez Lazar and Sultan Amurath were killed during the battle. We know nothing historically of how either leader died. It is said that Murad was killed by a false deserter, and that dying he had Knez Lazar brought before him and beheaded. However, that is only legend. At the reports of Murads death the western world thought that Serbia had won, but his death did not affect the course of the battle except that "It considerably increased the severity of Bayazids' treatment of his Serbian captives." This led to the battle's major political importance, for Bayazid, Murad's heir, killed most of the Serbian princes and nobles either in battle, beheaded them immediately after it, as revenge for his father's death.

The two new rulers, Bayazid of the Ottoman's and Stephan Lazarovitch of the Serbs, made peace. The truce of peace which followed ". . . established the inferior position of the Serbians." "The terms of the treaty then agreed to were very moderate. Instead of being incorporated In the Ottoman Empire . . . Serbia was to be an autonomous state under vassalage to the Ottoman Empire . . . " It is known that this liberal peace came from the "enforced" marriage of Stephan's sister Oliva to Bayazid.

After the battle of Kosovo the Serbs did not deceive themselves, It was the death-knell to independence. It destroyed all that was done in the way of Statehood and freedoms since the eleventh century and Nemanja. Even further destruction came in 1459 when Serbia was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire proper. After that time Serbia was no longer a true state.

"The battle of Kosovo, one of the most decisive moments in the century-long struggle of the Serbs against the Turks, quickly became the subject of legend." The poets, bards or minstrels of Serbia were touched to their poetic souls, and wrote the legend of Kosovo. They were affected because there was a foreigner, a conqueror, an occupier in their land. The legends, or poems are probably the most important effect, political or cultural that the battle at Kosovo Polje had. They are important because they helped the Serbs to remember the battle and what their past was. The greatness of the legends or poems lies in their honesty. The guslari (minstrels) did not hide the weaknesses which led to the defeat, but glorified them. "...what amazes one is the curious fact that the very folk songs that glorify Saint Lazar and lament Kosova reveal a frank and true picture of the events and prove how little warrant there is for the legend."

The legends were needed, however, to help maintain the culture of the Serbs. The Turkish victory cut off and destroyed the work of Serbia's leaders and founders, leaving the people alienated from their culture. To maintain a remnant of their culture, the guslari sung their songs of defeat and of God's will to the people. As there are few cultural or artistic expressions as powerful as the guslari, they had a great impact on their time. In the poems are all the social relationships, portrayed and examined, the culture idealized. All that was good remembered, the bad forgotten. For cultural reasons these legends were essential. If not for the legends, the Serbian people might have forgotten their past and adapted Turkish life styles. The epic poems prevented their forgetting the past, as the poems taught in the schools, filled the minds of the people with heroes, and a heritage. Their religion also glorified in the epics also needed a tool for survival, and the legends complied. Once again the legends helped the people remember their religion, and to be proud of the heritage they possessed.

In the legends themselves are suggestions ". . . for a future struggle against the Turks . . . " This led to the peoples hope for a future, thus for survival. The poems glorify the defeat as an act of God. They assuage the bitterness of defeat by using scapegoats, and traitors. In addition they bring to mind the "good old days" of heroes and heroines fighting for their country, king, and Christianity.

These epics "helped the Christian peasant to preserve his ethnic individuality and his faith." The memories are still strong, ". . . and in token of mourning for that great national calamity (the Watterloo of the Serbian Empire) the Montenegrins still wear a black band on their caps . . . Murad's heart is still preserved on the spot where he died; Lazar's shroud is still treasured by the Hungarian Serbs in the monastery of Vrdnik; and in many a lonely village the minstrel sings to the sound of the gusle the melancholy legend of Kosova." It Is these memories which prevented the Serbs from self-pity, but steeled them against submission. When they needed support most the epics which ". . . so majestically touched on the defeated Serbian nation . . . " gave them the strength to withstand the slavery and look toward freedom. Even today, years later, upon the rise of modern Serbian nationalism Kosovo became the symbol for their national Identity.

The quality of the epics can also be spoken of. "In their description of the events, especially where the poets narrated the terrible tortures during battle and afterwards, they bring to mind the Italian poet Dante's Divine Comedy which also dates between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries." The Divine Comedy Is considered one of the Western world's greatest classics. It was also said of the poems that they were as good as, If not better than any Greek or Latin poems ever written. This was said by Jurag Sisgoric (1487) in his work De Situ Illyriae et civitate Sibenici.

These legends and poems held the Serbian people together in their memories of pride and honor. The poems can be said to be one of the major causes for Serbia's continued cultural and religious survival. However, the battle of Kosovo also had direct negative effects on the Serbian people. There was a terrible set back of their language, civilization, nationality, religion and of all they held dear. This great catastrophe tested Serbian moral, religious, and physical strength.

After the battle of Kosovo the Turks were tolerant of religion except when it went into political spheres or sided with rebels. Since there were rebellions and struggles and since the church worked with the rebellious people, she also suffered the wrath of the Turks. Of the 3,000 different Church institutions half were destroyed or desecrated by the nineteenth century.

Despite these persecutions the Serbian faith in their national religion made it impossible for Islam to take over as it had in Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. In Serbia the Turks ruled but could not destroy its national identity.

Though under difficult conditions Stephan Lazarovitch gathered together the intelligencia of Serbia to a monastery at Velika Morava, called Resava. In this monastery scribes and translators worked, and frescos covered the walls. Between Knez Lazar and his son the Moravska school of art and studies developed in the Velika Morava area.

Other contributions to the culture of Serbia after Kosovo mainly related to the battle, commemorating it, and its heroes, were: Konstantin Mihajlovic wrote a biography of Stephan Lazarovic; and the nuns Jefimije and Grigorije who made a tapestry dedicated to the death of Knez Lazar, which is an object of great cultural importance to medieval art in general.

After Kosovo, Serbian books were printed at Gorazde, Gracanica, Rujio, Milesvo, Beograde and Skadar. The Turks persecuted and destroyed these publishers because they served the Serbian national purpose. The situation after the battle was so bad for the people, that in a letter from a Dubrovnik family to Serbian friends, the Serbians were invited to go to Dubrovnik, "If they could not support themselves."

Despite the persecutions and bad economic conditions, the Serbian people always had a feeling of optimism, remembering past glories and looking to future greatness. They survived five centuries of alien subjugation. During those five centuries neither culture advanced, both Serbs and Turks remained in a pocket of Feudal, Medieval life, till the nineteenth century. This stagnated culture, the culture of the Serbs held down, from flourishing as it had, sprang back to life when it regained its freedom. Although the Serbs missed both renaissance and enlightenment, due to the Turkish occupation, they rapidly advanced, once freed, due to the heritage which they so zealously protected through some five centuries.

They are advancing because of their spirit and hopes. They are advancing because of their pride and convictions. They are advancing because they remember, the humiliation of their fathers. Their memory is long, but vital and strong. It is this memory of the battle of Kosovo that kept the Serbian culture alive.

The Battle of Kosovo was a military loss to the Serbs. They lost country, language, and hopes. Yet from this loss came the epic poems of Serbia, the stories of their past. I feel that this loss of a battle enabled the Serbs to win the war . . . of cultural survival.


Gazimestan Commemoration
Traditional Commemoration at the site of the Battle, Gazimestan tower

Први пут објављено: 1972
На Растку објављено: 2007-11-17
Датум последње измене: 2007-11-16 21:42:07

Пројекат Растко / Косово и Метохија