Mysterious identity of the Serbian Hero Miloš Obilić
Miloš Obilić (pronounced Mi-losh O-bill-ich) was a medieval Serbian knight in the service of Prince Lazar during the invasion of the Ottoman Empire. He is not mentioned in contemporary sources, but he features prominently in later accounts of the Battle of Kosovo as the assassin of the Ottoman sultan Murad I. Although this assassin remains anonymous in the sources until the late 15th century, the dissemination of the story of Murad’s assassination in Florentine, Serbian, Ottoman and Greek sources suggests that versions of it circulated widely across the Balkans within half a century after the event.
It is not certain whether Obilić actually existed. It was Petar II Petrović Njegoš, the archbishop and leader of the Montenegrins, a poet and philosopher, who popularized the myth of the brave knight Miloš Obilić who killed sultan Murad I. Miloš thus became a major figure in Serbian epic poetry, in which he is elevated to the level of the most noble national hero of medieval Serbian folklore. Along with the martyrdom of Prince Lazar and the alleged treachery of Vuk Branković, Miloš’s deed became an integral part of Serbian lore surrounding the Battle of Kosovo. In the 19th century, Miloš also came to be venerated as a saint in the Serbian Church.
But who really was Miloš Obilić?
In Mignanelli‘s 1416 work, it is asserted that it was Lazar who killed the Ottoman sultan. The name Miloš Obilić has not been mentioned in that history. The assassination itself was first recorded by Deacon Ignjatije on 9 July 1389, only 12 days after the battle. The assassination of sultan Murad and one of his sons was also mentioned in the instructions of the Venetian Senate issued to Andrea Bembo on 23 July 1389, although the Venetians were uncertain whether the news about the assassination were true. On 1 August 1389, King Tvrtko I of Bosnia (r. 1353-1391) wrote a letter to Trogir to inform its citizens about the Ottoman defeat. Victory over the Turks (Latin: ob victoriam de Turcis) was also reported by Coluccio Salutati (died 1406), Chancellor of Florence, in his letter to King Tvrtko, dated 20 October 1389, on behalf of the Florentine Senate. The killer is not named, but he is described as one of twelve Christian noblemen who managed to break through the Ottoman ranks:
“Fortunate, most fortunate are those hands of the twelve loyal lords who, having opened their way with the sword and having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, heroically reached the tent of Amurat [Murad] himself. Fortunate above all is that one who so forcefully killed such a strong vojvoda [sic] by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly. And blessed are all those who gave their lives and blood through the glorious manner of martyrdom as victims of the dead leader over his ugly corpse.”
*NOTE: vojvoda or voivode was a high-ranking official in medieval Serbia, who reigned over a province or military area, and later even entered the ranks of aristocracy. A more basic meaning of the term is war-lord or a war leader, i.e. a military commander. While Miloš might have been called a voivode by his peers, the Florentines probably refer to Murad here, since he was the one who was stabbed, and probably because they had little contact with the Turks in general, and thus they didn’t use words of Turkish origin to describe their leader.
Turkish sources claim that Miloš pretended he was a deserter and, having come to the Sultan, killed him with a knife as a coward. In some earlier sources, it is described how Murad was killed after the battle. They usually describe how Murad was unaccompanied on the battlefield and an anonymous Christian who had been lying among the corpses stabbed him to death. In the early 15th century, for instance, the poet Ahmedi writes that “suddenly one of the Christians, who was covered in blood and apparently hidden among the enemy dead, got up, rushed to Murad and stabbed him with a dagger.”
In 1976, Miodrag Popović suggested that the narrative elements of secrecy and stratagem from the Serbian lore were all introduced from Turkish sources, which sought to defame the capabilities of their Christian opponents by attributing the death of Murad to “devious” methods. Thomas A. Emmert agrees with Popović. The Turks probably wanted to reduce the heroism performed by the Serbian knight.
Contemporary Christian sources claim that Murad was killed during the battle. Emmert claims that Turkish sources mentioned the assassination several times, while European and Serbian sources didn’t mention it until much later. He thinks that Serbians knew about the assassination, but decided not to mention it in their first accounts for unknown reasons; one plausible being the fact that the hero had survived the battle. Another reason why the Serbs did not write about the assassin of the Murad I was because Militsa, Lazar’s wife and successor on the throne, had forbidden them. Lazar’s son Stefan was under-age and his claim for the Serbian throne weak. To ensure his ascension, forbidding the formation of a cult of any noble or an extreme rise in popularity certainly was a smart move: another dynasty could have easily gotten their hands on the Serbian throne.
The first author to refer to Murad’s killer by his full name is Konstantin Mihailović, a Serbian Janissary from the village of Ostrovica, near Rudnik, who wrote his Memoirs of a Janissary or Turkish Chronicle in ca. 1497. In a passage intended to infer a moral lesson about disloyalty from the Serbian defeat at Kosovo, Mihailović identifies Miloš Kobica as the knight who on the fateful last Friday of the battle slew Murad.
The next time a name is given in the sources is three decades later, in 1530, when the Slovene monk Benedikt Kuripečič (Curipeschitz) mentioned it in the memoirs of his travels through the Balkan Peninsula. His visit to Murad’s tomb in Kosovo Polje provides the occasion for the story of the knight whom he names Miloš Kobilović. Kuripešić elaborates on the humiliation and fall out favour????????? which Miloš endured before the battle, his last dinner with Lazar and his nobles, his admittance to Murad’s tent, the brutal murder and his own death on attempting to escape on horseback. The monk, though not explicit about his sources, writes that Miloš was a celebrated figure in the popular traditions of Serbs, who sing about his heroic exploits on the border. He recorded some legends about the Battle of Kosovo and mentions epic songs about Obilić in regions far from Kosovo, like Bosnia and Croatia. In his 1603 work, Richard Knolles described the “country songs” of Serbs about the Battle of Kosovo, and refers to Obilić as “Cobelitz”.
Miloš could be one of those knights who was historically known by some other name. It wouldn’t be an exception, since many real historical personages were known by another name in Serbian folk poetry. Prince Vratko (historical character) was known as Jug Bogdan in epic poetry, Djuradj Stracimirovic was known as Strahinic Ban, Janos Hunyadi was known as Sibinjanin Janko.
The assassin’s first appearance in Serbian sources is in the biography of Stefan Lazarević, Lazar’s son, by Constantine the Philosopher, written in the 1440s. The hero, still anonymous, is described as a man of noble birth whom “envious tongues had sought to defame before the prince”. To prove his loyalty and courage, he left the front line on the pretext of being a deserter, seized the opportunity to stab the Sultan to death and was killed himself shortly afterwards. We can see that Turkish sources had already influenced the Serbian version. Either that, or Stefan wanted to create a cult of his father, Lazar, as Serbia’s most noble warrior. However, the initial phase of ignominy and its redemption by a courageous plot of slaying the Sultan are narrative ingredients which would become essential to the Serbian legend as it evolved in later times.
In his History of Montenegro (1754), Vasilije Petrović wrote of one Miloš Obilijević, and in 1765, the historian Pavle Julinac rendered the surname as Obilić. According to Czech historian Konstantin Josef Jireček, the surname Obilić and its different renderings are derived from the Serbian words obilan (“abundant, bountiful”) and obilje (“wealth, abundance”). The surname Kobilić might come from the Slavic word kobila (a mare), with the meaning of “mare’s son”, as in Serbian legends, the hero is said to have been nursed by one. At that time, the custom of drinking mare’s milk was something associated with and characteristic of the people of the Central Asian steppes, the Huns or Bulgars, or of Turkic and Mongol origin: the Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and Yakuts. Does this mean that Miloš could have been a mercenary?
Central Asian mercenaries were not used by Balkan Slavs, but there were central Asian people who inhabited the Balkans. The Balkans were full of Pechenegs who settled in southern Serbia and Macedonia. They settled in the district of Moglena (today in Macedonia) into a tagma “of the Moglena Pechenegs”. The Byzantines defeated the Pechenegs again at the Battle of Beroia in 1122, on the territory of modern-day Bulgaria. For some time, significant communities of Pechenegs still remained in the Kingdom of Hungary. With time, the Balkan Pechenegs lost their national identity and became fully assimilated, mostly with Magyars and Bulgarians. If Miloš really drank the milk of a mare, he could have easily been one of those remaining Pechenegs.
In the epics, Miloš is often referred to as Miloš of Pocerje, and according to local legends, he comes from the western Serbian region of Pocerina. In Pocerina, there is a spring known as Miloševa Banja (Miloš’s spring), and an old grave that is claimed to be the grave of Miloš’s sister. The Pechenegs were never recorded on the territory of western Serbia. Pocerina was controlled by Nicholas II Garay (Nikola II Gorjanski) who was a powerful Croatian nobleman that served the Hungarian king. Remember his name because he is going to be mentioned later.
K. Jireček connected the surname to two noble families in medieval Ragusa and Trebinje, the Kobilić and Kobiljačić families from the 14th and 15th centuries, and noted that they altered their surnames in the 18th century because they considered it “indecent” to be associated with mares. Based on a 1433 document from Ragusan archives, the historian Mihailo Dinić concluded that Miloš’s original surname was indeed Kobilić (Latin: Cobilich). The rendering Obilić has universally been used by Serbian writers in modern times.
The historian Noel Malcolm has proposed that the surname may have been derived from the term kopil, of possible Vlach or Albanian origin, which means “child” or “bastard child”. However, a similar word, kopile, already exists in the Serbian language, and carries the same meaning, which proves the theory wrong. Malcolm also hypothesizes that Kobilić might be of Hungarian origin, possibly a transliteration of the Hungarian word kóbor lovag (knight-errant) which would make him a Hungarian knight or a nobleman that served the Hungarian king.
In Serbian epic poetry, Miloš was a son-in-law of the Serbian Prince Lazar. Historically, Lazar’s sons-in-law were: Vuk Branković, Nicholas II Garay (that same noble we mentioned who controlled Pocerina), Djuradj Stracimirović Balšić and Alexander, the son of Ivan Shishman (Tsar of Bulgaria).
To make a brief summary, we see that Nicholas II Garay was the lord of Pocerina, which was also the title of Miloš Obilić according to Serbian tradition. Further, he was Lazar’s son-in-law, which was another similarity with Miloš Obilić from the epics. And finally, he was serving the Hungarian king Sigismund. The year of his marriage to Lazar’s daughter is unknown, but it must have taken place before 1389, because in that year Nicholas was already mentioned as Lazar’s son-in-law.
Nicholas II died in 1433, long after the battle of Kosovo. However, Turkish sources claim that Miloš was killed during the battle. Remember Emmert’s claim that Western and Serbian sources didn’t mention the assassin of Murad. Emmert thinks that Serbians knew about the assassination, but decided not to mention it in their first accounts for unknown reasons or maybe because the hero had survived the battle. There are historical sources proving that Nicholas II Garay was fighting against the Turks in the Battle of Nicopolis (1396), but there are no sources confirming his presence in the Battle of Kosovo. Besides that, he is a perfect match for the legendary hero.
On the other hand, five months after the battle of Kosovo, Serbia was attacked by the troops of the Hungarian King Sigismund, which makes it unlikely that they had helped Serbs previously. It would make no sense for Nicholas II to join the Serbian army in spite of Sigismund’s approval.
Murad I could have been killed by anyone as random as a common soldier. But the Serbian people needed a hero. One other person celebrated as a hero of enormous strength, morality and just mind, is the brave Prince Marko, even though he was just a Turkish vassal historically. The same might have happened to Miloš Obilić.
I believe that, in all probability, it was a random soldier who had killed Murad, but that this soldier over time got the attributes of Nikola II Gorjanski, who was at that time considered one of Europe’s best commanders and fighters, thus creating a fictional hero based on a real historical character, just like in the case of Prince Marko. Another option would be that a real, historical knight had killed Murad, as the original European sources claim, but his name is unknown; and the last one would be that Nikola really went to Kosovo, but there are no proof of that.
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