A poem of an ancient kind





The Historical background of the Filip Višnjić's poem

This poem belongs to the oldest kind of  literature, which existed  even before the invention of the letters. Unwritten epic poetry of this kind has been spread by it's singers in oral tradition, from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation. The singers were quite often blind or otherwise handicapped people, unfit for bodily work. They earned their bread singing poems which they usually heard from others. It may be surprising but a poem could live and survive for hundreds or even thousands of years that way!  Of course, whoever sung the song, would mostly change something, consciously or not, to make the song more beautiful according to the singer's taste. That way, after some hundreds of years, a poem would get  an legendary glitter.

This kind of literature is a predecessor of all the literary veins of today, and of  the worldly music, history and education in general.
The most famous example of this literary kind is the Homer's 'Odyssey'. Homer was a  blind Greek poet and singer from approx 1000BC, and his epic, describing a war of the Greeks with the city of Troja in Asia Minor was renowned in the ancient Greek and Roman times, when it has been written down somewhere 300-400 years BC, and until today.

At the beginning of 19. century there has been a revival of interest for the Antiquity, which again came into fashion in art and literature in the then period of Classicism. Homer returned to the focus of the interest again. It has been a surprise to the writers of that time, that such kind of literature could still be found in the contemporary Europe, still very alive and kicking.

As the Serbian language and orthography reformer Vuk Karadžic begun collecting these epic poems of the oral tradition from their singers in the first half of the 19. century, he has been met with a lively interest in the literary circles in Germany and other European countries. Some, like the Lady Therese Augustine Louise von Jacob even learned the language to be able to read these poems, as noted  down by Karadžic. Lady von Jacob signed no less than 220 of their translations with her pseudonym TALvJ. Some of the poems Vuk has collected have been very young; years or decades only, others have been as old as 13. century.

But how could this literary kind, held extinct for millennia, still be alive in the Serbia of the early 19 century?

Let's return to the poem itself. Although dealing with events of 1804, the poem has a long flashback to the 14 century, to the times of late Middle Ages when the Serbia lost it's independence to the Turks, to regain it only  450 years later with the events which are the main theme of the poem.

14. century Serbia has been a country of reasonable prosperity and rather similar to it's other European neighbours. The nobility had often more interest for the sword than for anything else, but it was still rather literate and educated. Intellectuals of these times were the clergy, of course. Under the strong influence of the old Byzantine literature and arts, especially painting of the church interiors Al Fresco reached quite a nice level by the Serbs.
 The common people, as usual in the middle ages, were mostly illiterate. Still, they had their ancient epic poems which were their entertainment and education at the same time. Such songs have existed in Germany, England or in any other European country of  the Middle Ages; and although giving ground to the written literature after the literacy began slowly spreading at the beginning of the second millennium, several percent of the literates usual in that times could hardly make the oral tradition extinct.

It is at the end of the 14 century that the Turks started their expansion into Europe. Originally an Asian nomadic people, they consolidated themselves in the Asia Minor in the previous century. The remains of the once powerful Byzantium and Serbia were the among the first obstacles on their way further into the European continenet. 

The battle which decided the Serbian fortune for the next 5 centuries happened 15 of June, 1389 at the Kosovo-field, and was the last one in a protracted series. Both armies were very large for that time (25000-30 000 Serbs and allies, 30 000-40000 Turks).The Kosovo battle seemed to have had a favourable beginning for the Serbs. But as it progressed, the Serbian king Lazar, who has been fighting himself, as usual for  the European kings in Middle Ages, has been cut off, surrounded and killed by the Turks.

At approximately the same time, a member of the Serb nobility Miloš Obilić went over to the Turkish side feinting treason. He has been received immediately by the Turkish Sultan Murad in his tent. Bowing down ceremonially in front of the Sultan, he pulled the knife out of his boot, slitting the Murad's belly open from side to side. Milos himself has, of course, been cut down instantly by the sultan's guards. The Sultan died minutes after that and, of course, his legacy speech as quoted in the poem is a legend. But not a legend only; the historical reminiscences the author had collected, no doubt, from the many old poems about the character of the Turkish rule of that times - these reminiscences are astoundingly correct.

This suicidal act didn't change the events favourably for the Serbs; rather on the contrary. The flank divisions of the Turkish army have been commanded by the Murad's sons. Younger one, Bayazid, on hearing of the fathers death called his brother Yakub in immediately for an alleged war council. He had Yakub killed as he arrived. This has been almost a Turkish political habit  of the times, to avoid bloody civil wars for the throne between the sons of the sultan's.

Bayazid, later nicked Yildirim (the Lightning) by his compatriots, dealt with the battle as energetically as he did with his brother. Reorganizing the Turkish forces, he succeeded in winning the battle for the Turks.
Both armies retreated from the battlefield, heavily mauled and having lost their kings. The Serb side fared worse, and what 's more - Serbs have put to that battle everything they had got.
  Shortly after, the Serbs had  to accept their vassalage to the Turks, soldiering in the Turkish conquests of other countries.

After a number of victories, Bayazid found his end in the battle of Ankara, 1402, where he finally met his worse. Tamerlane ( Timur i leng, Farsi - lame Timur), who conquered enormous Asian territories and considered himself a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, defeated and captured Bayazid in that battle. He humiliated the prisoner by keeping him in a cage. Bayazid died some time afterwards. For some reason, Timur let the captured Serb knights who took part on the Turkish side go to their homes.
 There they had an opportunity to reorganize Serbia, as the Turkish defeat led to a period of chaos and civil war in Turkey. The Serbs had their independence back during that time, using it for massive works on the fortifications which taxed the population to it's limits- the peasants had  to pay for them and work on them for free. To no avail, though; in the mid 15 century the Turks took over, this time completely and finally. 

The first century of the Turkish rule was almost a relief for the population, which suffered for decades under heavy taxes and back-breaking work on the many fortresses of the country. Turkish taxes have been moderate at first, Turks financing their state from their conquests and ever expanding territories. Unlike Christians, Moslem Turks have shown certain  religious tolerance, treating their religious relatives Christians and Jews with some respect. Islam prohibits a forced conversion, and Turks didn't do it, at least not in Balkans.
Jesus being respected in  Islam as a saint, the Christians have been allowed to keep their churches and church organization. The Turks didn't care much for the ethnicity; it is the religion that counted. A Moslem was a citizen with full rights, acceptable for the highest state ranks, independently of his ethnic origin. On the other hand, a Christian was simply the rayah, a kind of tolerated non-entity. Needless to say, the Christian churches, allowed to an extent but without support of the states they have grown in, lost the power to support the art and literature and sunk into greyness of getting the daily bread.

 Due to one terrible form of tax the Turks practiced, the tax in blood, where the young Christian kids at he age of 8-10 years would be taken by force  from their families to be trained for the military service in the Yeniceri elite units, one Serb even  reached the position of the Grand Vizier.

To the west of Serbia, in Bosnia, after some centuries of the Bogumilstvo heresy and it's violent quenching by the Rome, the official Christianity was, understandably perhaps, not very deeply rooted. No wonder that Bosnian Christians of higher social ranking converted voluntarily to keep their privileges under the new rule. Christian Serbs called them Turks, as they called themselves, too, on the grounds of their Moslem religion. Many of the 'Turks' this poem mentions were Moslems of Christian Slavic origin from Bosnia, who couldn't even speak Turkish properly, or at all.

The Turkish period of the expansion ended finally at the time of the failure of their last Vienna siege at the end of 17 century. From that time onwards, the position of the rayah, non-Moslem population of the empire,  got worse from year to year. Without new conquests, Turks needed ever more tax. The only Serb pillar of literacy left, the Serb  Orthodox Church, impoverished daily just like its congregation, becoming partly illiterate itself. Its priests, many of which couldn't even read, simply struggled to survive.

Having turned the tide, from the beginning of 18 century Austrians started deep incursions into the Turkish territory. At least on three occasions they took over big parts of Serbia in these wars but then retreated, their armies being needed elsewhere. The Serb population rose each time to help their Christian allies liberate Serbia from the Turks. After the Austrian retreats, Turk retributions were so terrible, that on the third such occasion the Serbs left  their land and homes in masses, and settled in Austrian border areas which have been left almost unpopulated after two centuries of Turkish incursions. This left big parts of Serbia completely deserted for a time.

As the Turkish empire begun its ever faster spiralling into decadence and disorder, the rayah position in Serbia became almost unbearable. At the turn of the 18 to 19  century, Belgrade Pašaluk (Turkish administrative unit nominally governed by a general, pasha) has been taken over by a Mafiosi quadrumvirate - 4 Yeniceri agas, members of the lower Turkish nobility, who now called themselves dahias. They took over by murdering the legal governor of the province, a Turkish Vizier. The taxing was now more of a racket, and a complete legal insecurity ruled wherever these have set their feet. It was not unusual for the mob they led to come in to a Serb house at evening to get  billeted there, and then to order the womenfolk into their beds in front of the eyes of the unfortunate host.

And this was the eve of the events the poem describes.

Serbia arrived to the  moment of it's revolution of 1804  with 4500 literate people in the Belgrade Pašaluk, all in all. And of these 4500, 2500 could read and write, too; and probably only less than 1000 of them properly so. 

That is how Homer's colleagues could still earn their daily bread in the early 19. century Serbia.