On this date (by the Julian calendar then in use) in 1389, Stefan Lazar Hrebeljanovic — that’s Tsar Lazar to you — led the armies of Moravian Serbia against the expanding Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo.
The Serbs were defeated — thereby plunging, in the national mythology, into a half-millennium of Turkish domination. Lazar was supposedly* captured and beheaded.
For a generation, Lazar had firmed up his authority as the most significant Serbian autocrat outside the Ottoman orbit. The gravity of that orbit, however, grew more powerful with each passing year; soon, it would devour Byzantium.
Here in the 14th century, the Turkish expansion took on vassals in southeastern Europe. For a prince in the marches, a reckoning had to come due.
Of course, some Serbian lords and other Christian rulers were prepared to owe fealty to the Turks.
In the national epic poem The Battle of Kosovo, our day’s hero receives divine visitation charging him to choose between the treasures of earth and those of eternity, perhaps the author’s critique of European nobles who joined the infidel.
‘Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”
Lazar built the church.
Its site, “Kosovo Polje” or the “Field of Blackbirds” near Pristina, is a monument to the Serbian and Orthodox cause; that it is located, as its name suggests, in the province forcibly detached from Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo War makes it a politically touchy bit of topography. Nationalist outfits like the Tsar Lazar Guard are violently displeased with Albanians having say-so about the place.
Not surprisingly, the record of the time suggests less a Balkan Thermopylae than that old historical standby — shifting relationships of collaboration, resistance, and negotiated boundaries amid Ottoman advances and (sometimes) reverses.
Lazar’s own son and heir Stefan Lazarevic became an Ottoman ally; when the Ottomans were themselves invaded, he shifted his alliance to a different regional power, Hungary. His successor, Durad Brankovic, became estranged from that alliance and eventually fought against the Hungarians in the Second Battle of Kosovo … as an Ottoman vassal.†
Be that as it may, St. Vitus’ Day — Vidovdan in Serbo-Croatian — which is now observed on its Gregorian calendar date of June 28th, remains one of the most sacred days on the Serbian calendar (it’s also the feast day of Lazar, a saint in the Orthodox tradition).
Vidovdan obtained another layer of meaning in 1914, for it was June 28 that Yugoslav nationalists then under the heel of a Christian empire assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and ignited the First World War.
* It’s the predominant version of legend but not a settled historical fact that Lazar was actually beheaded as a prisoner. He may have simply died in battle, or of wounds taken sustained in the fight.
** Subject, like all good myths, to opposing interpretations.
† At the Second Battle of Kosovo, Serbian forces captured the fleeing Hungarian ruler, John Hunyadi, and his eldest son, Laszlo.