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The history of Serbian literature begins with theological works from the 10th- and 11th centuries, developing in the 13th century by Saint Sava and his disciples. With the fall of Serbia and neighbouring countries in the 15th century, there is a gap in the literary history, it is briefly revived in the 18th century by writers in Vojvodina, then under Austro-Hungarian rule. Serbia gains independence following the Serbian Revolution (1804–1815) and Serbian literature has since prospered.
The oldest Slavic script, Glagolitic, seems to have been developed in from cursive Greek in Macedonia by the early South Slavs. Saint Cyril formalized and expanded the script in the 860s, amid the Christianization of Slavs. Cyrillic may have been a creation of Cyril's disciples, perhaps at the Preslav Literary School in the 890s. This marks the beginning of the literary Slavic language, Old Church Slavonic.
The Serbian recension of Old Slavic, Old Serbian, marks the first norm of Serbian literary language. From the 11th century, if not earlier, Bosnia was one of Serbian states, same as Hum (Herzegovina of today), then Zeta (Montenegro), and Raška (Serbia). The oldest known works are the Codex Marianus from the 10th century, and the Grašković- and Mihanović fragment from the 11th century, all written in the Glagolitic script. The oldest surviving monuments of Serbian literacy are Temnic inscription and Humac tablet dating to the 10th century.
The Nemanjic era marks the beginning of extensive works of theology, biography and law (civil, church, constitutions).
The oldest Cyrillic work is the Miroslav Gospels from the late 12th century, one of the most precious and significant documents of Serbian cultural heritage. The Gospel Book was written in Hum, by Gligorije the Pupil, in the name of Prince Miroslav of Hum, the brother of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja (r. 1166–1196). Miroslav's Gospel explains the origin of the Cyrillic script, the letters in it are a masterpiece of calligraphy and illustrations are daring and magnificent miniatures, vignettes and initials. For centuries Miroslav's Gospel has been kept in the Hilandar monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church, on Mount Athos, Greece. In 2005 Miroslav's Gospel was entered onto the UNESCO Memory of the World List.
Rastko Nemanjić, the youngest son of Stefan Nemanja, was the author of several of the more important medieval works. He founded the Serbian Orthodox Church, at the same time writing several theological works, the first biography (of his father) and the Zakonopravilo, the first constitution of Serbia.
Medieval Serbian literature was dominated by folk songs and epics passed orally from generation to generation. Historic events, such as the "Battle of Kosovo" (Serbian: Бој на Косову / Boj na Kosovu) in the 14th century play a major role in the development of the Serbian epic poetry.
Serbian literature in Vojvodina continued building onto Medieval tradition, influenced by Russian baroque, which culminated in the Slavonic-Serbian language. Most important authors of the time are Đorđe Branković, Gavril Stefanović Venclović, Jovan Rajić and Zaharije Orfelin.
Before the start of a fully established Romanticism concomitant with the Revolutions of 1848, some Romanticist ideas (e.g. the usage of national language to rally for national unification of all classes) were developing, especially among monastic clergy in Vojvodina. The most prominent representative of that is Dositej Obradović, who gave up his monastic vows and left for decades of wandering, occasionally studying, teaching, or working in the cultural field in countries as variegated as Russia, England, Germany, Albania, Ottoman Turkey and Italy, and ending up as a Minister of Education in the Principality of Serbia.
One of the first countries to win independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Serbian independence movement sparked the first works of modern Serbian literature. Most notably Petar II Petrović Njegoš and his Mountain Wreath of 1847, represent a cornerstone of the Serbian epic, which was based on the rhythms of the folk songs.
Furthermore, Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, a friend of J. W. von Goethe, became the first person to collect folk songs and epics and to publish them in a book. Vuk Karadžić is regarded as the premier Serbian philologist, who together with Đuro Daničić played a major role in reforming the modern Serbian language.
In the 20th century, Serbian literature flourished and a myriad of young and talented writers appeared.
The most well known authors are Ivo Andrić, Miloš Crnjanski, Meša Selimović, Borislav Pekić, Branko Miljković, Danilo Kiš, Milorad Pavić, David Albahari, Miodrag Bulatović, Dobrica Ćosić, Zoran Živković, Vladimir Arsenijević, Vladislav Bajac and many others. Jelena Dimitrijević and Isidora Sekulić are two early twentieth century women writers. Svetlana Velmar-Janković and Gordana Kuić are the best known female novelists in Serbia today.
Milorad Pavić is perhaps the most widely acclaimed Serbian author today, most notably for his Dictionary of the Khazars (Хазарски речник / Hazarski rečnik), which has been translated into 24 languages.
English translations of some of the important pieces of modern Serbian literature
- Andric, Ivo, The Bridge on the Drina, The University of Chicago Press, 1977.
- Andric, Ivo, Damned Yard and Other Stories , edited and translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Dufour Editions, 1992.
- Andric, Ivo, The Slave Girl and Other Stories, edited and translated by Radmila Gorup, Central European University Press, 2009.
- Andric, Ivo, The Days of the Consuls, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Dereta, 2008.
- Bajac, Vladislav. Hamam Balkania, translated by Randall A. Major, Geopoetica Publishing, 2009.
- Kis, Danilo, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, translated by Duska Mikic-Mitchell, Penguin Books, 1980.
- Pekic, Borislav, The Time of Miracles, translated by Lovett F. Edwards, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1976.
- Pekic, Borislav, The Houses of Belgrade, translated by Bernard Johnson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1978.
- Pekic, Borislav, How to Quiet a Vampir: A Sotie (Writings from an Unbound Europe),translated by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic, Northwestern University Press, 2005
- Selimovic, Mesa, Death and the Dervish, translated by Bogdan Rakic and Stephen M. Dickey, Northwestern University Press, 1996.
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- Selected Literatures and Authors Page - Serbian, Montenegrin, and Yugoslav Literature
- A brief overview of Serbian Literature
- Slavic Literature Resources from the Slavic Reference Service, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
- Istorijska biblioteka: Serbian Medieval Literature
- A Quick Guide to Serbian Literature (in English)