Historical Notes: Serbia `defeated' at the battle of Kosovo

Tim Judah
Friday 09 October 1998 00:02 BST

ON 28 June 1389 Serb troops gathered on Kosovo Polje and fought an historic battle against the Ottoman invaders. They were crushed, betrayed by a Serbian turncoat and their glorious empire was swept away. So began the long night of Turkish rule. Or so says the legend, widely believed by most Serbs. The problem is that hardly any of this is true.

Under Emperor Dusan the Serbs did rule an empire which, for a mere 20 years or so, stretched from the Danube to the Peloponnese. However, after Dusan's sudden death in 1355, the empire fell to pieces.

Powerful feudal families seized control of peripheral areas in Greece, Albania and Montenegro from his weak successor and soon the whole of Serbia proper was divided up by quarrelling warlord princes.

The Ottomans, now advancing out of Anatolia, were easily able to take advantage of this disunity. Since there was, at the time, no native Muslim population in this part of Europe their tactic was, where possible, not to depose the local Christian ruler but to maintain him in power. In return he was required to provide troops to fight alongside the Sultan.

Many Christian princes preferred this vassal status to risking all in battle. So, by 1389, as Sultan Murad drew up his troops on Kosovo Polje a good proportion of them were Serbs.

Facing Murad was a coalition. They were lead by Lazar Hrebeljanovic who had become Serbia's most powerful warlord after he had sliced up the lands of a rival, Nikola Altomanovic, in cahoots with Ban Tvrtko, the Bosnian King. Kosovo Polje was not part of Lazar's domain though but belonged to his son-in-law Vuk Brankovic.

Along with Lazar's troops were those of Brankovic plus a Bosnian contingent sent by Tvrtko and, most probably, some Albanians too. Although both Lazar and Murad died during the battle the legend holds that the Serbs lost because, at a key moment, they were betrayed by Brankovic.

Considering the good relations between Brankovic and Lazar's widow Milica in the years after the battle, this seems unlikely. And, at the time, the battle did not seem like a defeat. Indeed, on 1 August Tvrtko even wrote to the senate of the Dalmatian town of Trogir trumpeting his victory. Soon after that the Florentine senate sent him a letter of congratulations. When the news of the battle reached Paris church bells were rung in celebration.

Although Kosovo may not have been seen as a defeat at the time it became clear that the battle had fatally weakened the Serbs. With far greater reserves of manpower the Turks were soon able to recover their losses. So, bowing to the new reality, and with the Hungarians threatening her lands from the north, Milica submitted to Ottoman authority.

After the battle of Kosovo, most of Serbia continued to be ruled by its own princes. At times they escaped vassal status altogether. Despite the fact that these were decades of political uncertainty, they were also years of great cultural energy. The years of the so-called Serbian Despotate saw the flourishing of learning and the arts in the great monasteries of the Morava valley.

In 1459 the last vestiges of Serbian independence were finally snuffed out. In the centuries that followed, though, the myth of Kosovo and the great "defeat" began to grow, only to crystallise in the writings of 19th- century scholars and artists.

Today there are those who believe that "bad history" has played a major role in shaping the Serbian worldview which in turn has played its part in shaping modern Balkan politics. And, who knows, as a result British pilots and soldiers may soon be fighting their very own battle of Kosovo.

Tim Judah is the author of `The Serbs: history, myth and the destruction of Yugoslavia' (Yale, pounds 9.95)

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