Albania in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Albania is that period that starts after the region that is now Albania in the Byzantine Empire, until their incorporation in the Ottoman Empire. When the Roman Empire divided into east and west in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. Since the end of the 12th century northern part of Albania became part of the Kingdom of Serbia (medieval) succeeded by the Serbian Empire which took over whole Albania and most of the Balkans by the mid 14th century. When the Serbian Empire began its fall (1355-1371) most significant ports of Albania (Scutari and Durazzo) were captured by Venetian Republic and became Albania Veneta. Rest of the region of Albania was divided by local chieftains, most in vassal relation to Venetians or Serbian Despotate.

After the Battle of Savra in 1385 most of local chieftains became Ottoman vassals. In 1415-1417 most of the central and southern Albania was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire and its newly established Sanjak of Albania. In 1432-36 local Albanian chieftains dissatisfied with losing their pre-Ottoman privileges organized a revolt in southern Albania. The revolt was suppressed until another revolt was organized by Skanderbeg in 1443, after the Ottoman defeat in the Battle of Niš, during the Crusade of Varna. In 1444, under Venetian patronage with Skanderbeg as leader of the regional Albanian and Serbian chieftains united against the Ottoman Empire into short-lived alliance disestablished by 1450. Skanderbeg's rebellion against the Ottoman Empire lasted for 25 years. Despite his military valor he was not able to do more than to hold his own possessions within the very small area in the North Albania where almost all his victories against the Ottomans took place. By 1479 the Ottomans captured all Venetian possessions, except Durrazo which they captured in 1501. Until 1913 the territory of Albania would remain part of the Ottoman Empire.


After the region fell to the Romans in 168 BC it became part of Epirus Nova that was in turn part of the Roman province of Macedonia. Later it was part of provinces of the Byzantine empire called themes.

When the Roman Empire was divided into East and West in 395, the territories of modern Albania became part of the Byzantine Empire. Beginning in the first decades of Byzantine rule (until 461), the region suffered devastating raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. In the 6th and 7th centuries, the region experienced an influx of Slavs.

Barbarian invasions

In the first decades under Byzantine rule (until 461), Epirus nova suffered the devastation of raids by Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths. Not long after these barbarian invaders swept through the Balkans, the Slavs appeared. Between the 6th and 8th centuries they settled in Roman territories. In the 4th century, barbarian tribes began to prey upon the Roman Empire. The Germanic Goths and Asiatic Huns were the first to arrive, invading in mid-century; the Avars attacked in AD. 570; and Slavs invaded in the 6th and 7th century. About fifty years later, the Bulgars conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and extended their domain to the lowlands of what is now central Albania. In general, the invaders destroyed or weakened Roman and Byzantine cultural centers in the lands that would become Albania.[1]

Early Middle Ages


Main article: Origin of Albanians

Slavic settlement

Sclaveni raided and settled the western Balkans in the 6th and 7th century.[2] The Serbs are mentioned in De Administrando Imperio as having settled the Balkans during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641), however, research does not support that the Serbian tribe was part of this later migration (as held by historiography) rather than migrating with the rest of Slavs.[3] Through linguistical studies, it is concluded that the Early South Slavs were made up of a western and eastern branch, of parallel streams, roughly divided in the TimokOsogovoŠar line.[4] Slavic toponymy is widespread in Albania, mainly northern Albania, Slavs having settled there in the 7th and 8th centuries.[5] The Albanian core, Krujë, was surrounded by mixed Slavic–Albanian nomenclature.[5] Vlach and Albanian shepherds, remnants of native populations, lived in the mountains, while Slavs subsequently settled highlands as well.[6] Based on toponymical studies, the Slavs that settled in southern and central Albania were part of the eastern South Slavic group; in the 7th–8th centuries, or a little later, they settled also north of Shkumbin, however, around Shkodër and Drin the western South Slavic group (Serbs) dominated.[7]

Slavs did not came into conflict with the Proto-Albanians and Vlachs, shepherd populations.[8] The nature and character of agrarianism in the South Slavs led to the distribution of work, and socio-economic symbiosis between the groups, leading to social integration in new ethnically mixed feudal formations.[8] At the beginning, the Albanians lived in the mountains, while only later, with population expansions, but mainly with deeper changes in the feudal structure of society, the agrarian population expanded into the mountain zone, adopting the cattle industry, while the mountain population descended into the valleys.[8]

High Middle Ages

Byzantine rule

In History written in 1079–1080, Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates referred to the Albanoi as having taken part in a revolt against Constantinople in 1043 and to the Arbanitai as subjects of the duke of Dyrrachium. It is disputed, however, whether that refers to Albanians in an ethnic sense.[9] However a later reference to Albanians from the same Attaliates, regarding the participation of Albanians in a rebellion in 1078, is undisputed.[10] At this point, they are already fully Christianized.

When the Christian church split in 1054 between the East and Rome, the region of southern Albania retained its ties to Constantinople while the north reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome. This split in marked the first significant religious fragmentation of the country.

Bulgarian rule

In the mid-9th century most of eastern Albania became part of the First Bulgarian Empire, during the reign of Khan Presian.[11] The area, known as Kutmichevitsa, became an important Bulgarian cultural center in the 10th century with many thriving towns such as Devol, Glavinitsa (Ballsh) and Belgrad (Berat). Coastal towns such as Durrës remained in the hands of the Byzantines for most of that period. When the Byzantines managed to conquer the Bulgarian Empire in 1018–19, the fortresses in eastern Albania were some of the last Bulgarian strongholds to be submitted by the Byzantines. Durrës was one a centre of a major Bulgarian uprising in 1040–41 following the discontent of the Bulgarian population by the heavy taxes levied by the Byzantines. Soon the rebellion encompassed the whole of Albania, but it was quelled in 1041, after which Albania again came under Byzantine rule. In 1072 another uprising broke out under Georgi Voiteh but it was also crushed.

Later the region was recovered by the Second Bulgarian Empire. The last Bulgarian Emperor to govern the whole territory was Ivan Asen II (1218–1241) but after his successors the Bulgarian rule diminished.

Serbian rule

The Serbs controlled parts of what is now northern and eastern Albania toward the end of the 12th century. In 1204, after Western crusaders sacked Constantinople, Venice won nominal control over Albania and the Epirus region of northern Greece and took possession of Durrës. A prince from the overthrown Byzantine ruling family, Michael Comnenus, made alliances with Albanian chiefs and drove the Venetians from lands that now make up southern Albania and northern Greece, and in 1204 he set up an independent principality, the Despotate of Epirus, with Ioannina in northwest Greece) as its capital. In 1272 the king of Naples, Charles I of Anjou, occupied Durrës and formed an Albanian kingdom that would last for a century. Internal power struggles further weakened the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, enabling Serbian most powerful medieval ruler, Stefan Dusan, to establish a short-lived empire that included all of Albania except Durrës.[1]

Principality of Arbanon

Arbanon was an autonomous principality that existed between the late 12th century and the 1250s. Throughout its existence, the principality was an autonomous dependency of its neighbouring powers, first Byzantium and, after the Fourth Crusade, Epirus, while it also maintained close relations with Serbia.[12] Arbanon extended over the modern districts of central Albania, with the capital at Kruja,[13] and it did not have direct access to the sea.[14] Progon was the first ruler, believed to have ruled in ca. 1190. He was succeeded by his sons Gjin (r. c. 1200–08) and Dimitri (r. 1208–16). After this dynasty, the principality came under Greek lord Gregory Kamonas[15] and then his son-in-law Golem.[16] Dimitri's widow, Serbian princess Komnena Nemanjić, had inherited the rule[17] and remarried Kamonas.[15] Arbanon declined after a rebellion against Nicaea in favour of Epirus in 1257–58.

Kingdom of Albania

Main article: Kingdom of Albania
Kingdom of Albania at its maximum extent

After the fall of the Principality of Arber in its territories and in territories captured by the Despotate of Epiros was created the Kingdom of Albania, which was established by Charles of Anjou. He took the title of King of Albania in February, 1272. The kingdom extended from Durazzo (modern Durrës) south along the coast to Cape Linguetta, with vaguely defined borders in the interior. A Byzantine counter-offensive soon ensued, which drove the Angevins out of the interior by 1281. The Sicilian Vespers further weakened the position of Charles, and the Kingdom was soon reduced by the Epirotes to a small area around Durrës. The Angevins held out here, however, until 1368, when the city was captured by Karl Thopia.

After the fall of the Principality of Arber in territories captured by the Despotate of Epirus, the Kingdom of Albania was established by Charles of Anjou. He took the title of King of Albania in February 1272. The kingdom extended from the region of Durrës (then known as Dyrrhachium) south along the coast to Butrint.After the failure of the Eighth Crusade, Charles of Anjou returned his attention to Albania. He began contacting local Albanian leaders through local catholic clergy. Two local catholic priests, namely John from Durrës and Nicola from Arbanon, acted as negotiators between Charles of Anjou and the local noblemen. During 1271 they made several trips between Albania and Italy eventually succeeding in their mission.[18]

On 21 February 1272, a delegation of Albanian noblemen and citizens from Durrës made their way to Charles' court. Charles signed a treaty with them and was proclaimed King of Albania "by common consent of the bishops, counts, barons, soldiers and citizens" promising to protect them and to honor the privileges they had from Byzantine Empire.[19] The treaty declared the union between the Kingdom of Albania (Latin: Regnum Albanie) with theKingdom of Sicily under King Charles of Anjou (Carolus I, dei gratia rex Siciliae et Albaniae).[18] He appointed Gazzo Chinardo as his Vicar-General and hoped to take up his expedition against Constantinople again. Throughout 1272 and 1273 he sent huge provisions to the towns of Durrës and Vlorë. This alarmed the Byzantine Emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos, who began sending letters to local Albanian nobles, trying to convince them to stop their support for Charles of Anjou and to switch sides.However the Albanian nobles placed their trust on Charles,who praised them for their loyalty.But Charles of Anjou imposed a military rule on Kingdom of Albania.

Throughout its existence the Kingdom saw armed conflict with the Byzantine empire.By 1282 the Angevins were weakened by the Sicilian Vespers but held control of the nominal parts of Albania and even recaptured some and held out until 1368 when the kingdom's territory was reduced to a small area in Durrës.Even before the city of Durrës was captured, it was landlocked by Karl Thopia's principality. Declaring himself as Angevin descendant, with the capture of Durrës in 1368 Karl Thopia created the Princedom of Albania.During its existence Catholicism saw rapid spread among the population which affected the society as well as the architecture of the Kingdom.A Western type of feudalism was introduced and it replaced the Byzantine Pronoia.

Albanian principalities

The 14th century and the beginning of the fifteenth century was the period in which, in Albania were created sovereign principalities, under Albanian noblemen. Those principalities were created between the fall of the Serbian Empire and the Ottoman invasion of Albania.

In the summer of 1358, Nikephoros II Orsini, the last despot of Epirus of the Orsini dynasty, fought against the Albanian chieftains in Acheloos, Acarnania. The Albanian chieftains won the war and they managed to create two new states in the southern territories of the Despotate of Epirus. Because a number of Albanian lords actively supported the successful Serbian campaign in Thessaly and Epirus, the Serbian Tsar granded them specific regions and offered them the Byzantine title of despotes in order to secure their loyalty.

The two Albanian lead states were: the first with its capital in Arta was under the Albanian nobleman Peter Losha, and the second, centered in Angelokastron, was ruled by Gjin Bua Shpata. After the death of Peter Losha in 1374, the Albanian despotates of Arta and Angelocastron were united under the rule of Despot Gjin Bua Shpata. The territory of this despotate was from the Corinth Gulf to Acheron River in the North, neighboring with the Principality of John Zenevisi, another state created in the area of the Despotate of Epirus.

From 1335 until 1432 in these parts of Albania were created four main principalities. The first of them was the Muzakaj Principality of Berat, created in 1335 in Berat and Myzeqe. The most powerful was the Princedom of Albania, formed after the disestablishment of Kingdom of Albania, by Karl Thopia. The principality changed hands between the Thopia dynasty and the Balsha dynasty, until 1392, when it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. When Skanderbeg liberated Kruja and reorganised the Principality of Kastrioti, the descendant of Gjergj Thopia, Andrea II Thopia, managed to regain control of the Princedom. Finally, it was united with other Albanian Principalities forming the League of Lezha in 1444. Another principality was that of Kastrioti, created by Gjon Kastrioti, and later captured by the Ottoman Empire. Finally it was liberated by the national hero of Albania, George Kastrioti Skanderbeg. The Principality of Dukagjini extended from the Malësia region to Pristina in Kosovo.[20]

League of Lezha

Main article: League of Lezha

Being under pressure by the Ottoman Empire, the Albanian Principalities, were united in a confederation, created in the Assembly of Lezha on 2 March 1444. The league was led by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg and after his death by Lekë Dukagjini. Skanderbeg organized a meeting of Albanian nobles, the Arianits, Dukagjins, Spani, Thopias, Muzakas, and the leaders of the free Albanian principalities from the high mountains, in the town of Lezhë, where the nobles agreed to fight together for mutual gain against the common Turkish enemy and they voted Skanderbeg as their suzerain chief. The League of Lezhë was a confederation and each principality kept its sovereignty. In the light of the modern geopolitical science, the League of Lezhë represented an attempt to form a state union. In fact, this was a federation of independent rulers who undertook the duty to follow a common foreign policy, to defend jointly their independence and recruiting their allied armed forces. Naturally, it all required a collective budget for covering the military expenditures and each family contributed their mite to the common funds of the League. At the same time, each clan kept its possessions, its autonomy in solving the internal problems of its own estate. The formation and functioning of the League, of which George Kastrioti was the supreme feudal lord or suzerain, was the most significant attempt to build up an all-Albanian resistance against the Ottoman occupation and, simultaneously, an effort to create, for the span of its short-lived functioning, of some sort of a unified Albanian state. Under Skanderbeg's command the Albanian forces marched east capturing the cities of Dibra and Ohrid. For 25 years, from 1443 – 1468, Skanderbeg's 10,000 men army marched through Ottoman territory winning victory after victory against the consistently larger and better supplied Ottoman forces. Threatened by Ottoman advances in their homeland, Hungary, and later Naples and Venice – their former enemy -, provided the financial backbone and support for Skanderbeg's army. On 14 May 1450, an Ottoman army, larger than any previous force encountered by Skanderbeg or his men, stormed and overwhelmed the castle of the city of Kruja. This city was particularly symbolic to Skanderbeg because he had been appointed suba of Kruja in 1438 by the Ottomans. The fighting lasted four months and over one thousand Albanians lost their lives while over 20,000 Ottomans died in battle.[21] Even so, the Ottoman forces were unable to capture the city and had no choice but to retreat before winter set in. In June 1446, Mehmed II, known as "the conqueror", led an army of 150,000 soldiers back to Kruja but failed to capture the castle. Skanderbeg's death in 1468 did not end the struggle for independence, and fighting continued until 1481, under Lekë Dukagjini, when the Albanian lands were forced to succumb to the Ottoman armies.

Medieval culture

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, Albanian urban society reached a high point of development. Foreign commerce flourished to such an extent that leading Albanian merchants had their own agencies in Venice, Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia), and Thessalonica (now Thessaloniki, Greece). The prosperity of the cities also stimulated the development of education and the arts. Albanian, however, was not the language used in schools, churches, and official government transactions. Instead, Greek and Latin, which had the powerful support of the state and the church, were the official languages of culture and literature. The new administrative system of the themes, or military provinces created by the Byzantine Empire, contributed to the eventual rise of feudalism in Albania, as peasant soldiers who served military lords became serfs on their landed estates. Among the leading families of the Albanian feudal nobility were the Topia, Balsha, Shpata, Muzaka, Araniti, Dukagjini, and Kastrioti. The first three of these rose to become rulers of principalities that were practically independent of Byzantium.


  1. 1 2 Raymond Zickel and Walter R. Iwaskiw, editors. (1994). ""The Barbarian Invasions and the Middle Ages," Albania: A Country Study". . Retrieved 9 April 2008. External link in |work= (help)
  2. Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 2.
  3. Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 3.
  4. Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 4.
  5. 1 2 Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 5.
  6. Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 6.
  7. Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 7.
  8. 1 2 3 Bogdanović 1986, ch. II, para. 8.
  9. Pritsak, Omeljan (1991). "Albanians". Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 1. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 52–53.
  10. The wars of the Balkan Peninsula: their medieval origins G - Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series Authors Alexandru Madgearu, Martin Gordon Editor Martin Gordon Translated by Alexandru Madgearu Edition illustrated Publisher Scarecrow Press, 2008 ISBN 0-8108-5846-0, ISBN 978-0-8108-5846-6 It was supposed that those Albanoi from 1042 were Normans from Sicily, called by an archaic name (the Albanoi were an independent tribe from Southern Italy). The following instance is indisputable. It comes from the same Attaliates, who wrote that the Albanians (Arbanitai) were involved in the 1078 rebellion of... p. 25
  11. Andreev, Yordan (1996). The Bulgarian Khans and Tsars (Balgarskite hanove i tsare, Българските ханове и царе). Abagar. p. 70. ISBN 954-427-216-X.
  12. Ducellier 1999, pp. 780–781, 786
  13. Frashëri 1964, p. 43.
  14. Ducellier 1999, p. 780.
  15. 1 2 Ducellier 1999, p. 786.
  16. Nicol 1986, p. 161.
  17. Nicol 1957, p. 48.
  18. 1 2 Prifti, Skënder. Historia e popullit shqiptar në katër vëllime (in Albanian). Albania. p. 207. ISBN 978-99927-1-622-9.
  19. Nicol, Donald M. (1984-01-01). The Despotate of Epiros 1267-1479: A Contribution to the History of Greece in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521261906.
  20. Sellers, Mortimer (15 April 2010). The Rule of Law in Comparative Perspective. Springer. p. 207. ISBN 978-90-481-3748-0. Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
  21. Jacques, Edwin (1995). Shqiptarët: Historia e popullit shqiptar nga lashtësia deri në ditët e sotme. Tirana: Trans. Edi Seferi. p. 207. ISBN 0-89950-932-0.


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