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Albania’s National Hero, Scanderbeg: A Legendary Military Strategist

(The following is a post by Grant G. Harris, chief, and Taru Spiegel, reference specialist, European Division. Based on papers presented by Grant G. Harris in 2018.)

As the Ottoman Empire expanded into Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, the religious differences between the Islamic Ottomans and the Christian Europeans, and shifting political alliances, made for turbulent times in the Balkans. The European powers found comfort in the example of the Albanian hero Scanderbeg, who successfully resisted the Ottoman forces for a quarter of a century. Scanderbeg’s extraordinary military daring has been commemorated in poetry and prose for six centuries.

Areas known to Scanderbeg. Detail from “Estats de l’empire dv Grand Seignevr des Tvrqs ou Svltan des Ottomans en Asie, en Afriqve, et en Evrope” (Estates of the empire of the Great Lord of the Turks or Sultan of the Ottomans in Asia, Africa, and Europe), 1654. Arrows indicate Albania and Constantinople (Istanbul), www.loc.gov/item/2017586287?loclr=blogint.

George Castrioti, later known as Scanderbeg, was born in 1405, into a noble family in Krujë, 20 miles north of Tirana, Albania. When George was about 18, his father, John Castrioti, the local leader, was obligated to send George as a hostage to train and serve with the Ottoman army. George excelled in military affairs and stayed with the Ottoman forces for 20 years, becoming a regional ruler, or a bey. George’s fighting skill was compared to that of Alexander the Great (Iskander), hence he was called “Iskander bey,” or Scanderbeg (also spelled Skanderbeg).

Scanderbeg’s two-headed eagle emblem. Detail from “Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi,” ca. 1508-10, www.wdl.org/en/item/12052?loclr=blogint.

Around 1443, not long after his father’s death, Scanderbeg left the Ottoman army and reclaimed his father’s land. He abandoned Islam as well, and reverted to Christianity. For much of the next 25 years, until his death from illness in 1468, he fought victoriously, mostly by way of guerilla warfare in mountainous regions near Krujë, against superior Ottoman forces, and was greatly appreciated by the Vatican, as well as by other Christian allies in Europe, for holding off Ottoman advances through Albania toward the rest of Europe.

Because the story of Scanderbeg strongly resonated with the anti-Ottoman Europeans, books about him began appearing some 40 years after his death. The first work about him was published in Rome around 1508-10, written in Latin by an Albanian named Marinus Barletius (Barleti), a young Roman Catholic priest from Shkodër. According to bishop and statesman Fan Noli (1882-1965), Barletius, who was a young man when Scanderbeg died, personally knew many of the hero’s comrades. However, Barletius’s book, “Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi” (A history of the life and deeds of Scanderbeg), like many biographies written during that era, heaped indiscriminate praise upon the subject, creating a legend. The work includes exaggerations, chronological errors, invented deeds, speeches, and letters. Nonetheless, the biography by Barletius has formed the basis of many translations and other works about Scanderbeg up to the present time.

Title page of the Latin “Historia de Vita et Gestis Scanderbegi” (A history of the life and deeds of Scanderbeg), printed ca. 1508-10.

The portrait of Scanderbeg is from the same digitized copy. World Digital Library, www.wdl.org/en/item/12052?loclr=blogint, World Digital Library.

The Library of Congress possesses two early Barletius editions, one possibly dating to 1520, //lccn.loc.gov/49032050?loclr=blogint, and another, from 1537, //lccn.loc.gov/45027439?loclr=blogint. The Library also has a 1541 volume published by the prestigious Aldine printing house in Venice, //lccn.loc.gov/45044727?loclr=blogint, with information about Scanderbeg from the work of two Italian scholars of Turkish history, Paulo (Paolo) Giovio and Andrea Gambini.

Throughout the 16th century, books about Scanderbeg, especially translations of Barletius, were written in French, English, German, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and other languages, as the name Scanderbeg became a rallying point for Europe in opposition to Ottoman incursions. In France, Barletius was translated by Jacques de Lavardin (active 1575-85), who added other materials (sometimes questionably) as well as a sonnet about Scanderbeg by the illustrious poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85). This French version, printed in 1576, appeared in English translation 20 years later. Instead of Ronsard’s French sonnet, the English version included a sonnet by the English poet Edmund Spenser (1552-99). This volume also contains a saying common in 17th-century England, “Scanderbeg’s sword must have Scanderbeg’s arm.” It was falsely believed that Scanderbeg sent Sultan Mehmed II a sword that no one in the Sultan’s court could lift. When Scanderbeg was accused of bad faith, he replied that the sword also needed the appropriate hand and arm to wield it.

“The Historie of Georges Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albanie,” //lccn.loc.gov/05008210?loclr=blogint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several plays and operas about Scanderbeg appeared in the first half of the 18th century. In England, three plays written in the 1730s had Scanderbeg rescuing a young woman from the Ottomans. This provided romantic interest for the audience, with the woman symbolizing the country for which Scanderbeg was fighting. That same plot element appears a century later, in an 1833 historical romance novel by the future British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), titled “The Rise of Iskander.”

Details from “The Rise of Iskander” in vol. 4 of “The Works of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, Embracing Novels, Romances, Plays, Poems, Biography, Short Stories and Great Speeches…,” 1904-05, //lccn.loc.gov/05000593?loclr=blogint. Iskander is the young man on the left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) opera “Scanderbeg,” was first performed in Florence, in 1718. In France, an opera with music by two esteemed composers, François Francoeur (1698-1787) and François Rebel (1701-75), premiered in 1735.

Fascinatingly, Scanderbeg’s story eventually made its way to Iceland. It did so by way of Denmark, where it first appeared in Danish in 1709, followed by a more substantive description in 1739 by the Danish playwright and historian Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), in his work “Adskillige store Heltes og berømmelige Mænds, sær Orientalske og Indianske, sammenlignende Historier og Bedrifter efter Plutarchi Maade” (The comparative histories and achievements of several great heroes and famous men, particular oriental and Indian, in the manner of Plutarch), //lccn.loc.gov/30020431?loclr=blogint.

Holberg’s Danish text was transformed into Icelandic and then given traditional features of a saga. Thirteen 19th-century manuscripts created in Iceland concern “Sagan af Skanderbeg” (The saga of Scanderbeg).

In the United States, Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), better known for his popular “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” published a book in 1850 called “George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania, //lccn.loc.gov/14000096?loclr=blogint. In 1873, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) published a poem titled “Scanderbeg” in “The Atlantic Monthly.” It was part of Longfellow’s larger work of interlocking stories under the title “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” published in three volumes 1863-73, //lccn.loc.gov/06046546?loclr=blogint. In it he mentions the two-headed eagle of Scanderbeg’s crest. This emblem is found today on the flag of Albania.

Snippet from “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” published in three volumes 1863-73, refers to the black eagle now on the Albanian flag, //lccn.loc.gov/06046546?loclr=blogint.

Several editions of the novel, “The Captain of the Janizaries,” //lccn.loc.gov/07014741?loclr=blogint, by Presbyterian clergyman James Meeker Ludlow (1841-1932), appeared in the late 1800s. The plot centers on two young brothers, one of whom grows up fighting with Scanderbeg, while the other is captured at a young age by the Ottomans and becomes a talented leader for Sultan Mehmed II.

“The Captain of the Janizaries,” by James Meeker Ludlow, //lccn.loc.gov/07014741?loclr=blogint.

In 1930, the Irish poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972) published a poem called “Scanderbeg” to critical acclaim. Mr. Colum was invited to the Library of Congress in 1959 and read his poem to a large audience. The setting is his native Ireland, where a young man imagines the time of Scanderbeg, relating it to times of armed conflict in Ireland, when the English crossed the Shannon River to overcome the Irish near the village of Aughrim, sound tape reel //lccn.loc.gov/93843042?loclr=blogint.

A number of scholarly works continue to be published about Scanderbeg, with attempts to separate fact from fiction. Bishop Fan Noli was in the vanguard with his 1947 work on this remarkable hero, “George Castrioti Scanderbeg (1405-1468),” //lccn.loc.gov/a48009989?loclr=blogint. Titles about Scanderbeg are searchable in the Library of Congress catalog, //catalog.loc.gov?loclr=blogint.

For additional information, please contact the European Division of the Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-european.html?loclr=blogint.

4 Comments

  1. Jason Yasner
    April 15, 2019 at 9:57 am

    G√ęzuar, Scanderbeg!

  2. Merita B.
    April 16, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    Thank you very much for this well researched, well written and enlightening article. I enjoyed reading it and am sharing it with others. Gjergj Kastrioti (Scanderbeg) is very much loved and revered in Albania, but as centuries passed, the world may have forgotten about him and his deeds. Albanians during communist times were not taught the whole truth about him either, so this article, which is very good and unbiased, brings info and facts seen under a new light, deserving respect and attention. The article sheds light not only on his life and his deeds, but also on early original writings and translations about him, looks into the art about Gjergj Kastrioti, including operas written in his honor and more, all important information that needs to be examined and learnt from. Grateful to both authors for this blogpost.

  3. Sara Capaliku
    May 7, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this article. So many things I didn’t know about our National Hero, as an Albanian. Loved it!

  4. Evi S.
    May 8, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    Well written, researched and presented paper. It is no wonder George Castrioti inspired so many artists for hundreds of years after his death. He embodies the renaissance hero: a human performing superhuman deeds. A man rejecting a pedantic hierarchical court in pursuit of his destiny. It is not surprising that the stories told about him are embellished. I suspect, rigorous fact checking was not a common practice then. Grateful for articles such as this that separate fact from fiction and allow the real historical figure to be studied and understood.

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