Sarajevo

A Trailblazer, A Hero, A Diplomatic Genius — The Life of Ban Kulin

more than a year ago
And so we start at the beginning. No, not the first fish flopping out of the sea in search of caffeine, not quite that far, but pretty damn far back. Back to the beginning of Bosnia as an independent state. Back to the 12th century, not entirely clear where exactly but the 12th century nonetheless. Back to the Bosnian Age of Peace and Prosperity. Back to Ban Kulin.

It isn’t clear where the Ban Kulin story starts. A date, a time, a place of birth, all blank on the register. Rumour has it, he came to Bosnia at the age of three, well, three-ish. His name? The ‘Ban’ part is clear enough, a Ban being the person in charge of Bosnia back in t’day, but the ‘Kulin’? It could be a derivative of Mikula, it could have been a nickname taken from an extended belly. It is all conjecture, but what else can we work with after 800+ years? Besides, Ban Belly sounds fun.

The Ban Kulin story begins in earnest in 1180 when he took over from Ban Borić as leader of Bosnia. Borić was ousted by the Kingdom of Hungary, the dominant neighbour at the time, and given the reigns of a land that didn’t really stretch beyond Vrhbosna, the very centre of today’s BiH. Hungary may have thought that it found a willing lackey in then-teenage Kulin, but they were wrong. And right. Both right and wrong. History! 

1180. Chess gets an early mention. Alexios II Komnenos became Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Ban Kulin became Ban of Bosnia, using the insecurity in the Byzantine leadership to make a play for the independence of Bosnia, allied with Stefan Nemanja and Serbia. Strength in numbers, right? Béla III of Hungary was all for it, of course, eager to further destabilise the ailing Byzantines. Béla, Stefan Nemanja and Kulin came together to fight Alexios, a battle for the ages and all that jazz. The battle came in 1183, as the trio pushed the Byzantines out of the area. Kulin was growing his lands.

Growing one’s lands in the 12th century was ten-a-penny, truth be told. You won land, and a couple of weeks later you lost it. What sets historical leaders about is their ability to hold on, their political skills, their diplomacy. In the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, few can hold a candle to Ban Kulin in this regard. He worked closely with Hungary, with Serbia, keeping the Byzantines at bay, but it is what he did with that somewhat-freedom that keeps his name ringing out in the halls and houses of Bosnia. 

Our boy Kulin was quick to encourage Ragusan merchants to head to his lands, largely to explore the mines established in the centre of his territory, around what we now call Fojnica. He founded cities, organised banking, and began pursuing relationships with other stats, most notably the aforementioned Ragusa, which brings us to the document that inked his name into the heavenly history books. The Charter of Ban Kulin (written on August 29, 1189) was a trade agreement between Bosnia and Ragusa, ostensibly the first document of the medieval Bosnian state and the symbolic birth certificate of Bosnian statehood. The charter mentions organisations, borders, autonomy and the rest, and was written in both Latin and Bosnian Cyrillic, better known as Bosančica. Four copies were made, two of which are in Dubrovnik. A third is in Russia (WHY OH WHY), while the fourth has been lost to the centuries between its creation and the creation of this very article.

It wasn’t all glory glory Man Utd for Ban Kulin though, as the whole ‘medieval times’ thing meant trouble was never far away. Much like, oh, maybe the entirety of Bosnia’s history, that trouble was instigated and stirred up by meddling neighbouring powers. You see, the Bosnian Church was developing in its own sort of way, teaching the good book but eschewing some of the more predatory elements of medieval Christianity. Hungary wasn’t going to have this, and the snitching Magyars were quick to complain about Ban Kulin to the Pope. ‘Heresy, heresy!’ they cried, eager for the hilariously named Pope Innocent III to wage a crusade against the Bosnians. Popes back in the day were a lot like Villanos, or so it seems. 

The nearby Montenegrins also got in on the act, accusing the Bosnians and (more importantly) Ban Kulin of heresy. Never a man without a plan, Kulin sent a delegation to the Pope, inviting ol’ Innocent to send a legate to Bosnia, to see that nothing untoward was going on. More to the point, Kulin asked Innocent to send help, to show them where they were going wrong, pleading for assistance and mercy as opposed to violence. It worked, and a legate found its way to Bilino Polje in 1203, showing the Bosnians where they were going wrong. The new teachings were largely ignored in the long term, of course, but that is another story for another day.

And then Ban Kulin died.

Not literally like that, it was a few months, but he died in 1204 and was succeeded by his son, Stjepan Kulinić. Stjepan was way more into Catholicism than his dad and pursued stronger ties with Hungary as a result, leading to the dormancy of the Bosnian Church and the beginning of the end for the Bosnian Kingdom. 

But that Ban Kulin, boy was he something. The first great leader of Bosnia’s history, a proper Mount Rushmore character, the father of Bosnian statehood and a diplomatic genius to boot. 

The bespectacled boyo John Bills has been writing about BiH for a long old while, and has also performed the occasional starring role throughout the In Your Pocket world, on cities as varied as Berlin, Bloke, Birmingham and Bangor. You can buy his books from this link, and you should, because they are excellent. 

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