Foundation of the Nemanjid Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Nemanjid Dynasty is founded in Serbia and extends its power from the eastern Sava River to the south of Thessaly by the middle of the fourteenth century.

Summary of Event

Serbs Serbs settled in the Balkan Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries and were converted to Christianity in the ninth century. Their petty principalities were nominally governed by a grand zhupan (clan leader), who recognized Byzantine authority. [kw]Foundation of the Nemanjid Dynasty (1167) [kw]Nemanjid Dynasty, Foundation of the (1167) Nemanjid Dynasty Serbia;1167: Foundation of the Nemanjid Dynasty[2020] Expansion and land acquisition;1167: Foundation of the Nemanjid Dynasty[2020] Government and politics;1167: Foundation of the Nemanjid Dynasty[2020] Stephen Nemanja Stephen II Nemanja

By the eleventh century, Serbs were beginning to form into large concentrations, opposed to both the Greeks and the Magyars. Out of the rivalry of various Serb chieftains, Stephen Nemanja Nemanja, Stephen I triumphed, the Byzantine emperor acknowledging him as grand zhupan in 1167. A man of extraordinary energy and audacity, Nemanja united the Serbs and ruled for twenty-nine years, resigning his throne in 1196.

Not content with having forged a self-reliant nation, Nemanja conducted several successful wars against the Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire;Serbs and , although he was never powerful enough to conquer it and at times had to sue for peace. Nor was he able to vanquish the Greeks, ending his career as their vassal. Nevertheless, his record among the Serbs was hallowed because he coupled his warrior’s prowess with a religious sensibility. At the end of his reign, he entrusted power to his son Stephen II Nemanja, Stephen II and retired to a monastery on Mount Athos, preparing himself through prayer and meditation for death.

The Nemanjid Dynasty, then, was founded on this legend of a ruler revered as a saint, who valued both this world and the next. Indeed, Serbs believed that oil from Stephen’s grave performed miracles. One of Stephen’s sons became Saint Sava, a pilgrim and statesman, revered by monks and treated by the Serbs as an embodiment of both their religion and their national aspirations.

For two hundred years, the dynasty took Serbia to the height of its power. Stephen II proved to be as effective as his father and more prudent in his military exploits, preferring to gain the advantage by diplomacy rather than war. He also enhanced the prestige and mystique of the dynasty by having himself crowned twice—by a Roman papal legate in 1217 and by the Orthodox Church in 1222. With the blessing of both the western and eastern halves of the old Roman Empire, the second Nemanja consolidated both his power and his religious standing.

All the Nemanjas adopted the name of Stephen, emphasizing their direct descent from the hallowed founder of their dynasty as well as invoking the protection of Saint Stephen, whom the Serbs worshiped as a martyr to the Christian faith and as their patron saint. Indeed, the Nemanjid Dynasty fused the idea of Christianity and Serb unity, overriding the claims of village rulers and princelings.

By the third generation of Nemanjas, however, Serbia ceased developing at the rapid pace set by the dynasty’s founders. The Nemanjas could not settle internal rivalries that led to civil war; their disputes contributed to a serious weakening of the nation, exploited by various Serb chieftains and the nobility. Nevertheless, as Schevill pointed out, the nation did slowly progress, improving both its social and economic organization. Even when the Serbs lost their independence and were defeated by the Turks in 1389, the Orthodox Church Orthodox Church;Serbia kept alive the memory of the Nemanjas, of a free and Christian state—an idea that penetrated deeply into all classes, including the peasants. The Serbs who took part in the uprising against the Turks in 1804 sang songs evoking their Nemanjid heritage of a highly developed civilization they intended to create anew. In October of 1915, when the Serbian army was faced with extinction—confronting a combined Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian army of more than half a million men—Serbian monks and soldiers carried the coffins of their Nemanjid kings in bullock-carts, and when the roads no longer were passable by vehicles, they hoisted the coffins on their shoulders and kept going, so that their sacred rulers would not be defiled by the enemy.

After the first two Stephens, the Nemanjid kings found it difficult to protect the Serbs from the onslaught and rivalry of various Slavic peoples. Only a rare combination of shrewdness and boldness could have confirmed and extended Serbian power. On the west, Serbia had to contend with Catholic Bosnia, allied with papal Rome in efforts to attack the Orthodox Serbs. To the north, Hungary engaged in several attacks on the Serbs, and to the south the Byzantine Empire represented a perennial threat to Serb independence.

The Turkish conquest of Serbia served to embellish in the Serbian imagination a dynasty that had withstood pagan threats and remained loyal to Christianity. The religious art of the Nemanja period, found in monasteries and churches, is especially revered. The Turkish usurpation is viewed as only an interruption in Serbia’s mission to defend and spread Christianity.

Significance

The Nemanjid Dynasty of old Serbia evokes images of a heroic age—not merely of great kings but of a close-knit people, fiercely independent and dynamic, creating beautiful works of art. It is an idealized image, of course, the subject of countless romantic stories. Yet the Nemanjid period also reflects a people’s aspiration, a vision of the past that is simultaneously a projection of their future. At its best, the Nemanjid period also conveys the quest for religious tolerance, for the most successful representatives of the dynasty were able to live beside both Catholic and Orthodox Slavs and even encourage peaceful coexistence between different religious communities. This history of tolerance, however, was marred by other Nemanjas, who confiscated Catholic monasteries and churches and turned them over to Orthodox priests.

In the early twentieth century, the idea of the unified Yugoslavia, with the Serbs in the vanguard of a coalition of southern Slavs (Catholic and Orthodox), owed much to the example of the Nemanjas. Not until after World War II, when Yugoslavia’s Communist leader Tito took control, did the idea of a Serb-led union of southern Slavs dissipate. The dissolution of Yugoslavia awakened a yearning for a union of Serbs, but the resulting wars led to more division between the south Slavs and the creation of new countries—Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia—establishing a fragmented region that the Nemanjid Dynasty sought to integrate.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, John K. The History of Serbia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. This comprehensive history of the Serbian region includes a chapter on “The Splendor of Medieval Serbia.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halecki, Oscar. Borderlands of Western Civilization: A History of East Central Europe. New York: Ronald Press, 1952. Chapter 5 provides a succinct account of the establishment and success of the Nemanjid Dynasty in the context of the Fourth Crusade and the development of Bulgarian independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplan, Robert D. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Chapter 2, “Old Serbia and Albania: Balkan ’West Bank,’” offers insights into the legacy of the Nemanjid Dynasty and describes the monasteries that perpetuate the dynasty’s hold on the Serb imagination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laffan, R. G. D. The Serbs: Guardians of the Gate. 1917. Reprint. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. Chapter 1, “The Past,” is still a good introduction to the geography and history of old Serbia, out of which the Nemanjid Dynasty developed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Alan. The Lands Between: A History of East-Central Europe Since the Congress of Vienna. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Chapter 1 includes a brief discussion of the Nemanjid Dynasty in terms of the eastern European tendency to glorify the past, especially episodes of valor that highlight a dedication to national mission and the quest for patriot-father figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pavlowitch, Stevan K. Serbia: The History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 2002. A history focused upon Serbia as an idea that persisted even through its border changes and through its temporary“nonexistence.” Includes significant discussion of medieval Serbian rulers and their relationship to the Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schevill, Ferdinand. A History of the Balkans: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Dorset Press, 1991. Originally published in 1933, this volume still has one of the best straightforward accounts of the founding and perpetuation of the Nemanjid Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stavrianos, L. S. The Balkans Since 1453. New York: Rinehart, 1958. Chapter 2, “Historical Background,” explains the origins of the Serbs, Stephen Nemanja’s role in uniting them for the first time, and his son’s consolidation of Nemanja power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. New York: Viking Press, 1941. Still the most evocative and dramatic account of the Nemanjid Dynasty, weaving its history and its impact on modern-day Serbia throughout this epic work of travel writing and history.

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