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Late Middle Ages

E shtune, 07.07.2007, 08:14 PM


The first historical mention of Albania and the Albanians as such appears in an account of the resistance by a Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, to an offensive by the Vatican-backed Normans from southern Italy into the Albanian-populated lands in 1081. In the same year, the weakness of the Byzantine empire let northern Albania slip under Serbian control.

The ports of Albania remained a valuable prize for several rival nations. The Normans, who ruled a kingdom in southern Italy, conquered Durrës in 1081. The Byzantine reconquest of 1083 required the help of Venice, which soon gained commercial privileges in Albanian towns as a reward. This wealthy trading city in northern Italy built fortresses and trading posts in Albania's lowlands to bolster its power. The Normans returned in 1107 and again in 1185 but were quickly expelled.

Again during the late medieval period, invaders ravaged the Illyrian-inhabited regions of the Balkans. Norman, Venetian, and Byzantine fleets attacked by sea. Bulgar, Serb, and Byzantine forces came overland and held the region in their grip for years. Clashes between rival clans and intrusions by the Serbs produced hardship that triggered an exodus from the region southward into Greece, including Thessaly, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands.

Divided into warring clans, the Albanians were unable to prevent the occupation of their country by outsiders. The Serbs occupied parts of northern and eastern Albania toward the end of the twelfth century and conquered Shkodër in the 1180s. In 1204, after Western crusaders sacked Constantinople, Venice won nominal control over central and southern 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 Byzantine principality, the Despotate of Epirus, with Janina (now Ioannina) as its capital. His successor, Theodore, conciliated the Albanian chiefs in 1216, repulsed an attack on Durrës in 1217 by western Crusaders and Venetian ships, and turned his armies eastward before being defeated in 1230 by the revived Bulgarian Empire of Ivan Asen II.

A restored Byzantine Empire smashed Bulgaria in 1246 and pushed to the north Albanian coast, where the Albanian tribes were briefly weaned away from their alliance with the Despotate of Epirus. The Byzantines gained Durrës in 1256 but lost it in 1257 to Manfred, king of the Two Sicilies, who also acquired Vlorë and Berat in 1268. In 1272 his successor, Charles I of Anjou, the ruler of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, attacked from his base in southern Italy. Charles conquered Durrës and much of central Albania; he called his new domain the Albanian kingdom that would last until 1336.

Internal power struggles further weakened the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, and by this time Serbia, a realm to the northeast, had already established a dynasty at Shkodër to take control of northern Albania. In the mid-1300s, Stefan Dušan, a powerful Serbian prince, conquered much of the western Balkans, including all of Albania except Durrës. Dušan drew up a legal code for his realm and crowned himself "Emperor of the Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Albanians." But in 1355, while leading an attack against Constantinople, Dušan suddenly died. His empire quickly broke apart, and his lands were divided among Serb and Albanian noblemen. Strong families came to the fore, especially the Balshas in the north and the Thopias in the center. Southern Albania fell to a Serbian chieftain, Thomas Preliubovich, in 1367. He was succeeded in 1385 by a Florentine noble.

The constant warfare in Albania caused poverty and deadly famines. Beginning in the 14th century, many Albanians left their troubled homeland and migrated southward into the mountains of Epirus and to the cities and islands of Greece. Albanian exiles also built communities in southern Italy and on the island of Sicily.



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