Tuesday 15 March 2016

Croatian Culture and Civilisation part 1

Death of the last King of Croatia
I've decided to put my Croatian Culture and Civilisation notes here because they are slightly more serious in tone than stories about me being ridiculous on my travels around the country. Given that I will be examined about this course, it makes sense that it gets written up - though there may be more academic information available. As I've already said, the first Croatian Culture and Civilisation class I attended emphasised the mix of cultural influences: Illyrian, Celtic, Greek, Romans (with their associated enforced mixture), then Slavs and Ottomans. Like anywhere in the world it has seen tumultuous population changes and a large diaspora, which needs to be seen against a background of local, national and international events and developments.

After establishing our knowledge last week, this week we jumped straight back into the 9th century and rafts of violence, Christianity, mysterious legends, and a historian's favourite problem, a severe lack of any real documentary evidence. We reached 1102 when Croatia lost its independence, which wouldn't be regained until the 1990s. It is hard to talk about the 7th to the 9th centuries, because we don't know much as there was nothing written down. When Christianity arrived, everything changed, due to the appearance of inscribed monuments and some surviving documents.

The communities in this area at this point in time were a loose connection of clans and families. There were no communications, no trading, they appeared to be self sufficient communities, relying on no external exchanges. A bit like having no wifi... The first Croatian rulers tried to rule over the large unified territory, but as is the way, we know very little about their attempts. We know they were not kings but dukes because the title had not yet been bestowed on them by the pope. Some appeared to be baptised as early as the 7th century but it was the 9th century where mass baptisms took place. For instance, the Baptismal Font of Duke Višeslav:

The Baptismal Font of Prince Višeslav the first Croatian Prince, who reigned around 800 is one of the most important monuments of church furnishing. This hexagonal stone vessel is witness to the time when Croats were Christianized, and during the Christianization worshippers were baptized in it.

The replica can be found in the Museum of Nin Antiquities while the original is kept in the Museum of Croatian Archeological Monuments in Split. The Baptismal Font was stolen by the Venetians in 1746 and taken to Venice. It was returned to Croatia during World War II.

Around the edge of the six-sided Baptismal Font, there is an inscription which reads: “This font receives the weak to enlighten them. Here they are purged of their sins which they received from their first parents, in order to become Christians, salutary confessing the Eternal Trinity. This work was skillfully made by priest John at the time of Prince Višeslav, out of piety but to honor Saint John the Baptist, to mediate for him and his protégé”.

After peace was negotiated between the Franks and the Byzantine Empire in 812, Croatia was divided into coastal and hinterland regions, with the coast and islands going to Constantinople, and the rest coming under Frankish rule. This divide was to have a resounding impact on the future of this region, where it has sat on the fault line of East-West ever since. The division of the late Roman Empire between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches was to be less important until the great schism, but still Split and the coast was nominally Orthodox, the rest Catholic. Given the distance from their respective centres, they remained relatively independent, and mostly loyal to the Roman popes. The seat of the Croatian rulers was the capital city of Klis, which was highly fortified. It was - and is still a relatively short distance from Byzantine Split but the settlements remained on good terms.

There continued to be revolution throughout the 9th century, especially as Christianity was to cause cultural and psychological upheaval. Language was majorly important and after 1054 when the church split - the west was Latin, and the east, Greek. However it was only the wealthy, educated and church that knew Latin - even the ordinary priests struggled to understand what they were saying. Given that the holy languages didn't include the vernacular, the people didn't understand, so it remained a powerful tool of control - manipulating the people through language.

I don't think it wise to go into much detail about the 'Great Moravia' as it seems a rather contentious subject. In 846 Rastislav was designated by Eastern Francia king Louis the German to become the head of Great Moravia. After internal consolidation Rastislav tried to restrict polititical influence of Eastern Francia. In 855 Great Moravia was attacked by Louis's army. However, the attack was not successful. Eastern Francia spread its influence through Frankish priests, who preached in Latin. In 862 Rastislav asked Byzantine emperor Michael III to send a bishop and teachers to the Slavic peoples in their own language. The emperor decided to send brother Cyril and Methodius who laid the foundation of the Slavonic script (Glagolitic alphabet), and thus of Slavonic literature.

As Church Slavonic spread throughout Bulgaria, Makadonia, and into Croatia, the ordinary people understood this language because it was closer to what they spoke - certainly closer than the Latin. This political and religious struggle would last on and off, the three languages co-existing for 800 years; OCS, Latin, and old Croatian. However the Latin alphabet was ultimately more suitably to the language of the Croatian people, and a church struggle between Split and Nin reflected the political necessity of siding with the pope in Rome. So the Latin alphabet it was.

The combination of all these influences was also reflected in the church architecture, where old Roman temples had been converted into Christian churches. The very small pre-Romanesque artistic style was peculiar to the Croatian region, eg., St Donat in Zadar, St Cross in Nin, and St Nikola in Marjan, Split. All of these were built, and their size reflected their communities.

Croatian rulers changed every few years because they enjoyed killing one another. In 852AD, the highly effective Duke Trpirmir granted some of his lands to the church in Split. This reinforced the closeness of the coast and hinterlands - this document in Latin was the first historical document on paper rather than stone. However even this document isn't original, but a 15th century copy. After the murder of Trpimir, this closeness of the rulers and the church continued into the reign of Branimir, who offered financial support. Historians have more documentation to go on. We know of Helena the Glorious, whose grave is in Solin. Again, here we are relying on stone inscriptions.

These strong rulers, from Trpimir, Branimir and Helena, meant that the Croatian state was becoming stronger and getting bigger. With King Tomislav in the 10th century it reached a peak. Legend said he became king in 925 but we don't know whether the pope declared him as such, or whether he just declared himself king. He repelled Bulgarian and Hungarian invaders successfully. Croatian territory covered a big part of the Balkans, but this didn't last long. After his death, Croatia entered another dark violent period, and another enemy appeared on the watery horizon.

The Venetian Republic was to be part of Croatian history until its dissolution in 1797. The Adriatic Sea was essential for their trade routes and coastal communities started to attack their ships, essentially, piracy! Omiš was famous for its plundering. Legend has it that it was war with Venice that contributed to the chequer board red and white squares on the Croatian flag. Stjepan Držislav was captured and imprisoned by the Venetians. He was supposedly an excellent chess player and winning three games against Doge Pietro II Orseolo ensured his freedom.

In the 11th century the north and south was brought together by King Peter Krešimir IV, who was recognised by the pope. He was followed by Demetrius Zvonimir and he oversaw a period of prosperity and trade. However he had a small spat with the pope over the crusades, his soldiers didn't want to fight so they assassinated him in 1089. Whilst dying, it is said, he cursed Croatia, saying that it wouldn't be ruled by one of its own for the next 900 years. After the death of Petar Svačić, the last Croatian king, there followed a dark period of history, with many pretenders to the throne but due to the European network of noble families, the nearest heir was the Hungarian crown. This rule lasted until the end of WW1.


  1. Hi Clare,
    perhaps nice to know is the fact that there was an early republic behind the mountains near Omis, called Poljička republika, of which there is written documentation from 1440.
    Also, however more archaeological are the finds of what´s called the Cetina culture.
    See below:
    Anyway, living in this region since five years as a retired Dutchman, I love to read information like yours, which again deepens my knowledge of everything around us.
    Thanks, Pim. (member of the Split expat group).

  2. My pleasure. I enjoy lectures and learning, and then sharing that information becomes even more important!
    Thank you for the extra knowledge...today I hope to get more notes on here. I also have a klapa presentation to think about and write soon.