Vukasin Mrnjavcevic (1366 - 1371)

with title of King

vukas_psac.jpg A relatively important but shadowy figure from the twilight of the Serbian empire, Vukasin's (pr. voo-KAH-sheen) traditional reputation is tarnished, both in ecclesiastic and oral sources. However, more recent scholarship has shed some positive light on the life and careers of both him and his younger brother, despot Jovan Ugljesa (pr. OO-glye-sha). Their origins are obscure, though by some accounts they came from a modest family in the Hum-Trebinje region, and were forced to emigrate to central Serbia following border altercations with Bosnian nobles. From about 1350 we can witness Vukasin's rise through several imperial offices (ranks), until the well-known 1365 promotion of him to king, and Ugljesa to despot. Though not an act of usurpation - apparently having been initiated by the still childless czar Uros himself - this elevation is often taken as the turning point which eliminated the tennets of the old Nemanjic state. But serious problems had existed already before that, and more were to come. To be sure, evidence indicates the new king took upon himself prerogatives surpassing those appropriate for the emperor's "junior colleague" - for example, minting money and issuing international charters with no reference to Uros - but there were ample precedents for this in Byzantine court history, and ultimately it might have been motivated by the noble goal of filling a power vacuum at a point of looming anarchy.

In fact, there is evidence that Vukasin acted with some responsibility in external affairs, as well as attempting to check wayward noblemen and adminster his immediate realm, centered in Macedonia (with the capital of Prilep). Likewise, despot Ugljesa is found to have been an able governor and diplomat in his Serres (Ser) region - the easternmost reach of the Serbian state - which he actually expanded and firmly administered its mixed Greek and Slavic populations, while nominally remaining loyal to the crown.

vukasin_coin_icon.jpg The pious king, coin from Vukasin's period

But the main credit that can be assigned to the Mrnjavcevic brothers was their clear awareness of the Ottoman Turkish danger, and their willingness to take decisive action to confront it. Help was limited, as the Serbian nobles further to the west were either too weak, far or preoccupied with internal squabbles to participate, and the Constantinopolitan court too hopeful about Western help that never materialized. Vukasin and Ugljesa still assembled what appears to have been a respectable force, and offensively moved towards the newly established Ottoman European capital at Adrianople (Edirne), meeting a Turkish force near Cernomen on the Marica river. There, on September 26 1371, under cloudy circumstances but with a clear outcome, the Mrnjavcevics' army was annihilated and they perished; the battle's location is still called "Srb sindigi" - the Serbian disaster. The agony of the aftermath on the population was vividly described in a preserved passage by the event's contemporary, monk Isaiah, who states that "then the living envied the dead". Although less famous and analyzed than the legendary battle of Kosovo, the Marica showdown was actually more significant, and had profound consequences for the future of Serbia, Orthodox Christendom of southeastern Europe, as well as the continent as a whole. The gates of Europe were open to Turkish invaders, the tide and initiative definitively having passeed to their side.

In an ironic twist, the unrecognized brave deeds of the Mrnjavcevic brothers may have been compensated by the treatment epic tradition gave to Vukasin's elder son and heir, Marko. Though his exploits appear historically vague and marginal, over time, known as Kraljevic Marko, he became Serbia's supreme epic hero - brave and folksy, yet fair and pious - one that was honored, like many other Serbian cults, among all south Slavic and other neighboring cultures as well.



vukasin_coin.jpg "In Christ our God, the Pious King Vukasin". The neat calligraphy of Vukasin's silver dinar mimics the Greek formulas used by earlier Byzantine basileuses, and revived by the Nemanjic monarchs of the Empire.



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