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.”