Seven years ago, I stepped into a musty workshop in the Balkans and faced the glares of a thousand ancient Serbs. They leaned against walls and rested sideways in racks; a few were upside down. All around, drawn from every corner of the late Yugoslavia, the silent icons were burned, torn, drenched, or devoured by mold. They had been sent to this office for safe keeping—and to await the conservation and restoration that the Serbs may never have the funds or personnel to finish. An eerie sense of patience pervaded the place; in the Balkans, a thousand-year art project is the least reason for despair.
So as someone whose only friends in the Balkans hail from Serbia and Montenegro, I approached the publication of The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic with caution. For a decade, I’ve taught the Serbian epic cycle about the Battle of Kosovo as a case study in medievalism that fosters the worst sort of nationalism and as one of the best examples of Balkan epic poetry, but I’d never heard of the Albanian take on the Serbs’ sacred story. Published only a year after Kosovo declared its independence, this book was bound to be sensitive; some condemned it as “science fiction” and sent its editor hate mail.
I suspect the angriest critics didn’t actually read the book, which turns out to be a relatively mild collection of eight poems about episodes tangential to the Battle of Kosovo. All but one of the poems were recorded between 1923 and 1955, each is presented in a facing-page translation by Robert Elsie, and the entire volume is introduced by Anna Di Lellio with a placid and decidedly un-Balkan ambivalence.
Most of the Albanian Kosovo variants tell the same basic story: The pious Sultan Murat has a prophetic dream. His seers interpret it, his mother weighs in, and soon the sultan sets off to conquer Kosovo. Like Moses, he prays to God to part the seas, and then he invades the Balkans. When a hungry soldier breaks the fast, the war goes badly, but after the sultan dismisses his less committed troops, his fortunes improve—until he is assassinated by Milosh Kopiliq, an Albanian Christian who picks up his own noggin and strolls away after the sultan’s men behead him.
Readers who know the Serbian poems about the Battle of Kosovo will be startled to see Miloš Obilić, a saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church, presented as an Albanian assassin, a variation that explains why Amazon reviewers have given the book one star if they’re pro-Serb and five stars if they’re pro-Albanian. In the Serbian texts, Miloš is a captain in the army of Serbian Prince Lazar. At the last supper before the ill-fated battle, Lazar unsettles him with a terrible prophecy:
Hail, Cousin! friend of mine and traitor!
First of all my friend—but finally my betrayer.
Tomorrow you’ll betray me on the field of Kosovo,
Escaping to the Turkish Sultan, Murad!
So to your health, dear Milosh, drink it up,
And keep the golden goblet to remember Lazarus.
Miloš does cross over to the Turkish side, but only to assassinate the sultan. Lazar is captured and beheaded. The Serbs are defeated, but their martyrdom wins them the “heavenly Serbia” promised by God—and a longing to reclaim Kosovo that haunted their descendants well into the 21st century.
The transformation of Miloš Obilić, Serb saint and patriot, into Milosh Kopiliq, Albanian Christian, may seem strange coming from the mostly-Muslim Albanians of Kosovo, but Di Lellio explains that a multifaceted Miloš represents an old debate: The Albanians claim ancient descent from the Illyrians, while the Serbs assert that they wandered into the Balkans more recently. Oddly, the existence of Milosh Kopiliq is, Di Lellio says, less a statement of division than a claim to brotherhood. Through Milosh, the Albanians are insisting that their ancestors fought and died alongside Serbs—and that Albanians have deep roots in Christian Europe.
Fortunately, despite a misleading subtitle that promises a far more inflammatory book, The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic is not a propaganda pamphlet. In her 48-page introduction, Di Lellio carefully shows that the Albanians come by their assassin honestly, with a wealth of place-names near the village of Kopiliq attesting to centuries of belief in Milosh’s local roots. Still, Di Lellio leaps to no conclusions; she contrasts Albanian oral history with an overview of the development of Miloš Obilić in Serbian historiography, and she looks beyond the Balkans at a Catalan tradition that makes Milosh Hungarian. She also raises the possibility of etymological confusion based on the word kopil, which means “trickster” or “bastard.” The Albanian Milosh certainly is that: He gets close to Sultan Murat under false pretenses, he cracks jokes after being beheaded, and (in one 1955 variant) he uses magic to makes the eyeballs of two gawking maidens leap from their sockets.
Few scholars who lay a hand on Balkan folklore are objective. Di Lellio worked in Kosovo for the United Nations, and in 2006 she edited The Case for Kosova: Passage to Independence. This collection of texts was also published with the cooperation of the Centre for Albanian Studies, a reputable organization that nonetheless must have an opinion or two about the uses of history and legend. That said, The Battle of Kosovo 1389: An Albanian Epic was clearly published in good faith. Contrary to the claims of their critics, Di Lellio and translator Robert Elsie aren’t inventing the Milosh Kopiliq tradition; rather, the variants in this book were all recorded and published decades earlier by ethnographers and folklorists. (Students of medieval English literature will see a familiar name at the end of a 1937 variant: Albert Lord, whose theories about oral-formulaic poetry were picked up by Anglo-Saxonists.) Only one tale in this volume, a 32-line poem recorded in 1998, feels both too recent and too fond of its own historical awareness as it shows the decapitated Milosh Kopiliq striding into legend:
Mountain birds do chirp and wonder
Who is climbing up that hillside?
Headless now proceeds that body,
White with snow now turns the mountain.
Although these poets use Milosh to argue that Albanians are innately European, Di Lellio writes with detectable unease about official textbooks that treat the shadowy Milosh as an historical figure; refraining from overt judgments, she documents how Albanians have come to see themselves. “It is in this context,” she writes, “that I place the stories about Kopiliq, as I try to rescue them from turning into a new prison for collective memory.” With care, she catalogs “a unique production and diffusion of historical memory” since the end of the Balkan wars shaped by “war veterans, former political prisoners, journalists, teachers, politicians, and historians, engaged in owning and rewriting the past,” and no consensus emerges:
Interviews with a range of individuals, from intellectuals to political activists or ordinary people, confirm that Millosh Kopiliq occupies a contested place in Albanian historical consciousness. For some, the issue is a non-starter, a concern that remains confined to naïve nationalist circles. For many others, an Albanian Kopiliq is an undisputed fact: he was always “one of us,” just not always publicly.
If the unsettled yet minor role of Milosh Kopiliq in the Albanian national story makes him an ineffective foot soldier for propaganda, then the stories in this slim volume are also unlikely to eclipse the fame of the Serbian Kosovo epic. Even in its most witty variants, the legend of Milosh Kopiliq isn’t very engaging; the fact that an Albanian Kopiliq exists is itself far more interesting than the actual details of his brief, formulaic adventures.
Compared to the Kopiliq variants, the Serbian poems about the Battle of Kosovo are a far richer read. Their historicity is debatable, and they hold an unsavory place in the nationalist arsenal, but they’re also imbued with a sense of tragedy and loss that overshadows the tale of a single tricky assassin. I’ll continue to teach the Serbian epic in class, but I’ll also mention the Albanian poems for the way they highlight the Balkans’ baffling cultural churn. I’ll also be glad that a Serbian publisher has expressed interest in a translation of this book. Perhaps waiting for former countrymen to find amusement in each other’s cherished legends doesn’t need to become another of the region’s many thousand-year projects.