At an alien distance the Balkans are a mountainous mess of political instability and intrigue, of picturesque subtlety and commercial craft, of wars, assassinations, and pogroms. But to the native Bulgar, Rumanian, Hungarian, or Yugoslav his nation is the product of a thousand years’ struggle to win independence from encompassing empires, to maintain a unique and colorful culture, to express the national character unhindered in architecture, dress, poetry, music, and song.
For 168 years Bulgaria, once so powerful under Krum and Simeon, remained subject to Byzantium. In 1186 the discontent of the Bulgar and Vlach (Wallachian) population found expression in two brothers, John and Peter Asen, who possessed that mixture of shrewdness and courage which the situation and their countrymen required. Summoning the people of Trnovo to the church of St. Demetrius, they persuaded them that the saint had left Greek Salonika to make Trnovo his home, and that under his banner Bulgaria could regain liberty. They succeeded, and amiably divided the new empire between them, John ruling at Trnovo, Peter at Preslav. The greatest monarch of their line, and in all Bulgarian history, was John Asen II (1218–41). He not only absorbed Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, and Albania; he governed with such justice that even his Greek subjects loved him; he pleased the popes with allegiance and monastic foundations; he supported commerce, literature, and art with enlightened laws and patronage; he made Trnovo one of the best adorned cities of Europe, and raised Bulgaria, in civilization and culture, to a level with most of the nations of his time. His successors did not inherit his wisdom; Mongol invasions disordered and weakened the state (1292–5), and in the fourteenth century it succumbed first to Serbia and then to the Turks.
In 1159 the Zhupan (Chieftain) Stephen Nemanya brought the various Serb clans and districts under one rule, and in effect founded the Serb kingdom, which his dynasty governed for 200 years. His son Sava served the nation as archbishop and statesman, and became one of its most revered saints. The country was still poor, and even the royal palaces were of wood; it had a flourishing port, Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), but this was an independent city-state, which in 1221 became a Venetian protectorate. During these centuries Serbian art, Byzantine in origin, achieved a style and excellence of its own. In the monastery church of St. Panteleimon at Nerez (c. 1164) the murals reveal a dramatic realism unusual in Byzantine painting, and anticipate by a century some methods of treatment once thought original to Duccio and Giotto. Amid these and other Serbian murals of the twelfth or thirteenth century appear royal portraits individualized beyond any known Byzantine precedent.15 Medieval Serbia was moving toward a high civilization when heresy and persecution destroyed the national unity that might have withstood the Turkish advance. Bosnia, too, after its medieval zenith under the Ban (King) Kulin (1180–1204), was weakened by religious disputes; and in 1254 it fell subject to Hungary.
After the death of Stephen I (1038) Hungary was disturbed by pagan Magyar revolts against the Catholic kings, and by the efforts of Henry III to annex Hungary to Germany. Andrew I defeated Henry; and when the Emperor Henry IV renewed the attempt King Geza I frustrated it by giving Hungary to Pope Gregory VII and receiving it back as a papal fief (1076). During the twelfth century rivals for the kingship nurtured feudalism by large grants of land to nobles in return for support; and in 1222 the nobility was strong enough to draw from Andrew II a “Golden Bull” remarkably like the Magna Carta that King John of England had signed in 1215. It denied the heritability of feudal fiefs, but promised to summon a diet every year, to imprison no noble without a trial before the “count palatine” (i.e., a count of the imperial palace), and to levy no taxes upon noble or ecclesiastical estates. This royal edict, named from its golden case or seal, constituted for seven centuries a charter of liberty for the Hungarian aristocracy, and enfeebled the Hungarian monarchy precisely at a time when the Mongols were preparing for Europe one of the greatest crises in its history.
We may judge the extent of the Mongol reach and grasp when we note that in 1235 Ogadai, the Great Khan, sent out three armies—against Korea, China, and Europe. The third army, under Batu, crossed the Volga in 1237, 300,000 strong—no undisciplined horde but a force rigorously trained, ably led, and equipped not only with powerful siege engines but with novel firearms whose use the Mongols had learned from the Chinese. In three years these warriors laid waste nearly all southern Russia. Then Batu, as if unable to conceive of defeat, divided them into two armies: one marched into Poland, took Cracow and Lublin, crossed the Oder, and defeated the Germans at Liegnitz (1241); the other, under Batu, surmounted the Carpathians, invaded Hungary, met the united forces of Hungary and Austria at Mohi, and so overwhelmed them that medieval chroniclers, never moderate with figures, estimated the Christian dead at 100,000, and the Emperor Frederick II reckoned the Hungarian casualties as “almost the whole military force of the kingdom.”16 Here, by the inexorable irony of history, defeated and victors were of one blood; the fallen nobility of Hungary were descendants of the Mongol Magyars who had ravaged the land three centuries before. Batu took Pesth and Esztergom (1241), while a body of Mongols crossed the Danube and pursued the Hungarian King Bela IV to the Adriatic shore, burning and destroying wildly on the way. Frederick II vainly called upon Europe to unite against the menace of conquest by Asia; Innocent IV vainly tried to woo the Mongols to Christianity and peace. What saved Christianity and Europe was simply the death of Ogadai, and the return of Batu to Karakorum to participate in the election of a new khan. Never in history had there been so extensive a devastation—from the Pacific Ocean to the Adriatic and the Baltic Seas.
Bela IV returned to ruined Pesth, repeopled it with Germans, moved his capital across the Danube to Buda (1247), and slowly restored his country’s shattered economy. A newborn nobility organized again the great ranches and farms on which servile herdsmen and tillers produced food for the nation. German miners moved down from the Erz Gebirge, and extracted the rich ores of Transylvania. Life and manners were still rude, tools were primitive, houses were wattled huts. Amid the confusion of races and tongues, across the hostile divisions of classes and creeds, men sought their daily bread and gain, and restored that economic continuity which is the soil of civilization.