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Medieval Serbia (7th-14th Century)

The Serbs entered their present territory early in the 7th century AD, settling in six distinct tribal delimitations:

  • Raška/Rascia (present-day Western Serbia and Northern Montenegro),
  • Bosnia (indistinct from Rascia until the 12th century),
  • Zahumlje (western Herzegovina),
  • Travunija (eastern Herzegovina),
  • Paganija (middle Dalmatia) and finally
  • Duklja/Zeta (predecessor to Montenegro)

The first recorded Serb princes were Vlastimir, Višeslav, Radoslav and Prosigoj. By that time, the country had entirely accepted Christianity. In Zeta, today's Montenegro, Bodin was crowned by the Pope (the first mention of this is a century later, in the 10th century. The rulers kept changing and the country accepted supreme protection from the Byzantine Empire rather than from hostile Bulgaria. Serbia was freed from the Byzantine Empire a century later.

The first unified Serb state emerged under Časlav Klonimirović in the mid-10th century in Rascia. However the first half of the 11th century saw the rise of the Vojislavljević family in Zeta. Finally, the middle of the 12th century saw once more the rise of Rascia with the Nemanjić dynasty. The Nemanjić were to lead Serbia to a golden age which lasted for over three centuries and produced a powerful Balkan state which had its apogee under the reign of Tsar Stefan Dušan in the mid 14th century, before finally succumbing to Ottoman Turkish subjugation (with Zeta, the last bastion, finally falling in 1499).

In 1170, after a struggle for the throne with his brothers, Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjić dynasty, rose to power and started renewing the Serbian state in the Raška region. Sometimes with the sponsorship of Byzantium, and sometimes opposing it, the veliki župan (a title equivalent to the rank of prince) Stefan Nemanja expanded his state seizing territories east and south, and newly annexed the littoral and the Zeta region. Along with his governmental efforts, the veliki župan dedicated much care to the construction of monasteries. His endowments include the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery and the Studenica Monastery in the Raška region, and the Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos.

Stefan Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan, whilst his first-born Vukan was given the rule of the Zeta region (present-day Montenegro). Stefan Nemanja's youngest son Rastko became a monk and took the name of Sava, turning all his efforts to spreading religiousness among his people. Since the Curia already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan used these propitious circumstances to obtain his crown from the Pope thus becoming the first Serbian king in 1217. In Byzantium, his brother Sava managed to secure the autocephalous status for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. Thus the Serbs acquired both forms of independence: temporal and religious.

The next generation of Serbian rulers - the sons of Stefan Prvovenčani - Radoslav, Vladislav and Uroš I, marked a period of stagnation of the state structure. All three kings were more or less dependent on some of the neighboring states - Byzantium, Bulgaria or Hungary. The ties with the Hungarians had a decisive role in the fact that Uroš I was succeeded by his son Dragutin whose wife was a Hungarian princess. Later on, when Dragutin abdicated in favor of his younger brother Milutin, the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV gave him lands in northeastern Bosnia, the regions of Srem and Mačva, and the city of Belgrade, whilst he managed to conquer and annex lands in northeastern Serbia. Thus, all these territories became part of the Serbian state for the first time.

Under the rule of Dragutin's younger brother - King Milutin, Serbia grew stronger in spite of the fact that occasionally it had to fight wars on three different fronts. King Milutin was an apt diplomat much inclined to the use of a customary medieval diplomatic expedients - dynastic marriages. He was married five times, with Hungarian, Bulgarian and Byzantine princesses. He is also famous for building churches, some of which are the brightest examples of Medieval Serbian architecture: the Gračanica Monastery in Kosovo, the Cathedral in Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos, the St. Archangel Church in Jerusalem etc. Because of his endowments, King Milutin has been proclaimed a saint, in spite of his tumultuous life. He was succeeded on the throne by his son Stefan, later dubbed Stefan Dečanski. Spreading the kingdom to the east by winning the town of Niš and the surrounding counties, and to the south by acquiring territories on Macedonia, Stefan Dečanski was worthy of his father and built the Visoki Decani Monastery in Metohija - the most monumental example of Serbian Medieval architecture - that earned him his byname.

Medieval Serbia that enjoyed a high political, economic and cultural reputation in Medieval Europe, reached its apex in mid-14th century, during the rule of Tzar Stefan Dušan. This is the period when the Dušanov Zakonik (Dushan's Code) the greatest juridical achievement of Medieval Serbia, unique among the European feudal states of the period. St. Sava's Nomocanon, Dushan's Code, frescoes and the architecture of the medieval monasteries adorning Serbian lands are eternal civilizational monuments of the Serbian people. Tzar Stefan Dušan doubled the size of his kingdom seizing territories to the south, southeast and east at the expense of Byzantium. He was succeeded by his son Uroš called the Weak, a term that might also apply to the state of the kingdom slowly sliding into feudal anarchy. This is a period marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turk sultanate gradually spreading from Asia to Europe and conquering Byzantium first, and then the other Balkan states.

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