Hitherto the fourteenth century had been for the Balkans a peak in their history. In Wallachia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, and Albania hardy Slavs cut the forests, mined and tilled the earth, pastured flocks, and eagerly bred their own replacements. From the Adriatic to the Black Sea, from the Black Sea to the Baltic, Slavs, Italians, Magyars, Bulgars, Greeks, and Jews carried the trade of East and West, and cities sprouted in their path.
The great man of Serbia in this century was Stephen Dushan. His father, Stephen Urosh III, begot him in a brief detour from monogamy, gave him the affectionate name Dusha—i.e., Soul—and had him crowned as heir apparent. When a more legitimate son arrived, and received fond nicknames in his turn, Stephen deposed his father, allowed him to be strangled, and ruled Serbia with a strong hand for a generation. “Of all the men of his time,” wrote a contemporary, he was “the tallest, and terrible to look upon.”6Serbia forgave him everything, for he waged successful war. He trained a large army, led it with masterly generalship, conquered Bosnia, Albania, Epirus, Acarnania, Aetolia, Macedonia, Thessaly. Transferring his capital from Belgrade to Skoplje, he convened there a parliament of nobles, and bade it unify and codify the laws of his diverse states; the resultant Zabonik Tsar a Dushana, or Lawbook of Czar Dushan (1349), revealed a level of legal development and civilized usage not far below that of Western Europe. Financed and perhaps stimulated by this political exaltation, Serbian art in the fourteenth century rivaled the contemporary flourish in Constantinople and the Morea; magnificent churches were built, and their mosaics were freer and livelier than those normally allowed by the more conservative ecclesiasticism of the Greek capital. In 1355 Dushan assembled his armies for the last time. He asked them whether they preferred to be led against Byzantium or Hungary. They answered that they would follow him wherever he chose to lead. “To Constantinople!” he cried. On the way he fell sick and died.
His empire was too heterogeneous to be held together except by a man of alert intelligence and disciplined energy. Bosnia seceded, and attained for a proud moment, under Stephen Trtko, the hegemony of the Balkans. Bulgaria under John Alexander had its last great age. Wallachia, once part of the Byzantine Empire, detached itself (c. 1290), and ruled the spreading delta of the Danube. Moldavia threw off its allegiance to Hungary (1349).
Upon these centrifugal statelets the Turkish blight fell even before John V Palaeologus made Byzantium vassal to Murad I. Suleiman, the dashing son of Sultan Orkhan, had led Turkish troops to the aid of John VI Cantacuzene; he received, or took, as his reward the fortress of Tzympe on the European side of the Dardanelles (1353). When an earthquake shattered the walls of near-by Gallipoli, Suleiman moved into the defenseless town. At his invitation Turkish colonists crossed from Anatolia and spread along :he northern coast of the Sea of Marmora almost to Constantinople itself. With an expanding Turkish army Suleiman marched into Thrace and captured Adrianople (1361). Five years later Murad made it his European capital. From that center the Turks would for a century aim their blows at the divided Balkans.
Pope Urban V, recognizing the significance of this Turkish infiltration into Europe, called upon all Christendom for another crusade. An army of Serbs, Hungarians, and Wallachians marched gallantly toward Adrianople. At the river Maritsa they celebrated their unresisted advance with a feast. Amid their cups and revelry they were surprised by a night assault from a relatively small Turkish force. Many were slain before they could arm; many were drowned trying to retreat across the river; the rest fled (1371). In 1385 Sofia capitulated, and half of Bulgaria fell to the Ottomans. In 1386 they took Nish, in 1387 Salonika. All Greece lay open to the Turks.
For one heroic year little Bosnia stemmed the tide. Stephen Trtko joined his forces with the Serbians under Lazar I, and defeated the Turks at Plochnik (1388). A year later Murad marched west with an army that included many Christian contingents. At Kosovo he was met by a coalition of Serbs, Bosnians, Magyars, Vlachs, Bulgars, Albanians, and Poles. A Serb knight, Milosh Kobilich, pretending to be a deserter and informer, made his way into Murad’s tent, killed the Sultan, and was hacked to death. Murad’s son and heir, Bajazet I, rallied the Turks to angry courage, and led them to victory. King Lazar was captured and beheaded; Serbia became a tribute-paying vassal of the Turks, and its new king, Stephen Lazarevitch, was compelled to send arms and men to Bajazet. In 1392 Wallachia under John Shishman joined the roster of Balkan states tributary to the Ottomans. Only Bulgaria and Byzantium remained capable of defense.
In 1393 Bajazet invaded Bulgaria. After a siege of three months Trnovo, the capital, fell; the churches were desecrated, the palaces were set on fire, the leading nobles were invited to a conference and were massacred. The Pope again appealed to Christendom, and King Sigismund of Hungary summoned Europe to arms. France, though engaged in a life-and-death struggle with England, sent a force of cavaliers under the Count of Nevers; the Count of Hohenzollern and the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John came with their followers; the Elector Palatine brought a company of Bavarian horse; John Shishman renounced his vassalage and came with his troops to fight under the Hungarian King.
The united army, 60,000 strong, marched through Serbia and besieged the Turkish garrison in Nicopolis. Warned that Bajazet, with an army from Asia, was coming to raise the siege, the French knights, gay with wine and women, promised to annihilate it, and boasted that if the sky should fall they would hold it up with their spears. For his part Bajazet vowed that he would stable his horse at the high altar of St. Peter’s in Rome.7 He placed his weakest troops in front, with strategy that should have been obvious. The French knights plunged through them triumphantly, then through 10,000 Janissaries, then through 5,000 Turkish cavalry, then charged recklessly up a hill. Just beyond its summit they found themselves faced by the main body of the Turkish army—40,000 lancers. The nobles fought nobly, were killed or captured or put to flight, and the allied infantry behind them were disordered by their rout. The Hungarians and Germans were nevertheless driving back the Turks when Stephen Lazarevitch of Serbia led 5,000 Christiansagainst the Christian army, and won the crucial battle of Nicopolis for the Sultan (1396).
Maddened by the sight of so many of his men lying dead on the field, and by the claim of the rescued garrison that the Christian besiegers had killed their Turkish prisoners, Bajazet ordered the 10,000 captives to be put to death. The Count of Nevers was allowed to choose twenty-four knights to be saved for the ransom they might bring. Several thousand Christians were slaughtered in a bloody ritual that went on from sunrise to late afternoon, until the Sultan’s officers persuaded him to spare the rest.8 From that day till 1878 Bulgaria was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Bajazet now took most of Greece, and then marched against Constantinople.