Jefimija (1349–1405), secular name Jelena Mrnjavčević, daughter of Vojihna and widow of Jovan Uglješa Mrnjavčević is considered the first female Serbian poet, famous in Serbian medieval literature are her Lament for a Dead Son and Encomium of Prince Lazar. The laments, a strictly feminine form of lyric, is common to some Slavic languages (called tužbalice in Serbian), and long narrative laments are intimately connected with heroic epic songs (example, Yarsolavna's lament in the The Tale of Igor's Campaign).
Her secular name was Jelena. She was a daughter of Kesar Vojihna of Drama, and the wife of Jovan Uglješa Mrnjavčević, another medieval Serbian feudal lord. She is a tragic and majestic figure in Serbian history of the Mrnjavčević family. Raised at the court of her father, who was one of the chief officers of the crown. Vojihna took part in the equitable jurisdiction of the exchequer, and was styled not merely king's treasurer or treasurer of the exchequer, but kesar (equivalent to lord high treasurer) and officer of the exchequer. (A holder of the post of kesar would be the third highest ranked great officer of the state, below Despot and Sevastokrator). Her father secured a proper education for Jelena.
The tragic events in her life seem to have the source of inspiration for her literary compositions, which were engraved on the golden backs of icons or embroidered on shrouds and church curtains rather than written on parchment of paper. The premature death of her infant son Uglješa, which came shortly after the death of her father Vojihna, signaled the beginning of the tragedies which were to befall her. The child was buried together with his grandfather at the Serbian Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece, where women were prohibited to enter. The Serbian monastery was far from the city of Serres, where Jelena resided at the court of Despot Jovan Uglješa, her husband. The young mother was unable to visit Mount Athos nor the grave of her son at Hilandar monastery and to mourn there. Women are prohibited from visiting Mount Athos, let alone the monasteries. Instead, she engraved her lament for her beloved son on the back of the diptych (two-panelled icon) which Teodosije, the Bishop of Serres, had presented as a gift to the infant Uglješa at his baptism. The precious piece of art, valuable because of the gold, precious stones, and beautiful carving in wooden panels, became priceless after Jelena's lament was engraved on its back. The beauty of that lament is in its simplicity and its restrained and dignified, yet quite evident, maternal sorrow. The young mother admits that she cannot help grieving. What was intended to be a prayer for the deceased child became the confession of a mother unable to conceal her inner pain for her newborn. Engraved on the icons depicting Mother and Son, Jelena's lament for Uglješa immortalized the sorrow of all mothers mourning their deceased children.
The Battle of Maritsa
The year 1371 brought another tragedy to Jelena's life. Her husband Jovan Uglješa, together with his brothers Vukašin Mrnjavčević and Gojko Mrnjavčević, gathered their armies in order to try to stop the Ottoman threat rising in the Balkans. They met the Turks at Maritsa river; and in the ensuing Battle of Maritsa, two of the Mrnjavčević brothers, as well as the major part of their armies, were killed. Unfortunately, a contemporary historical account of the battle is missing. According to legend Vukašin was surprised by the greatly outnumbered Turks and decided to camp for the night before battle. The Osmanlis waited and attacked the Serbian camps in a night raid and managed to achieve victory against all odds. The Turkish invasion of Raška and other Serbian feudal provinces was postponed, but at a high cost.
Jelena's personal tragedy was augmented by the national tragedy. At twenty-two, she was already a widow—helpless and unconsolable. She had to leave the court in Serres and move to the city of Kruševac, the capital of Raška at that time, where she accepted hospitality of the court of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and his wife Milica Hrebeljanović. Shortly before moving to Kruševac, Jelena became a nun and took the name of Jefimija.
While at the court of Lazar Hrebeljanović, Jefemija who seems to have been excellent in the art of embroidery, embroidered a curtain which she sent to the monastery of Hilandar as her gift. The text embroidered on the curtain is not Jefimija's original composition, but a combination of passages from the prayers of Symeon the New Theologian on Holy Communion, Symeon the Metaphrast, and Saint John Chrysostom. It is a large, beautifully embroidered, and ornamented curtain which is still treasured in the Hilandar Monastery at Mount Athos.
The Battle of Kosovo
The tragic Battle of Maritsa in 1371 was but a prelude to the fateful confrontation between the invading Turkish forces, led by Sultan Murad I, and the Serbian warriors, led by Prince Lazar, which took place in 1389 on the field of Kosovo. The Battle of Kosovo can best be described as a draw, after the two confronting leaders were killed and their armies decimated or ascribed as a defeat for the Serbs who were unable to recover from it for years to come. For the Serbs, therefore, the Battle of Kosovo marked the beginning of almost five centuries of Ottoman and Habsburg occupation of Serbian lands. Jefemija's host and protector, Prince Lazar, was beheaded at the order of Murad's son Bayezid I. Once more, Jefimija's sorrow was augmented by national tragedy through the loss of her beloved and respected friend Lazar. She expressed her grief through art: she embroidered a shroud for Lazar's coffin. On that shroud, she embroidered a poetic text of original creation in which she addressed the saint-martyr directly rather than God, as was customary. This shroud was completed in 1402; and in 1405, shortly before her death, Jefimija embroidered an epitaphion. In the text embroidered on this epitaphion, the Mother laments her Son, indicating the possibility that Jefimija was actually thinking again of her own deceased son while working on this embroidery, her last:
In the beauties of this world you grew from your youth, oh new martyr, Prince Lazar, and the strong hand of the Lord showed you strong and glorious of all earthly men. You ruled over the expanse of your fatherland, and in all goods you made glad the hearts of all Christians in your charge. And with your courageous heart and the desire of honour you went out against the snake and opponent of the holy churches, judging that it would be intolerable for your heart to see the Christians of your fatherland conquered by the Mohammedans. And should you not succeed in this, to leave the passing greatness of earthly lordship, to adorn yourself with your crimson blood and unite with the warriors of the Heavenly King. And thus you fulfilled both desires; you slew the snake and received the wreath of martyrdom from the Lord above. And now do not leave your beloved children in oblivion, whom you have orphaned by your passing.... Come to our aid, wherever you may be. Look kindly on my little offering and consider them great, for I have not brought praise in the measure of your worth, but in the power of my humble reason -- therefore I expect modest rewards. Not so ungenerous were you, oh my dear liege and holy martyr, when you were in this transient world -- and how much more in the eternal and holy one you have received from God -- for you nourished abundantly a stronger, myself, in a foreign land. And now I beg you doubly: that you should nourish me still and calm the fierce storm in my soul and body. Jefimija offers this from her heart to you, Holy One!
Jefimija's literary compositions are characterized by her use of the first person and by her expression of concrete and personal sorrow and anxiety rather than abstraction.
This unhappy mother and unfortunate wife, who was able to convert her sorrow into beautiful art, died about 1405.
- Elizabeth Jeffreys (12 October 2006). Byzantine Style, Religion and Civilization: In Honour of Sir Steven Runciman. Cambridge University Press. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-521-83445-2.