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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

On prince Lazar

Ilarion Ruvarac
Traduction de Linda Krstajić

Texte intégral

1Title: O knezu Lazaru (On Prince Lazar)

2Originally published: Стражилово, No. 3 (1887)

3Language: Serbian

4The excerpts used are from Boj na Kosovu – starija i novija saznanja (Belgrade: Književne novine, 1992), pp. 17–287.

About the author

5Ilarion Ruvarac [1832, Sremska Mitrovica (Hun. Szávaszentdemeter, Vojvodina, present-day west Serbia) – 1905, Grgeteg Monastery (near Novi Sad, Hun. Újvidék)]: clergyman and historian, founder of the “critical school” in Serbian historiography. Ruvarac attended gymnasiums in Sremski Karlovci (Hun. Karlóca) and Vienna. During his Law studies in Vienna (1852–56), he became interested in history. After studying theology, he entered the monastic order and took the name Ilarion. Ruvarac was the first to challenge the Romantic tradition in Serbian historiography. He dedicated much of his life to the excavation and critical edition of sources, mostly on medieval Serbian history, upholding the scientific status of historical as opposed to literary (for example, poetic or folkloric) sources. His first works were related to the examination of church documents and some poorly investigated or controversial topics of medieval Serbian history. Later, he became a passionate participant in the public debates focusing on issues of historical method and history writing. In 1888 he became one of the first members of the Serbian Royal Academy. Despite his academic predilections and critical scientific method, Ruvarac remained a man of the church. From 1874, he was archimandrite of Grgeteg Monastery, to which he had withdrawn and where he would later die. Ruvarac remained a source of inspiration for generations of historians who tried to remain close to his critical approach, contrary to the persistent romanticist orientation in historiography that tended to glorify the national historical past.

6Main works: Kraljice i carice srpske [Serbian queens and empresses] (1868); O prvim godinama Dušanovog kraljevanja u hronološkom pogledu [On the first years of king Dušan’s rule, in chronological respect] (1872); Nešto o Bosni dabarskoj i dabrobosanskoj episkopiji i o srpskim manastirima u Bosni [Some notes on Dabar- Bosnia bishopric and Serbian monasteries in Bosnia] (1878); Hronološka pitanja o vremenu bitke na Marici, smrti kralja Vukašina i smrti cara Uroša [Chronological issues on the timing of the Marica battle, death of the king Vukašin and the death of the emperor Uroš] (1879) O knezu Lazaru [On Prince Lazar] (1888).


7The study ’On Prince Lazar’ first appeared in the journal Stražilovo, where parts of the study were published over the course of almost a whole year. The complete text was published as a separate book in 1888, the year before the five-hundredth anniversary of the famous Battle of Kosovo (1389). The same year witnessed the publication of a study dedicated to the same event by Ljubomir Kovačević. Both studies, Ruvarac’s O knezu Lazaru and Kovačević’s Vuk Branković, represent a reappraisal of existing historical knowledge related to the Battle of Kosovo, an event that is considered to be a landmark in the conception of Serbian national identity. The defeat in 1389 marked the beginning of five centuries of Ottoman rule in Serbia. The dilemma of the Serbian prince Lazar Hrebeljanović is presented in myth and in epic poetry as a choice between the ’earthly kingdom’ and the eternal ’heavenly kingdom.’ Although he chose the ’heavenly kingdom’ and eternal glory, prince Lazar placed a curse upon all those who did not want to accompany him into the decisive battle. This curse epitomizes a metaphor depicting the struggle for national unity. In addition to prince Lazar, the myth of Kosovo has become in Serbian folk tradition the source and inspiration for establishing several mythologized figures. Miloš Obilić was the hero who killed Sultan Murat, whose name still stands for heroism and bravery. Vuk Branković symbolizes betrayal in popular belief, while the nobleness of the Serbian people is shown through the image of a ’maiden from Kosovo’ (Kosovka devojka) looking for her beloved among the survivors.

8At the time when Ruvarac and Kovačević wrote their studies, the dominant approach to the study of history was based on using oral poetry and folk legends as the main sources. Panta Srećković, professor of history at the Velika škola in Belgrade, was the main ideologue and practitioner of this approach that was largely inspired by Romanticism. Ruvarac’s approach to the study of history was the opposite. He insisted on a scrupulous study of the written sources and upheld that the ultimate goal of the researcher must be to reveal the historical truth. He challenged the old, romanticized glorification of a distant medieval past with a search for objective knowledge and the use of positive historical sources. Even before the publication of O knezu Lazaru, Ruvarac and Kovačević’s findings disturbed the ’old school’ historians. Historical facts about the Kosovo battle, which undermined the traditional knowledge based on legends, were felt to pose a threat to national dignity, and a long lasting debate—compared sometimes to that surrounding the language reform of Vuk Karadžić—between the ’old school’ and the critical one began. Ruvarac and his supporters were accused of “destroying national sacraments,” and their criticism of the use of tradition was seen as “weakening the national spirit.” Nevertheless, the works of Ruvarac and Kovačević acutely pointed out the biases of uncritical history, and O knezu Lazaru signaled the triumph of critical historiography. Thus, it is believed that Ruvarac’s school of historical research was a turning point in the development of the discipline prior to its official institutionalization. Ruvarac’s study stands out as a prototype of critical historiography in Serbia for its strong emphasis on the study of sources. The public debate it instigated was later interpreted as a dialog between the new, modern European culture and the defenders of the older, patriarchal and traditional mentality.

9Though the impact of critical historiography became an important focal point for the future generations of historians, it has not had any significant impact on the popular discourse on the Kosovo battle, which in some cases still influences and inspires some pseudo-historical research that enjoys wide popularity. Nevertheless, it could be said that the scholarly and the popular discourses seem to continue their parallel lives.


On prince Lazar

  • 1 Jug-Bogdan, according to epic poetry, was the father of the princess Milica, wife of prince Lazar, (...)
  • 2 Banović Strahinja, according to epic poetry, was a Serbian nobleman, whose wife was said to have a (...)
  • 3 Mavro Orbin or Mauro Orbini (1563–1610): a monk and historian born in Ragusa (present-day Dubrovni (...)
  • 4 Jakov Lukarević (1551–1615): a historian from Ragusa.

11History knows not of Jug-Bogdan1 and the Jugović brothers and also knows not that this Jug Bogdan was father-in-law to prince Lazar and the Jugović brothers were his brothers-in-law. It also knows nothing of prince or Ban Strahinja2 or about Banović Strahinja, or that this Banović Strahinja was brother-in-law to prince Lazar, and finally it knows nothing of Ivan or of Milan for that matter and that both of them went with Miloš to a Turkish camp and were killed there before Miloš. History knows not of them nor of these matters, that is to say, neither our historical records nor even Orbin3 or Lukarević4 know anything of this. Only folk stories and songs and those common stories and stories included in the genealogy compiled around the middle of the century do.

  • 5 Milan Topličanin and Ivan Kosančić were, according to epic poetry, two of the heroic knights at th (...)
  • 6 According to the literary historian Jelka Ređep, this reference should relate to the translation o (...)

12In the history, the true history of the Battle of Kosovo, there cannot be any mention of either Jug or the Jugović brothers, or of Strahinj-ban or Milan Topličanin5 or Ivan Kosančić or Kosajčić. But what about the prince’s supper? This supper is mentioned not only by Orbin, but also the hundred-year older Duca’s interpreter and Tubero from Dubrovnik.6 “Thus that supper will,” as Mr. A. Pavić concludes, “be a historical fact.” And if a historical fact it is then it should most certainly be mentioned in the true history of the Battle of Kosovo. Very well! Let those who care so much about the supper write about it, but what should the poor souls write about that prince’s supper on the eve of St. Vid’s day when they must not mention “The prince’s fatherin-law, old Jug Bogdan” or “The prince’s dear brothers-in-law, the nine brothers, the nine Jugović brothers” or “The prince’s brother-in-law, the fearsome Strahinj-ban,” nor the friends of Miloš, the handsome Ivan Kosančić of Kosajnica and the tall Milan Toplica or Topličanin. Who should prince Lazar seat in the place of old Jug Bogdan, on his right, and who should take up both sides of Lazar’s princely table if not the Jugović brothers. And what will Miloš do without Milan, Ivan and Banović Strahinja? And again Miloš, by himself and lonely and not prince Lazar’s son-in-law! And will he who will tell the story of the prince’s supper in the true history of the Battle of Kosovo dare to mention that it was Vuk himself, gentleman and son-in-law to prince Lazar, who falsely accused Miloš, the princely non-son-in-law and nonbrother-in-law of Lazar, of infidelity, etc?

  • 7 The gusla (traditional musical instrument) and gusla playing have a very strong symbolic meaning i (...)

13Let therefore the story of the prince’s supper be sung by blind guslaplayers7 playing their instruments and told by simple story-tellers without them, and let the stories make mention of Jug and the Jugović brothers and Milan and Ivan and Banović Strahinja; and let the learned songwriters and men of verse: the Mušickis, the Sterijas and the Živkovićs keep lamenting over “the mother of woe, the prince’s supper,” and make loud and clear mention in their cantatas of those very heroes, but the future Serbian historian, whose task is completely different from that of the gusla-players, singers, poets, praise-givers and wailers, must hold himself back and must not yield to his heart’s desire, and while writing the history of the Battle of Kosovo, let him not heed histories arranged by those songs or stories, but let him question and examine what the first and earliest and therefore the best historical sources say about that and whether there is agreement between the information from these sources. […]

14The question therefore whether a man of letters, a poet, is allowed to change folk tradition is none of my business and if it were and if I were some sort of a poet, I would simply say that he is allowed, for the truth is above all, and that which is not so, which lacks a firm foundation, which is far-fetched, decorated, artificial and fictitious must sooner or later collapse and fall down and is therefore subject to change; and that which is true will remain even if it is buried, shrouded and stifled and will live anew and shine out anew, even if every Tom, Dick and Harry eat their hearts out. No man is infallible, nor is a group of people called a nation such, and least of all is that which came to the people from times of old, the so-called folk-lore or folk-tradition. So why should one not be allowed to alter that folk tradition? And why should one not tell folks that Serbia did not fall because Vuk Branković committed treason at Kosovo or even before Kosovo, because there is no proof that Vuk Branković did so and because there is no proof either that something else was the cause of Serbia’s downfall?


1 Jug-Bogdan, according to epic poetry, was the father of the princess Milica, wife of prince Lazar, who commanded the Serbian army at the Battle of Kosovo. He had nine sons, the Jugović brothers, all of whom died in the battle.

2 Banović Strahinja, according to epic poetry, was a Serbian nobleman, whose wife was said to have a love affair with the Ottoman hero Vlah Alija while Banović Strahinja was away. The poem glorifies his nobleness, for he decided to forgive her for what was considered one of the hardest betrayals at the time.

3 Mavro Orbin or Mauro Orbini (1563–1610): a monk and historian born in Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnik, Croatia), who became famous for his book Il Regno degli Slavi (The kingdom of the Slavs).

4 Jakov Lukarević (1551–1615): a historian from Ragusa.

5 Milan Topličanin and Ivan Kosančić were, according to epic poetry, two of the heroic knights at the Battle of Kosovo.

6 According to the literary historian Jelka Ređep, this reference should relate to the translation of an account of the Battle of Kosovo written by the Byzantine historian Ducas. The translation was done by an anonymous resident of Dubrovnik. Lodovico Cerva Tubero (c. 1459–1527) was another important humanist historian from Dalmatia.

7 The gusla (traditional musical instrument) and gusla playing have a very strong symbolic meaning in Serbian traditional culture, for it was connected with traditional village life and also with popular reproduction of epic songs describing the Serbian legendary heroic past. This collection of images, values, stories, characters, social norms was transmitted through oral poetry, sung with the gusla, and was used as a foundation for a nineteenth century national discourse.


Linda Krstajić (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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