Serbia in the Middle Ages

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

Early Middle Ages[edit]

Slavic settlement[edit]

Sclaveni raided and settled the western Balkans in the 6th and 7th century.[1] The Serbs are mentioned in De Administrando Imperio as having settled the Balkans during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641), however, research does not support that the Serbian tribe was part of this later migration (as held by historiography) rather than migrating with the rest of Early Slavs.[2] 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.[3] 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 fibulae 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.[4]

De Administrando Imperio on the Serbs[edit]

The history of the early medieval Serbian Principality and the Vlastimirović dynasty (ruled ca. 610–960) is recorded in the work De Administrando Imperio ("On the Governance of the Empire", DAI), compiled by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913–959). The DAI drew information on the Serbs from, among others, a Serbian source.[5] The work mentions the first Serbian ruler, without a name (known conventionally as the "Unknown Archon"), that led the Serbs from the north to the Balkans and received the protection of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641), and was said to have died long before the Bulgar invasion (680).[6]

First Serbian principality[edit]

According to DAI, "baptized Serbia" (known in historiography as Raška[7]), included the inhabited cities (καστρα/kastra) of Destinikon (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).[8] The first capital was Ras, in Raška (southwestern Serbia).[9] The other Serb-inhabited lands (or principalities) that were mentioned included the "countries" of Paganija, Zahumlje and Travunija,[8] while the "land" of Duklja was held by the Byzantines (it was presumably settled with Serbs as well).[10] These polities bordered Serbia to the north.[8] The exact borders of the early Serbian state are unclear.[7] The Serbian ruler was titled "Prince (archon) of the Serbs" (αρχων Σερβλίας).[11] 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.[6][12]

High Middle Ages[edit]

Vojislavljević dynasty (Duklja)[edit]

Main article: Duklja

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. First mentioned in 10th– and 11th century Byzantine chronicles, it was 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 gives 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]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[15] "Dušan's Code" was enacted in 1349 and 1353–54.[16] 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".

Decline and Ottoman conquest[edit]

States that emerged after 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.

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).[19] The battle is particularly important to Serbian history, tradition, and national identity (see Kosovo Myth).[20] 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.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 2.
  2. ^ Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 3.
  3. ^ Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 4.
  4. ^ Janković, Đorđe (2008). "The Slavs in the 6th century North Illyricum". Belgrade: Faculty of Philosophy. 
  5. ^ Živković 2006, p. 23.
  6. ^ a b Blagojević & Petković 1989, p. 19.
  7. ^ a b Novaković 2010.
  8. ^ a b c Moravcsik 1993, pp. 153–155.
  9. ^ Strizović, Đorđe (2004). Прошлост која живи. Доситеј. p. 19. 
  10. ^ Fine 1991, p. 53.
  11. ^ Moravcsik 1993, p. 156.
  12. ^ Živković 2006, pp. 22–23.
  13. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 273–274.
  15. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 309.
  16. ^ "Serbian Culture of the 14th Century. Volume I". Dusanov Zakonik. Retrieved 2010-07-25. 
  17. ^ Ćorović 2001, ch. 3, XIII.
  18. ^ Mihaljčić 1975, pp. 164–165, 220.
  19. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 409–411.
  20. ^ Isabelle Dierauer (16 May 2013). Disequilibrium, Polarization, and Crisis Model: An International Relations Theory Explaining Conflict. University Press of America. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-7618-6106-5. 



Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Roman Serbia
Medieval Serbia
476–1540 AD
Succeeded by
Ottoman Serbia