СРПСКИ

Lighthouses

LESSONS AND PARALLELS: STEFAN LAZAREVIĆ (1377-1427), MONARCH, KNIGHT, POET, EDUCATOR
Standing Straight among Ruins
In Serbian history as we know it, there has never been a more difficult time than his, nor a deeper abyss. However, this fascinating man knew how to ”teach darkness to shine”, how to raise the country and the people again to the peaks without selling the soul to the devil, how to be the first among true Europeans and remain a Serb worthy of his ancestors and descendants; how to turn the horrible injustice and humiliation made to his people into an own driving force. Nikola Moravčević, PhD, writer and respectable professor at the Illinois State University in Chicago, USA, in his text written exclusively for National Review, reveals why he has dedicated his novel ”Knight in the Times of Evil” to this character from Serbian history

By: Professor Nikola Moravčević (Ph. Dr.)


Since I have dedicated my previous two novels to cyclopic dilemmas and misfortunes the Serbs have confronted with in the XX century (Albion, Albion speaks of the tragedy of World War II, whilst The Light of the North is about the shocking disintegration of Yugoslavia), I wanted to find some better parallel to these cataclysms in the personality and time of Despot Stefan the Tall, exactly because he lived in a similar sinister era at the end of the XIV and beginning of the XV century, when Europe was hit by the evils of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, epidemic of plague, schism of the catholic church and fatal Ottoman invasions.
Despot Stefan acceded to his father’s throne as a very young man, only several years after the Battle of Kosovo. This time was the most difficult of all ”evil times” for the already fatally weakened Serbia in its entire history. Although the outcome of the battle was tied in a way (both rulers died on the battlefield, and young Beyazit, without asking for anything, hurriedly withdrew from the battleground to solidify his authority in Drenopolje), it was immediately clear both to princess Milica and all her advisors, aristocrats and clergy, that Lazar’s Serbia was completely devastated in that battle, since it did not have any more reserves it could bring to the battlefield for its salvation. Therefore, she first took on her shoulders the difficult task of managing the weakened state, and then wisely advised her young son to accept being a Turkish vassal in order to preserve his lands from further devastation and destruction. So he submitted to Beyazit (even though the latter had slaughtered his father and taken his youngest sister to his harem) until the sultan’s defeat and death in the Battle of Angora against the Tatars in 1402, when he remained faithfully at the sultan’s side on the battlefield after all his sons and high officials had already abandoned him.
Stefan then used the struggle between Beyazit’s sons Suleiman, Musa and Mehmed for their father’s throne to strengthen Serbia, to raise its agriculture, stockbreeding and mining to a higher level than during the long reign of his father. However, even then he did not reject being a Turkish vassal, but also became a Hungarian vassal to improve the safety of his Despotate. He remained faithful to this vassalship too, although by this he created a unique union of a Catholic and an Orthodox Christian state, which have never before been able to leave their religious differences aside and persistently follow their joint terrene interests. In that case, Stefan, remarkable as a brave and virtuous military leader ever since the beginning of his reign, also confirmed himself as a wise statesman. He knew what he wanted and had enough strength to realize his intentions in his standing army, which insured his throne and order, as well as in the virtuousness of his generals, diplomats, economic managers and judges. He always responded to the greatest challenges, both personal and political, with a harmony between the ethical confirmation of personal knightly virtues and skillful application of persistent diplomatic skills, which brought him great respect throughout Europe of his time.

THRESHOLD OF SELF-RESPECT

His principle of knighthood was based on the motto noblesse oblige (aristocracy obligates), implemented in his ethics from the state founding traditions of the holy Nemanjić dynasty, which he greatly respected and emphasized in everything (he was also descendant of this dynasty from his mother’s side). Although at the beginning of his thirty-four years long reign there was no other way for him but to stand straight among the ruins, only about a dozen years later he was the first among Serbian medieval rulers who, with the strength of his personality, succeeded in obtaining the position of an essentially terrene autocrat on the internal plan, even in the extraordinarily complicated circumstances of double foreign affairs and military vassalship. He tamed the disunited and rebellious aristocrats by openly giving titles and positions in the state administration according to credits and abilities and not according to lineage, as well as by skillfully using the economic power of his state, mainly in mining, to become completely independent from the aristocrats. He centralized his authority by creating a state administration and strong professional army which reported to him directly. In this he was much closer to the Western European practice of absolutism than to the Serbian medieval tradition, which makes him the first Serbian modern monarch.
Also today the fact that he has never misused his limitless monarchial power for achieving personal or low goals, but always for the success and blossoming of his homeland, deserves all praises. During his reign, he insisted on positive aspirations in his state, successfully removed or reduced all negative phenomena both in international relations and the economic and cultural development of Serbia, and directly contributed to the rule of legality and flourishing of art and literature. We must not also forget that the Despot, apart from his extinguished military and state affairs abilities, was also a talented poet and translator, tireless educator of the people and incomparable patron of art. In his endowment of Manasija, he founded a monastic school for copying manuscripts, unique in the Balkans at the time, important not only for the culture of Serbia, but also for all other Slavic people in Europe. This school did not only translate significant Byzantine ecclesiastical and terrene literary works from Greek, but also made corrections of many such previously translated books, thus correcting mistakes made due to insufficient knowledge of Greek or due to the disorder of old Serbia orthography.
There, in the area of faith and culture, his great educational role in Serbian history is best seen. In that everyday care to support the bright ideals of Orthodox Christianity by cultural activities, he best expressed the features of a personality which does not allow the principles of political realism in interstate relations to decrease the level of self-respect or destroy the threshold of elementary dignity in communication with the outside world. Therefore his attitude towards a union with Catholics was persistently negative.

TO WIN WITH VIRTUE

Being a knight, he strictly kept his word. He would fulfill every promise. Never in his political negotiations did he forget the long-term goals of his country or the faith that Serbia must be part of the European community, but only as an equal ally. Therefore in all his political performances in the West, he determinedly emphasized that religious orientation has nothing to do with state unions, decisively rejecting any suggestions to have the Serbs become part of the union with the Roman Catholic pontiff.
When joining the knightly Order of the Dragon, where he held an honorable position as the favorite knight of the Hungarian king Sigismund of Luxembourg, Despot Stefan showed high flexibility as a statesman. After a formal invitation to join the Order, he pointed out to the Hungarian king that the Order’s Decree includes a motto according to which the Order is oriented against the Islamic faithless ones and against Christian ”schismatics”. The king immediately firmly convinced him that this clause is only an empty formality, left only to ensure the principle support of Vatican, but that the Order is essentially the main rampart of defense of the Luxembourg imperial family from the arrogance of high Hungarian magnate aristocracy. Having heard the explanation, the Despot accepted it and joined the Order.
Comparing Serbia of Despot Stefan and Serbia today is not easy, because of the radically different societies and challenges they face. It is true that Stefan, similar to our contemporary statesmen, was confronted with enormous problems in the state and that, sometimes by using wisdom and diplomacy, sometimes with the mild use of force, managed to overcome all difficult challenges of politics and war. As a terrene and absolutist monarch, he understood that, being under constant danger of Turkish invasion, he must turn to Europe, which he successfully achieved with his firm union with Hungary, regardless of the fact that it was a completely Catholic state. However, that is where the parallel between his position then and the position of modern Serbia today disappears. He had constant threats from the Turks from the east and the south, while Europe, represented by powerful Hungary in the north, defended him from it. The present Serbian statesmen tend towards Europe represented by the European Union, whose ten members led by the United States of America in NATO, illegally and ruthlessly bombed Serbia ten years ago. It is clear that there is a great difference between overcoming the religious tensions between the Catholics and the Orthodox Christians, which the Despot had to do, and forgiveness for an open illegal multinational armed aggression, with the aim of tearing away a particularly important part of the state territory, which we are facing today. This destroys any attempt of establishing some closer parallel. From the aspect of international law, both NATO and the European Union countries have heavily sinned against Serbia. However, considering the brutal political reality of the world today, in the final throw, Serbia can unfortunately lose more by trying to achieve justice then by leaving it aside for the purpose of its advancement.

WHAT WOULD THE DESPOT SAY TODAY

Considering the clairvoyance with which Stefan defended the Serbian Despotate in his time, today he would probably choose the less confronting attitude. However, it is certain that he would never forget, not for a single moment, the level of injustice and humiliation in it. This would strongly initiate him to persistently and diligently work on the general promotion of his country, and, with its new strength, conquer not only better understanding for the legitimacy of his opinions, but also adequate (although late) confession of his previous opponents that they have behaved neither humane nor just towards Serbia during the process of disintegration of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the persistency of the Despot’s knighthood in the times of evil, because until the very end he remained a man and statesman of highest moral principles and consistency that is rarely seen, is something modern Serbian statesmen should adopt from him, for the welfare of the people.
Voluminous historical material I have collected while writing the novel about Despot Stefan truly helped me confirm the ethical point of view: all modern replacements of the knightly view of the world fade before what Despot Stefan Lazarević testified and confirmed with his whole life. And that is the morals of this novel. I think it is not possible to better express recognition, pay respects and gratitude to him as the brightest personality of our late Middle Ages.

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About the Author
Nikola Moravčević (Zagreb, 1935) comes from the family of a Serbian royal officer. He graduated from the Academy of Theatrical Art at the Belgrade University in 1955, and then went to the USA. He got his master degree at the Theatrical Department of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1961 and his PhD degree at the Department of World Literature of the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1964. He was full time professor of the Illinois State University in Chicago, founder and chief of the Department for Slavic Studies (1968-1981), prorector at the University and director of the University Development Administration (1981-1988). He is author of historical novels Albion, Albion (Beograd, 1994, 1997, 2006; ”Rastko Petrović” award 1998), Light of the West – Lux Occidentalis (Beograd, 2003), Knight in the Time of Evil (Beograd, 2007), essays about Serbian and Russian literature of the XIX and XX century Selected Essays (Beograd, 2005). He is the honorary doctor at the Wroclaw University in Poland. He founded and has been editor in chief for fourteen years (1980-1994) of Serbian Studies, the only scientific magazine in America about Serbian culture. He lives in Chicago.