Windows to the Past -
Serbia's Written Heritage
Serbian writing, in all parts of the former Serbian Empire, had a long and impressive history. Until the 1900's, relatively little was known about life and culture in the medieval empire or about the treasure of ancient documents waiting to disclose their secrets to those patient enough to search them out and decipher the ancient codes of Serbia's medieval manuscripts. Medieval manuscripts are collections of hand-written pages which date before the invention of the printing press in the 1400's. Their contents range from religious works, such as Bibles, collections of scripture, Christian philosophy, and Church laws to legal codes and the biographies of prominent kings and nobles.
Orthodox Christian monasteries, with their tradition of manuscript writing, became the centers of learning. In many ways, they are the legacy of the Roman and Byzantine Empires to the cultures of Europe. When Christianity was accepted by the Emperor Constantine as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the entire legal system of the empire became part of the Christian faith. The copying of laws and Church writings was continued by the Church, both East and West, long after both Rome and Byzantium had ceased to dominate the European political scene.
Inside monasteries all over Europe, scribes meticulously copied important documents for distribution wherever needed. There was no other way, as printing presses were still in the future. The knowledge of religion, culture, and history was passed from generation to generation and from place to place through the precious written parchments safeguarded in the monasteries and churches.
In the Serbian Orthodox Church many such old, rare, and valuable manuscripts exist, but they are seldom part of any public display. In fact, their very existence has always been considered part of the treasures of the faith - and, throughout the centuries of war and struggle, the Serbian churches and monasteries have more times than not had to secrete these sacred documents out of harm's way.
Recently, there has been renewed interest in medieval manuscripts, the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the cultural heritage of the medieval Serbian kingdom descended from Byzantium.
In a historic move, Professor Mateja Matejic, a Serbian Orthodox priest on the faculty of Ohio State University, spearheaded the complex and ground-breaking Hilandar Microfilm Project. Between 1970 and 1975, he and his associates photographed approximately 500,000 pages of the priceless manuscripts at the Serbian Monastery of Hilandar on Mt. Athos in Greece.
This special collection of microfilm, now at Ohio State University's Special Collections' Hilandar Research Library, makes an extensive collection of the most important surviving documents about early Serbian history, civilization, and culture available to modern scholars.
In Western Europe, before 1850, little was known about the peoples of the Balkans' much less about their former roles as heirs to the culture of Byzantium. The fact that there were Slavic Christians living in Ottoman Europe was in itself a discovery of the mid-1800's.
Today, thanks almost entirely to the study of ancient manuscripts, historians have been able to discover much about life in the medieval Serbian Empire. Prior to its fall to the Ottoman Turks, learning had flourished there just as in the other European lands. Today scholars are amazed and impressed at the great number and remarkable quality of medieval Serbian manuscripts which all prove, beyond any doubt, the high cultural achievements of the medieval Serbian Empire and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Following the Turkish occupation, the monasteries and churches were periodically destroyed, as were their contents - among them the precious religious books and manuscripts. Only by hiding the documents and by smuggling them from haven to haven were any of them saved.
Before the Byzantine missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, began Christianizing the Slavs in the 800's, as far as anyone knows, there was no written Slavic language. At that time, the brothers first brought from Byzantium the teachings of Christianity translated from Greek into Slavic either to Ohrid in today's Macedonia or to Czechoslovakia's ancient Kingdom of Moravia. Natives of Salonika, both men spoke Greek and a Slavic language and they developed a Slavic alphabet.
Though there is a question as to whether Cyril himself actually developed the Cyrillic alphabet, which bears his name, it is certain that the earlier version, called Glagolitic, together with the Cyrillic alphabet was a direct consequence of Christianization and the need to transmit the teachings of the Church to the converted Slavs.
For this reason, the first manuscripts were religious in nature and were intended to teach the history of the Church, its laws, prayers, and literature. As Christianity spread to other Slavic lands, the writings were copied by hand and deposited at each new church or monastery which had been Christianized by the Byzantine missionaries. The use of the common language in its liturgy has been a remarkable feature of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By contrast, in the Western Church, the use of Latin was maintained whether the converted peoples were Germanic or Magyar or Franks or Lombards.
Because of the use of Old Church Slavonic and the Cyrillic alphabet, religious documents traveled from the Slavic Balkan states as far north as Russia and the Ukraine. Many of the earliest of these came from Bulgaria's medieval kingdom and, especially, from the religious center at Ohrid.
With the independence of the Serbian kingdom and its growth and prosperity during the reign of the Nemanjic dynasty, approximately between 1100 and 1300, the building of Serbian Orthodox churches began in earnest. As throughout Europe, kings, princes, and nobles built churches as signs of both their worldly success and their devotion to God. As the numbers of churches increased, so did the need for religious instructional writings. Over the centuries, countless written works have been destroyed. For example, following the successful Serbian revolt of the early 1800's, the Turks attacked the Serbian Monastery of Hilandar on Mt. Athos, a region still under Turkish control. With fires lit from Serbian manuscripts, the Turks baked bread.
Those that survived often remained hidden and unknown. One famous manuscript, the Miroslav Gospel, emerged from such obscurity after more than 600 years. It is the oldest manuscript in Serbia and dates from 1180 A.D. Miroslav, the brother of Stefan Nemanja, founded the Monastery of St. Peter (Sveti Petar) in Herzegovina, then called Hum. There Monk Gligorije copied the religious texts needed, and then compiled a special gospel known as the Miroslav Gospel in honor of the monastery's founder.
At some point over the centuries, the gospel was taken to Hilandar for safekeeping. There it remained in the collection until the Russian scholar, Porphyry Uspenski, found it in the early 1800's. The existence of the Miroslav Gospel became known to the outside world after he took a page back to Russia for his collection.
In 1896 it was presented to the Serbian king, Alexander Obrenovic. During World War l (1914-1918), the Miroslav Gospel retreated with the Serbian Army to Corfu and returned with the triumphant forces at the end of the war. Today it is in the National Museum in Belgrade.
Though many Serbian monasteries retain their precious manuscripts, an astounding number of them has been taken out of the country. While estimates place the number of medieval Serbian manuscripts in Yugoslavia at 4,500, an equal number is thought to be abroad.
There are ancient Serbian manuscripts in Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, France, England, and Turkey - but the largest number is in the former Soviet Union.
The Serbian collection is one of the largest Cyrillic manuscript collections of the former Soviet Union. In the archives there are 300 manuscripts which date from the earliest period - 900 to 1300 A.D. - and even more dating from between 1400 and 1600.
The collection is lavishly illuminated and covers a wide range of subjects: Slavic translations of Byzantine works, original Serbian religious music from the oldest period, collections of sermons, lives of saints, philosophy, folklore and customs, and original Serbian law books. Since all the Slavs used the same written materials during the Middle Ages, the newly converted Russians, after 989 A.D., requested manuscripts from Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia - whose people were Christianized much earlier. Materials flowed north to Russia from the Balkans.
In the 1200's the Serbian influence on Russia was at its height. In 1220 a major legal document, a copy of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Law compiled by St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Church and son of the first Nemanja, was sent to Russia. Likewise, the Russian Ryazan Book of Church Law from 1284 is of Serbian origin.
Perhaps the most important document of medieval Serbia's empire, Tsar Dusan's Law Code, is preserved in Moscow. There are two versions in the Russian capital, one from 1349 and one from 1354.
Nearly 100 years after the composition of Tsar Dusan's Code, a revolutionary new process began to replace the production of hand-copied manuscripts. In 1440 Johann Gensfleisch, a man known to the world as Gutenberg, invented moveable type. With that the production of books was revolutionized, and despite the fact that Serbia was fighting for cultural survival, it was among the first European cultures to adopt the new technique.
No longer was it necessary for monks and scribes to copy out long manuscripts by hand. Metal letters, called "type," could be arranged on a press and inked. Then sheets of paper were imprinted with the text. Though the decoration (or "illumination") of these books was still done by skilled artists, the number of books in print increased dramatically.
Just as all hand-copied texts are valued as "manuscripts," the earliest printed books are also of great value. All books printed before 1500 are called incunabulae, meaning "in the cradle" or at the very earliest stage. Estimates run as high as 300 for the number of Serbian incunabulae at Hilandar Monastery.
Apparently, Gutenberg himself had grave concern about the Turkish conquest of the Balkans. One of his early productions, The Turkish Calendar, was printed just 2 years after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Month by month, Gutenberg's calendar calls on all the Christian princes of Europe to unite against the Turks. All Eastern Orthodox Christians; the German, French, English, Italian and Spanish princes; the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, Swedes and Norwegians; metropolitans and bishops; and all the raja, or subject peoples, are exhorted to unite to defend Christian Europe.
Though the message of his calendar went unheeded, his spectacular invention made its way around the continent. When Gutenberg's original press was destroyed in 1462, his assistants fled throughout Europe, taking with them the secrets of the new invention.
Printing appeared just outside Rome in 1464, in Paris in 1470, in Venice and Milan in 1469, in Prague in 1488, and in Budapest in 1473.
The very first known printing press in the Balkans was established in the Montenegrin capital of Cetinje in 1493. It was run by Monk Makarije and established by Vojvoda Djurdje Crnojevic. Makarije printed 4 books before he died in 1496.
From Makarije, Bozidar Gorazdanin learned the printing skill. To finish his training, he went to Venice and later returned to his native town of Gorazde - where he printed between 1519 and 1523.
At Belgrade's fortress, the industry began with the printing work of Radisa Dimitrijevic. From him the famous Dubrovnik printer Trajan Gundulic learned the trade. At the Serbian church at Mrksina, Monk Mardarije printed several books about 1562.
The longest-lived printing in the Balkans was done at Scutari, where Stefan Skadranin worked between 1563 and 1580. When his press stopped, because of continued Turkish authority over the region, Serbian printing left the Balkans. Later, Serbian books were printed in Venice, Leipzig, Vienna, or Trieste.
During the 1500's, several Serbs ran printing offices in Venice. A Montenegrin refugee named Bozidar Vukovic and his son printed there in Cyrillic between 1519 and 1561. Jakob from Herzegovina and Hieronymus Zagurovic from Kotor produced Serbian books in Venice sometime before 1597. These Serbs in exile, through printing, sought to maintain the high level of Serbian education and culture present in the Balkans prior to the Turkish conquest.
Though Western Europe subsequently looked at the Balkans and Serbian lands as backward, the study of manuscripts and incunabulae - both in terms of quality and quantity - proves quite the contrary. Both during the Middle Ages and after the invention of printing, high quality Serbian Cyrillic materials were regularly produced. For a full 200 years after the fall of Serbia, Serbian books continued to be written and printed whether in the monasteries of free Montenegro or by Serbs who had fled to Venice. Unfortunately, this early literature was not well-known in the West until the turn of this century. Since that time, and especially in the past few decades, early Serbian manuscripts and incunabulae have become better known. Discovered anew, they are sharing their centuries-old secrets with the outside world.