hist_main.jpg menu.gif There were many factors that contributed to the forming of a Serb national identity by the dawn of the nation-building 19th century. These are all largely based on three key legacies that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
  • Original Slavic tradition, customs and mindset, as were brought with Serbs from their ancestral homeland.
  • The Orthodox Christian medieval state, with its splendid spiritual and material monuments.
  • The Kosovo battle epic and myth, embodied in the vibrant oral tradition of the subsequent centuries of foreign occupation.

There is also an organic link between these three factors. The first bridge was largely provided by St. Sava early in the 13th c., when he managed to finally entrench Eastern rite Christianity and its values firmly on the Serbs, Thus, by establishing a nationally integrated Church, they provided a complement to, and a firm foundation for the State that adjoined it. The second bridge was secured by events at the twilight of that state, centered around the Battle of Kosovo, and their moral and spiritual legacy. Rooted in the second phase, these events created a basis for maintaining that legacy in the altered conditions of foreign yoke, while providing a lasting moral value system, and maintaining a note of understated Christian optimism.

bogor_mileseva.jpgTHE EARLY CENTURIES
Settlement, conversion, organization (ca. 500 - ca. 1000). By crossing the Carpathian range and the Danube at the dawn of the Middle Ages, the Serbs and South Slavs in general enter their present homelands and the historical scene at large. At the same time, they are drawn into the complex process of establishing themselves, coexisting with their numerous neighbors, and maturing politically and spiritually.

The preeminence of Zeta and the rise of Raska (ca. 1000 - 1168). The emergence of new geopolitical realities following the 11th century decline of the Byzantine state leads to the rise of Zeta (Duklja) - the first Serb state with wider international recognition and more prominent cultural monuments. While not surviving the Komnenian Byzantine revival of the early 12th c., it was to lay foundation for the rise of its more centrally located neighbor, Raska - hence the dominant Serbian entity of the Middle Ages.

Establishment of the Nemanjic state as a Balkan power (1168-1321). The remarkable statesmanship and spirituality of the early Nemanjic dynasts - above all, the canonized trio of its founder Stefan Nemanja, the father of the Serbian Church St. Sava, and the "Holy King" Milutin - lay the foundation not only for a viable, prosperous and cultured medieval state, but also for a national consciousness that was to survive long beyond it.

The Empire of Stefan Dusan (1321-1366). Reaping the benefits of an existing solid foundation, yet adding a statesman prowess all his own - Stefan Dusan, precedeed by his able father, elevates the Nemanjic monarchy to a dominant regional position. Territorial expansion is accompanied by major advances in legal codification, ecclesiastic organization and artistic expression.

Fragmentation of the empire and the arrival of the Ottomans (1366-1402). Despite efforts to maintain central authority within a modern and efficient state, Dusan's successors are unable to assert collective interests over the petty feudal ones - at the crucial point of grave threat from an organized eastern invader. While the ensuing military showdowns were to mortally cripple the state, they also will have spawned a spiritual legacy that was instrumental in further shaping the national identity in the centuries to follow.

The restored Despotate and its successors (1402 -1496). The Battle of Kosovo marks the traditional end of medieval Serbian statehood, but the 15th century saw a meaningful revival and unification of the land under the able Despots. While no longer a major regional power and wedged between the advancing Ottomans and opportunistic Hungarians, this state managed nevertheless to produce lasting legacies in areas as diverse as the arts,legislation and chivalry.

The history of Slavs in general, and their southern branch in particular, is largely clouded in mystery until the dawn of the Middle Ages - specifically, the early 6th century A.D. - and partially obscure for yet some centuries thereafter. Incidentally, it was the Slavic tribes later labeled as Southern - and presumably the ancestors of today's Serbs and Croats - that have, by leaving an earlier collective homeland (generally assumed to be somewhere between today's southwest Ukraine and eastern Poland), actually precipitated this change. By moving south, during the great Eurasian peoples migrations, over the Carpathian mountain range and into the lower Danube region, they finally came into direct contact with the Greco-Roman Christian Empire - the leading Euromediterranean civilization of its day, which left us numerous lasting records of these historical events.

To be sure, even in earlier times there are occasional references in ancient chronicles - starting with "the father of history" Herodotos (5th c. B.C.) - of various peoples at the edge of the "known world" or beyond, thought to be inhabiting areas between the Black and Baltic seas, and possibly representing or related to Slavs; but these accounts are usually vague or legendary, and typically use tribal denominations (e.g. Scythians and Sarmatians) very loosely. It is thus only in the 6th c. histories of Procopius and his immediate successors, that Slavs emerge with that name and a definite historical identity.

Indeed, studying these writers at times reveals fascinating facts about Slavs and their traits - some favorable and others less so, and many apparently persistent even to this day. For example, Procopius states how "these tribes are not ruled by one man, but from ancient times they live in democracy", and that they have public gatherings to decide on policy. They were not savage in any way, he describes, and did not keep prisoners long in slavery - preferring to either return them quickly home for ransom, or let them live freely amongst themselves. Emperor Maurice, on the other hand, in his famed military manualStrategikon, says how "they differ in opinion, so they either disagree, or even if they can agree, many soon breach the agreement, as they are all zealously against each other and unwilling to yield to others." Their love for freedom has been often noted - as in the legendary sarcasm in reply to the Avar khagan's envoys: "Who is the man under this sun that might make us bow or succumb?" - yet paradoxically, this was also a key factor in precluding them from organizing a state or other structure capable of securing resistance and collective interests.

And so, having crossed the Danube-Sava frontier, they had entered the Byzantine Balkans for good. In the early 500s these crossings were more in the form of raids and thus temporary, but towards the end of the century the settling of various tribes becomes permanent. Ironically again, the lack of organizational structure proved to be also an advantage in the wars with the Byzantines, as there was no single tribe or leader to defeat, bribe or sign treaties with, to any lasting effect. This period is also marked with the initial incursions of the Asiatic warrior Avar tribe, interspersed with later Slavic ones; and indeed, here we see successive waves of arrivals, rather than just a single one. Thus, the main characteristics of this initial stage of South Slavic historical presence could be summarized as: permanent colonization of the Balkans, all the way to the Peloponnesus; loose tribal organization; often a subordinate position to the Avars; and shifting relations with the dwindling but still present Byzantine authority.

Early sources mention a formidable list of individual tribal names when referring to the arriving and settled South Slavs. Many of these seem obscure today, and many yet were merely based on the settled locale. However, some appear to predate the migrations; the most notable of these are those of Serbs and Croats, which over time were to encompass virtually all of the rest. The etymology of these names remains controversial; it is often claimed that they are not of Slavic, but Iranian origin, thus suggesting the hypothesis of the existence of separate Iranian tribes of these names, which in pre-migration times were pushed eastward into blending with the Slavs. Unfortunately, the first accounts that reliably mention these two names are only from the 10th c. AD on, and are often based on oral traditions of events long passed. The two key sources are De administrando imperio of emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos, and the mid-12th c.Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea.

According to Porphyrogenitos, Serbs originally used to live in what was called White Serbia (neighboring White Croatia) in present-day Poland; then, in the early 7th century, half the population migrated to the Balkans under the leadership of two brothers. There, after some indecision, they accepted emperor Heraclius' invitation to settle in a broad area of the central peninsula, called "Baptized Serbia" - probably in reference to early attempts to convert them to Christianity.

Early on, Serbs created several loose state entities: the region of Neretva (Pagania) between rivers Neretva and Cetina, with the islands of Brac (pr. brahch) and Korcula (KOR-chu-la); Zahumlje (ZAH-hoom-lye), between Neretva and Dubrovnik, with the island of Mljet (pr. mlyet); Travunija (trah-VOO-nee-ya; related to the town name Trebinje) and Konavle between Dubrovnik and Boka Kotorska Bay; Duklja (DOO-klya; later called Zeta, then finally Montenegro), between Boka and river Bojana (BO-ya-na); further inland, Raska (RAH-shka) and later Bosnia (between the rivers Drina and Bosna).

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STUDENICA (Pr. stoo-DEH-nee-tsa) Built in 1196 by Stefan Nemanja. Church of the Holy Virgin harmoniously reconciles two architectural styles, the Romanesque and the Byzantine.

ZICA (Pr. ZHEE-cha) Built by Serbian King Stefan Nemanjic (The First-Crowned) in 1208. It was the first seat of the Serbian Archbishopic.

PEC The Patriarchate of Pec (pr. Pech) and the Church of the Holy Apostles were erected by Archbishop Arsenije in 1250. Church of St. Demetrius was built by Archbishop Nikodim in 1320.

MILESEVA (Pr MEE-le-she-va) Founded by King Vladislav in 1234. One of the most important Serbian sanctuaries and spiritual centers in XIII-th century.

SOPOCANI (Pr. SO-po-cha-nee) Built by King Uros I. Several members of the Nemanjic family were buried in the monastery, including the King's mother Ana Dandolo, Stefan the First Crowned, Grand Duke George and Uros I himself.

GRACANICA (Pr. gra-CHA-nee-tsa) Monumental foundation of King Milutin Nemanjic. His charter includes the following: "I have seen the ruins and the decay of the Holy Virgin's temple of Gracanica, the bishopric of Lipljan, so I have built it from the ground and painted and decorated it both within and without"

DECANI (Pr. DEH-cha-nee) A jewel of the Serbian medieval civilization. Founded by King Stefan Uros III in 1327. Building of the church was supervised by Archbishop Danilo.

RAVANICA (Pr. ra-VAH-nee-tsa) Built by Prince Lazar in 1370. Shortly after Lazar's death at the battle of Kosovo he was buried in the monastery. The first monument of the Morava School of Serbian medieval art.

LJUBISTINJA (Pr. lyu-BO-stee-nya). Founded by Princess Milica and Prince Lazar in 1388. After the battle of Kosovo, Princess Milica became a nun and spent the rest of her life in the monastary.

KALENIC (Pr. KAH-le-nich) Foundation of protovestiar (high Byzantine title) Bogdan, his wife Milica and his brother Peter. The church was built and painted from 1407 till 1413.

MANASIJA (Pr. ma-NAH-see-ya) Founded by Despot Stefan Lazarevic. Built and painted from 1407 till 1418, and surrounded by massive walls and towers.

Medieval Coin

By Radmilo Bozinovic - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

From the advent of coinage more than 2,600 years ago, numismatics - the study of metal currency - has been a fascinating and rewarding endeavor. By studying the images represented, language of inscriptions, artistic expression, metal composition and more, we can often fine valuable evidence not only for a particular monetary economy, but also about distant times and societies, and the dynamics of their development. We hope that the material presented will illustrate the power of numismatic research, but even more so the rich historical experience of the times it covers.

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