Serbian literature refers to literature written in Serbian and/or in Serbia and all other lands where Serbs reside. The history of Serbian literature begins with the independent theological works from the Nemanjic era. With the fall of Serbia and neighboring countries in the 15th century, there is a gap in the literary history in the occupied land, however, Serbian literature continued uninterrupted in lands under European rule and saw a revival in the 18th century in Vojvodina, then under Habsburg rule. Serbia gained independence following the Serbian Revolution (1804–1815) and Serbian literature has since prospered.
The Old Church Slavic literature was created on Byzantine model, and at first church services and biblical texts were translated into Slavic, and soon afterward other works for Christian life values (including Latin works) from which they attained necessary knowledge in various fields. Although this Christian literature educated the Slavs, it did not have an overwhelming influence on original works. Instead, a more narrow aspect, the genres, and poetics with which the cult of saints could be celebrated were used, owing to the Slavic celebration of Cyril and Methodius and their Slav disciples as saints and those responsible for Slavic literacy. The ritual genres were hagiographies, homiletics and hymnography, known in Slavic as zitije (vita), pohvala (eulogy), sluzbe (church services), effectively meaning prose, rhetoric, and poetry. The fact that the first Slavic works were in the canonical form of ritual literature, and that the literary language was the ritual Slavic language, defined the further development. Medieval Slavic literature, especially Serbian, was modeled on this classical Slavic literature. The new themes in Serbian literature were all created within the classic ritual genres.
The earliest writings in Serbian were, obviously, religious in nature. Religions were historically the first institutions that persisted despite political and military upheavals, as well as the first organizations to see the value in writing down their history and policies. Serbia’s early religious documents date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. In the 12th century the art form of religious writing was developed by Saint Sava, who worked to bring about an artistic aspect to these writings, also based on earlier works, that is still appreciated today.
The oldest preserved manuscript and monument of Serbian medieval literature is Miroslav’s Gospel, a 362-page liturgical book written in a transitional form between Old Slavic and Serbian recension of Church Slavic, written in the late 12th century. Philological analysis revealed that two scribes worked on the text. It was written for the Zachumlia Prince Miroslav, the son of Zavida, who was the brother of Stefan Nemanja. In 2001, UNESCO listed it in its Memory of the World Programme
Early modern period
Post-Medieval Serbian literature was dominated by folk songs and epics passed orally from generation to generation. Historic events, such as the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century play a major role in the development of the Serbian epic poetry. The epic and lyrical poetry, the drama, and the prose of every class, all alike sound those notes, and the melody is triumphant or despairing according to the period of the nation’s struggles against its many invaders. Less perhaps than any other European literature has Serbian literature been influenced by the literature of other lands. It mirrors throughout the simple, unsophisticated feeling and thoughts of men and women who love their country wholly, sincerely, faithfully, and are ready to lay down their lives to preserve its freedom. Here, if ever, the soul of a people is revealed in its most challenging time in history while attempting to extricate itself from centuries of Eastern (Turkish) and Western (Austrian, Hungarian, Venetian and Napoleonic French) oppression.
Serbian epic poetry is a form of epic poetry created by Serbs originating in today’s Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. The main cycles were composed by unknown Serb authors between the 14th and 19th centuries. They are largely concerned with historical events and personages. The instrument accompanying the epic poetry is the gusle.
Serbian epic poetry helped in developing the Serbian national awareness. The cycles of Prince Marko, the Hajduks and Uskoks inspired the Serbs to restore freedom and their heroic past. The Hajduks in particular, are seen as an integral part of national identity; in stories, the hajduks were heroes: they had played the role of the Serbian elite during Ottoman rule, they had defended the Serbs against Ottoman oppression, and prepared for the national liberation and contributed to it in the Serbian Revolution.
Baroque and Classicism
Serbian literature in Vojvodina continued building onto Medieval tradition, influenced by Old Serbian, Russian baroque and Serbian baroque of Vojvodina, which culminated in the Slavonic-Serbian language. Most important authors of the time are Dimitrije Ljubavic, Djordje Brankovic, Vasilije III Petrovic-Njegos, Gavril Stefanovic Venclovic, Mojsije Putnik, Pavle Julinac, Jovan Rajic, Zaharije Orfelin, and many others.
Before the start of a fully established Romanticism concomitant with the Revolutions of 1848, some Romanticist ideas (e.g. the usage of national language to rally for national unification of all classes) were developing, especially among monastic clergy in Vojvodina. The most prominent representative of that is Dositej Obradovic, who gave up his monastic vows and left for decades of traveling, studying, teaching, or working in the cultural field in Russia, England, Germany, Albania, Ottoman Turkey and Italy, and ending up as a Minister of Education in the Principality of Serbia.
After winning the independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Serbian independence movement sparked the first works of modern Serbian literature. Most notably Petar II Petrovic Njegos and his “Mountain Wreath” of 1847, represent a cornerstone of the Serbian epic, which was based on the rhythms of the folk songs.
Furthermore, Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, an acquaintance of J. W. von Goethe, became the first person to collect folk songs and epics and to publish them in a book. Vuk Karadzic is regarded as the first Serbian philologist, who together with Djuro Danicic played a major role in reforming the modern Serbian language.
The literary work of the Serbs in this period is mostly lyrical. The following poets stand out: Branko Radicevic, Djura Jaksic, Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj and Laza Kostic.
The era of Serbian realism is dominated by prose genres – the novel and, in particular, the story. The most significant representatives of the epoch of realism are usually considered to be: Jakov Ignjatovic, Milovan Glisic, Laza Lazarevic, Janko Veselinovic, Simo Matavulj, Stevan Sremac, Radoje Domanovic and Branislav Nusic (who mostly wrote dramas, and continued to write in the following periods – modern and interwar literature)
The literary trend of the first and second decade of the 20th century is referred to as Moderna in Serbian. Its influences came from leading literature movements in Europe, particularly that of symbolism and the psychological novel, but more through mood and aesthetic component rather than of literary craftsmanship. It was manifested in the works of Jovan Ducic and Milan Rakic, the two poet diplomats. The third leading poet at the time was Aleksa Santic whose poetry was less subtle but filled with pathos, emotion, and sincerity. They were popular for their patriotic, romantic and social overtones.
Other poets such as Veljko Petrovic, Milutin Bojic, Sima Pandurovic, Vladislav Petkovic Dis or Milorad Petrovic Seljancica, all took different paths and showed great sophistication and advancement not only in their craft but in their world view as well. Most of them were pessimistic in their outlook, while at the same time patriotic in the wake of turbulent events that were then culminating in the struggle for Old Serbia, the Balkan Wars and World War I.
All these writers were backed by Serbian critics educated in the West. Jovan Skerlic with his chef-d’oeuvre, the historical survey of Serbian literature, and Bogdan Popovic, with his refined, Western-schooled aestheticism, not only weighed the writers’ achievements but also pointed out the directions of modern world literature to them.
Several writers from this period – Milutin Bojic, Vladislav Petkovic Dis and others – made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I, adding to the enormous toll Serbia had to pay for its hard-earned victory.
In the 20th century, Serbian literature flourished and a myriad of young and talented writers appeared.
The most well known authors are Milos Crnjanski, Ivo Andric, Mesa Selimovic, Borislav Pekic, Slobodan Selenic, Branko Miljkovic, Danilo Kis, Milorad Pavic, David Albahari, Dusan Kovacevic and many others. Isidora Sekulic and Milica Jakovljevic are two early twentieth century women writers. Svetlana Velmar-Jankovic and Gordana Kuic are the best known female novelists in Serbia today.
Milorad Pavic is perhaps the most widely acclaimed Serbian author today, most notably for his Dictionary of the Khazars, which has been translated into 24 languages.
Today, there are 551 public libraries in Serbia, biggest of which are National Library of Serbia in Belgrade with funds of about 6 million items, and Matica Srpska (the oldest Serbian cultural institution, founded in 1826) in Novi Sad with nearly 3.5 million volumes. The book publishing centrepiece event, annual Belgrade Book Fair, is one of the oldest and most important literary events in the region. It is the most visited cultural event in Serbia with 158,128 visitors in 2013