The Dečani Chrysobull: The foundation of Visoki Dečani Monastery and its other properties

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The Dečani Charter, as the most complete document which came out of the court offices of the Nemanjić dynasty, is a testimony to life in medieval Serbia. First of all, it is a record of the rise of a Serbian monastery and the role its founder played in the formation of its enormous estate. Every detail recorded in the text of the Charter illumines for us a distant past, providing reliable information that is not to be found in similar documents which have been preserved. The origins of the numerous names of the people living in or involved with the monastery confirm that the region was populated by Serbs. On the basis of the fact that the majority of toponyms listed are
clearly Slavic, names which were in use long before the writing of the Dečani founding charter, it can fairly be said that most of the settlements were named by the Serb population. There are many details concerning social relations and the economic situation of the monastery property, which likely indicates how things were in general on other monastery estates for which the founding charters have not been preserved. Since the introduction and conclusion contain descriptions of historical events, this source can also not be circumvented in terms of the political history of medieval Serbia. The language in which the Charter was written testifies to the diglossia present in medieval Serbian literary style, but also to the high degree of education among the scribes and authors of such texts. Based upon the number and extent of the legal regulations in the Dečani Charter, it is among the most complete sources for Serbian medieval law. It was written on a long scroll, decorated with rich ornamentation at the top, and at the bottom it was almost certainly sealed with the royal golden seal that, unfortunately, has not been preserved. Thus, richly and luxuriously decorated, it was kept in the monastery treasury as something of great value and as a guarantee of the security of the Monastery’s rights.

The Dečani Founding Charter

While building Dečani Monastery in 1330, King Stefan Uroš III issued a charter establishing the legal status of his endowment and the extent of properties that the king
granted to the monastery at that time. The fact that each change in the monastery's property holdings needed to be registered was reason enough for two more versions of the charter to be subsequently written. Along with many other valuables in the Dečani Monastery treasury, all three versions of the founding charter of the royal endowment were saved, all having come into existence in the first half of the fourteenth century.

The Charter was written in 1330 in the form of a parchment scroll of 390 x  5200mm in the royal residence in Porodimlja, as it says in the text, which was undoubtedly the ruler's court in Nerodimlja in the southern part of Kosovo. It was written in uncial letters,
in black ink, and the initial letters and the king's signature were done in red ink. This long charter was made of eight pieces of parchment of the finest quality. The upper end
is reinforced with dark red leather to protect the top edge of the parchment. In the middle at the top of the parchment is a decoration in the shape of a blue circle with a diameter of 58 mm, around which there are eight smaller circles with small red stars, and the overall diameter is 137 mm.

As in many monastery endowments, the introductory part is written in a high style of Serbian Church Slavonic, the literary language of the time. The introduction, the prolegomenon (or arenga), is theological in content. Here the relationship of the ruler and founder towards God and the Orthodox Faith is demonstrated, expressing the King's feelings of piety. The prolegomenon then extends into an exposition (or dispositio). Here, the Ruler offers his reasons for deciding to build temple dedicated unto the Lord God. After this comes his intitulation (intitulatio), where he lays out his origins. A significant place is given to his family tree, where the King emphasizes his glorious fore-bearers who ruled the Serbian lands, on which his own right to the Serbian throne is based. He presents his ancestors in the following way:

Fresco of Holy King Stefan

"I must mention Simeon Nemanja, the first and holy ruler, lover of his homeland, enlightener of Serbia and new well-spring of myrrh and his own son, beloved of God from his youth, the Holy and blessed Sava, the first Serbian archbishop, and his brother in the flesh, King Stefan the First Crowned, and those who came afterwards, all our parents who from them shone forth and who ruled on earth, may they be remembered forever more. Of their tribe am I myself, a sinful and lowly servant of Christ, Stefan the King, and by God, the ruler of all Serbian and Coastal lands."

After emphasizing his right to the country of his ancestors, an autobiographical account is given of the difficult fate he himself, Stefan of Dečani, endured in his childhood, when his father blinded and exiled him. The story has a happy end because the mercy of God returns his sight, brings him to his ancestral throne and gives him the right to the royal crown in 1322, and his son the title of heir to the throne. In contrast to the introductory part, written in Serbian Church Slavonic, the middle part of the charter is written in the Serbian vernacular. On the model of his predecessors, the
founders of other endowments, the king and donor emphasizes that he gave to the church books, crosses, vessels, censers, and icons that had been framed in gold leaf and embedded with pearls and precious stones. He noted that he had given the servants of God's house lovely vestments, epitrachelions, bracelets, tablecloths, curtains, robes and all kinds of fine clothes. He emphasized that he had given many other properties for the memory of himself and his son, the young king, and in memoriam  for his parents  and their predecessors.

The largest part of the text is dedicated to a listing of the villages given to Dečani, their boundaries, and some of the inhabitants who lived there and were obliged to work for the Monastery. There are also some legal regulations about life on monastery property, that is, the rights and responsibilities of the Monastery administration are defined as well as those of its servants who were  responsible  for taking  care of the Monastery.

The last part of the charter, known as the eschatol, is written, like the beginning, in Serbian Church  Slavonic.  In  this  passage,  mention  is  made  of  the  council  at  which  the above-mentioned endowments were approved and finalized. In addition, mention is made of the victory of the King's army at the Battle of Velbužd on July 28, 1330.

Although the date of its writing is not mentioned in the text itself, it is not hard to determine the time of its creation, because toward the end it says that it was written during the famous Battle of Velbužd.

At the very end is a curse which warns that God will punish anyone who defaces any of what is said and written in the charter. Under the text is the king's signature in red: "STEFAN UROŠ THE THIRD, By the grace of God the King of the Serbian Lands and the Littoral". This charter was issued by Stefan of Dečani himself, without the participation of the young heir to the throne, Dušan.
Here, in abbreviated form, we present a physical description and the content of the founding charter of the Dečani monastery. The data contained therein are quite significant because it was written at the same time when the church was being built and the vast monastery properties were laid out. It was written on a long scroll, decorated with ornamentation at the top, and at the bottom it was certainly sealed officially with the royal golden seal that, unfortunately, has not been preserved. Thus, richly and luxuriously decorated, it was kept in the monastery treasury as something of great value and as a guarantee of the security of the rights of the monastery.

The complicated structure of the monastery property and the people who worked on it demanded that another copy be made, one that was easier to handle, with yet more important information in it. This is why, unlike the first copy which was written on a scroll, a second copy was produced in the form of a parchment book. Everything that was missing from the original, or that was decided later, was written into this book. In the first version the names of all the villages and their boundaries were recorded, and in the second we find the names of all the inhabitants of those villages and communes who were taxpayers. This second expanded version was kept in the monastery, as testified to in the inscription on the first page, "the charter which is in the house of the Pantocrator". King Stefan of Dečani also signed this copy. However, after his signature is also a confirmation by his son Dušan, who was then the king. It is possible that this version was written while Stefan of Dečani was still alive, and that the supplemental text was written when Dušan took the throne in August of 1331, and subsequently took upon himself the responsibility of completing Dečani Monastery.

The third version of the Dečani charter was written after May 1343 but before December 1345. The main addition and expansion in relation to the first charter is that the names of all the inhabitants of the villages and communes are listed, as in the second version, along with many other additions. As the years passed, the situation on Dečani Monastery’s property changed. For this document to reflect the actual state of affairs on the monastery estate, it was necessary that the old contents be adapted to the actual state of things, meaning that changes had to be noted. This is the most fundamental reason why the new version was written, so that it would be complete in its content.

Therefore, a supplement to the second version was written and made more precise thanks to a group of people who were familiar with the local situation, the boundaries, and the inhabitants of the vast Dečani properties. The new charter was written in the form of a parchment book, in easily legible calligraphic uncials, in black ink that has not faded even today. The initials are done in red, as are the signatures of the kings.

On the basis of the preserved copies of the charter, the Turkish sultans acknowledged the privileges of the monastery and punished those who wished to tax Dečani Monastery. There are some slight differences in the language and orthography of the versions. However, all the manuscripts are written in New Raška Orthography.

An inscription from the Franciscan Vito Cucca from Kotor, the master architect of Dečani, in old Cyrillic writing, above the southern entrance to the Dečani church. The note mentions the names of both the kings – Stefan Uroš Dečanski III and his son Stefan Dušan IV. In addition, he wrote that the church, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator, was built for eight years and completed in 1335 (6843).

All three versions cast brilliant light on other situations in medieval Serbia, because with the number of facts they surpass all known written documents of a similar sort from the time of the rule of the descendants of Stefan Nemanja. They offer reliable evidence about the size and extent of the monastery properties , making up a geographical whole from the Beli Drim River in the Metohija-Prizren valley to the Komovi Mountains on the present day boundary of Montenegro, and from Pee to the River Valbona in Albania. More precisely, the region in the Lim river basin can be called the northwestern region , and the one in the Drim river basin can be called the southeastern region. The southeastern region can be divided into two zones. The first, with a larger number of settlements, can be called the Metohija zone. It was contiguous monastery land, but there were several pieces of separate property. The second, the Altin zone, took up a large area of what is today northeastern Albania, having a smaller number of settlements than in the first zone, made up a part of old Altin, in the Valbona river basin, a tributary to the Veliki Drim River. The central place was the monastery of Visoki Decani, the endowment of Stefan of Decani, in the foot­ hills of the mountains Bogicevica and Djeravica, on the very bank of the Bistrica River. The other part of the settlements were located outside Metohija and the Veliki Drim basin. Those settlements were in upper and middle Polimlje. A smaller number of settlements were in Kosovska Drenica, Potarje and Zeta. In that area, there were villages and katuns in which the inhabitants were listed who lived at that time on the monastery properties .

Like in the rest of Serbian medieval state, the Decani estate was mostly maintained by a farming-herding community, with a small number of craftsmen and other class categories. On the property, there were 2097 farming homes, including priests and artisans, 69 homes of sokalniks, and 266 vlah families.

In science the question is often asked, in relation to the achievements of medieval art and engineering, were only foreign craftsmen involved in carrying out the plans of the donators when building the larger endowments? One of the answers is found already in the texts of the second and third versions of the Deeani Charter. There are statements about the activity of the craftsmen and their families. The king himself knew about their work and the significant place they held among the builders of the time, and also reports, "I, the king, confirm that the craftsman Georgije with his brothers Dobroslav and Nikola worked on and decorated many churches in the Serbian lands, and moreover, by the will of God, they built the dining hall in the house of the Pantocrator and the tower above the churchyard, and around the church, and built many things in the town as well". The name of one of the artisans is Dobroslav, a Serbian name that confirms his origins.

By the number and extent of the legal regulations in the Decani Charter, it is among the most complete sources of Serbian medieval law. There are many regulations for all categories of the population responsible for maintaining the monastery and its properties.

These documents are characterized by a wealth of legal and economic terminology, which means that such a terminological system had already been worked out in the first half of the fourteenth century. The most numerous are terms from the Serbian vernacular and literary language. There are few borrowings from neighboring peoples, which indicates that Serbian legal and economic terminology developed independently for the most part.

Most of the text of the second and third versions is a register of the lands and the people on those lands. There are few historical sources in the world that preserved so much onomastic data. There are over thirteen thousand pieces of onomastic information re­ corded here. Many important conclusions have been reached based on that information. The origin of names aids in establishing the structure of the population in these areas. For the picture to be clear, a comparative overview of the origins of the names for each village has been done for the second version and third version. Three types of names have been compared:  Slavic, Christian and other. To see the tabel with names click HERE. 

From the data in the Table it can clearly be seen that in many of the settlements in all the zones, a population was living which had about 90% of Serbian names of Slavic origin. Such a high percentage testifies to the fact that the settlements were inhabited by Serbs. From the overall picture, the exceptions are the katun of the Arbanas (=Albanians), the village Greva in Altin, and Kusevo in Zeta. The structure of the onomastics of Greva and Kusevo is similar to the structure of the names in the katun of the Arbanas. In terms of origins, the names in these three settlements are quite different from the names in the other villages and the vlah katuns. This is evidence that those two villages had the same ethnic makeup as the Arbanas' katun.

It seems that, in the vlah katuns, names of Slavic origins dominate, but on average their percentage is lower than in the farming communities. This indicates that the inhabit­ ants of the katuns were different from those in the villages. Inhabitants in the katuns had 80% Slavic names on average, and this indicates that the indigenous Wallachian population had mixed  with  the Serbs and become  slavicized to a great extent.

Nemanjić Family TreeThe names of the rulers here belonged to the house of the Nemanjic family. Though their number is limited, it can still be observed that some of them were unfamiliar to the common people, and some of them came from the group of most common popular names. The name of the founder of the Nemanjic dynasty was not given to a single member of the Decani estate, while the name of Nemanja 's grandson, Radoslav, was one of the most common names in the area. The name Uros was also not a familiar one, although it was popular at the court, and thus many thought the name was in fact a title.

From the Table given, it can clearly be seen that the picture of the names of Slavic origins was disturbed by the names that arrived under the influence of Christianity. That group of names was neither especially numerous nor varying. The most common of these names  were: Mihailo, Nikola, Djuradj,  Dmitar, and  Stepan.

In addition to these two groups is a third group registered as "other". This is a layer made up of Romance, Albanian and other names of unknown or uncertain origin. Romance names show that the Wallachs (Vlahs) as an ethnic category gave the inhabitants of Serbian villages something of their onomasticon, but this was mostly prevalent in the vlah katuns. The small number of Albanian names indicates there were not many of them living in the area.

Patronymics most often appear next to names. An analysis shows that the patronymics are Slavic in origin and that they are concentrated in Serbian settlements. The patronymic as a determiner originated in the Common Slavic community, and is thus an inherited characteristic and an established way of characterizing a per­ son. The patronymics are constructed with the suffixes -ic,-ovic, and -evic. In the Arbanas' katun and in the villages of Greva and Kusevo, there is not a single Slavic patronymic with the suffix -ic. This indicates that the Albanian inhabitants bad their own formula for nam­ ing that was  different from the Slavic one.

In comparison to names and patronymics, toponyms are the oldest onomastic layer. In the Decani Charter there are over five hundred toponyms.

More than 50% of the toponyms originate in Serbian. This domination of toponyms of Slavic origin indicates that, as they entered the region , the Serbs encountered empty spaces, which  they then named with  terms from  their own language.

When the names, patronymics and toponyms of this region are studied, as recorded in the Dečani Charter, it is clear that before the construction of the monastery there was a stabile Serb population. A whole series of old Slavic names are preserved in the toponyms, names which are not recorded among the people living there at the beginning of the fourteenth century. There are names among the toponyms that are not recorded anywhere else among the South Slavs, and their existence is testified to in historical sources of other Slavic peoples. If old Common Slavic names are preserved in the toponyms, that would mean that the Slavic tribes from which the Serbs separated themselves, moved into the area many centuries before the construction of the Decani monastery. Only one toponym is of Albanian origin, and that indicates that the Albanian population did not live there before the fourteenth  century.

There are many toponyms of unknown etymology. In them are hidden the roots of the old Balkan languages, and many of them will remain a mystery because of the structural changes that have covered up their original form, or because the toponym was given by a people which has disappeared and thus not enough is known about their language any longer.

Based on the data in the Decani Charter it is clear that a stabile Serbian population was already living in the area, and that this was certainly already true in the time of Saint Sava. His desire to build a church for his fellow countrymen in the area is a testimony to that. The founder of the Decani monastery revered Saint Sava above all his ancestors, and he was trying to follow in his steps after more than a century. This is addressed in the Charter: "Among all those things, I glorify and laud our enlightened and blessed Sava who above all others cherished the divine holy commandments …It was here in this place called Decani in the region of Zatrnava that, finding this place lovely and suitable for building a house of God, he marked it and then blessed it with his holy bands, so that this place would be holy ground.

In the map presented here, there are the toponyms that were recorded at the time when the monastery was being built in  1330.

Accompanying the map is a list of names marked on the map with their modern names beside them so that it is easy to obtain insight into what remains of the medieval toponyms. Some of them have retained their medieval forms, but others have been transformed significantly, especially in Albanian pronunciation. For example, if one looks at entry number 56, one sees that the medieval name was Unjemir. Its origins are in the Proto-Slavic name Unjemir, which can be attested in other Slavic languages. Beside it appears the name Ujmir. The Albanians have transformed the name into something that means "good water". Many names have been retained even into the present, such as:  Velika,  Vrmoša,  Dečani, Krusevac,  Resnik,  Trnava  and  Čabic.

Map of monastery Dečani property

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