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The Kosovo Legacy
Thomas A Emmert
ON 28 june, 1389 an alliance of Serbian and Bosnian forces engaged a large Ottoman army on the plain of Kosovo in southern Serbia. When the battle was over,
Prince Lazar, the commander of the Christian army, and Murad, the ruler of the Ottomans, lay dead. in the years and centuries that followed, the battle and the martyred Prince Lazar became the subjects of a rich literature of pop- ular legend and epic poetry that has profoundly influenced Serbian historical consciousness. The bard, the storyteller, and, eventually, the traditionalist historian depicted the Battle of Kosovo as the catastrophic turning point in the life of Serbia; it marked the end of an independent, united Serbia and the beginning of 500 years of oppressive Otto- man rule. The legend of the battle became the core of what we may call the Kosovo ethic, and the poetry that developed around the defeat contained themes that were to sustain the Serbian people during the long centuries of foreign rule.
a feeling of despair permeated Lazar’s lands after the prince’s death and his wife’s surrender to the Ottomans the following year. Conscious of the need to combat pessimism in Serbia and to provide hope for a bright future, the mo- nastic authors of the day wrote eulogies and sermons in praise of Lazar in which they interpreted the events of this troubled period for their own contemporaries. in their writ- ings Lazar is portrayed as God’s favored servant and the Serbian people as the chosen people of the New Testament: the “new israel.” Like the Hebrews in Babylonian captivity, the Serbs would be led out of slavery to freedom. Lazar’s death is depicted as a triumph of good over evil: a martyr- dom for the faith and the symbol of a new beginning. Ser- bia and her people would live. Responding to contempo- rary needs, the medieval writers transformed the defeat into a kind of moral victory for the Serbs and an inspiration for the future. The Serbian epic tradition only developed these ideas further and established them soundly in the con- sciousness of the Serbian people.
Lazar’s hagiographers also endeavored to legitimate Lazar’s rule in Serbia. if Prince Lazar could be viewed as part of a continuous line of authority that had begun with the Nemanjić and that would continue after Lazar, it might be possible to overcome the sense of disorder and chaos which had characterized the troubled years 1355–1389. These writers wanted to see their own society as an integral part of the Nemanjić tradition. in giving legitimacy to Lazar, they sought to identify Lazar’s Serbia and Nemanjić Serbia as one and the same entity.
after establishing this continuity of leadership, the me- dieval writers had to deal with the Battle of Kosovo itself. The battle is given very little detail in these earliest Serbian sources, and there is no indication that it was a decisive Serbian defeat. The Serbs had sustained substantial losses in the battle—and yet Murad and a multitude of his troops had been killed and Bayezid, the new sultan, had retreated in haste to edirne to secure the throne. Serbian writers were, therefore, not concerned with describing a great military defeat. Rather, the central theme in each Serbian account is the death of the Serbian prince. in the view of his eulogists, Lazar sacrificed himself so that Serbia might live. What they were conscious of was the fact that the battle robbed Lazar’s principality of its strength and leadership. Lazar’s death paralyzed Serbian society. He represented the last and only hope against the Ottomans, and it is for this reason that his death was seen as the great tragedy of Kosovo. When the enemy returned again, there was no one to oppose them, and Serbia’ s fate was sealed.
in the 15th century the emerging epic tradition of Koso- vo began to express new themes, particularly the assassina- tion of Murad by a courageous Serbian knight, Miloš Obilić, and the suspicion of betrayal at the battle.
The epic tradition of Kosovo would develop much more detail and many more themes and characters during the centuries of Ottoman rule in Serbia. in the 100 years after Kosovo, however, we can discern the origins of the major themes that were to give shape to the cult of Kosovo: the glory of pre-Kosovo Serbia; the necessity of struggle against tyranny; and the essential link between the Kosovo ethic and Christianity, which was expressed most clearly in the heroic ideal of self-sacrifice for the faith and for Serbia, the futility of betrayal, and the assuredness of resurrection.
Miloš Obilić, the assassin, becomes the ideal of the brave Serb who dares to strike out against oppression and as an example to others was to become the central theme in the legendary tradition of Kosovo
Throughout the centuries after Kosovo its legacy and its unique ethos played an important role in the preserva- tion of Serbian identity. With the establishment of Otto- man rule in the Balkans, those Serbs who remained in the mountains or who fled there to find refuge preserved the ancient tribal traditions of that remote mountain life. The mountains became the protector of the cultural and ethnic characteristics of Serbian patriarchal society. Moreover, encouraged by the Serbian Church, this society carried on

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