Ink, Bronze, and Blood of the Nation: Living in Medieval Serbia Today

By Milan Vukašinović

History, and a good deal of it medieval, has been making headlines in Serbia lately. The municipal government of Belgrade keeps allocating millions of euros for the project of piercing the foundations of the city’s medieval fortress in order to build a funicular over the Sava river – a project that was ‘temporarily halted’ by the administrative court, and that led to Europa Nostra listing the fortress amongst the most endangered heritage sites in Europe. Simultaneously, in early 2021, a gargantuan statue of Stefan Nemanja (c.1113–1199), a ruler of medieval Serbia, was erected in central Belgrade.

Stefan Nemanja monument in Belgrade, Source Wikimedia

What about Nemanja?!

Nemanja was indeed an important figure of the twelfth century. Through violence and diplomacy, he won the right for people living in the central Balkans to pay taxes to him, instead of to his brothers or to the Byzantine emperor. He used some of those recourses to sponsor important religious monuments that are still extant, such as Studenica in Serbia and Hilandar on Mount Athos. He was deemed important enough to negotiate and make alliances with both Eastern and Western Roman emperors. He died a monk on Mount Athos and his sons and heirs created an elaborate hagiographic cult for him, parts of which included ethnic elements. Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when all of a sudden everyone in Serbia appeared astounded by the fact that Nemanja still does not have a monument in his honour. It was like everyone woke up one morning with a pressing question in their head: “Dear God, what about Nemanja?!” 

The answer came in a swift reaction from both the city of Belgrade and the national government, under the direct initiative of the president of Serbia. The rest is history. A contested committee selected the proposal of the Russian sculptor Aleksandr Rukavishnikov. One that comprised a youthful figure of Nemanja standing on a cracked Byzantine helmet, holding a sword and a scroll with an excerpt from his charter for the monastery of Hilandar. The total cost, paid via public funds, was unlawfully classified, and remains a mystery. Coming in at over 80 tons and over 23 m in height, cast in bronze, the monument towers over the prematurely abandoned building of the first railway station in Serbia. It also diverts the eye from the controversial Belgrade Waterfront construction project. And still, the only controversial point for the majority of people in Serbia, seems to be that Nemanja is holding a sword and not a cross.

The excerpt from the Hilandar charter on the pedestal, Source Wikimedia

A momentous charter

However, I would like to concentrate on the other immortalised object in this composition – the symbolic Hilandar charter. The text of this historical document is, to my knowledge, quoted twice on the monument. There is a modern Serbian translation of the first couple of phrases of the charter on the stylized pedestal. But the scroll in Nemanja’s left hand zooms in on half a sentence from the pedestal text, this time in the original Old Slavonic. The patrons and the author leave no doubt as to the meaning of their reading of the document. 

After Nemanja renounced the title of grand župan in favour of his middle son, and son-in-law to the Byzantine emperor, he retired to Mount Athos and founded Hilandar in 1198. He began the document, which aimed to regulate property and the administrative rights of this monastery, with a short story of his legacy. God created the Earth and partitioned rule over it between emperors, kings, and princes. Nemanja’s ancestors were set to rule over the Serbian land. Nemanja inherited it, and in a seemingly contradictory act, enlarged it, annexing territories from the maritime, Greek, and Albanian lands. The Serbian historiographic canon views this single paragraph not only as the ultimate political philosophy of Serbian statehood and the concrete matrix of international relations, but also as a sort of DNA for the survival and development of the Serbian nation for at least a millennium to come.

While the pedestal inscription ends with the list of lands annexed by Nemanja, the bronze scroll zooms in on the sentence: “…and he appointed me to be the grand župan, named Stefan Nemanja in the holy baptism. And I renovated my fore-fatherland, and fortified it better, by the will of God and my own wisdom…” The bronze monumental Nemanja is thus the founder of the medieval Serbian state. The fact that he presents himself as an heir rather than a founder is not seen as a contradiction, but as an opportunity to antedate continuous Serbian statehood even further into the past.

Nemanja’s monumental scroll / Source Wikimedia

The major part of the document – professing Nemanja’s religious feelings and defining the economic lifeline for the monastic community – seems to have been less interesting and less worthy of monumental projection. The crucial part of the charter clearly separates the landed property of the monastery from that of the Serbian crown, and explicitly forbids movement of the dispossessed labourers between the two territories. Amongst others, 8 beekeepers and 170 Vlachs were thus tied to extraterritorial land parcels belonging to Hilandar. 

A royal gift

The Hilandar charter was a personal, locally situated, religious, and economic document. It was also political, inasmuch as these four traits are political, but not exclusively or predominantly so. For centuries, the original text was preserved in the monastery itself. The first extant copies that circulated in the former territory of the Serbian kingdom can be dated to the sixteenth century. The modern editions of the text briefly comment on its later life.

King Aleksandar Obrenović in Hilandar / Source Sáva Chilandarets’ History of Hilandar (link in the text)

In the late nineteenth century, Hilandar was predominantly inhabited by monks of Bulgarian ethnic extraction. In a wish to re-appropriate the monastery for the nascent and expanding Serbian nation, king Aleksandar Obrenović (1876–1903) visited Hilandar, on a detour during his trip from Constantinople to Athens in 1896. Once there, he paid off a part of the monastery’s debts and was gifted the founding charter and a valuable twelfth-century gospel by the monks. The charter was kept in the National Library in Belgrade until the government began its retreat to the south during the First World War. However, the chest containing the charter and other documents disappeared at a train station, never to be found. Luckily, a high-quality lithograph had been produced while the charter was still at its original location. Since 2021, the abridged bronze version of the charter casts its shadow on the defunct train station from which it once departed on its last documented journey. 

I was intrigued by this valuable gift of the monks of Hilandar. Since medieval Athonite documents were historically recognized by the legal systems of all the polities that encompassed the territory, including today’s Hellenic Republic, the monks were not quick to give these away. Luckily, Aleksandar Obrenović’s visit was recorded in various texts authored by the librarian of Hilandar, Sáva Chilandarets. The Czech-born monk hailed from a bourgeois family in the Hapsburg Empire, and had arrived at Hilandar about a decade before with several of his adopted sons. He climbed the hierarchy, eventually gaining access to the archive and the library.

Sáva Chilandarets / Source Source Sáva Chilandarets’ History of Hilandar (link in the text)

In both his History of Hilandar and his letter to the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, written at the turn of the twentieth century, Sáva narrates the visit of King Aleksandar as a conscious re-enactment of the 1347 Athonite itinerary of Stefan Dušan, emperor of Serbs and the Greeks. Aleksandar had arrived in time for Easter and planted two olive trees and two cypresses at the same spot where Dušan’s olive tree was allegedly still growing. He gave a sum of money to the monastic administration and bestowed medals of honor upon the brothers, including Sáva. The monks gifted the king with the twelfth-century Miroslav’s gospel, which he subsequently sent to Vienna to be photographed. King Aleksandar kept the original in his personal safe, while the copies were distributed to libraries across Europe. So far, so good, but no mention of the charter. 

In his personal correspondence with a friend, a certain J. Z. Raušar, Sáva seems to speak more freely and with a dose of humour. King Aleksandar came, he says, and planted 4 trees. It was too late for planting cypresses, though. They withered and would have to be replaced. The king also distributed medals of honor to both the monks and the Ottoman guards who were following him. There were not enough medals at hand; however, so they had to send extra ones from Belgrade later. The monks gave the king a cross and a rosary. “I had to take out Miroslav’s gospel from the library, while the oldest document, the charter of Stefan Nemanja, was taken from the archive.” 

This might be the least enthusiastic description of a gift exchange that I have ever read. It also might help explain why, in his letter to the BZ, Sáva places Aleksandar’s visit right after an invective against Athonite monks who sell items from libraries and archives on the black market. Judging from the coincidence of subsequent historiographic interpretations, political programs, and confection of collective memory, it is at this point that a local economic document, a historical source and a piece of written heritage was given a role in the nation-building process. We are left to wonder if we would still have the original document today, if it had never left the monastery.   

Is there history without the nation?

Sáva Chilandarets was an ambiguous figure. He was undoubtably very religious and dedicated to Serbian cultural and political causes of the day. But his penchant for systematization and administration, as well as the fact that he put preservation of written heritage above national sympathies, could have caused frictions with Serbian authorities and intellectuals. In his personal journal, he laments the way that a visiting Serbian bishop ‘cleansed unnecessary books’ from the library in 1895, by attempting to burn ‘Bulgarian’ manuscripts. In the abovementioned letter, he tells his friend about his conflict with Ljubomir Kovačević, a historian and the Serbian minister of education at the time. Since it was taking too long to print Sáva’s catalogue of the Hilandar library in Belgrade, he sent it to be published in Prague. Kovačević was furious that the catalogue would be printed abroad and Sáva was similarly frustrated with the interminable delays in the printing of his History of Hilandar in Belgrade.   

While studying history in Belgrade, I was taught that the turn of the twentieth century brought about the victory of so-called critical historiography (which claims Kovačević as its representative) over the romantic one. While the former insisted on a well-established Rankean academic method of historical analysis, the later relied on oral legends and epic poetry. Ours is science, theirs the fairy tale. Ours based in fact, theirs in myth. However, as Aleksandar Ignjatović has shown, the difference between the two was insignificant compared to their common driving force – to tell the history of the nation with an eye to its future. Moreover, the likes of romanticists, Panta Srećković or Miloš Milojević, remained members of the same educational and scientific institutions as critical historians, until the end of their lives. They still serve as role-models to people who today publish books about the indigenous, prehistoric presence of the Serbian nation in the Balkans and beyond.

Romanticised portrait of Nemanja by Kosta Mandrović (Vienna, 1895) Source Google Books

A great number of heirs of the critical school of Serbian historiography today seems to be racing each other in stressing how necessary and justified such a monument of Nemanja and his charter are. At the same time, a recent publication in honor of the anniversary of Nemanja’s birth featured papers by outspoken romanticists alongside academics working at public universities, museums, and other cultural institutions. A professor from a state-funded university and an MP asserted the direct connection between the eagle on the coat of arms of Nemanja, and the one on the current flag of Serbia, stressing the emphatic difference between this bird and the ones of neighboring nations. A page-turn later, a vocal romanticist puts forward the bogus claim of a direct bloodline between the first documented medieval Serbian dynasty, the Vlastimirovićs, and one of the last ones, Lazarevićs, with Nemanja as a crucial link. But this unbroken chain is less surprising if we remember the voluminous History of the Serbian Statehood, penned by the doyens of critical historiography. The framing that this book sets up, by establishing a transtemporal unity by means of national essence and institutions, is easily filled in with genetic material and symbolic imagery. 

Paying respects 

In this moment in history, the global health and environmental crises underline the necessity to think along the lines of both local, sub-national communities and regional and global ones. I view the inability to move away from national epistemic and narrative models, not only as a symptom of the lack of critical thinking, but also as one signalling the crisis of basic imagination. It is not a question of eliminating the story of ethnic or national communities, but of not viewing them as essentially, continuously, and predominantly important. Historiography being by necessity imbued with politics, we shouldn’t keep selling exclusively national politics as the only sound historical method and denying historical existence to all other entities and forms of agency. And if we lack imagination, it suffices to go back to Sáva Chilandarets’ concerns for the overpopulation and overextraction of wood on Athos that he voiced in the letter to the BZ, or as a matter of fact, to the eight beekeepers from Nemanja’s charter.

Mt. Athos. CC-BY-NC-ND Olivia Denk Flickr

Why are those eight anonymous beekeepers less worthy of being monumentally honored than Stefan Nemanja? Why are they less valuable than the annexed territories? Why is their role, their labour and contribution less essential to the development of Serbian statehood? We know that Nemanja’s heirs did put the names of all the Vlachs supporting Žiča monastery into the monumental wall inscription of its charters, even though Zlata, Mužilo, Bratilo (say their names!) and the others might have already been dead by the time the inscription was painted. 

And if we do agree to honour Nemanja’s memory and legacy, the question remains of how should we do it? Should we maybe finally get critical editions of all the sources about his life? And how can we fit all of his complex hagiographical existence into a single monument, including him being born as a refugee, being doubly baptized, avoiding some conflicts, burning books and confiscating the property of heretics, possibly speaking multiple languages, having huge amounts of gold and giving some of it away?  

When king Aleksandar Obrenović took the Hilandar charter; he, his government, and national historians were looking for ways to stabilize newly-conquered territories in the south and expend them further, territories that corresponded with Nemanja’s annexations. When King Aleksandar Karađorđević (1888–1934) sat in front of a purple curtain and an the image of Emperor Dušan (1308–1355) during the opening ceremony of the Second International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Belgrade, the historians present were dreaming of a Yugoslavia modelled on the notion of a medieval multinational empire, with the Serbian nation at its core. When the relics of Prince Lazar (1329–1389) were taken on a tour of Serbia in 1989, its leadership seemed to be preparing a narrative of a moral victory in the midst of a military defeat, modelled on the legend of the Kosovo battle and disturbingly prophetic. What will the current government do with its celebration of Nemanja’s statehood project? Time will tell. But the fact that this state of Nemanja is conceived as a relation between a monumental ruler and a faceless, nameless crowd that exist only as a nation, does not seem promising. 

The issues of medieval heritage, memory, history and nation-building in modern Serbia will be discussed in the coming Oxford – Uppsala event, Our Daily Byzantium: Medieval Heritage, Nation-building, and Politics in Serbia on March 25th. We will hear diverse voices, broaden the frame of thinking, and introduce the international community to this topic. Hosted by Alexandra Vukovich and myself, the debate will include contributions by Filip EjdusMilena RepajićAleksandar IgnjatovićMarko Šuica and Višnja Kisić, as well as discussion with Emir Filipović and Mirela Ivanova
Read more about this event and register here.                               

I would like to thank Markéta Kulhánková for helping me procure the bibliography for this post. 

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