Ecclesiastical works in Old Church Slavonic were produced in the Middle Ages. Under Turkish and later Austrian domination a large body of orally transmitted folk poetry of great richness developed. The remarkable 16th-century flowering of learning and literature in the Adriatic trading city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) was a reflection of the Italian Renaissance, spread by commercial contacts and by Slavic youths educated at Padua. It reached its apogee in Osman, the Croatian epic by Ivan Gundulić, and in the plays of Marin DrŽić (1508?-1567) and Junije Palmotić (1606-57).
Literature suffered a decline in the 18th cent., when Dubrovnik's political independence was crushed, and a general imitation of foreign writings took hold. However, the writing of history and biography was gaining prominence. Academies flourished, and the epic poems of the academician Ignat Dordić (1675-1737) were notable. The first national bard, Anora Kačić Miošić (1702-60), wrote his poems in ballad and folk style, while the moralist-philosopher Dositej Obradović (1742-1811) introduced fable writing into Yugoslav literature.
The southern Slavs experienced the general European nationalist upsurge in the late 18th and early 19th cent. In Slovenia this nationalism, which received much of its impetus from Germany, was weakened by a conflict between religious and secular writers. In Croatia the writers looked to Italy for inspiration; in Serbia, to Russia. South Slavic intellectuals responded with enthusiasm to the Pan-Slavism of the Slovak Jan Kollár.
Among the Croatians a cultural movement known as Illyrianism (named after the state established by Napoleon after the defeat of Austria at Wagram in 1809) acted as a stimulant to literature. Illyrianism was suffused with romanticism and nationalism; the latter theme expressed itself throughout the 19th cent. partly in terms of antagonism to Austro-Hungarian rule. An effort at a popular, integrated literature was inaugurated by three early romantic leaders—the Croat Ljudevit Gaj (1809-72), the Slovene Jernej Kopitar (1780-1844), and the Serb Vuk Stefanović KaradŽić. They developed a literary language based on popular speech. KaradŽić was also a great folklorist; his collections helped stimulate the romantic-nationalist movement.
Benefiting from these beginnings, by mid-century the Serbian lyric poet Branko Radičević (1824-53), the Slovene poet and political satirist Stanko Vraz (1810-51), and the Croatian Ivan MaŽuranić (1814-90)—whose epic The Death of Smail-Aga (1846, tr. 1918) tells of Christian-Muslim conflict in Turkish-ruled Herzegovina—had made important contributions to the movement. More technically perfect were the poems of France Prešeren (1800-1849), a disciple of Byron, and Petar Preradović, who cultivated medieval traditions. Considered far superior was the prince-bishop Petar Petrović Njegoš (1813-51), whose verse drama The Mountain Wreath (1847, tr. 1930) earned him the designation of the Montenegrin Shakespeare. Later romanticism is represented by Djura Jaksić (1832-78), writer of heroic, nationalistic dramas and poems, and Jovan Jovanović-Zmaj (1833-1903), a lyrical poet.
The rise of realism in the latter part of the 19th cent. furthered the development of the novel by such writers as the Serbs Simo Matavulj (1852-1908) and Jakov Ignatović (1824-88), whose penetrating studies portrayed the varied social classes of his region. Also important were the Croatian Evgenij Kumičić (1850-1904); and the Slovenes Josip Stritar (1836-1925) and Josip Jurcić (1844-81), both of whom portrayed Slovene society.
Many novelists of the period also wrote poetry and drama. Outstanding for versatility and abundant production were the popular Croatian writer August Šenoa (1838-81), who revealed Croat social decay and criticized German influence, and the greatest of all Slovenian writers, Ivan Cankar (1876-1918). The late 19th cent. also saw a growing interest in the psychology of motives and morals—a trend chiefly inspired by the writings of the Russian novelists Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. The best known of the psychological novelists was the Croatian Ksaver Šandor Gjalski (1854-1935), who in a series of some 20 novels depicted the whole range of contemporary Croatian life.
In the drama, historical themes had predominated, as in the works of the Croatian Ivo Vojnović (1857-1929). In Croatia and in Slovenia dramatists broke with the cult of history and concerned themselves with psychology. Among these writers are the Croatians Milan Begović (1876-1948) and Josip Kosor and the Slovenian Anton Medved (1869-1911). Serbian drama, however, long remained primarily romantic in the manner of its founder Jovan Sterija-Popović (1806-56), although contemporary problems were treated in the comedies of Branislav Nusić (1864-1938), who was also a noted novelist, story writer, and essayist.
During the first quarter of the 20th cent. the modernists sought to assimilate literary trends imported from France and Germany. Anton Aškerc (1856-1912) wrote historical poems of social revolt, while Vojislav Ilić (1862-94), Aleksa Santić (1868-1924), and Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević (1865-1908) were influenced by the Parnassians. The symbolists numbered not only the Serbs Jovan Dučić (1874-1943) and Milan Rakić (1876-1938), but also Oton Župančić (1878-1949), the greatest Slovene poet of this century, and Vladimir Nazor (1876-1949), Croatia's 20th-century literary giant. Outstanding critics were the Serbs Bogdan Popović (1863-1944) and Jovan Skerlić (1877-1914) and the Croatian Milan Marjanović (1879-1955).
During the 1930s socially conscious literature with local-color settings predominated. The Serbs Jovan Popović (1903-52) and Cedomir Minderović were among the more successful writers of this period. In Slovenia the epic novel flourished under such writers as Jus Kozak, Anton Ingolić, and Prezihov Voranc.
World War II produced a number of partisan poets, and war themes predominated in postwar writing. After 1944 when Macedonian was recognized as one of the official languages of Yugoslavia, writers sought to develop a literature based on Macedonia's rich folk heritage. Although the Communist regime imposed severe restrictions on writers, freedom from Soviet influence after 1949 and the cultural independence of several regions resulted in some innovation.
Among notable postwar writers have been Mladen Horvat; Marko Ristić; the Serbian poets Miloš Crnjanski and Rastko Petrović; the Macedonian poet Koca Racin; the Bosnian novelist and poet Ivo Andrić, who was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature; the Croatian poet and dramatist Miroslav KrleŽa; the Slovenian prose writer France Bek; the fabulist Miodrag Bulatović; the political writer Milovan Djilas; and the Serbian novelist Borislav Pekic. With the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the early 1990s and the collapse of the effort (begun in 1918) to form a unified South Slavic nation, the differences between the major South Slavic literatures are likely to widen. Indeed, nationalists now speak of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian languages and have undertaken to "purify" them.
See A. Barac, A History of Yugoslav Literature (tr. 1955); S. Lukić, Contemporary Yugoslav Literature (1968, tr. 1972); anthologies edited by M. Matejic and D. Milivojevic (1978), T. Butler (1980), and C. Zlobec and H. Glusic (1980); E. Osers, tr., Contemporary Macedonian Poetry (1991).