“Your face, your race, the way that you talk…”

Recently, the “Charlemagne” column in The Economist declared Playmobil Man its “European of the Year,” noting persuasively that Homo playmobilis offers “a striking snapshot of European aspirations, anxieties and foibles.” That approach to toys, I’d hasten to add, also says something about how they see history:

There are Playmobil knights and barbarians, pirates and Roman legionaries, all wielding lethal weapons. Europeans can even live with American military toys, if they are old enough: there are Playmobil cowboys from the Wild West, and soldiers from both sides in the American civil war.

The difference is philosophical, says Mrs Schauer. There are no more knights and pirates, so their combat is a “resolved story.” Modern war is “really horror.” That is echoed by Gabi Neubauer, a librarian buying toys in Nuremberg. She suggests that “it is more honourable to fight with a sword, somehow.” Not all explanations are as high-faluting. Asked why Playmobil makes any tiny toy guns at all, Mrs Schauer admits “otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be accepted by boys.”

To the modern toy-shopper, a medieval battle may seem more honorable when viewed through the thick lens of history. But when 14th-century conflicts continue to perplex, and frustrate, and threaten to come between allies, it’s iffy to claim that the knights of old Europe belong to a story that’s somehow “resolved.”

If you’re just catching up on the news of the weekend—Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the reaction it’s causing in Serbia—you’ll see that most articles skimp on historical background. They summarize briefly the wars of the ’90s, but doing the subject justice is nigh on impossible. Even for many foreigners with Balkan connections, disentangling the skein of religion and culture and old ideology is the work of at least half a lifetime. Besides, seeing Kosovo with no more than two decades of context, or panning back only a century, is like opening a book more than three-quarters in. To begin understanding what happened this weekend, you have to go back more than 600 years.

The Battle of Kosovo is murky indeed, but shadowy memories of this turning point in Serbian history did survive the centuries, first in oral tradition and then, in the 19th century, in the written records of a patriotic Serbian philologist. (You can order a hard copy from Ohio University Press or read all the poems online.) Commanded by a noble named Lazarus, the Serbs clashed in June 1389 with the invading Turkish forces of Sultan Murad at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds. The epic tradition is wonderfully vivid: Lazarus doesn’t want war, but he refuses to pay tribute to the sultan. Elijah appears to Lazarus as a falcon and forces him to choose the destiny of Serbia: glory on earth, or glory in Heaven? Lazarus thinks—then he makes his choice fast:

O Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthy kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things—
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.

Before the battle, Lazarus celebrates his slava—the feast-day for his patron saint—with a last supper and grim prophecies of betrayal. The Serb leaders know that the Turks vastly outnumber them; Ivan Kosančić declares that “[i]f all the Serbs were changed to grains of salt, / We could not even salt their wretched dinners!” Nonetheless, they agree to tell Lazarus that the Turkish army consists of children, old men, and cripples, but Lazarus seems to know otherwise. The Turks easily slaughter the Serbs, but much of the epic tradition dwells on the poignant stories of individuals, such as the Maiden of Kosovo, who wanders the carnage looking for the man she was supposed to marry; the nine Jugović brothers and their father, whose deaths cause their mother to die of heartbreak; the redemptive bravery of a falsely accused hero; and the treachery of his accuser. Much of the Kosovo epic is unverifiable, even ahistorical, but the fragment we have is a powerful read. Its legacy, though, is both tragic and sad.

Unless you understand the Serb defeat at Kosovo polje, you won’t see the symbolism in Gavrilo Princip assassinating Archduke Ferdinand on the 525th anniversary of the battle, the act that ignited World War I; you won’t know why charmless nationalist Slobodan Milosevic scored a propaganda victory by speaking at the battlefield on the 600th anniversary of the defeat (shortly before his own helicopter-assisted apotheosis); and you won’t appreciate why many Serbs still regard Kosovo not only as their ethnic and religious homeland but also as the site of their national martyrdom. At this point, history fades into vapors; as John Matthias writes, “while the final and conclusive battle was not fought until 1459…it is Kosovo which has lived in the popular imagination and in epic poetry as the moment of annihilation and enslavement.”

Today, we prefer our medievalism sweet: Renaissance festivals, fantasy novels, CGI movies, and Playmobil toys. But the Kosovo conflict is medievalism, too, the sort we would often prefer to forget. In the Balkans, where the scholarly study of Bosnian guslars later shed new light on Beowulf, medievalism also kindled World War I. During the 19th century, as medievalism adapted to the vagaries of national character, the English gave us Tennyson and the Gothic revival; the Scots had their Ivanhoe and the Eglinton Tournament; the Finns found themselves in the charming Kalevala; the Germans gave the world Wagner (not only his music but also, alas, the man) as well as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica; and the French, bless their hearts, gave us Migne. The Balkans bequeathed us their own Middle Ages. The world they created, though grim it may be, springs right from the same source as Tolkien.

Sometimes, medievalism should give us pause, especially us Americans, for whom the phrase “that’s history” is more likely to be dismissive rather than admonitory. The battle of Kosovo resonates still; its legends and lore have profound implications. Playmobil knows this; just look at their toys. They sell Norsemen and Romans and wee Gaulish leaders, but no Lazarus or Sultan Murad. The thought is unnerving, outlandish, and weird. Let’s hope that their story is someday resolved.

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