Private libraries of the Serbs in Middle Ages

Private libraries of the Serbs in Middle Ages

Court, royal, aristocratic and other private libraries, such as the library of Emperor Constantine II, Patriarch Photius or his follower and disciple Aretas in Byzantium, were not unknown in the medieval Serbia. Attempts typological definition suggest the conclusion that, similar to the Byzantine and Western European medieval tradition, in the Serbian lands clearly stood out two types of libraries: private and monastic. In the first group there are included: royal libraries or the library collections of rulers, nobility, and later wealthy citizens, while the second group includes the collections at the churches, monasteries and their hermitages. The fall of Despotate (1459) and the Turkish yoke ended an announcement of the epoch of humanism and the Renaissance of the Serbs, which was reflected in the development of a number of private libraries.


The ruling house of Nemanjics had no unique court library, which rulers enhanced from generation to generation. Moreover, there was even no capital, a permanent seat of the rulers, the royal palace, where such a library could be developed. From the oldest state seat in Ras, near Novi Pazar, which is the last mentioned in the gospel of Vukan in 1202 , through a residential complex of King Milutin, Paun - Stimlje - Svrcin - Nerodimlja, near Urosevac, Dušan's imperial palaces in Prizren and Skopje, until the main residence of Prince Lazar in Krusevac, there is little archaeological excavations and written materials that can provide clear and detailed picture of court life. Turbulent times filled with armed conflicts and frequent changes of residence, in which the whole court followed a ruler and moved from one place to another, are just some of the reasons that are not favorable to the emergence of libraries. However, in such circumstances, where books are easier to lose, destroy and decay than are to be saved, the Nemanjich were their great fans: purchasers, readers and writers of books.

Nemanja’s brother Miroslav and the firstborn Vukan were purchasers of the two oldest Serbian saved books, the Miroslav’s and Vukan’s gospel, and sons Stefan and Sava are the founders of the Serbian literature. Radoslav was theologically educated and he led in Greek outstanding scholarly correspondence with Archbishop Dimitrije Homatijan of Ohrid, and it is unlikely that he did not have its own library. From the library of his brother, king Vladislav, one Prologue is saved, written in the Mileseva monastery in 1263/64. When Vladislav’s spouse, queen Belosava, and son zupan Desa, deposited their assets in Dubrovnik, on the list is 30 books, including the four Gospels, with gold and silver reliefs on the cover and decorated with precious stones. On request of King Uros I hieromonk Domentian compiled Life of St. Sava and Life of St. Symeon and at the court of Uros’s wife, Helen,  many copyists of books worked for her. The biographer, Archbishop Danilo II, records that made books, along with valuable icons, the queen sent then as a gift to churches in Italy. On her order in the Mileseva Monastery,  in1294/95, rewritten Sava’s Nomokanon was rewritten and Archbishop Daniel II notes that in her court in Brnjaci, on the upper Ibar, organized a school for girls.

Constantinopolitan childhood of Emperor Dusan and the good conduct of the Greek language influenced his relationship to book. George Sp. Radojcic, in his article the Serbian libraries in the Middle Ages and the Turkish period (1954) gives one information  about it. "Saro Crijević, a Dubrovnik historian (1686-1759), somehow knows that the Emperor Dusan, after his practice in Dubrovnik in 1350, wanted to create under his own name a library, and for the expensive money, collected and sent many Latin and Greek anthologies. We have no news about Dusan's work in his country itself. "Books in Greek, are rewritten for the emperor's wife, Empress Helena, who had his own library.


Judging from the available material at the court of Despot Stefan Lazarevic, in Belgrade there was a real cult of learning and education. Despot himself wrote and read in the Serbian Slavonic language, translated from Greek, and because of intense communication that was held with European and Turkish rulers, it is believed that he understood Latin and Turkish at least understood. Contemporary writers left records of his relationship to book: monk Dositej says that Despot care about copying books and loved them like no other of the rulers and nobles, and monk Gregory that Despot, even though the ruler and the commander of the army, took care of the books like he had no other concerns. Djordje Trifunovic, in the book of Despot Stefan Lazarevic: literary works (1979), lists 18 manuscripts that are known to have been copied or translated for despot Stefan, and those among them who had sort of ex libris, as a mark of the despot’s ownership. Three, including 18 books, were commissioned as a gift to various churches, and for the salvation of the soul.

Other testify about despot’s literary interests and were most likely, owned by him. Record: "Shining book of pious Sir Despot Stephen”  is on the four books (The Book of Kings, The Ladder of Jovan Lestvnicnik, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark by Theophylact of Ohrid and the rest of five pages of the former Minej for May), and although it is not written by the same hand, it is  by the same type of script. Trifunovic allows the possibility that, during the despot's life or shortly after his death, the books were cataloged and uniformly marked. In other words, it is possible that these records are testimony to the efforts of creating the library. The collection, however, was not preserved as a whole, but parts of the manuscript and information on individual books are scattered on different sides.

And the Brankovics of Srem in a similar way, marked their books, as evidenced by several manuscripts preserved to our time. They are, for the most part, preserved in the Fruska Gora’s monastery Krusedol, raised by the Brankovics in 1502, and which even today are kept their relics. There are indications that a number of books they inherited from despot Djuradj Brankovic, who had in Smederevo a rich collection of manuscripts. Despot’s sons Gregory, Stephen and Lazar, were known as the purchasers of books, and Stephen's wife Angelina had its own library. It is the collection to which belonged several books of despot Djuradj Brankovic, just as, in the next generation, several books of Lazar Brankovic, and his spouse Angeline were  found in the library of their son George, later Archbishop Maxim. Based on these data it is reasonable to assume that it is a hereditary sovereign’s library, where the library of  Despot Djurdje was a base for it. List of books in the library can not be reconstructed, but in it, among other books, there are: the Munich Psalter with richly decorated miniatures, History of Justinian's wars of the Byzantine historian Procopius and lavishly illuminated Hungarian history, known as the the Painted Chronicle. Educated despot Djuradj did not, in his relation to book, lag behind Despot Stefan Lazarevic, but he gathered equally good scribes, cared about the quality of transcription, but also of their adornment. His library in Smederevo had to be broken at the first Turkish destruction of the town, in 1439, especially during his final fall. A small number of books was saved, probably, byDespot Stephen Brankovic, and in this way they become due in the possession of Despot’s wife Angelina and then Archbishop Maxim.

Private libraries were also owned in their own houses by magnates from the epoch of Nemanjics and dignitaries from the time of Despotate. Most data collection is preserved in the Collection of Kotor’s citizen Nicholas de Arhilupis, who led the Latin office of the  Serbian despot over 20 years. He began his service at the court of Despot Stephen Lazarevic, in Belgrade, but he much longer worked for despot Djurdje in Smederevo, where he earned a great reputation and wealth.

He was educated, he knew well Latin and Italian, and as a skilled negotiator, took part in diplomatic missions undertaken by despot Djuradj. Nicholas de Arhilupis lived and died in Smederevo, certainly before July 1445 , and in his will, preserved in the archives of Dubrovnik, he left a collection of valuable information about the book he had in his home in Smederevo. Although this document is not a complete list of articles and does not reveal what they contained and multi libri who are molti italiani dotore, part of the fund, however, mentioned by name: Declamationes of speakers and literary historian Marco Fabio Quintiliano, De philosophiae Consolatione of the philosopher Boethius, De Medicina of Constantine the Monk, and Bellum  Catilinae and Bellum Iugurthinum by Gaius Salustius Crispus, Bucolica by Francesco Petrarcha, an unnamed file by famous Roman historian Valerius Maximus, The Holy Scripture and various theological content. These titles clearly testify to the library that has been carefully filled with works of Roman classics, on the one hand, and the works of Italian humanists, on the other. Nicholas de Arhelupis could bring them from their travels, as he probably was on these trips, influenced by  the ideas of European humanism. What was the range of influence of his ideas in Smederevo it can not be said for sure, but it is unlikely that they remained unknown to despot Djuradj and prominent members of the Dubrovnik colony in Smederevo. On the contrary, it seems that they had to fall to the rich ground, where a despot Stephen Brankovic encouraged their education, urban life and the middle class.

Private libraries of the Middle Ages were not, according to our criteria, libraries with massive funds. Nor readers, who read aloud and with finger underscore what was read, are not characteristic for our time. The last thing to our time are inherent in the manuscript collection of bookmarks with limited access. In their time, however, they were a huge range of civilization: they testified about the achieved level of material and spiritual development of society in which literacy and books have a definite and prominent place. Just as on the richness of its collections of books monasteries built their reputation, thus kings, emperors, princes and intellectual people confirmed their reputation.

Neither visual representation nor description of any of the Serbian medieval library was preserved. As the Serbian despots Stephen Lazarevic and DjuradjBrankovic, kept their books: in chests or on the shelves, portrait or landscape, we do not really know. When and who got the idea to list it? Is there any librarian? Is it inthe Serbian lands that books were chained to the counter? Have they  always kept in the treasuries and perhaps, it was dedicated space for them? Are the inventory of the books were really an exception? All these questions return us to the problem of service: the history of libraries do not to testify only about the founders, but about the mechanisms that provide formed libraries provide (or not provide) duration.

Professor Dr. Gordana Stokic Simonovic,
author of the text is professor at the Department of Informatics and Librarianship of the Philological Faculty in Belgrade

Source: Orthodoxy