Serbia in the Middle Ages

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Artistic impression of Višeslav of Serbia, c.780, the first Serbian ruler whose name is recorded

The medieval history of Serbia begins in the 6th century with the Slavic invasion of the Balkans, and lasts until the Ottoman occupation of 1540.



Serbian migratory route
De Administrando Imperio on the origin of the Serbs: "Serbs originate from the unbaptized Serbs, also called White Serbs, which live on the other side of the Turkey (i.e. Hungary), in the land which they call Bojka, close to the Frankish Empire and the great Croatia, unbaptized, also known as the White Croatia."[1]

The Slavs in general were mentioned by the Roman historians Tacitus and Pliny the Elder and by Claudius Ptolemy, under the name Veneti in the 1st and 2nd century AD. At the turn of the 5th and 6th century, Byzantine author Procopius and Gothic historian Jordanes mention them as Sclaveni. By this time, the Slavs already settled in the wide areas of central and eastern Europe - Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, central Danube valley and east of the Carpathians, in modern Romania - thus reaching the northern borders of the Balkan Peninsula,[1] called the Peninsula of Haemus at the time.

First mentions of the people named Serbs are recorded by Tacitus in 50 AD and Pliny the Elder in 77 AD. 4th century author Vibius Sequester also mentions them (Serbs), while his contemporary, historian Ammianus Marcellinus refers to the Carpathians, north of the Danube, as the "Serbian Mountains".[2]

De Administrando Imperio ("On the Governance of the Empire", DAI), compiled by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus mentions that the Serbs relocated from the land of Bojka, also called the White Serbia. Historiography can't pinpoint for sure where that is, but the general consensus is that it was probably the Polabí valley in Bohemia (Boihaemum = Bojka). Other hypotheses place it in the upper course of Oder and Vistula, in modern Poland or in the western Ukraine.[2] After a death of the Serbian chieftan, his two sons took over the rule and divided Serbs in two groups. One remained in White Serbia, while the other group migrated to the Balkans.[1]

Slavic settlement[edit]

Sclaveni raided and settled the western Balkans in the 6th and 7th century.[3] Jointly with the Antes, another Slavic group, they conducted intrusions south of the Danube and Sava rivers into the Balkans, and the territory of the Byzantine Empire ruled by Justinian I (527-565), who almost revived the Roman Empire. The arrival of the Avars in the Pannonian Plain in 567 pushed the proper invasion raids. The Slavs followed the Avars in their, mostly destructive enterprises, into the Byzantine territory. They destroyed and conquered one by one city and fortress which constituted the Danubian Limes, northern border of the empire, like Sirmium (582) and Singidunum (modern Belgrade, 584). In 584 and 586 the Slavs already besieged Thessaloniki, on the Aegean Sea, raided Dalmatia in 597 while the entire limes collapsed by 602.[1]

The decisive phase followed, mostly from 610 to 626, when the Slavs raided the inland of the Balkans, destroying large cities and ravaging the area between the Danube on the north and south of Greece, including the repeated sieges of Thessaloniki in 616 and 618, and of Constantinople itself in 626. Only defeat at Constantinople stopped the raids and pacified the situation on the peninsula, but by that time large portions of the Balkans were already inhabited by the Slavs.[1]

Early Middle Ages[edit]

De Administrando Imperio on the Serbs[edit]

"After they crossed the Danube, however, they changed their mind and sent out a note to the Emperor Heraclius, through the strategos of Singidunum, that they want him to give them another land to settle. And since the modern Serbia and Paganija and the so called land of Zachlumia and Travunija and the land of Konavle remained desolate because of the Avars (who expelled the Romans from there which now inhabits Dalmatia and Dyrrachium), the emperor settled Serbs in these lands, and they were subordinated to the emperor of the Romans, the emperor brought priests from Rome to baptize them and teach them to perform the pious duties in order, and displayed the Christian faith to them."[1]

The history of the early medieval Serbian Principality is recorded in the DAI.[4] The emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus assembled it from 948 to 952 for his son and heir Romanos II. The aim was to warn the young prince on the problems which might occur during his reign. The Serbs are mentioned in the total of 8 chapters, from 29 to 36. The most important is the chapter 32, which is titled "About the Serbs and the lands in which they dwell today".[1][5]

The DAI drew information on the Serbs from, among others, Serbian sources.[6] On the origin of the Serbs, the DAI says that "Serbs originate from the unbaptized Serbs, also called White Serbs, which live on the other side of the Turkey (i.e. Hungary), in the land which they call Bojka, close to the Frankish Empire and the great Croatia, unbaptized, also known as the White Croatia."[1]

The emperor also describes how the Serbian tribe was divided in two, with one group migrating to the Balkans:

"As two brothers inherited the rule over the Serbs after their father, one of them, taking a half of the people with him, migrated over to Heraclius, emperor of the Romans, who took him in, and gave him the settling location in the Theme of Thessalonica, which is since then called Servia. But, after a while, those same Serbs decided to return to their [home]land and the emperor dispatched them. After they crossed the Danube, however, they changed their mind and sent out a note to the Emperor Heraclius, through the strategos of Singidunum, that they want him to give them another land to settle. And since the modern Serbia and Paganija and the so called land of Zachlumia and Travunija and the land of Konavle remained desolate because of the Avars (who expelled the Romans from there which now inhabits Dalmatia and Dyrrachium), the emperor settled Serbs in these lands, and they were subordinated to the emperor of the Romans, the emperor brought priests from Rome to baptize them and teach them to perform the pious duties in order, and displayed the Christian faith to them."[1]

Another source on early Serbia from the 8th and 9th century are the Royal Frankish Annals by Einhard.[2] It was the oldest historical manuscript which mentioned the name Serbs and gave some details about them.[5]

Early Serbs[edit]

Earlier incursions[edit]

The DAI mentioned that Serbs settled the Balkans during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641); however, some research indicates that the Serbian tribe was not part of this later migration (as held by historiography) rather than migrating with the rest of Early Slavs.[7] Through linguistical studies, it is concluded that the Early South Slavs were made up of a western and eastern branch, of parallel streams, roughly divided in the TimokOsogovoŠar line.[8] Archaeological evidence in Serbia and Macedonia shows that the White Serbs may have reached the Balkans earlier than thought, between 550–600, as many findings of Fibula (brooch)e and pottery at Roman forts point to Serbian characteristics and thus could have represent traces of either part of the Byzantine foedorati or a fraction of the early invading Slavs who upon organizing in their refuge of the Dinarides, formed the ethnogenesis of Serbs and were pardoned by the Byzantine Empire after acknowledging their suzerainty.[9] However, it is only from the 610-626 period or the early rule of Heraclius, when the historiography can conclusively refer to the existence of the Serbian state on the Balkans.[2]

Range of settling[edit]

Serbian states in the 9th century

For the first two centuries after the settlement, from the early 7th century on, there are almost no historical records about the Serbs, and the region in general, as even in the entire Byzantine Empire almost no contemporary chronicles or historical works survived. But in this period the process of resettling of the Serbs in the central region of the peninsula was finished. They inhabited the narrow valleys in the watersheds of the West Morava, Lim, Drina and Bosna, gravitating to the Morava Valley on the east and the Sava on the north. Certain groups crossed the Dinarides and reached the Adriatic coast. There, they formed specific Serbian tribes: Narentines (between the rivers of Cetina and Neretva), Zachlumians (between Neretva and the town of Dubrovnik), Travunians (Triballi) (between Dubrovnik and Bay of Kotor) and Docleans (between Bay of Kotor and Lake Scutari).[10]

Historical sources which reappeared in the 9th century mention Serbs as a "people holding the large part of Dalmatia", but Dalmatia in the Roman sense, as a region between the Adriatic on the south, the Sava on the north and the Drina (or Ibar) on the east. They are described as neighboring the Croats at Cetina and Livno on the west, while successfully confronting the Bulgarians on the east. Serbian maritime tribes settled the entire Adriatic coast between the mouth of the Cetina on the north and the Rumija mountain on the south. However, the Romanized cities on the coast remained under the Byzantine rule, outside of the newly formed Slavic states: Dubrovnik, Kotor, Ulcinj and Bar. The Serbs also originally settled the southern Adriatic islands (Brač, Hvar, Korčula, Mljet, Vis, Lastovo, Šipan).[10][11]

Though the described borders mark a large area, it is mostly a mountainous and inaccessible terrain, rugged with the high ranges of the Dinarides. Within this region, the Serbs settled only a small, isolated and mutually distant river valleys, karst fields and fertile basins. Those patches of the territory had fertile land, suitable for the agriculture, while the barely accessible, vast mountain regions remained uninhabited.[10]

By the 7th century, the Serbs scattered all the way south to the Peloponnesus and other regions of Greece, while the emperor Heraclius originally settled them around Thessaloniki. Emperor Justinian II resettled some Serbs from the surroundings of Thessaloniki to Bithynia, in Asia Minor, in 688-689. There, the Serbs already founded the town of Gordoserba (City of Serbs). Among the participants of the Trullan Council, held in Constantinople in 692, the bishop of Gordoserba was mentioned, which is the first mention of the Serbian name in the south of Europe.[1]


Seal of prince Strojimir of Serbia, from the late 9th century

Though the DAI asserts that already during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius the Serbs were Christianized, and that the process was performed by the priests from Rome, it took some time before the new religion spread through the entire population.[2] Other reports confirm that the church missionary activities were organized among the South Slavs already from the late 7th and mid-8th century. The process was mostly finished by the mid-9th century which is when the first Christian names appear among the Serbs. Prince Mutimir, who ruled c.850-891 named his son Stefan Mutimirović, while his nephew was named Petar Gojniković.[10]

From this period originates the seal of prince Strojimir, Mutimir's brother. The seal has a representation of a cross and the inscription Lord, help Strojimir (KE BOIΘ CTPOHMIP in Greek) around it. Pope John VIII addressed prince Mutimir in 873 and called in the letter for Mutimir that, "following the tradition of his ancestors", he submits his land to the jurisdiction of the new Pannonian bishop Methodius.[10]

Numerous arguments point to the fact that the major role in the Christianization of the Serbs had priests and missionaries from Rome, rather from the closer Constantinople. This can also be seen in the earliest Christian terms in Serbian language which came from the Latin language (oltar from altare, altar), the earliest Christian toponymy and presence of several religious feasts and holidays which corresponded to the dates in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church - St. Vitus' Day (Vidovdan), Michaelmas (Miholjdan), Theodore the Studite (Mratindan).[10]

The most important material testimony of the Christianization of the Serbs is the oldest known Christian temple among in Serbian lands, the Peter's Church in Ras, built in the 7th century.[10]

First Serbian principalities[edit]

Initial organization[edit]

In those small, isolated areas, the Serbs formed their basic territorial and political units. Each unit comprised a small geographical area, usually a river valley or a basin with the villages in it, bounded by the surrounding hills. The unit was called župa and the local chieftain who administered it was called župan. Župans, in turn, were subordinated to the knez or prince (archon, ἄρχων in Greek; dux in Latin). The knez was the supreme elder and ruler of the entire people while župans were intermediaries between him and the people.[10]

As in the other parts of the early medieval Europe, Serbian "state" didn't mean by default a rule over the territory, but over the people. So, the Serbian political organization included only areas which were populated by the Serbs, excluding the vast uninhabited areas in between. That way, the borders of the "state" can't be accurately determined.[10]

Vlastimirović dynasty (Ras)[edit]

9th century prince Vlastimir. Historians named the first ruling dynasty Vlastimirović dynasty after him.

According to DAI, "baptized Serbia" (known in historiography as Raška[12]), included the inhabited cities (καστρα/kastra) of Destinikon (or Serbian Dostinika) (Δεστινίκον), Tzernabouskeï (Τζερναβουσκέη), Megyretous (Μεγυρέτους), Dresneïk (Δρεσνεήκ), Lesnik (Λεσνήκ), Salines (Σαληνές), while the "small land" (χοριον/chorion) of Bosna (Βοσωνα), part of Serbia, had the cities of Katera (Κατερα) and Desnik (Δέσνηκ).[13] The first capital was Ras, in Raška (southwestern Serbia).[14] Though Ras later became the capital, Dostinika was by far the most important city in the early period and up to the period od Vlastimir, his son and his grandson.[10]

The ruling princely line originated from the first archon who led the Serbs to the Balkans during the emperor Heraclius' reign. However, by the time of the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, the names of those early princes faded from the collective memory. In the DAI, the emperor basically gives the genealogy of the first Serbian ruling dynasty: After the "Unknown Archon" of the Serbs who fled over to the emperor Heraclius, in the time when Bulgaria was under the rule of the Romans, by the inheritance (rules) his son took over the rule, then his grandson and so other archons from his family line. After a number of years, Višeslav was born who fathered Radoslav, who fathered Prosigoj, who fathered Vlastimir.[5][10][15]

There are no dates in this genealogy, but some can be extrapolated. The first archon arrived during the 610-626 period, and died (long time?) before the Bulgar invasion which occurred in 680. Historian Konstantin Jireček in his History of the Serbs I, page 69, estimates the rule of Višeslav, the first Serbian ruler whose name is known, around 780. One of his two successors was in power in 822, as mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals. The work deals with an episode concerning the Pannonian ruler Ljudevit Posavski. Under the Frankish attack he left his capital Sisak and fled over to the Serbs, which are described as holding the large part of (Roman) Dalmatia: Siscia civitate relicta, ad Sorabos, quae natio magnam Dalmatiae partem obtinere dicitur, fugiendo se contulit. Ljudevit later killed the local župan who took him in and temporarily took over the rule in his župa, which is estimated to be somewhere in the western Bosnia.[5][10][15] Ljudevit then fled to the Croatian domain, but was soon murdered.[10]

In 680 the Bulgarians settled on the Balkans, forming an independent and well organized political entity. The major expansion of Bulgaria began in the first half of the 9th century when they attacked Constantinople and conquered numerous Slavic tribes on the Balkans, so as the remnants of the Avars in the Pannonian plain. By acquiring the Morava Valley and Belgrade, they came in contact with the Serbs. Because of the ensuing Bulgarian-Serbian relations, the reign of prince Vlastimir can be determined with greater certainty. According to the DAI, Presian I, Khan of Bulgaria, attacked the Serbs during his reign (Bulgar–Serb War (839–842)) in order to "subdue them". However, after the three years-long warfare, Presian didn't gain any territories and, additionally, lost the majority of its army.[5][10][16]

Višeslav died c.850 and Presijan in 852. Serbian throne was inherited by Višeslav sons, Mutimir, Strojimir and Gojnik. According to the conventional inheritance rules of the period, the state was probably administratively divided in three, but Mutimir held the "ruling right" as the eldest one. Presian's son and successor, Boris I of Bulgaria, decided to avenge his father, and attacked Serbia again, instigating the Bulgar–Serb War of 853, though the warfare is variously set by the historians in 854, 858, 863-864, 870 or even in the 880s. The war was also part of the larger skirmish in the region, which included the Bulgarian expansion in the direction of the middle Danube Valley and the Byzantine efforts to weaken the Bulgarian-Frankish alliance against the Great Moravia and cultural turning of the Bulgarians to Rome. The Serbian army was led by Mutimir and his brothers was again victorious, capturing the leader of the Bulgarian army, and Boris' son and heir, Vladimir of Bulgaria and 12 boyars. This pressured Boris to reluctantly agree to a peace treaty. As a guarantee that his son and the others will be freed, Boris asked for the Mutimir's sons to accompany the prisoners to the border. Mutimir sent his two younger sons, Bran and Stefan, while the eldest and heir to the throne, Pribislav, was precautionary kept at home. Pleased with the release of his son, Boris gave them "lush gifts", while the Serbian princes gave to Boris "two slaves, two falcons, two dogs, and 80 furs".[5][10][16][17]

Soon after the peace was reached with Bulgaria, the internal strife hit the ruling triumvirate. Mutimir, eldest and probably the most powerful in the state, expelled his brothers Strojimir (and his son Klonimir) and Gojnik to khan Boris in Bulgaria, keeping only Petar Gojniković, Gojnik's son and his nephew. This happened between 863 and 873, when the pope John VIII in his letter addressed Mutimir only. However, Petar soon fled to Croatia. Strojimir remained in Bulgarian exile for the rest of his life. Boris married him to a Bulgarian noblewoman and they had a son, Časlav Klonimirović.[5][10]

Mutimir's eldest son, Pribislav, succeeded to the throne after his father's death in 891. This was an opportunity for the descendants of the Mutimir's brothers to take over the Serbian throne. Already in 892 Petar Gojniković returned from Croatia, expelled all three Mutimir's sons to Croatia - Pribislav, Bran and Stefan - and began his rule which lasted until 917. In this period he suppressed two attempts for his dethronement. Petar defeated and blinded Bran who tried to overthrow him in 895 attacking from Croatia while in 897 he crushed Klonomir's attempt from Bulgaria to depose him. Klonimir, probably instigated by the Bulgarians, managed to briefly capture the city of Dostinika, but was ultimately defeated and killed by Peter.[5][10][16]

During his reign, Petar kept good relations with both the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise (ruled 886-912) and the emperor Simeon I of Bulgaria, second son of late emperor Boris, (893-927). He was connected with Simeon by the peace treaty but also with the custom of kumstvo. Strains between Bulgarian and Byzantine empires resulted in the Byzantine–Bulgarian war of 894–896, which was continued as the Byzantine–Bulgarian war of 913–927. This affected Serbia a lot. One of the most important moments in this second war was the Battle of Anchialus, held on 20 August 917, when Simeon defeated the Byzantines. Peter apparently leaned on the Byzantine side. Right before the battle, on the bank of the Neretva river, he met with Leo Rhabdouchos, Byzantine strategos of Dyrrachium. Michael Višević, ruler of Zachlumia, who held good personal relations with Simeon, dispatched this to the Bulgarian emperor, accusing Petar of collusion with the Byzantines. He also reported that the Byzantines are bribing Peter in order for him to cooperate with the Hungarians in the joint attack against Bulgaria. This was used by Simeon to start the Bulgarian–Serbian wars of 917–924. Bulgarian army which attacked Serbia was headed by Pavle Branović, son of blinded Bran. Despite that safety was granted to Petar because of his close relations with Simeon, he was captured and sent to Bulgaria where he died imprisoned, while Pavle became the new ruler by the end of 917.[5][10]

At the beginning, Pavle ruled as a Bulgarian protégé. This prompted the new Byzantine emperor, Romanos I Lekapenos, to organize a party in 921 to overthrow Pavle. The campaign was headed by Pribislav's son, Zaharija Pribislavljević, who lived in Constantinople at the time, in the Romanos' court. He was defeated and Pavle sent him to Bulgaria as a prisoner. In 923 Pavle turned against his sponsors, the Bulgarians, so Zaharija was again dispatched against him, now by Simeon. This time he was successful, expelling Pavle and taking over the rule himself. But Zaharija soon switched back to his original allies, the Byzantines. Simeon sent an army to conquer the shifty archon. His troops, headed by Theodore Sigritsa and Marmais attacked the Serbs in 924, but were defeated. Both commanders were killed and their heads, so as the confiscated weapons, were sent to the Byzantine emperor as the trophies. Later that year Simeon sent much larger army. Among the soldier was Klonimir's son, Časlav Klonimirović. In front of the much larger Bulgarian army, Zaharija fled to Croatia.[5][10]

Bulgarians summoned Serbian župans to gather and accept Časlav as the new archon, but they were all captured and sent to Bulgaria. In the next few years, 925 and 926, Bulgarians completely ravaged Serbia. Part of the population was enslaved and taken to Bulgaria, while some managed to escape to Croatia or to the Byzantine Empire. According to Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, the "land remained desolate". But situation changed after Simeon's death in 927. His son and heir, Peter I of Bulgaria, changed completely the politics of his country, falling under the heavy Byzantine influence. This allowed for Časlav, who returned to live in Bulgarian capital Preslav as Serbia was turned into the badlands, to come to Serbia and restore the state. This happened "7 years later", but historians are not sure is it 7 years after the 924 expedition to Serbia or after 927 and Simeon's death, but it had to be by 934, at the latest. Though the DAI claims that he and his entourage of 4 encountered only "50 single men, without wives and children, who lived from hunting", it is not accepted today as a historical fact, but shows how thorough the destruction of Serbian state and society was by the Bulgarians, when smaller and weaker Serbia was finally conquered after a century of resistance.[5][10][16]

The killing of Časlav Klonimirović, the last ruler of the first Serbian dynasty, c.960

Časlav recognized the supreme authority of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who became his mentor and protector. The emperor helped Časlav to restore Serbia, including the heavy financial aid. Časlav repopulated Serbia returning some of the people who fled to the neighboring countries. Serbia prospered, keeping good relations with the Byzantines and the emperor constantly pointed out the good relations with Serbia in this period. The loose demarcation of the boundaries in this period is the Croatian border on the west, with majority of Bosnia within the Časlav's state, the town of Ras on the east and the Sava river on the north. As he is the last archon mentioned by Constantine, it is believed that he was still alive and in power when the chapters on Serbs were written, in 949 or 950.[5][10][16]

Hungarian local nobleman Kiš (variously styled as Kisa, Kijs, Kiis, Kys or Chys) attacked Časlav's domain in Bosnia. Časlav resisted in the "Županija of Drina", and the Kiš was apprehended and beheaded by the Serbian army in the clash on the banks of the Drina river, while his head was sent to Časlav. In retaliation, the Hungarians attacked again. This time the clashes occurred in the "Syrmian plains, south of the Sava". Though today Syrmia is a region north of the Sava, in the Middle Ages the plain of Mačva, which is the southern extension of Syrmia across the river, was also called Syrmia as both regions were mostly ruled by Hungarians. This time it was Časlav who was captured. On the orders of the Kiš' widow, Časlav and all his relatives were bounded and thrown into the Sava. The events, known as the Magyar–Serb conflict, are placed sometime between 950 and 960.[5][10][18]

Časlav's death marked the end of some 350 years of the Vlastimirović dynasty rule, the oldest Serbian ruling dynasty, which was unusually long for the period and the region. All early dynasties, so as the Vlastimirović dynasty which ruled Serbia c.610-c.960, are named by the modern historians, either after their progenitors or the most prominent members.

Other principalities[edit]

The other Serb-inhabited lands (or principalities) that were mentioned included the "countries" of Paganija, Zahumlje and Travunija,[13] while the "land" of Duklja was held by the Byzantines (it was presumably settled with Serbs as well).[19] Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in the DAI explicitly names the inhabitants of these four dukedoms as the Serbs.[2] These polities bordered Serbia to the north.[13] The exact borders of the early Serbian state are unclear.[12] The Serbian ruler was titled "Prince (archon) of the Serbs" (αρχων Σερβλίας).[20] The DAI mentions that the Serbian throne is inherited by the son, i.e. the first-born; his descendants succeeded him, though their names are unknown until the coming of Višeslav.[15][21]

It is possible that there were two names used for the Serbs in this period. A general one, depicting the descendants of the first settlers while the other was a regional one. By the 11th century, most of the regional names disappeared and were replaced by the ethnonym Serbs. In his work Strategikon of Kekaumenos, the 11th century Byzantine general Katakalon Kekaumenos refers to the duke of Duklja Stefan Vojislav as both "Dioclean" and "Travunian Serbian". John Skylitzes, historian from the same period, calls Stefan Vojislav an "archon of the Serbs" and that he took over the "land of the Serbs".[2]

Travunija was a polity in the hinterland of Dubrovnik and Bay of Kotor, encompassing the fertile župa of Konavle. Archon Vlastimir also had a daughter, who, although without a recorded name, was the first mentioned Serbian woman in history. Vlastimir married her to Krajina, the son of Beloje, župan of Travunija and later awarded his son-in-law the title of knez. Krajina's heirs Hvalimir and Čučimir also used the same title. In the DAI, emperor Constantine writes that "the archons of Travunija were always under the rule of archons of Serbia".[5][10][16] Some historians suggested that the Travunian dynasty also descends from the "unknown Serbian archon from the times of Emperor Heraclius, who led the Serbs to the Balkans from their ancestral home".[22]

After 867, when Basil I the Macedonian became Byzantine emperor, the Arabs in the southern Italy attacked the Dalmatian cities, including Dubrovnik. The citizens asked for Byzantine help so the emperor sent the ships headed by Niketas Ooryphas, the Droungarios of the Fleet. He forced the Arabs into retreat and made them quit the blockade, thus reinstating the Byzantine maritime control in the Adriatic after several decades. This allowed for the Byzantines to use the local inhabitants from the Croatian and Serbian lands as the auxiliary naval detachments in the ensuing Byzantine-Frankish siege of the Arabic Bari in 870-871.[10]

After Bulgarian emperor Simeon began to crush Serbia in 925 and 926, his ally up to that point, Michael Višević of Zachlumia, changed his political orientation. In 925, he was Serbian representative at the Council of Split which dealt with the church organization in the Croatian and Serbian lands, and in the Dalmatian cities. In 926, as a Byzantine ally, Michael conducted a bold navy attack on the town of Siponto in southern Italy in an effort to strengthen his connections with the court in Constantinople. The emperor awarded to him the titles of anthypatos and patrikios.[10]

Paganija was mentioned as being subordinated to Serbia during the reign of archon Petar. However, the polity took a more independent course later.[10]

Restored Byzantine dominance[edit]

It is not known who inherited prince Časlav, or what were the circumstances in Serbia in this period. With the death of Časlav in c.950-c.960 and Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in 959, information about area of the former Vlastimirović Serbia faded. When the new Byzantine emperor John I Tzimiskes effectively crushed Bulgarian empire in 971, the Byzantine ("Roman") paramount rule stretched to the Danube again, for the first time in over three centuries. That way, Serbian lands came under the direct governance of the Byzantine Empire.[23]

At first, instead of the local prince, Serbia, as Catepanate of Ras, was ruled by the Byzantine administrator. He had a high rank of katepano (or dux) and was seated in Ras. However, this situation didn't last long, as soon after John I Tzimiskes died in 976, the Cometopuli rebellion broke in the central Balkans restoring for a while Bulgarian state. The ensuing, decades old wars of the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria placed Serbs in a difficult position. There are records of the 991-992 Serbian delegation which travelled by sea to meet the Byzantine emperor Basil II The Bulgar-Slayer. It is believed that this delegation came from some of the Serbian maritime states. In this period, it was recorded that the rule of Jovan Vladimir, ruler of maritime Duklja in c.1000, stretched over the "areas of Serbia".[23]

With the defeat of the Bulgarians in 1018 and the death of their emperor Ivan Vladislav, the Byzantines used the anarchy and confusion in the Serbian lands and again restored the direct Byzantine rule. Central Serbia was organized as the new military-administrative province of Theme Serbia, administrated by the strategos. Duklja was subordinated to the Dux of Dyrrachium, while the situation in Travunia is obscure as there are no surviving records. Local Serbian princes remained in power in Zachlumia, but they were integrated into the established Byzantine administrative order. For example, Prince Ljutovid was given the Byzantine title of protospatharios epi tou Chrysotriklinou (literally, "first sword-bearer") and at some point was appointed the strategos of Serbia and Zachlumia.[23]

High Middle Ages[edit]

Vojislavljević dynasty (Duklja)[edit]

Duklja was a medieval Serb state which roughly encompassed the territories of present-day southeastern Montenegro, from the Bay of Kotor in the west to the Bojana river in the east, and to the sources of the Zeta and Morača rivers in the north. It was first mentioned in the 10th century Byzantine chronicles, which remain the most important sources on Duklja's history in the 11th and 12th century: John Skylitzes, Skylitzes Continuatus, Katakalon Kekaumenos and Anna Komnene in her work The Alexiad. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus doesn't give any data on the rulers of Duklja.[24] A lead seal from the 9th or the 10th century points to a certain "Prince Peter of Duklja" but there are no other data on him.[25]

Duklja's prince, Jovan Vladimir, was captured by the Bulgarians during the 998-999 attempt by the Emperor Samuil to conquer Duklja. Jovan Vladimir then married Samuil's relative Kosara (in the early chronicles she was described as Samuil's daughter) and was allowed to return to Duklja and rule as Bulgarian vassal. Jovan Vladimir maintained good relations with the Byzantines, too, which may led to his demise. After Samuil's death in 1014, his son and successor Gavril Radomir was assassinated by his cousin Ivan Vladislav in 1015. On 22 May 1016, Ivan Vladislav who was also a cousin-in-law of Jovan Vladimir, assassinated Jovan Vladimir in front of the church in the town of Prespa. Because of his pious life and martyr's death, Jovan Vladimir was the first Serb who became a saint,[23] while the Byzantine sources described him as a "just man, peaceful and full of virtue".[24]

Jovan Vladimir was succeeded by his paternal uncle Dragimir, a local prince, who died in 1018. Dragimir was succeeded by his son Stefan Vojislav, who is in the Byzantine sources variously labeled as a Serb, Travunian or Dukljan. His mother was a daughter of Ljutomir (or possibly, Ljutovid), the ruler of Raška. Stefan Vojislav was born in Brusno, in the župa of Drina, shortly after his father died.[24]

After the collapse of the Bulgaria in 1018, Duklja became a vassal of the Byzantine Empire until it became independent in 1040 under Stefan Vojislav (fl. 1034–43) who rose up and managed to take over territories of the earlier Serbian principality, founding the Vojislavljević dynasty. Between 1043 and 1080, under Mihailo Vojislavljević (r 1050–81), and his son, Constantine Bodin (r. 1081–1101), Duklja saw its apogee. Mihailo was given the nominal title King of Slavs by the Pope after having left the Byzantine camp and supported a Slavic uprising in the Balkans, in which his son Bodin played a central part. Having incorporated the Serbian hinterland and installed vassal rulers there, this maritime principality emerged as the most powerful Serb polity, seen in the titles used by its rulers ("Prince of Serbia", "of Serbs"). However, its rise was short-lived, as Bodin was defeated by the Byzantines and imprisoned; pushed to the background, his relative and vassal Vukan became independent in Raška, which continued the fight against the Byzantines while Duklja was struck with civil wars. Between 1113 and 1149 Duklja was the centre of Serbian–Byzantine conflict, with members of the Vojislavljević as protégés of either fighting each other for power. Duklja was then incorporated as a crown land of the Grand Principality of Serbia ruled by the Vukanović dynasty, subsequently known as Zeta, remaining so until the fall of the Serbian Empire in the 14th century.

Vukanović dynasty (Raška)[edit]

The Serbian Grand Principality, also known as Rascia, was founded in 1090, and ended with the elevation to Kingdom in 1217. During the reign of Constantine Bodin, the King of Duklja, Vukan was appointed to rule Rascia as a vassal, and when Bodin was captured by the Byzantines, Vukan became independent and took the title of Grand Prince. When Bodin had died, Rascia became the strongest entity, in which the Serbian realm would be seated, in hands of the Vukanović dynasty. Uroš I, the son of Vukan, ruled Serbia when the Byzantines invaded Duklja, and Rascia would be next in line, but with diplomatic ties with the Kingdom of Hungary, Serbia retained its independence. Uroš II initially fought the Byzantines, but after a defeat soon swore oaths of servitude to the Emperor. Desa, the brother of Uroš II and an initial Byzantine ally, turned to Hungarian support, but was deposed in 1163, when Stefan Tihomir of a cadet line (which would become Nemanjić dynasty), was put on the throne by the Emperor.

Nemanjić dynasty[edit]

Map of the Balkans including the Serbian Kingdom in 1265

Stefan Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan, while his first-born son Vukan was given the rule of the Zeta region (present-day Montenegro). Stefan Nemanja's youngest son Rastko became a monk (as Sava), turning all his efforts to spread religion among his people. Since the Catholic Church already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan took advantage and obtained the royal crown from the Pope in 1217. In Byzantium, Sava managed to secure autocephaly (independence) for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. In the same year Sava issued the first constitution in Serbia, the Zakonopravilo. Thus the medieval Serbian state acquired both forms of independence: political and religious.

The next generation of Serbian rulers, the sons of King Stefan, Stefan Radoslav, Stefan Vladislav and Stefan Uroš I, marked a period of stagnation of the state structure. All three kings were more or less dependent on some of the neighbouring states—Byzantium, Bulgaria or Hungary. The ties with the Hungarians played a decisive role in the fact that Uroš I was succeeded by his son Stefan Dragutin, whose wife was a Hungarian princess. Later on, when Dragutin abdicated in favor of his younger brother Milutin (in 1282), the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV gave him lands in northeastern Bosnia, the region of Mačva, and the city of Belgrade, while he managed to conquer and annex lands in northeastern Serbia. Thus, some of these territories became part of the Serbian state for the first time. His new state was named Kingdom of Srem. In that time the name Srem was a designation for two territories: Upper Srem (present day Srem) and Lower Srem (present day Mačva). Kingdom of Srem under the rule of Stefan Dragutin was actually Lower Srem, but some historical sources mention that Stefan Dragutin also ruled over Upper Srem and Slavonia. After Dragutin died (in 1316), the new ruler of the Kingdom of Srem became his son, king Vladislav II, who ruled this state until 1325.

Under the rule of Dragutin's younger brother—King Milutin, Serbia grew stronger despite having to occasionally fight wars on three different fronts. King Milutin was an apt diplomat much inclined to the use of a customary medieval diplomatic and dynastic marriages. He was married five times, with Hungarian, Bulgarian and Byzantine princesses. He is also famous for building churches, some of which are the finest examples of Medieval Serbian architecture: the Gračanica monastery in Kosovo, the Cathedral in Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos, the St. Archangel Church in Jerusalem etc. Because of his endowments, King Milutin has been proclaimed a saint, in spite of his tumultuous life.

Late Middle Ages[edit]

Nemanjić dynasty[edit]

Map of the Serbian Empire in 1355

In the first half of the 14th century Serbia flourished, becoming one of the most developed countries and cultures in Europe. It had a high political, economic, and cultural reputation in Europe.[citation needed]

Milutin was succeeded by his son Stefan Dečanski, who maintained his father's kingdom and had monasteries built, the most notable being Visoki Dečani in Metohija (Kosovo), after which he is known in historiography. Visoki Dečani, Our Lady of Ljeviš and the Gračanica monastery, all founded by Dečanski, are part of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, a combined World Heritage Site.[26] After decisively defeated the Bulgarians, Serbia was caught up in a civil war between two groups of the Serbian nobility, one supporting Dečanski, the other supporting his son Stefan Dušan which sought to expand to the south.[27] Dušan won, and in the following decades fought the Byzantine Empire, taking advantage of the Byzantine civil wars. After conquering Albania, Macedonia and much of Greece, he was crowned Emperor in 1346, after having elevated the Serbian archbishopric into a patriarchate.[28] He had his son crowned King, giving him nominal rule over the "Serbian lands", and although Dušan was governing the whole state, he had special responsibility for the "Roman" (Byzantine) lands.[28] "Dušan's Code" was enacted in 1349 and 1353–54.[29] Dušan sought to conquer Constantinople and become the new Byzantine emperor, however, he suddenly died in 1355 at the age of 47. The Serbian state crumbled during the reign of his son, Uroš V, called "the Weak", in a period known as the "Fall of the Serbian Empire".


States that emerged after the dissolution of Serbian Empire in the 14th century

Following the death of child-less Emperor Uroš the Weak in 1371 (and end of the Nemanjić dynasty), the Empire was left without an heir and the magnates, velikaši, obtained the rule of its provinces and districts (in so called feudal fragmentation), continuing their offices as independent with titles such as gospodin, and despot, given to them during the Empire. The period saw the rise of a new threat, the Ottomans, Turkic warriors who overran Anatolia and subsequently the Balkans.

The Serbian Empire was divided between the feudal lords; without an Emperor, it became "a conglomerate of aristocratic territories", and the Empire was thus divided between the provincial lords: Marko Mrnjavčević, the Dejanović brothers, Đurađ I Balšić, Vuk Branković, Nikola Altomanović, and Lazar Hrebeljanović.[30] Lazar managed to rule most of what is today Central Serbia (known as Moravian Serbia). He was unable to unite the Serbian magnates, as they were too powerful and pursued their own interests, fighting each other.[31] Ottomans began raiding Serbia in 1381, though the actual invasion came later. In 1386, Lazar's knights beat the Ottoman army near Pločnik, in what is today southern Serbia. Another invasion by Ottomans came in the summer of 1389, this time aiming towards Kosovo.

thumb|right|Battle of Kosovo by Petar Radičević

On 28 June 1389 the two armies met at Kosovo, in a battle that ended in a draw, decimating both armies (both Lazar and Murad I fell).[32] The battle is particularly important to Serbian history, tradition, and national identity (see Kosovo Myth).[33] By now, the Balkans was unable to halt the advancing Ottomans. Eventually, Serbian nobility became Ottoman vassals.

Serbia managed to recuperate under Despot Stefan Lazarević, surviving for 70 more years, experiencing a cultural and political renaissance, but after Stefan Lazarević's death, his successors from the Branković dynasty did not manage to stop the Ottoman advance. Serbia finally fell under the Ottomans in 1459, and remained under their occupation until 1804, when Serbia finally managed to regain its sovereignty.

Ottoman conquest[edit]

Armor of a Serbian knight from the 15th century, in the city museum of Leskovac

Despite the deep-seated impression that the mighty medieval Serbian state perished in one single magnificent battle, as derived from the Kosovo Myth, Serbia survived exactly 70 years after the 1389 Battle of Kosovo and perished under the Ottomans gradually languishing and shrinking. The danger was hinted already during its higher position of power, under the rule of emperor Dušan, when the Ottomans made the first permanent foothold on the European continent. Critical position was enhanced after the crumbling of the unified empire into the separate feudal states and the Battle of Maritsa (1371) and Kosovo. The battles reduced the state's territory and diminished its "living force". The Ottoman defeat by the Timurid Empire at the Battle of Angora in 1402 and the ensuing turmoil in the empire, allowed for several decades of revival in Serbia (Lazarević renaissance).[34]

In this period, Serbia cooperated lots with Hungary. In the second half of the 15th century, the Ottoman conquest became a major issue in the European politics. Taking Crusades as a mold, both the rulers of the Europan states and the church leaders forged a myriad of plans for researching and repelling the Turks. However, when the time for the serious preparations would come, the funding would turn out to be a major problem. As the feudal states engaged more and more in the mutual wars, there was no money for the operations on the east of the continent. Being on the frontline of the Ottoman expansion, Serbia and Hungary formed an alliance. The greatest fruit of this collaboration was the joint 1443 campaign which resulted in the liberation of Serbia and its reestablishment as a state after it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1439.[34]

However, in the times to come, Serbia couldn't rely much on its western allies. Hungary was in the internal crisis of its own, while European courts and church provided no help, organizing instead a series of fruitless councils in Wiener Neustadt, Frankfurt and Mantua. The downfall of Serbia was accelerated after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 which allowed for the Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror to turn his efforts to capture the remaining parts of the Balkans and Hungary. The Turks conquered the southern parts of Serbia in 1455, rich in both ores and arable land, including the large cities and mines of Trepča end, especially important and wealthy Novo Brdo, "the mother of all cities". Mehmed tried to capture Belgrade in 1456, which was part of Hungary at time, but was defeated. The Ottomans withdrew and halted the campaigns for a while.[34]

The attacks were renewed and by 1458 the Ottomans controlled the northern and central Serbia, reducing Serbia only to the strip of land with the capital Smederevo and its surroundings. Additionally, in such a diminished territory, internal strife broke out after the death of despot Lazar Branković in February 1458. Ruling class divided in two groups, one of which was for inauguration of a pro-Turkish man in order to appease the Ottomans while the other group was against it. Pro-Turkish Michael Angelović opened the gate to the company of Turks, but he was removed and captured while the Turks were killed. In an attempt to prolong the fall of the state, despot Lazar's daughter Maria Branković was married to the Bosnian heir apparent Stephen Tomašević, uniting the two lands as in the time of the migration to the Balkans. This has been done in an agreement and with cooperation from Hugary, but the Ottomans were against it, and even tried to capture young prince before he reached Smederevo in 1459. However, there was no practical gain from enthroning Stephen as Serbian despot in March 1459, as Bosnian kingdom was in only marginally better position than Serbia at the time. Instead of resurrecting the state, despot Stephen was the one who negotiated the surrender of Smederevo to the Ottomans, who in turn allowed the Bosnian entourage to leave the fortified city and entered the vacant Smederevo on 20 June 1459, which marks the end the medieval Serbian state. At the time, prince "drew on his shoulders the wrath and contempt of the entire Europe because of the Smederevo surrender, but he atoned himself four years later, when as the Bosnian king was killed during the Turkish conquest of Bosnia".[34]

Assessment and aftermath[edit]

Smederevo Fortress today. With its fall in 1459, the medieval Serbian state was extinguished.

The fall of the medieval Serbian despotate marked the discontinuation of the free development of society and economy based on the foundations built by the Serbian people since the period of the migration. Those foundations were, like in the rest of the Europe, feudal. Population was diversified according to the usual divisions of the societies in the period, producing numerous goods and creating huge wealth for the ruling, noble and upper classes. Wealth produced in Serbia was at the time subject of numerous stories which spread both to the east and the west of Europe, though many of them were obviously exaggerated.[34]

Mining was most important in the economy of the state, though it developed only in the 13th century and fully blossomed in the 15th century, amidst the most turbulent period in the state's history. The mining intensified the trading turnover, enhanced the building and expansion of the cities and empowered the citizens' class in them. The new relations and social forces, already turning traditional in the Serbian feudal society were nipped in the bud by the Ottoman destruction of the Serbian state. For the entire economy, and especially the mining, the period of primitiveness and regression began.[34]

With the conquest, Serbia was cut off from the European cultural and political community in which she carved its own place. Being in the region under the both Byzantine and Italian cultural influence, medieval Serbia developed a significant culture of its own. Comparison of the cultural development of Serbia and the rest of Europe in the 15th and the 19th century, when Serbia regained independence from the Turks, shows the massive loss and lagging behind as a result of the 1459 events.[34]


Early developments[edit]


The tradition of badnjak predates the Christianization, but the custom survived being incorporated into the modern celebration of Christmas.

Serbs, and other Slavic tribes encountered the Romanized population in towns after the settlement in the 7th century. The native population at first avoided the new settlers, but in time the trading and cultural ties developed, so as the mixing and blending of the population. As a result, numerous words at that time entered the Serbian language, directly from the Latin language, like the names of the plants (bosiljak, "basilicum", basil; kupus "composita", cabbage; lovor, "laurus", laurel; cer, "cerrus", Turkey oak), everyday objects (konopac, "canapus", rope; mramor, "marmor", marble; sapun, "sapo", soap; sumpor, "sulphur" sulfur; ulje, "oleum", oil) and animals (mazga, "muscus", hinny; kresta, "crista", crest). The blending of the population occurred at different pace and the Romanized population prevailed the longest in the maritime towns and locations on the Adriatic, some of which kept the original, Roman, names in Slavic rendering: Scodra = Skadar, Ulcinium = Ulcinj, Butua = Budva, Rhizon = Risan, Stagnum = Ston, Dormire = Durmitor, Visitor (from videre, vidi, visum; to see), Leotar (from leo; lion), Narenta = Neretva, Barbana = Bojana, Drinio or Dirnius = Drim, Cnetona = Cetina.[2] Also, the Slavs merged with the native population (Illyrians, Thracians) and assimilated them, forming the base of the ethnogenesis of modern Serbs.[35][36]

In the 9th century, the Byzantine state was very engaged into the cultural and religious expansion among the newly settled people in the Balkans. In 864 they finally succeeded into Christianizing the Bulgarians, thus including them into their cultural sphere. Especially important for the history of the Serbian culture was the missionary work of Saints Cyril and Methodius which operated in Great Moravia since 863, introducing the original, Slavic alphabet and translating Byzantine religious and political works. This was the foundation of the Slavic literacy and literature, which soon profoundly influenced the Serbs, leaving major mark in their tradition and culture.[10]


After Cyril died in 869 in Rome, Methodius continued their work on his own. He was appointed the Bishop of Pannonia from 870 to 885 and from this period (873) comes the letter from the pope John VIII in which he invited Serbian prince Mutimir to accept the competence of Methodius, in an effort to expand the jurisdiction of Methodius' bishopric. This was in collision with the strivings of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to place the area under its authority. The appetites especially grew larger when in 870 the entire newly established Christian church in Bulgaria was subdued to Constantinople. This way, the areas of Belgrade and Morava valley came under the Byzantine religious jurisdiction, and the Metropolis of Morava was formed.[10]

First data on the church organization date from the 10th century. During the reign of Bulgarian emperor Peter I (927-969), the Bulgarian Orthodox Church administered not only the bishoprics in the Morava valley, but also the Bishopric of Ras, the capital of Serbia, in the hinterland of the state. At the church Councils of Split, in 925 and 928, bishoprics in the Dalmatian cities of Dubrovnik and Kotor, bordering Serbian territories, are mentioned, so as the bishopric of Ston, which was part of Zachlumia. Ston was subordinated to the Archbishopric of Split.[10]

By the mid-10th century, an Archbishopric of Dubrovnik seceded from Split and included Kotor, Zachlumia (Bishopric of Ston) and Travunija (Bishopric of Trebinje). In the second half of the 10th century the Bishopric of Duklja was mentioned, along with the bishoprics in the maritime cities of Bar, Scutari, Drivast, Pilot in the župa of the same name, and Gradac. Though their previous religious affiliation is not known, at this time they were all subordinated to the Metropolis of Dyrrhachium of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.[10]


Some of the social classes included:

  • Čelnik or čeonik was a type of elder, a chief or head of some state institute or local administration. The title was recorded for the first time in the 11th century, during the Peter Delyan's rebellion of 1040-41. Emperor Dušan appointed čelniks to head cities within the empire. There was a special category of čelniks, which were employed at the royal court. Their duties included the protection of the ruler and implementation his commands and orders. In time, they became integrated into the central state administration and began to take over other duties, outside of their usual function: protectors of the church land, judges, dvorodržica, kaznac (treasurer), tepčija (majordomo of the royal lands and household), etc.[37]
Representation of the Radič, the Grand Čelnik in the Vraćevšnica monastery. Radič, the nobleman and a dignitary, lived in the 15th century.
  • Dvorodržica ("court handler") was taking care of the royal court's management. The tenure became a norm during the rule of the Lazarević dynasty in the 14th and 15th century. He had a major position among the central management. The appointment was copied from previous similar positions which existed on the courts of despot Jovan Uglješa, Alexander Komnenos Asen, ruler of the Principality of Valona or the Bosnian kings. The permanent court was situated in Kruševac but the royal family often traversed through the country. Among the duties of dvorodržica was to set those temporary courts and organize their normal functioning. He was authorized to issue orders to the citizens all over the state in order to construct and structure the courts and providing and sustaining them. He was always present at the court and, due to its high social status, he could serve as a witness for the various documents issued by the ruler.[38]
  • Meroph (also meropah or parik, plural merops(i)) was a serf. Apart from the laboring duties to the upper feudal class, he had other tributes he had to pay. One was soća, a type of tax, which had to be paid by every house. The amount of soća was 1 perper per year and it could be paid either in money or grains. The other tribute was priselica. It consisted of meroph's duty to accommodate, feed and escort his master and the official guests and travelers: rulers, their courtiers, clerks, envoys, etc. Meroph was also obliged to sow, plow, harvest and thresh 7.5 mats of the church land. Mat was a measure for cereal grains, but also was a measure of area: it was a patch of land which could be seeded by a mat of cereals. Approximately, one mat was either 40 lb (18 kg) (weight) or 200 square motikas (or 1.44 ha (3.6 acres); surface).[39]
  • Ćеlator was a member of the poor class, who were employed by the monasteries. They worked on the monastery farms, mostly handling the smaller livestock (sheep, goats) and wool processing. They had different duties from other herders, the nomadic vlah or merops (singular meropah or meroph), the serfs. It was not allowed for a meroph to wed a vlah girl and to become vlah himself. If he would do that after all, the couple would be pushed back down the social ladder and would become ćelators or to the position in the society occupied by their parents. Even then, they were not allowed to be vlah soldiers. Though they shared part of the social duties with ćelators, the latter were more numerous and more poor. One joint duty they both fulfilled was bringing cheese down the mountain, to the monasteries.[40] As ćеlators couldn't pay their duties in products, they were shearing the sheep and used wool to make blankets and thick vests (klašnja).[41]


Among provisions and institutes in the Dušan's Code, some of the today unknown or unusual are:

  • Bližike; The concept of private ownership was quite different in the Middle Ages compared to the modern ideas of this institute. The titular holder of the property wasn't one person who had all the rights, but the property was owned jointly by the entire family, sometimes including the distant relatives. The circle of relatives which had the right to limit the management of the assets, including the disposition of the property, was much wider than the circle which was nominally a titular on the possessions. This prerogative of the relatives to limit each other's rights was called bližike. For example, father had no prerogative to have the disposition right on the entire property, but only on "his share", which excluded the share which belonged to his children.[42]
  • Gradozidanije; The dependent classes had to fulfill the obligation of gradozidanije. It included the construction and fortification of new towns, reconstruction and repair of the damaged and desolate forts, ramparts and towers. The peasants would transport the stones to the locations, but they also had to help with the construction works. Though present since the early days of the Serbian statehood, it became common in the 14th century, especially during the reign of emperor Dušan. As he vastly expanded the state at the expense of the Bzyantine Empire, numerous abandoned, damaged and razed Byzantine forts needed to be repaired. Byzantine emperor John VI Kantakouzenos wrote that during the reconstructions of the town of Ber, 10,000 people were employed.[43]
Dušan's Code, the "constitution" of the 14th century Serbia
  • Mehoskubina; It was a fine charged for the twitching of someone's beard (skubež) during the physical altercation among the lower classes. Article 98 of the Code states that mehoskubina amounts to 6 Serbian perpers. Since Article 97 protects the dignity of the nobility and good people under the threat of severe mutilation, Article 98 continues in the same vein: the fine wasn't actually being paid to the indemnified party, but to his master cause it was his dignity that was tarnished. This is in line with the general direction of the Code, which concentrates on the fine itself rather than on the indemnifying party.[44]
  • Smuđenje; In the medieval Serbian and Dubrovnik law, there was a punishment of smuđenje, or scorching of a beard. It was a specific Serbian measure as the Byzantine law hadn't such a provision, but included the forcible cutting of a beard instead. As a nobleman's beard was a sign of dignity, it couldn't be scorched, unlike the beards of the lower classes. Dušan's Code (article 55) provided that a nobleman who insults the subordinated person should pay 100 perpers, but if a subordinated one insults the nobleman, he will pay the same amount but his beard will be scorched, too. Beard could also be scorched if a person attends the illegal assemblies or if it is a meropah (serf) who has escaped (article 69). Additionally, the leader of such an assembly or a meropah could also be punished with cutting of their noses in addition to scorching.[44]
  • Sok; In Serbian medieval and customary law, there was an institute of sok. It was a secret witness, who testified in front of the judicial organs, but his testimony was secret, while his personal identity might remain secret even from the judges. Testimony of the sok was paid, and court documents contained spending for the sok fees, called sočbina, though it wasn't paid by the court but by the plaintiff. The secrecy of the testimony wasn't diminishing its value as the courts were bent on finding the guilty person as quick as possible and for the process to be short.[45]
  • Zamanica; The state of zamanica was a medieval equivalent of a modern state of emergency. Declaration of zamanica meant that the ordered feudal obligations had to be fulfilled as fast as possible. When declared, it concerned the entire population. It was mostly declared because of the agricultural works, but sometimes because of the war efforts. Article 68. of Dušan's Code provided that the meropsi were obliged to work on noblemen's land for two days in a week, once a year to pay money to the emperor and to scythe one day per year, as part of zamanica. A chrysobull of the Banjska Monastery explains that zamanica is obligatory even for those dependent classes which are usually not mandatory to do it. On the first day, those who were capable to work with the scythe were mowing and later they would have to collect and stack the hay. Off course, they all had to do it for free.[46]

Agriculture and diet[edit]

Modern rendering of the ancient cooking "under the sač"

In one of the oldest Slavic settlement in the region, near Pančevo, archaeologists discovered that the main food were grains and millet, but some meat was prepared, too.[47] Later, the agriculture barely covered the needs of the total population and while the rich ones enjoyed in luxury, poor ones were constantly on the brink of starvation. Once vast forests were still home of the now extinct aurochs and wisent, which today survived only in Białowieża Forest, on the Poland-Belarus border. As population grew, especially from 13th century onwards, the forests were massively cut down to clear land for the cultivation, so the natural world looked completely different in Serbia in the 13th than in the 15th century. In time, the agricultural tools were getting more sophisticated and the use of iron plow and fertilizers spread, which, on the other hand, further accelerated the clearing of the forests. Word hrana, meaning food, remained in use today, but some other names for food included pišta (which disappeared from language) and krma (which evolved in krmivo, fodder). Name used for dish in general was jedenie (modern jelo; jedenje means "eating"), lunch was obed which today means a meal in general (lunch itself is ručak), while dinner was called the same as today, večera.[48] The vegetables were called zelje, which is today a name for patience dock. Onions and radishes were called "hot zelje".[49]

Red-hot stones were used for cooking and boiling. This technique was especially used during the warfare or among those who spent lots of time alone (shepherds, later also hajduks etc.). Right away after milking (sheep, goats, cows), the milk would be poured in the hollowed pumpkin or a wooden container. The rocks were then heated above the fire and placed in the milk. Good cooks knew how much the stone should be heated for a given amount of milk. Larger pigs and lambs were prepared the same way. The heated stones were placed inside their bellies. When the belly was roasted, the food would be skewered on the spit. The vegetables were cooked in the same way. Heated stones were also used for the preparation of skorup, precursor of the modern kaymak, and rakija (brandy). Additionally, ashes and charcoal were sometimes used instead of the stones. On the other hand, after being killed the poultry was scalded with hot water.[50] In the process of cooking or baking with heated stones, the food was half-dug into the ground and covered with a lid (sač). Filo dough was being made. It was used for numerous pies, like the zeljanica (type of spanakopita). Cicvara was also made. It is a grains porridge cooked with skorup, which is today made from corn and kaymak.[51]


Medovina is still being produced today, especially in Slavic countries.

Bread made from the mix of wheat, rye and barley, with added yeast[51] was a base of the diet in medieval Serbia. It was also made from oats and buckwheat. Bread dough would be wrapped in the leaves of sorrel or great yellow gentian, placed on the live coal and covered with ashes. Porridges were often prepared, made from barley, oats and millet. Broths were prepared with the addition of vegetables, red wine or bread soaked in red wine. A whole array of vegetables (onions, garlic, beetroot, cabbage), fruits (apples, pears, plums, raspberries, hawthorns, blackberries, blueberries, mulberries, cherries, walnuts, grapes, hazelnuts) and mushrooms supplemented the everyday diet. The fruit was often dried (apples, plums, apricots).[47][51][52] The food intake was enriched with milk and dairies, mostly goat's sirene cheese and skorup. With sour cabbage, skorup is today considered as the only autochthonous Serbian dish. Vlach sirene was more expensive than any meat. Meat itself was rarely eaten by the common people and was usually consumed during the festivals and religious holidays.[52] Byzantine records write that the main food of the Serbian peasants were barley bread mixed with chaff, sorrel and sour cabbage. The lowest, poorest classes in general had a vegetable oriented diet as the meat was expensive and game hunting was allowed only for the noblemen.[47] They were mostly consuming bread, onions, water and sometimes skorup. Lower classes, in general, had only two meals a day: one around 10:00 and another in the evening.[49]

Nobility and royalty

Unlike rest of the population, all sorts of meat were abundant in the houses of the nobility or the royal court itself. Especially popular were game meat, fish, ram's meat, poultry, dried meat and bacon. Salted meat was also much used. Region of Pomorje provided sea fish, octopuses and salted ikra. Fish from the Zeta provided sea fish for the Studenica Monastery, as ordered by the ruling Nemanjić dynasty. All monasteries had to be supplied with fish and even during the Great Fast, in Hilandar Monastery octopuses, polyps and jellied sea fish were served. Despot Uglješa provided the monastery of Saint Athanasius with bivalves, cuttlefish and fish.[52] Some regions rich in fish had an obligation to send fish to the court of Stefan Nemanja.[47] Town of Bar supplied the court with the olive oil, and Dubrovnik, Kotor and Bojana with sea salt. After the conquest of Emperor Dušan and expansion of the state, Serbia acquired its own saltworks in Greece and Albania. Later, salt was purchased in Hungary and Wallachia. Through Pomorje, the court was supplied with other condiments, like pepper, wild thyme, common yarrow, mint, basil, saffron, cinnamon, clove and dill.[51][47][52]

Main alcoholic beverage was honey rakija (medovača), while the honey wine, medovina, was popular until the late 15th century.[52] Domestic ale in eastern Serbia was called alovina.[53] Prince Lazar originally held the title of stavilac, which means he was in charge of the imperial cuisine during the reigns of emperors Dušan and Uroš.[52]

Byzantine statesmen Theodore Metochites describes the rich lunch prepared at the court of King Milutin, which consisted of the fish from the Danube, boar meat, venison, and bird meat.[47] He also mentions other food served at the court, like other game (roe deer and rabbit meat), broths made from numerous birds (partridge, snipe, wild pigeon) and a special treat, pogača kneaded with honey. Aromatic wines and spring water were served, too. Dessert consisted of apples, pears, black and white grapes, figs (both fresh and dried) and watermelons, kept in the underground pit (trap), to stay cool. Other delicacies included: millet balls with porcini; squares of duck and goose meat cooked in the cauldron with black wine, honey and spices; prunes filled with goat cheese, covered with walnuts and baked under the sač; baked apples with walnuts and honey; barley balls with dried fruit.[51]


Tableware was diverse, influenced by the different regions and social status of the population. The food was served at the table or at sinija, also known as sofra, a short round or square table made of wood. In oldest periods, people were eating sitting on the ground. Later, people would sit around on the small logs, tripod stools or on a cloth, but the poorest continued to sit on earth. The tables in the homes of the gentry were covered with tablecloths. Different sources list golden, gold-plated and silver glasses. Despot Đurađ Branković personally sent 50 gold-plated glasses to Dubrovnik. Cutlery consisted of spoons, forks and knives, made of iron, corals, silver or being gold-plated. It was imported but also manufactured in Serbia.[54][55]

First dishes and tableware were made of wood. Later, the clay and stone came into use. Originally, both the rich and the poor were using wooden spoons. It is known that at the court of king Vladislav, in the first half of the 13th century, quite simple cutlery was used, both in the sense of the materials used and the craft of making it. Half a century later, during the reign of king Milutin, the tableware was already made from silver and gold. At first, the wooden spoon was used only by the head of the housem while the rest of the household members were using fingers for eating. Fork came into use much later. The clergy declared the fork a "sinful debauchery" in the 12th century. Even the wooden ones were considered a sin. Only in the 16th century the clergy allowed the usage of fork.[55]


Malvasia grapes, one of the most popular varieties in Medieval Serbia

When Stefan Nemanja issued the founding charter for the Hilandar monastery at the end of the 12th century, he bequeathed the vineyards in Velika Hoča to it. It is believed that the modern vineyards in Velika Hoča descended from those old ones. Other rulers also donated vineyards to the monasteries later, like kings Stefan Prvovenčani and Stefan Dragutin. The grapes were originally cultivated in Primorje, Macedonia and Metohija. Center of wine making in the Primorje was the town of Kotor, which was the center of the Saint Tryphon festivity, who is even today celebrated as the protector of wine makers. The largest wine producing region was Metohija, and from the 14th century, the vineyards expanded to Vranje, Paraćin, Prokuplje and monasteries of Žiča, Manasija and Ravanica. Both the white and red wine were produced and the malvasia variety was among the most popular. It originated on Peloponnese but Venetians spread it along the Adriatic coast.[56]

As wine is essential for the church rituals, monasteries had their own vineyards which were frequently mentioned in the charters. In the Law on mines, issued by despot Stefan Lazarević and dealing with the town of Novo Brdo, a tribute called psunja was to be collected for each wine brought to the city square to be sold. Only wine produced in the city metochion was freed from taxes and, apart from money collecting, the tribute served as a protective measure for the domicile wine production. Some of the even older wine provisions by emperor Dušan can be considered as the origins of the geographical indication, while mixing of wine and water was strictly forbidden.[56]

After the expansion in the 14th century, the majority production moved to the central, Moravian Serbia. Vast patches of land were turned into the vineyards. In the 15th century, Constantine of Kostenets wrote: "many vineyards were planted, with such a great effort, in this country more than in any other", while Bertrandon de la Broquière noted that in the valleys of the Serbian state there are many villages and good food, and especially good wine. Turkish defters, after the Ottoman occupation in the mid-15th century, show how much the vineyards were spread and how much taxes were collected on wine and must. Fleeing from the Ottomans to the north, Serbs expanded the wine production in the area of Fruška Gora in Syrmia, which was a wine producing region since the Roman period.[56]


Special class of the commoners were ulijars. They were the bee keepers and collectors of the bee products on the feudal lordships. Ulijar had a duty to take care of the apiaries (ulijanik) which belonged to rulers, monasteries, churches or lords, and was relieved of all other feudal duties. It is recorded that during the establishment of the monasteries, the rulers would sometimes, among other gifts, donate ulijaniks with ulijars to take care of them. The bee keepers were much sought in this period as need for the bee products, especially the wax needed for the churches, was great and growing all the time. Also, honey and wax were expensive export goods. As ulijars were giving the 10% tribute in the products, that wasn't nearly enough for the entire state, so the number of ulijars grew. The Hilandar Monastery administered 15 apiaries throughout the state. Ulijars mostly lived within the agricultural settlements or outside of the villages, on the monastic properties suitable for the bee keeping, but a rare, small settlements consisting solely of the bee keepers also existed.[57]


There were three possibilities to get educated: with priests, with monks in the monastery or with the private tutors. The surviving sources can't point to which of this possibilities was the most spread. The modern idea of the school as the central institution in the educational system differs greatly from the education in the Middle Ages. The schools developed on specific locations, where the continual meeting of the students and teachers was possible. Each school was an educational entity for itself and the level was dependent on the qualifications and training of the teacher. Some traditional educational elements, however, were applied in different schools throughout the state.[58]


Neumes - medieval musical notes by Serbian composer Kir Stefan the Serb, museum of Smederevo

Byzantine historians left testimonies about musicians, singers and players (trumpet, strings) among the South Slavs. Remains of the medieval tradition can be found in the songs and dances of the customs of dodola. After Saints Cyril and Methodius introduced the church service in the Slavic language, Slavic church music began to develop. Serbian music evolved within the Byzantine musical culture, from the 12th to the 15th century, but also continued to develop on the same basis during the later Ottoman occupation. The chanting was performed in one voice, both choral and solistic. The conductor, called domestik, pointed to the melodic flow with his hands. The main singer, protopsalt, was singing the shortened melodic preparation of the song at the beginning, which was the formula for the entire musical work. After that, he would began to sing a sing, in one voice, accompanied by the choir. In the case of melismatic melodies, the task of the choir was only to keep its drone tone, ison.[59]



The most used materials among the lower classes were wool, flax and hemp. Rich ones used silk, velvet and taffeta which were imported from Italy, Greece and Flanders via Dubrovnik. In time, the weaving workshops began to open in Serbia itself. The silk was produced in Dečani and Prizren and domestic gold-woven fabrics appear at the court of Emperor Dušan. In time, the colored embroidery developed as the main characteristics of the Serbian medieval attire.[60]

The trade and custom inspection of the cloths and textiles were precisely described in the inscriptions so as a fact that they were often being given as a gift or the caravans were being looted. According to the sources, the most expensive fabric was aksamit. It was type of a brocade, interwoven with gold, having a contrast basic colors of the warp and weft. Hazdija or bračin, was a type of velour or velvet. Also considered valuable, it was often ornamented with the golden two-headed eagles. The expensive fabrics were especially handy as gifts during the diplomatic meetings. That way, some exotic fabrics reached Serbia, like hamuha or kamha, Middle Eastern, whole-colored fabric made of the sea silk, the threads produced by the pen shells. Olovera was a purple material, sometimes decorated with lion motifs. Pandaur included a batch of gold-woven textiles, while often mentioned faustan was a thin, cotton material for summer dresses. Čenda, either golden or silk, was actually a sindon or muslin, thin silk fabric used for the suits and linings.[61]


The attire was specific for each class and, in general, four different styles of robes can be differentiated: rural, urban, noble/ruling and imperial ornate attire. Influence of the Byzantine Empire was the strongest, Western influence penetrated later, while the Ottoman impact became evident from the 15th century. There are no evidence that the luxury was forbidden, but there were instructions which ornaments and colors could be used at the court. Fur and animal skins were also used as a currency, up to the 16th century.[60]

Rural attire[edit]

Hemp fiber, once extensively used for the cloths by the commoners, today is rarely used as a fabric.

There are issues with the rural garment from this period as the written and artistic sources differ visually but also show the garment from different parts of the state and from different times. Earliest Slavic dress, both for men and women, consisted of rubaš, a long shirt made of coarse linen or hemp, which was often the only item of the costume. Married women would add an apron-type skirt (ponjava) over the lower part of rubaš, while over the top they would wear different types of short dresses. In modern Serbian, ponjava (поњава) means "coarse blanket", but in the old times it meant "to understand", akin to modern Russian понимаю. Girls would be allowed to wear ponjava only when they turn 15 after reaching maturity and acknowledging that they have understood they are grown up. A special ceremony was held in presence of the parents, cousins and friends. A girl would get on a bench, and mother would held a skirt saying to her daughter to jump into it if she understands that she is grown up. A girl would pretend to hesitate for a while, and then say ponjala ("I understood") and jump into the skirt. That way, the girl would announce she is ready to get married.[62]

Additionally, men were wearing trousers. They were of different shapes and sizes and had numerous names: gaće, pelengaće, pelengiri, benevreci, bečve. They were made from hemp or flax with some reaching the lengths of the calves, some of the knees and some would cover only the thighs. A lower dress over trousers, the only other additional part of the garment during summer, was actually a rubaš shirt, which also had numerous other names: rubina, klinara, cjelara and rebrača. They were cut in different fashions and the most simple was klinara or cjelara. It had clothespins (klin) over the both front and back sides, straight cut, untailored sleeves and knee length. It was fitted by the belt at the waist and the shirt was partially pulled out, over the belt, as a puffy girdle (bauš). Over the shirt, a textile vest was worn, called klašnja. It could be with or without sleeves, and was covered with the wool or kostret (coarse goat hairs) dress. That top dress was used in the mountains even during the summer. After the cloth which was used (sukno) and the way it was prepared, it was called suknja (if the fabric was woven) or gunj (if it was rolled). It was of different lengths. In modern Serbian language, suknja is name for the women's skirt, while gunj is a thick, leather or fur, wool-padded vest which was often decorated with silver buttons. Sheep fur and leather were the most common so as some sorts of capes, blue or green. The cape with sleeves, made of fur, was called šuba. Hats included shallow caps, proper hats and winter, šubara hat. Footwear consisted of some rudimental type of opanak.[60][63]

Urban attire[edit]

The law on mines from 1411, issued by Despot Stefan Lazarević is the most important written source on the medieval Serbian urban attire. The law lists this types: a) male and female woolen suknja (vest) with buttons; b) male and female velvet barhan; c) kuntuš, male top dress with hanging sleeves; d) mrčni plašt, female top dress; e) kavas, a suit embellished with embroidery, with hanging sleeves; f) svita, a ceremonial military suit. The transcription of the Law from the second half of the 16the century contains illustration with the portraits of the citizens - čelniks of the Novo Brdo mines. They wear long dresses, tall, bubble-shaped hats (klobuk) while some have insignia sticks. As they were symbol of a nobility, it appears that the top level of the citizen class were equaled with the nobility when it comes to the attire. Basic attire was similar to the rural attire. lower part attire, and of the entire body, was a linen or hemp made dress (basically, a rubaš), while the main top attire was still a sunkja, in urban attire called gonela. Another top clothing was mrčni plašt or mrčina, a type of cape with sleeves. More complex items were kuntuš and kavad, the latter better known as the part of the noble suit. Both were taken from the Byzantine fashion. Women from the cities were dressed equally to the noblewomen.[64]

Nobility attire[edit]

Part of the fresco "Mourning of Anna Dandolo", which depicts noblemen in their attire

The most widespread clothing among the nobles was kavadion or kavad, a type of tunic. It was a tightly tailored long dress, with either long or short, narrow sleeves. It was buttoned in front, and usually had gold-woven ribbons on the collar and along the entire length. First graphical evidence of kavadion was the scene from the Sopoćani Monastery which depicts the mourners in the death scene of the queen Anna Dandolo. A nobleman, standing next to the episcop, is depicted in blue attire with the golden waistband and next to him is a young man in the long, red kavadion, of simple tailoring and with long sleeves. On the sides, from the shoulders to the waist, the dress is hemmed with the golden ribbon, so as along the neckline. Next to him is a nobleman in the lower red dress with golden bracelets. He wears an upper blue dress, cut on both sides below the armpits, and is probably some kind of a cape, worn over the kavadion.[65][66]

Influenced by the Byzantines fashion, the attire was largely oriental in appearance, but in time Western influences also shaped it. The dress was long to the ankles or heels. The kavadion was in general richly embellished with the embroidery like the silk or silver threads (srma), while the puffy waistband, which was falling down on the hips, was sometimes adorned with pearls and gemstones. Across the tunic, a cape ornamented with the embroidery was worn. In front, it was held with needles, but often with very expensive fibulas. By the early 15th century, the dress became shorter, wider and hemmed with the fur, made from the luxury Italian and Flemish fabrics while the expensive furs, like ermine, became popular. The hats were tall, mitre-like, bedecked with the costly gemstones. This crown resembling hat was called čoja. The main footwear in this period were boots.[60][66]


Production of the precious jewelry in Serbia dates from the early 13th century. It was influenced both by the East and the West. Originally, the western influence was prevalent, but by the end of the 13th century, the Byzantine influence became dominant. Byzantine impact included the filigree technique, which became quite common in Serbian goldsmithing. The best example of the mixed influences is the ring of Stefan the First-Crowned, the first Serbian king. Filigree was part of the national medieval heritage which became the most used technique in working with gold and silver after Serbia was conquered by the Ottomans.[67]


In his 1601 work "The Realm of the Slavs", which was published in Serbia in 1968 with critical commentaries, Ragusan chronicler Mavro Orbini writes that Emperor Dušan practiced using all available weapons at the time, and that he expected from his lords the same. Orbini says that two types of knights games were organized at that period: đostre, or tournaments, and bagorde, or duels. Despot Stefan Lazarević also organized tournaments, but on a smaller scale. He personally was a participant in the grand scale tournament in 1412 in Buda, organized by Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary. Historian Stojan Novaković, in his work "A monk and a hajduk" from 1913 describes the palace of the local lord Vitomir Gvozdenović in 15th century: "On the convenient location, in front of the little town, there was a potecište, a place for racing and other heroic games, where men from the lord's house, and other houses, played and had fun all day long".[68]

See also[edit]


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  35. ^ (in English) The Illyrians. A Stipcevic. Noyes Press. Pg 76 the Slavs merged with these people (the Illyrians), thus preserving in their own identity remains of ancient Illyrians
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  56. ^ a b c Tajne srednjovekovnog srpskog vina, 18 February 2018.
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]