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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

South Slavs, or the Serbian nation with the Croats and the Bulgarians

Jevrem Grujić et Milovan Janković
Traduction de Krištof Bodrič

Texte intégral

1Title: Slaves du Sud ou le peuple Serbe avec les Croates et les Bulgares (South Slavs, or the Serbian nation with the Croats and the Bulgarians)

2Originally published: Paris, Lacourte et c., 1853

3Language: French

4Excerpts used are from the modern edition: Nikola F. Pavković, ed., Etnografski zapisi Jevrema Grujića (Belgrade: Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti, 1992), pp. 155–165.

About the authors

5Jevrem Grujić [1826, Darosava (near Kragujevac) – 1895, Belgrade]: politician. His background is indicative of the social profile of the incipient political class in Serbia in the first half of the nineteenth century: his grandfather took part in the First and the Second Serbian Uprisings, his father was a merchant and high-ranking state official, while Jevrem himself belonged to the first generation of native Serbian intelligentsia with foreign university diplomas. His elementary schooling was irregular due to the duties he had to perform in his family household. Later, in his writings, memories from childhood came to have an important place. In 1841 he enrolled in the Gymnasium in Belgrade and in 1846 in the Lyceum. As a student in Belgrade, he actively participated in the foundation—in 1847—of the youth organization Družina mladeži srpske (Association of Serbian Youth). In 1849 he obtained a scholarship from the Serbian government and went to Heidelberg to study law. A year later he moved to Paris to continue his studies. There, together with another law student form Serbia, Milovan Janković, he published a book, Slaves du Sud, that so enraged the Serbian authorities that they eventually cancelled his stipend. He nevertheless finished law school in 1854 and returned to Belgrade. In 1858 Grujić entered politics as a secretary of the so-called ‘St. Andrew’s National Assembly’ (Svetoandrejska skup-ština), which later overthrew Prince Alexander Karađorđević. Grujić led the liberal wing of deputies, which promulgated a new law whereby the National Assembly would be held regularly and elected by popular vote. During the rule of the Obrenović dynasty he held several important official positions, such as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs (1859) and Minister of Justice (1860). His outspoken liberalism, however, brought him harassment and also imprisonment. Grujić was one of the founders in 1867 and first president of the ‘United Serbian Youth’ (Ujedinjena Omladina Srpska). He also featured among the founders of the Liberal party and served as its leader between 1868 and 1878. During the Serbo-Turkish war (1876–1878) he held the post of Prime Minister. He ended his political career as the Serbian ambassador to Paris in 1892. He is considered as one of the most important representatives of liberalism, parliamentarism and constitutionalism in Serbia.

6Main works: Slaves du Sud ou le peuple Serbe avec les Croates et les Bulgares (1853); Uspomene [Memories] (1864); Zapisi [Writings] 3 vols., (1922–1923).

7Milovan Janković [1828, Vlaška – 1899, Belgrade]: politician. Janković, who had been studying philosophy and political science in Germany and France met Jevrem Grujić in Paris. There in 1853 they together published Slaves de Sud. In 1854 Janković started working as a state employee and in 1856 obtained a position as a teacher of economics. In 1858, together with Grujić, Janković entered politics, actively participating in the so-called St. Andrew’s National Assembly which overthrew Prince Alexander Karađorđević. Janković supported Grujić, who led the liberal wing of deputies. Under the regime of Prince Miloš Obrenović (r. 1817–1839, 1858–1860), he worked initially as Miloš’s secretary, but eventually fell into disgrace and decided to leave the country. He came back to Serbia only after the death of Mihajlo Obrenović (r. 1860–1868), Miloš’s successor. Janković once again entered government service, rising to the position of Minister of Finances which he held for a few months in 1875. He continued to hold various positions until 1889, when he retired.

8Main works: Srbski car – Stjepane [Stephen – the Serbian tsar] (1868); Hoće l’“biti il’ nebiti” srpstva? [The ‘to be or not to be’ of the Serbians] (1891); Šta je čije? [What is whose?] (1891).


9Jevrem Grujić was among the first Serbian students who were sent on state grants to study at West European universities during the 1840s and 1850s. The members of this generation of students liked to differentiate themselves from the Serbian intelligentsia and state functionaries ‘imported’ from neighboring Austria and educated mainly at German-speaking universities, whom they resentfully called “nemačkari.” This first generation of Serbian-born intelligentsia, being educated mainly in France, perceived themselves as the true transmitters of Western political and cultural models and as mediators of Western ideological influence. They returned to Serbia with the firm conviction that their state could progress only if they adopted the liberal political institutions of the West, of which representative government and civil rights were the most important attributes. The encounter of West European political ideas with Serbian social realities resulted in a reformulation of liberal ideological precepts to fit the ‘national context.’ In their efforts to legitimate the readiness of Serbian society to accept the principles and institutions of liberalism, Serbian liberals turned to their national history, seeking to find in it “the rudiments of Western liberal institutions.” These “rudiments” were to be found in the “freedom-loving” institutions of patriarchal life that would provide for conformity with the values of modern liberalism and democracy and for continuity in political development. Constitutionalism and representative government were directly derived from these traditions of popular democracy.

10Slaves du Sud should not be considered separately from Grujić’s other important work, ‘Memories.’ Some researchers on the subject maintain that Slaves du Sud, a study rich in ethnographic data and information about contemporary social and political life in Serbia, should be considered an introduction to the later ‘Memories,’ which deals with life in one particular community, Grujić’s native village of Darosava. The aim of the two authors was to inform the Western audience, and especially the French, of the historical past and the political, social and religious realities in Serbia at the time. The style of Slaves du Sud indicates that it was not written with any serious scholarly pretensions. Rather, it was based on a strong emotional and national commitment and on the need to clarify the political position of Serbia in a sensitive geopolitical context. Nevertheless, the text contains useful ethnographic data about social life and customs in Serbia in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it represents the first synthetic description of some important aspects of the social relations and, to some extent, the religious life of the Serbs. The Serbian patriarchal cultural model is emphasized and Serbian laws and customs are understood as “the best laws,” a notion that Grujić himself will rectify in the ‘Memories,’ where he pays more attention to situations of social conflict and economic inequality. This shift certainly reflects the changing socio-political circumstances in Serbia, but can also be attributed to the change of his own position in the course of those years. Grujić had personal experience of the severity of the ruling regime’s reaction when confronted with demands for political reforms, and ‘Memories’ was written during his imprisonment in 1863–1864.

11Slaves du Sud seeks to explain the most important features of Serbian traditional life. Starting with a list of the rights that belong to the people, reflected in political, economical, legal, and moral norms, the authors go on to describe other important social institutions, such as the village community, folk customs, festivals and games. They pay particular attention to folk songs and the system of traditional beliefs. The text finishes with a description of the most important ‘spiritual’ features of the Serbian people. Serbian customs are judged “good and benign,” rooted in “moral, philosophical, legal, economic and religious principles.” A Serbian man is trustful, proud to bear arms and always ready to gather and celebrate. In conclusion, the authors stress again the importance of inner and outer liberty for the Serbs and the meaning of the cultural and historical continuity that is achieved through nurturing traditions and epic poetry.

12The publication of Slaves du Sud was important not just because it represented the first ethnographic synthesis of Serbian folk culture and mentality, but because it created a normative image of it. Most of all, the book focuses on the rituals of the life-cycle which also figure as important communal events, such as the wedding, the funeral and the celebration of the patron-saints, the so-called slava. The text emphasizes the rationality of the Serbs, asserting that “the Serbs are free of absurd ideas,” and stresses their close family ties and their obedience to the customary law of the community. These aspects will be taken up and further elaborated in the later works of the outstanding ethnographers Milan Đ. Milićević (Život Srba seljak; The life of the Serbian peasants) (1894) and Vladimir Karić (Srbija—opis zemlje, naroda i države; Serbia—Description of the country, people and the state) (1887). In the characteristic sociographic key of late-nineteenth century ethnology rather than in line with Grujić’s and Janković’s depiction of an idyllic South Slav utopia, Milićević and Karić gave substantial and lasting synthetic descriptions of the traditional life of the Serbian village and villagers. Their works have remained essential for subsequent historical, ethnographical and sociological research.


Popular opinion

14The Serbian people are free of absurd ideas. There is no such thing as a proletariat amongst us. Life evolves in the family. The people do not need newspapers. Opinion is formed amongst the people themselves. They have true judgment as their guide and inflexible conscience to prevent wrongdoing. In our country there is no need for laws on freedom of speech and assembly in order to ensure that everyone has the right to the expression of individual conviction. Nor is there any need for laws governing the carrying of weapons. Laws of prohibition are not necessary either. Our customs are the best laws for us. We are accustomed to gathering together. It is a particular characteristic of ours and it is in the interest of the life of the people.

15Our customs are good and benign. If interpreted properly, moral, philosophical, legal, economic and religious principles can be found in them. Based on national feelings and shrouded in some kind of secret formula which warns: “that’s right, that’s not right,” and “that must be done,” as well as asking: “why”—these principles are preserved in the consciousness of the people and are passed from generation to generation. The Serbian child learns these principles from his or her mother while being brought up. And when he later enters social life, he does not hesitate to respect these truths and hastens to instill them into his own children, and so it goes on.

16A Serb is a man of his word; he can be trusted. In his “toasts,” he drinks to the health of his friends and his enemies, praying to God that the former should not change and that the latter should be shown the right path.

17Weapons are the decorations of a Serbian home. It was once necessary to carry arms when travelling, and this fine custom of owning arms also exists today. This is because a Serb is equally proud to bear arms at festivities and when attending assemblies.

18A Serb expresses:

  1. His inner freedom in “agreements amongst village leaders,” with the “supreme leader,” and particularly in the areas of community activity upon which the community decides freely for itself.
  2. His outer freedom in the use of the title “emperor” to be held by a head of state, but a head of state of Serb origin, a leader who would come from the people and would be its personification. Otherwise, he would not be a “leader” of the people but a master, a Turk, even if he were a Slav.

19Finally, the people firmly believe in their future. They live in a thought that is sacred to them. Whatever misfortune may befall the Serbian nation, nothing can remove that hope that is life itself to them.

20Mothers lull their children to sleep with songs that instill hope in their “infant sons” that when they grow up and leave their mothers they will form part of an “emperor’s army” (an army led by a Serbian emperor) and conquer the enemies of the homeland.

  • 1 During the time of Karađorđe, when the voivode (military leader) Kursula was dying from wounds he (...)

21Children grow up, men live out their lives and old men die in the thought: “when will the Serbian empire come?”1

22Everything is done to ensure that this idea is preserved and passed from generation to generation. This is what, in that sense, a young man wrote in a letter on the subject of our folk epic poetry: “I see tears flowing on the faces of all those who have demanded the return of Kosovo. That helped us, that breathed life into us. We breathe in the air of Kosovo to prevent it being difficult when we arrive there.”


1 During the time of Karađorđe, when the voivode (military leader) Kursula was dying from wounds he had suffered, the other voivode asked him: “Kursula, our brother, you will soon die, tell us what you regret most in this world?” “I do not regret having to die,” replied the dying hero, “I do not regret having to leave my family and this earth, but what I do regret is dying and not knowing what will happen to this Serbia of ours.”

© Central European University Press, 2007

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