Archive for ‘Balkans’


“The time has come to conquer, and I’ll provide your end…”

Back when Turkey was up for membership in the European Union, pundits wondered: What’s “European” about the Turks? Not my country, not my continent—if the question still matters, then others can hash that one out. It so happens that at least in one respect, the Turks aren’t all that different from their neighbors to the west. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by a grand burst of Turkish medievalism reported in The Economist:

In a mighty motorcade, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, descended on the sleepy town of Malazgirt near the Armenian frontier on August 26th. He came to celebrate a millennium-old victory that Turks hail as the dawn of Muslim domination of these once-Christian lands.

Largely forgotten in the West, the battle of Manzikert in 1071 saw Seljuk Turks, led by King Alp Arslan, crush an imperial Byzantine army said to be twice their size. This Turkic push into Anatolia laid the foundation for the Seljuks’ eventual sucessors, the Ottomans, who took Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, in 1453 and whose empire at its peak extended from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Erdogan’s commemoration of a 946-year-old battle is a bid to woo Turkish nationalists . . . At Malazgirt, he linked the failed coup to the medieval campaign.

“We faced an assault on July 15th that appeared to be a coup attempt but was actually aimed at enslaving us…[we] fought the same figures as Alp Arslan,” Mr Erdogan told a crowd of thousands, alluding to wild rumours of Western interference. He was flanked by men posing as soldiers, clad in reproduction chain mail and brandishing scimitars. Other entertainment included displays of horsemanship and archery.

[ . . .]

He has been dusting off other episodes of martial history, presiding over lavish festivities that include fireworks and a laser show to mark the Ottoman victory of 1453. At Gallipoli, he has exhorted Turks to venerate their final victory before the empire was defeated in the first world war and dismembered by the victors.

All of this is darkly, depressingly familiar. On June 28, 1989, not all that far west across the Bosphorus, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia spoke at a ceremony to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. The 1389 battle hadn’t been a victory for the Serbs; it was one of a series of defeats that left the Serbs under Ottoman rule for quite a long time. In poem and song, Serb nationalists turned the calamity into a spiritual victory, a martyrdom on behalf of Christian Europe that the West never honored or even acknowledged. To Serbs, Kosovo was holy ground: a battlefield, a birthplace of saints, a homeland pried from their grip in the Middle Ages and denied once more by the region’s Albanian Muslim majority. The battle was so meaningful among Serb nationalists that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its 525th anniversary. Yes, Balkan medievalism helped send millions of men to their deaths.

Milosevic’s defenders still argue that the speech he gave that day wasn’t inherently inflammatory, but it didn’t need to be. The location, the date, the conflicts brewing at the time, and Milosevic’s dramatic apotheosis by helicopter all told nationalists a story that cheered them. No one grinds axes without also honing their yearning to use them. The aspiration of Erdogan’s medievalism is the fate of Milosevic’s. That ended badly; this will too.

Diorama of the Battle of Manzikert (via Wikimedia Commons)

“He brewed a song of love and hatred…”

One hundred years ago today, Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, making World War I inevitable—but few of today’s retrospectives are likely to tell you why. Of course, the 19-year-old assassin wanted a united home for Slavs in what would later officially become Yugoslavia, and he wanted it free of Austrian influence. But why did he and his co-conspirators choose June 28?

The timing of the archduke’s visit must have struck them as auspicious. The day was the 525th anniversary of a symbolically crucial battle that almost nobody outside the Balkans remembers, although more of us should; Princip’s medievalism sent millions of men to their deaths.

The Battle of Kosovo is murky indeed, but shadowy memories of this turning point in Serbian history did survive the centuries, first in oral tradition and then, in the 19th century, in the written records of a patriotic Serbian philologist. (You can order a hard copy from Ohio University Press or read all the poems online.) Commanded by a noble named Lazarus, the Serbs clashed in June 1389 with the invading Turkish forces of Sultan Murad at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds. The epic tradition is wonderfully vivid: Lazarus doesn’t want war, but he refuses to pay tribute to the sultan. Elijah appears to Lazarus as a falcon and forces him to choose the destiny of Serbia: glory on earth, or glory in Heaven? Lazarus thinks—then he makes his choice fast:

O Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthy kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.

Before the battle, Lazarus celebrates his slava, the feast-day for his patron saint, with a last supper and grim prophecies of betrayal. The Serb leaders know that the Turks vastly outnumber them; Ivan Kosančić declares that “[i]f all the Serbs were changed to grains of salt, / We could not even salt their wretched dinners!” Nonetheless, they agree to tell Lazarus that the Turkish army consists of children, old men, and cripples, but Lazarus seems to know otherwise.

The Turks easily slaughter the Serbs, but much of the epic tradition dwells on the poignant stories of individuals, such as the Maiden of Kosovo, who wanders the carnage looking for the man she was supposed to marry; the nine Jugović brothers and their father, whose deaths cause their mother to die of heartbreak; the redemptive bravery of a falsely accused hero; and the treachery of his accuser. Much of the Kosovo epic is unverifiable, even ahistorical, but the fragment we have is a powerful read. Its legacy, though, is both tragic and sad.

When you understand the Serb defeat at Kosovo polje, you see why Gavrilo Princip must have reveled in the symbolism of assassinating the archduke on that day, imagining heavenly victory but actually inviting earthly calamity. World War I failed to bury this centuries-old nationalism: On June 28, 1989, charmless nationalist Slobodan Milošević scored a propaganda victory by speaking at the battlefield on the 600th anniversary of the defeat (shortly before his own helicopter-assisted apotheosis), and many Serbs still regard Kosovo not only as their ethnic and religious homeland but also as the site of their national martyrdom. At this point, history fades into vapors; as John Matthias writes, “while the final and conclusive battle was not fought until 1459…it is Kosovo which has lived in the popular imagination and in epic poetry as the moment of annihilation and enslavement.”

Today, we prefer our medievalism sweet: Renaissance festivals, fantasy novels, CGI movies, and Playmobil toys, with occasional forays into “Game of Thrones” grimness. Every European culture craves its own brand of medievalism: During the 19th century, the English gave us Tennyson and the Gothic revival; the Scots had their Ivanhoe and the Eglinton Tournament; the Finns found themselves in the charming Kalevala; the Germans gave the world Wagner (not only his music but also, alas, the man) as well as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica; and the French, bless their hearts, gave us Migne.

The Balkans bequeathed us their own Middle Ages. The century that resulted, with its awful world wars, springs from the same source as Tolkien. Today, the 625th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, is the ideal day to ponder what scholar Tom Shippey has long pointed out: “There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Well, tell her that I miss our little talks…”

I’m not a book collector, but I am a book accumulator, so I haunt the D.C. area’s secondhand shops in joyful hope of discovering something peculiar and new. Other blogs charmingly document the personal detritus we slough off in our books, but I never find anything to get the Antiques Roadshow crowd all aflutter. Sometimes, I find something better.

While rummaging around the Second Story Books Warehouse recently, I spotted Because the Sea is Black, a 1989 collection of translated poems by Blaga Dimitrova, a Bulgarian anti-communist writer who served as her country’s vice president in the early 1990s. I’d never heard of Dimitrova, but I was happy to meet a new poet for the price of a $7.50 paperback. I was also intrigued by a translator’s note reminding Americans that “writers who live where not everything can be said with impunity develop strategies for expressing concerns that are mortal.”

As with many modern translations, this one doesn’t make clear the poems’ original forms. Dimitrova’s poetry is rendered in semi-free verse intermingled with wordplay and rhyme—although sharp, rhythmic, fun-to-recite passages like this one encouraged me to read on:

                           Memory, what does it mean
to be clear? To be ice? To be twice? To be more?
We are gasping with asking since infancy, answerless—
What is the name of the cure?

The big surprise, though, was the half-title page, where I found an inscription:

To Mr. Boorstin

With thanks
for your report,
that it mooved [sic]
me deeply —
Bl. Dimitrova

21.IV 93

Jerusalem

“Mr. Boorstin” is prolific historian Daniel J. Boorstin, author of The Discoverers and The Creators and Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. What were he and Dimitrova doing in Jerusalem? An L.A. Times story tells me that they were tasked with kicking around the dreary question of writers as “moral guardians”:

The invitation to be “the conscience of the world” may have seemed like one any writer would accept. Here was a chance to denounce “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, starvation in Somalia, anti-Semitism in Europe, racism in America.

But one after another, 16 leading novelists, poets, historians, biographers, essayists and publishers declined the invitation during the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week. At a two-day forum co-sponsored by the fair and the Aspen Institute, many also warned of the danger of any writer acting as a moral arbiter.

“Why is a writer more capable of being a conscience than a jurist or an educator or a philosopher?” asked David Grossman, an Israeli whose books have explored the difficult relationship his country has with Palestinian Arabs and examined the moral dilemmas that result. “No one can serve as someone else’s conscience.”

Cynthia Ozick, an American novelist, poet and literary critic, spoke even more sharply: “Being a writer myself, I know what kind of people we are—and I don’t trust us. Writers are after power, and when writers meddle in politics it can be a cover for their drive for power.”

The L.A. Times article doesn’t report what Boorstin said that left Dimitrova “deeply moved,” but it does provide a snippet of her musings:

The forum concluded that conscience was necessary to inform a writer’s work, wrong as a role for the writer in society, yet in some ways inevitable as they faulted others who would perform the same function.

“A politician and a writer speak with two different languages,” Dimitrova observed, “and it is very dangerous when they get mixed together but we all do this.”

Twenty years on, I don’t know that poets, journalists, novelists, and critics are still this hesitant to declare themselves our consciences.

Dimitrova died in 2003. Boorstin died in D.C. in 2004, and based on the number of signed books I’ve found, I’m thinking the less valuable bits of his poetry library ended up at Second Story. (Sic transit gloria mundi: The remnants of Jack Kemp’s personal library also clutter the bookshelves just three aisles away.)

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if Boorstin and Dimitrova genuinely liked each other, or if Dimitrova’s inscription represents anything but professional courtesy, but discovering it amid half a million moldering books makes clear how writers—and the words they labor to perfect—slip so readily into oblivion.

That’s reason for reflection, not despair. It’s a worthier challenge to roam the stacks, using this one slim relic of Blaga Dimitrova to find in endless spines not squandered lives, but infinite creation:

Breathing, we go blind
to what exists—whole universes!—
right here, next to us.

“So many shots fired, so many daggers thrown…”

Seven years ago, I stepped into a musty workshop in the Balkans and faced the glares of a thousand ancient Serbs. They leaned against walls and rested sideways in racks; a few were upside down. All around, drawn from every corner of the late Yugoslavia, the silent icons were burned, torn, drenched, or devoured by mold. They had been sent to this office for safe keeping—and to await the conservation and restoration that the Serbs may never have the funds or personnel to finish. An eerie sense of patience pervaded the place; in the Balkans, a thousand-year art project is the least reason for despair.

So as someone whose only friends in the Balkans hail from Serbia and Montenegro, I approached the publication of The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic with caution. For a decade, I’ve taught the Serbian epic cycle about the Battle of Kosovo as a case study in medievalism that fosters the worst sort of nationalism and as one of the best examples of Balkan epic poetry, but I’d never heard of the Albanian take on the Serbs’ sacred story. Published only a year after Kosovo declared its independence, this book was bound to be sensitive; some condemned it as “science fiction” and sent its editor hate mail.

I suspect the angriest critics didn’t actually read the book, which turns out to be a relatively mild collection of eight poems about episodes tangential to the Battle of Kosovo. All but one of the poems were recorded between 1923 and 1955, each is presented in a facing-page translation by Robert Elsie, and the entire volume is introduced by Anna Di Lellio with a placid and decidedly un-Balkan ambivalence.

Most of the Albanian Kosovo variants tell the same basic story: The pious Sultan Murat has a prophetic dream. His seers interpret it, his mother weighs in, and soon the sultan sets off to conquer Kosovo. Like Moses, he prays to God to part the seas, and then he invades the Balkans. When a hungry soldier breaks the fast, the war goes badly, but after the sultan dismisses his less committed troops, his fortunes improve—until he is assassinated by Milosh Kopiliq, an Albanian Christian who picks up his own noggin and strolls away after the sultan’s men behead him.

Readers who know the Serbian poems about the Battle of Kosovo will be startled to see Miloš Obilić, a saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church, presented as an Albanian assassin, a variation that explains why Amazon reviewers have given the book one star if they’re pro-Serb and five stars if they’re pro-Albanian. In the Serbian texts, Miloš is a captain in the army of Serbian Prince Lazar. At the last supper before the ill-fated battle, Lazar unsettles him with a terrible prophecy:

Hail, Cousin! friend of mine and traitor!
First of all my friend—but finally my betrayer.
Tomorrow you’ll betray me on the field of Kosovo,
Escaping to the Turkish Sultan, Murad!
So to your health, dear Milosh, drink it up,
And keep the golden goblet to remember Lazarus.

Miloš does cross over to the Turkish side, but only to assassinate the sultan. Lazar is captured and beheaded. The Serbs are defeated, but their martyrdom wins them the “heavenly Serbia” promised by God—and a longing to reclaim Kosovo that haunted their descendants well into the 21st century.

The transformation of Miloš Obilić, Serb saint and patriot, into Milosh Kopiliq, Albanian Christian, may seem strange coming from the mostly-Muslim Albanians of Kosovo, but Di Lellio explains that a multifaceted Miloš represents an old debate: The Albanians claim ancient descent from the Illyrians, while the Serbs assert that they wandered into the Balkans more recently. Oddly, the existence of Milosh Kopiliq is, Di Lellio says, less a statement of division than a claim to brotherhood. Through Milosh, the Albanians are insisting that their ancestors fought and died alongside Serbs—and that Albanians have deep roots in Christian Europe.

Fortunately, despite a misleading subtitle that promises a far more inflammatory book, The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic is not a propaganda pamphlet. In her 48-page introduction, Di Lellio carefully shows that the Albanians come by their assassin honestly, with a wealth of place-names near the village of Kopiliq attesting to centuries of belief in Milosh’s local roots. Still, Di Lellio leaps to no conclusions; she contrasts Albanian oral history with an overview of the development of Miloš Obilić in Serbian historiography, and she looks beyond the Balkans at a Catalan tradition that makes Milosh Hungarian. She also raises the possibility of etymological confusion based on the word kopil, which means “trickster” or “bastard.” The Albanian Milosh certainly is that: He gets close to Sultan Murat under false pretenses, he cracks jokes after being beheaded, and (in one 1955 variant) he uses magic to makes the eyeballs of two gawking maidens leap from their sockets.

Few scholars who lay a hand on Balkan folklore are objective. Di Lellio worked in Kosovo for the United Nations, and in 2006 she edited The Case for Kosova: Passage to Independence. This collection of texts was also published with the cooperation of the Centre for Albanian Studies, a reputable organization that nonetheless must have an opinion or two about the uses of history and legend. That said, The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic was clearly published in good faith. Contrary to the claims of their critics, Di Lellio and translator Robert Elsie aren’t inventing the Milosh Kopiliq tradition; rather, the variants in this book were all recorded and published decades earlier by ethnographers and folklorists. (Students of medieval English literature will see a familiar name at the end of a 1937 variant: Albert Lord, whose theories about oral-formulaic poetry were picked up by Anglo-Saxonists.) Only one tale in this volume, a 32-line poem recorded in 1998, feels both too recent and too fond of its own historical awareness as it shows the decapitated Milosh Kopiliq striding into legend:

Mountain birds do chirp and wonder
Who is climbing up that hillside?
Headless now proceeds that body,
White with snow now turns the mountain.

Although these poets use Milosh to argue that Albanians are innately European, Di Lellio writes with detectable unease about official textbooks that treat the shadowy Milosh as an historical figure; refraining from overt judgments, she documents how Albanians have come to see themselves. “It is in this context,” she writes, “that I place the stories about Kopiliq, as I try to rescue them from turning into a new prison for collective memory.” With care, she catalogs “a unique production and diffusion of historical memory” since the end of the Balkan wars shaped by “war veterans, former political prisoners, journalists, teachers, politicians, and historians, engaged in owning and rewriting the past,” and no consensus emerges:

Interviews with a range of individuals, from intellectuals to political activists or ordinary people, confirm that Millosh Kopiliq occupies a contested place in Albanian historical consciousness. For some, the issue is a non-starter, a concern that remains confined to naïve nationalist circles. For many others, an Albanian Kopiliq is an undisputed fact: he was always “one of us,” just not always publicly.

If the unsettled yet minor role of Milosh Kopiliq in the Albanian national story makes him an ineffective foot soldier for propaganda, then the stories in this slim volume are also unlikely to eclipse the fame of the Serbian Kosovo epic. Even in its most witty variants, the legend of Milosh Kopiliq isn’t very engaging; the fact that an Albanian Kopiliq exists is itself far more interesting than the actual details of his brief, formulaic adventures.

Compared to the Kopiliq variants, the Serbian poems about the Battle of Kosovo are a far richer read. Their historicity is debatable, and they hold an unsavory place in the nationalist arsenal, but they’re also imbued with a sense of tragedy and loss that overshadows the tale of a single tricky assassin. I’ll continue to teach the Serbian epic in class, but I’ll also mention the Albanian poems for the way they highlight the Balkans’ baffling cultural churn. I’ll also be glad that a Serbian publisher has expressed interest in a translation of this book. Perhaps waiting for former countrymen to find amusement in each other’s cherished legends doesn’t need to become another of the region’s many thousand-year projects.

“The general sat, and the lines on the map…”

Today, as the world little noted nor long remembered, was the 620th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. According to AFP, “no incidents were reported during the ceremony” held by Serbian pilgrims and officials near the battlefield that’s no longer Serbian territory, although Belgrade radio station B92 reports—how reliably I don’t know—that some Kosovars marked the day by bulldozing a 1999 monument to the medieval Serb heroes.

Pundits and politicians have forsaken the Balkans, but medievalists should keep Kosovo in mind—not because outsiders should rush to take sides, but because nowhere is a medieval conflict still burning quite so brightly. Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on this date in 1914, the 525th anniversary of the battle, and Slobodan Milosevic chose the 600th anniversary to visit the battlefield and rally nationalistic Serbs. The Battle of Kosovo hasn’t really ended, and one epic poet predicted what diplomats never fully grasped: “Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—/ A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.”

From the “Quid Plura?” archives, here’s the medieval background to Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, and here’s the capture of Radovan Karadžić and the ugly side of modern medievalism.

“He brewed a song of love and hatred…”

In his English translation of The Battle of Kosovo, John Matthias commends his co-translator, Vladeta Vučković, and offers this passage from Vučković’s modern poem about Serbian legend and history:

The Serbs quieted down, but they did not shut their mouths. Idled by the time on their hands they started to sing and sang themselves hoarse in endless poems accompanied by the mourning sounds of the sobbing gusle. The blind guslars gazed into the future, and those who could see covered themselves out of shame and became the leaders of the blind. But what kind of music is this, my poor soul, reduced to just one string!

I was inspired to hunt for this gloomy passage after the Guardian reported that prior to his capture on Monday, Radovan Karadžić liked to jam on the gusle in a Belgrade pub:

In retrospect, it is hardly surprising it was his favourite pub. The walls and bar of the Luda Kuca (the name means madhouse) are adorned with the Serb pantheon – Slobodan Milosevic, Vojislav Seselj, Ratko Mladic and of course, Radovan Karadzic – each one a nationalist hero. For the hardline clientele, the fact that they also shared the distinction of having been charged by The Hague war crimes tribunal only enhanced their status as warriors.

There were many stories being told yesterday about the man the locals knew as Doctor David, psychiatrist holistic health guru and mystic. But one winter’s night in particular was passing speedily into folklore.

That night, there was a jamming session on the gusle, the one-string fiddle played across the Balkans to accompany epic poetry. Dabic turned up to listen and was eventually persuaded to join in. Those present that night shook their heads yesterday in disbelief at the memory. There was Radovan Karadzic, their hero and icon, playing the gusle for them under his own portrait, and no one had a clue who he was. It was the stuff of legend.

Raso Vucinic, a young Serb nationalist who had been playing the gusle that night, was burnishing a tale he would one day tell his grandchildren.

Balkan epic poems are a gift to the world. Early in the 20th century, recorded performances of epics such as The Wedding of Smailagić Meho helped a generation of scholars better understand the compositional techniques behind Beowulf and other medieval works, and the surviving fragments of the Kosovo cycle are tinged with wistful eloquence. The stories they tell are exciting and sad—but these songs can’t be sung in a vacuum.

Five years ago, while visiting Serbian friends, I found myself in an ancient city on the Montenegrin coast. To escape the midday sun, we ducked into a run-down shop full of pirated software and used compact discs. On a high shelf, safe behind glass, was a special item: a cassette case adorned with a somber portrait of Slobodan Milošević. My host squinted at the title and explained, ruefully, that the cassette was a recording of epic poems lamenting the tragic downfall of Milošević, performed in the traditional manner and set to the screech of the gusle. It wasn’t on sale for its philological interest.

Karadžić, by contrast, composed his own tale. In 1992, for the benefit of documentarians, he played the gusle in the house of his 19th-century forefather Vuk Karadžić, a philologist whose work gave Serbian nationalists something to sing about. A poet himself, Radovan knew that moving incognito among his own people as a bearded mystic would be reminiscent of epic, a motif so cleverly adapted that even his own capture would make for a beguiling story.

Medievalists, take note: sometimes, this is how epic heroes are made, under conditions so ugly that lawyers start to wonder whether poetry can be a war crime. If nothing else, the long-overdue capture of Karadžić, dramatic though it is, refutes that old Joseph Campbell baloney: sometimes the hero has only two faces, and neither one is really worth a damn.

“Your face, your race, the way that you talk…”

Recently, the “Charlemagne” column in The Economist declared Playmobil Man its “European of the Year,” noting persuasively that Homo playmobilis offers “a striking snapshot of European aspirations, anxieties and foibles.” That approach to toys, I’d hasten to add, also says something about how they see history:

There are Playmobil knights and barbarians, pirates and Roman legionaries, all wielding lethal weapons. Europeans can even live with American military toys, if they are old enough: there are Playmobil cowboys from the Wild West, and soldiers from both sides in the American civil war.

The difference is philosophical, says Mrs Schauer. There are no more knights and pirates, so their combat is a “resolved story.” Modern war is “really horror.” That is echoed by Gabi Neubauer, a librarian buying toys in Nuremberg. She suggests that “it is more honourable to fight with a sword, somehow.” Not all explanations are as high-faluting. Asked why Playmobil makes any tiny toy guns at all, Mrs Schauer admits “otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be accepted by boys.”

To the modern toy-shopper, a medieval battle may seem more honorable when viewed through the thick lens of history. But when 14th-century conflicts continue to perplex, and frustrate, and threaten to come between allies, it’s iffy to claim that the knights of old Europe belong to a story that’s somehow “resolved.”

If you’re just catching up on the news of the weekend—Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the reaction it’s causing in Serbia—you’ll see that most articles skimp on historical background. They summarize briefly the wars of the ’90s, but doing the subject justice is nigh on impossible. Even for many foreigners with Balkan connections, disentangling the skein of religion and culture and old ideology is the work of at least half a lifetime. Besides, seeing Kosovo with no more than two decades of context, or panning back only a century, is like opening a book more than three-quarters in. To begin understanding what happened this weekend, you have to go back more than 600 years.

The Battle of Kosovo is murky indeed, but shadowy memories of this turning point in Serbian history did survive the centuries, first in oral tradition and then, in the 19th century, in the written records of a patriotic Serbian philologist. (You can order a hard copy from Ohio University Press or read all the poems online.) Commanded by a noble named Lazarus, the Serbs clashed in June 1389 with the invading Turkish forces of Sultan Murad at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds. The epic tradition is wonderfully vivid: Lazarus doesn’t want war, but he refuses to pay tribute to the sultan. Elijah appears to Lazarus as a falcon and forces him to choose the destiny of Serbia: glory on earth, or glory in Heaven? Lazarus thinks—then he makes his choice fast:

O Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthy kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.

Before the battle, Lazarus celebrates his slava—the feast-day for his patron saint—with a last supper and grim prophecies of betrayal. The Serb leaders know that the Turks vastly outnumber them; Ivan Kosančić declares that “[i]f all the Serbs were changed to grains of salt, / We could not even salt their wretched dinners!” Nonetheless, they agree to tell Lazarus that the Turkish army consists of children, old men, and cripples, but Lazarus seems to know otherwise. The Turks easily slaughter the Serbs, but much of the epic tradition dwells on the poignant stories of individuals, such as the Maiden of Kosovo, who wanders the carnage looking for the man she was supposed to marry; the nine Jugović brothers and their father, whose deaths cause their mother to die of heartbreak; the redemptive bravery of a falsely accused hero; and the treachery of his accuser. Much of the Kosovo epic is unverifiable, even ahistorical, but the fragment we have is a powerful read. Its legacy, though, is both tragic and sad.

Unless you understand the Serb defeat at Kosovo polje, you won’t see the symbolism in Gavrilo Princip assassinating Archduke Ferdinand on the 525th anniversary of the battle, the act that ignited World War I; you won’t know why charmless nationalist Slobodan Milosevic scored a propaganda victory by speaking at the battlefield on the 600th anniversary of the defeat (shortly before his own helicopter-assisted apotheosis); and you won’t appreciate why many Serbs still regard Kosovo not only as their ethnic and religious homeland but also as the site of their national martyrdom. At this point, history fades into vapors; as John Matthias writes, “while the final and conclusive battle was not fought until 1459…it is Kosovo which has lived in the popular imagination and in epic poetry as the moment of annihilation and enslavement.”

Today, we prefer our medievalism sweet: Renaissance festivals, fantasy novels, CGI movies, and Playmobil toys. But the Kosovo conflict is medievalism, too, the sort we would often prefer to forget. In the Balkans, where the scholarly study of Bosnian guslars later shed new light on Beowulf, medievalism also kindled World War I. During the 19th century, as medievalism adapted to the vagaries of national character, the English gave us Tennyson and the Gothic revival; the Scots had their Ivanhoe and the Eglinton Tournament; the Finns found themselves in the charming Kalevala; the Germans gave the world Wagner (not only his music but also, alas, the man) as well as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica; and the French, bless their hearts, gave us Migne. The Balkans bequeathed us their own Middle Ages. The world they created, though grim it may be, springs right from the same source as Tolkien.

Sometimes, medievalism should give us pause, especially us Americans, for whom the phrase “that’s history” is more likely to be dismissive rather than admonitory. The battle of Kosovo resonates still; its legends and lore have profound implications. Playmobil knows this; just look at their toys. They sell Norsemen and Romans and wee Gaulish leaders, but no Lazarus or Sultan Murad. The thought is unnerving, outlandish, and weird. Let’s hope that their story is someday resolved.