An Introduction to Serbian Literature

By Mihailovich, Vasa D. | Serbian Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

An Introduction to Serbian Literature


Mihailovich, Vasa D., Serbian Studies


Serbian literature is a branch of the large tree that grew on the rocky and often bloody Balkan Peninsula during the last millennium. Its initial impulse came from the introduction of Christianity in the ninth century among the pagan Slavic tribes, which had descended from the common-Slavic lands in Eastern Europe. The first written document, the beautifully ornamented Miroslav Gospel, is from the twelfth century. Not surprisingly, the first written literature was not only closely connected with the church but was practically inspired, created, and developed by ecclesiastics--the only intellectuals at the time. As the fledgling Serbian state grew and eventually became the Balkans' mightiest empire during Tsar Dusan's reign in the first half of the fourteenth century, so did Serbian literature grow, although at a slower pace. From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries it blossomed, suddenly but genuinely, in the form of the now famous old Serbian biographies of rulers of state and church. Until modern times, this brilliance was equaled only by the literature of the medieval republic of Dubrovnik. Then came the Turkish invasion, and a night, four centuries long, descended upon Serbia and every aspect of its life. The literary activity in the entire area during those dark ages was either driven underground or interrupted altogether. The only possible form of literature was oral. Consisting of epic poems, lyric songs, folk tales, proverbs, conundrums, etc., it murmured like an underground current for centuries until it was brought to light at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In retrospect, it is a miracle that anything, let alone the ability to bounce back into life when the opportunity arose, survived this long, sterile, cold night.

Schematically, Serbian literature can be divided (roughly) into several periods: medieval literature (1200 to the eighteenth century); Enlightenment, Rationalism, and Pseudo-Classicism (the second half of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries); Romanticism (1840s to 1860s); Realism (the second half of the nineteenth century); "Moderna" (the beginning of the twentieth century); the interwar period; and the contemporary period (literature after 1945).

The medieval period is called Old Serbian Literature. As mentioned, it consists primarily of translations or adaptations of ecclesiastic works for use by the church. The most important-and most original-works in this period are biographies of Serbian saints and rulers. Folk literature also flourished at this time, especially after the Battle of Kosovo, lasting throughout the Turkish occupation. Next to the old biographies, these epic and lyric poems, tales, and proverbs belong to the highest achievements of all Serbian literature.

After five centuries of enforced dormancy, literature was revived, gradually, to be sure, in the form of Enlightenment, Rationalism, and Pseudo-Classicism. It was basically a period of transition, ushering in Modern Serbian literature approximately in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. The revival of literary life is closely connected with the stirrings of national aspirations against Ottoman rule throughout the entire Balkan Peninsula. During the Turkish occupation, the Serbian Orthodox Church was the only force that kept alive the national spirit and the hope for a better future. In the process, the Church emerged as the strongest factor when the nation was preparing for the final battle with the declining empire. As a consequence, the Church was able not only to influence the thinking of the few Serbian intellectuals but even to impose upon them a written language, the so-called Slavic-Serbian--an odd mixture of Old Church Slavic, Serbian, and Russian. It was created under the influence of the Russian Church to promote church affairs. In its early form it was distinctly removed from the everyday spoken language. The only literature in the people's language at this time was folk poetry, which was quite different from the officially fostered literature. …

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