The term Vlah is from Old Slavonic, believed to share a common root with volkh, volkhov (magician, magus) and the pagan deity Volos, Veles (ancient slavic deity, protector of Livestock). The volkhov connection may seem strange, but it is proposed that the word was also used to designate the unknown, or strangers. This could arise from the distinctly different Vlach language which would have been unintelligible to the Slavs, or from the mystical ritual folk life of Vlasi (pl). The Vlachs were overwhelmingly pastoralists, and their lifestyle so closely tied to their flocks and herds that the etymology from Volos or Veles may have some basis there. With the adoption of Christianity, St. Blaise (Sv. Vlasije, Sv. Vlaho) took on the role of Veles, and is considered patron of domestic animals.
This term didn’t always designate ethnic origin; vlah could simply mean herdsman or shepherd, just like grk could mean cook (not just Greek) or ćivut meant merchant (not just Jew, from Turkish Yehud). We can add to this the usage of Vlah in Dalmatia, where it used to indicate a mainlander or someone from inland, beyond Dalmatia; and in Bosnia, where the Muslim usage indicates any Christian. Oddly, Croatians also use the term Vlach as a pejorative for Serbs, even though to Serbs this is not considered offensive. This is not to say that there aren’t negative stereotypes about Vlasi among the Serbs (they are sometimes seen as hicks or hayseeds, of lower social status, or excessively superstitious) but they are for the most part seen positively, as clever, good humoured, and quick-witted. Moreover, many Serbs in Lika, Dalmatia, and Northwestern Bosnia know with some certainty that their distant ancestors were in fact assimilated Vlasi. The use of –ul or -as in Serbian surnames is a definite Vlach remnant: Rašula, Drakulić, Krstulović, Rakas, Matas, Vujasinović, etc.
The migratory lifestyle of medieval Vlasi led to their dispersal not only within the central and western Balkans but also south to Epirus, East to Moldova and Ukraine, and as far north as Slovakia and Moravia. To this day, the distant descendants of the Moravian Vlasi can be found in a territory roughly defined by the cities of Brno, Zlin, Olomouc, and Ostrava. They call themselves Valašsi, and tell an interesting origin story. Their beginnings, the story goes, are in Serbia. Three brothers, perhaps Vlasi, sought their fortunes further north, founding the Vlach Czech population, the Polish Gòral population, and the Sorbs or Lusatian Serbs. (This is their specific version of a widely known Slavic tale explaining the origins of Western and Eastern Slavs). Besides numerous derived or identical toponyms (Trnava, Dobroslavci, Moravian Kòstelec vs Kostòlac in Serbia; Morava rivers in both lands; towns called Srbsko, Srbska, Srbce near Ostrava and Brno) and a few elements in structure of costume (especially topanci, similar to our prešnjak style of opanci) the Valašsi are effectively assimilated and fully identify as Czech, not unlike many Serbian Vlasi who identify fully as Serbian with Vlach as an additional identifier.
In areas where Serbs traditionally lived, Vlach toponyms fall into two categories: those of Latin origin, really a remnant from Romans and Dacians, and those using the word Vlah itself. Any toponym with Vlah, Vlaško, Vlaški, is linguistically Serbian and may reflect the medieval usage of Vlach, meaning the nomadic pastoralists Vlasi, their descendants These toponyms abound throughout the lands inhabited by Serbs, and interestingly tend to be associated with pastoral life: Stari Vlah, Vlaški Do, Vlaško Polje, Vlaške vode, Vlaške Njive, Vlaškovo. The former category of toponyms does demonstrate that the Vlasi are descendants of a very old, established population: Aldinac, from Aldanes; Zlot, from Sglat; Bračin from Braci, etc.
Vlach origins have been studied and debated, often with extreme political or cultural bias, for more than a century now. It can be frustrating to the uninitiated to do any reading on the topic, because far too often any book or article not only takes a standpoint, but also tries to demonstrate why opposing views are wrong or misguided. Having said that, there are three general theories to explain where the Vlasi came from.
The ‘Assimilation among the Barbarians’ theory proposes that the ancient Latin speaking populations of the Balkans were displaced as Slavic tribes migrated west and southward. Late Byzantine chronicler Laonikos Chalkokondyles speaks of the Vlachs as being “a people who live from Dacia to the Pindus mountains and Thessaly, calling themselves Vlach (Vlachoi). I cannot explain which group came from which. Some believe that they are former Goths who lived on mount Hemus (Stara Planina), and who when attacked by the Scythians (Slavs) came to these areas. Others consider them to be Dacians. I cannot say with certainty”. Chalkokondyles focuses on the Vlach – Aromani populations of the southern Balkans, as they would have been the population with which he would have had most direct contact. On the territories of what are today Serbia and Bulgaria, these populations fled to fortified cities, or to mountain garrisons and hideaways, often as refugees. Isolated there, they preserved their language and culture for some time, but the inevitable necessity of contact with the barbarian Slavs led to linguistic and cultural transformation and assimilation. Pantelić and Draškić call this a “Thracian-Slavic Symbiosis”, which is certainly supported from a linguistic point of view, especially in the broader context of northern Vlasi and southern Aromani.
‘Always here, with internal migrations’ is an extension of the assimilation theory. Draškić and Pantelić proceed from the point of view that an established Vlach population shifted internally over the centuries, through partial nomadism and working afar (pečalbarstvo), mainly to Romania (Vlaška). They studied Resava district specifically because it is a diverse region. In trying to interpolate from Ottoman census data they encountered some difficulty as the Vlasi are not specifically treated as an ethnicity. They explain that this is because “both officially and personally, with very few exceptions, and supported by our own fieldwork [conducted in 1964 – A.S.] feel that they are of Serbian nationality, even though they know that their home language and cultural aspects, such as dress, separate them from other Serbs of the district”. Their research does support that Vlach populations shifted frequently, on their own in the Medieval period, or deliberately resettled by the Ottoman Turks, within this wedge of northeastern Serbia.
Over a somewhat wider geographic scope, there are the ‘Immigration/Migration/Return’ origins proposed by Tihomir Djordjević, Herman Vuylsteke and others. These are more than just theories, because they can be supported by concrete historical records of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when populations of Romanian dialect speakers moved or were resettled from Banat (then, part of the Kingdom of Hungary) and Oltenia province of Romania (Wallachia). The former gave rise to today’s Ungurjani and the later to Carani (pronounced Tsarani). An added factor to this is that among these people were the descendants of Serbs who fled the Turks in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in order to live in Banat, Oltenia, Muntenia etc. and became partially assimilated. Vuylsteke says,
“Vlasi have little or nothing in common with the inhabitants of Southern Romania (Oltenia and Muntenia). Originally Slav speaking, they were forced to leave their native land in the 15th or 16th centuries and emigrated either to Oltenia or into the mountains of the present day district of Caras-Severin. When the situation in the Krajina, the militarized border zone, improved they returned in successive waves to their old homelands in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, during their exile they had adopted the Rumanian (sic) language as well as some of the customs and certain musical features of their hosts”.
To put it in context, the original 15th and 16th century migrations came at time of wider migrations among all Balkan Slavs, and even the Aromani, who came into our lands after the fall of their Epirote centre of identity, Moschopolis or Moskopolje. The later returns were a smaller phenomenon.
It is very interesting to see that today, where there is a fringe element of Vlach politicians and scholars who are trying to promulgate the view of Vlachs as purely Romanian. The government of Romania certainly likes this, and is backing them, as is the Romanian Orthodox Church, which has un-canonically established parishes in the Negotin and Bor districts. This isn’t new for official Romania; for decades they have sent Romanian language textbooks to Vlach populations in Macedonia and Greece, who react to them with mixed emotions, too. This faction sorely rejects that there is any chance that any of the Vlachs from this time period were at any point Serbs or other Slavs. Slavoljub Gacović is among them, accusing Djordjevic of having political motives. So, essentially, like Gacović, but not to his liking.
I would counter any claims of suppression etc. because frankly most Serbian Vlasi have the sentiment of being as Serbian as they are Vlach. Many resent being called Romanian, and refute claims that they have been somehow kept out of positions of advancement or even power. If there were any sort of official policy regarding that, how would one explain the Southern Vlasi, the Aromani – Cincari, and their impressively successful rise in the emerging society of liberated Serbia in the 19th century, their continued presence in academia, literature, the arts, law, business and politics of 20th century Serbia and later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia? With the advent of Socialist Yugoslavia, it can’t be argued that they were oppressed any more than any Serbs were; their regions of Eastern Serbia were as economically neglected as Kosovo, Macedonia or Southern Serbia were. With the possible exception of mining at Bor (coming with the steep price of severe environmental pollution and ecological damage) and the construction of the Đerdap hydroelectric dam, nothing in SFRY benefitted the average citizen of northeastern Serbia, whether Vlach or Serb. So, like the Serbs did, Vlasi went to Austria and Germany in droves to be guest workers, investing their earnings in absurdly ostentatious homes in their native villages, which mainly sit empty all year. One acquaintance from Negotin, himself a Vlach, once said to me, “The only thing we Vlasi have achieved in doing this [foreign guest labour] is to turn away Vlach youth from our region”.
It wouldn’t be a Balkan story if it weren’t complicated. So, ancient roots? Yes. Migrations? Yes. Assimilations? Yes. Frankly, the presence of Vlachs (and Aromanians) among the Serbs can truly only be explained with a little bit of all of these factors.
Today, Vlasi are most concentrated in northeastern Serbia, bounded by the Danube to the north, Morava to the west, and with a southern border that goes roughly from the Morava, just south of Paraćin, eastward across Mount Rtanj, Boljevac, and Zaječar, with perhaps Vidin in Bulgaria completing this line. As you go from west to east, or south to north in this area, you are more likely to encounter entirely Vlach villages. The divisions of Ungurjani and Carani still exist, although today they have come to mean “highlander” for Ungurjani and “lowlander” for Carani. The former predominate in mountainous Homolje, Braničevo, Mlava, Zvižd, Resava districts; the latter, in the Timok valley, Danube valley, Negotin Krajina and Ključ. Linguistically, a transitional group, the Munćani, emerged as a result of the contact of the older two groups.
When considering the costumes of the Vlach population, we find that the two major groups show distinct differences. The Ungurjani have for the most part retained more archaic costume elements than the Carani, partly due to their relative isolation in mountains and partly due to their ancestry lying in an older wave of migration. As would be expected of the clothing of pastoralists, wool is the predominant fibre. Men wore clothing primarily of white klašnja, although winter garments were often brown. Most garments were similar in pattern to that of the oldest Serbian population (starinačko stanovništvo) with a few exceptions, such as the dolaktenik, a garment with short elbow-length sleeves. For women’s costume, the most recognizable element is probably the vlach apron, generally a smaller woven or later embroidered panel with lengthy wool fringe. It is this fringe that gives the aprons their Vlach name, šukure, or kicelj ku šukuri, fringed apron. The archaic Serbian costume of the region also had similar aprons, which were known as podkićene kecelje. Women’s costume is highly ornamented, while men’s is relatively plain, lacking the extensive braidwork of other Serbian men’s costumes.
The costume of Ungurjan Vlach women is fairly homogeneous throughout the districts of Vlach territory. Elements include:
Kimjaša, košulja – a hemp cloth shift or long shirt, distinguished from Serbian women’s costume mainly through distribution of embroidery and by having gathering at the collar and sleeves. It was sewn in two portions: the upper portion, šupag or ćupag, of bodice and sleeves, was attached to the lower portion consisting of several individual panels, polja. The collar (kolir, guljer) was sewn on after the bodice opening was gathered to measure. This type of gathered shirt is often referred to as the Carpathian type shirt, and appears in other Serbian costumes (Slavonija, Baranja, Mačva) as well as in many Romanian and northern Bulgarian costumes.
Kebe – an overdress, worn over the shift during winter.
Šištorli – a long narrow woven sash that binds the kimjaša and winds around the waist several times.
Kanica – a wide woven sash, generally more ornate than that worn by Serbian women; worn over the šištorli sash.
Kicelj ku šukuri, šukure; opreg, podkićena kecelja, podnita – all different names for a pair of aprons, front and back, with very long fringe in several colours; woven patterns are generally geometric, with some additional embroidery, while embroidered aprons tend to be floral or botanical.
Zavelka – a long woven and embroidered apron that is worn in place of the front šukure among Vlach women of Zvižd, Resava and some areas in the Homolje mountains; an influence from Serbian costume of these regions, and a transitional form overall.
Manjiš – a short vest worn in the summer, but sometimes omitted in work costume; worn such that part of the shift would show between sash and vest.
Zubun, zabun – an open vest with wool applique and braid decoration
Šuba, ajna, gunj – sleeved coats reaching to the knee, made of klašnja, worn in winter.
Šapca, kapa – an embroidered hemp or linen cloth cap, often worn over a form (konđa, plećer) to give it height and a bicornuate appearance. The horned cap is an ancient Slavic element.
Konđa, k’lčiš – headdress support made from willow twigs padded with raw wool and covered in cloth; worn to heighten the kerchief, with or without a cap, and heighten ornamentation.
Propoda, Peškir, Marama – long, broad kerchiefs worn over the cap by married women.
Panglika, pantljika – an embroidered band worn generally by unmarried women, to keep the šapca in place.
Šoreš, kalconj, kalcuni – heavier stockings sewn from wool klašnja, tied under the knee by wool thongs; šoreš are white klašnja and longer or reach higher, while kalconj are shorter and of dark cloth.
Obelj, obojci – strips of cloth wound around the calf, over the stockings, generally in winter or during tasks such as haymaking or shearing.
Opanci, opink – rawhide open footwear of the prešnjak type.
The habit of wearing double aprons, front and back, is typical of archaic east Balkan costumes. It was common in many Serbian, Bulgarian, and Romanian costumes, with the general trend of the more ornate one being front and less ornate being back. Vlach costume was no exception. Probably the most recognizable element of the clothing worn by Ungurjanke would by far be the šukure. They are unique in that they are relatively short (sometimes no more than 20 cm wide) but are decorated with very long fringe along the bottom and/or side edges. This was a common element among the costume of Romanian women in Banat up until the late nineteenth century, when it was gradually replaced by dual aprons or the wraparound skirt called fota. Moreover, the ancient roots of this style of apron is seen in comparable garments in nearby regions: the rep or rese of Kosovo, the lizdek of Zmijanje, and the stražnja pregača in Kordun. It is found in cultures far to the east of the Balkans; for example, among the Mordvinians of the Urals in Russia, whose weaving designs are curiously similar to the geometric styles of Ungurjan šukure. These similarities in form, ornamentation and technique all indicate a long history and slow spread among the Slavs and their neighbours. In his detailed analysis of the back aprons of Southern Volga and Balkan cultures, Croatian ethnographer Milovan Gavazzi felt that this and additional archaeological evidence backed a single ancient origin; Bronze Age figures wear virtually identical back aprons, and even the discovery of surviving garments at Viking and Finno-Ugric sites make for strong evidence.
Carani Vlach women – Caranke – wore many similar essential elements, but plant fibres tended to be used more than wool. In some cases, identical elements might be worn in different ways, such as the caps and kerchiefs. Of the two groups’ costumes, that of the Carani has undergone greater change and influence through contact with Serbian costume. Much of this was after the first world war when even Serbian costume of these northeastern regions was being transformed through the spread of central Serbian costume. Ornamentation, as mentioned, tended to be inspired by nature and was mainly floral. Distinguishing garments unique to Vlajne Caranke include:
Košulja, Kamaša; bluza ćupag i podsuknja – older variants of the costume included the same type of long dress or shift as mentioned earlier, but under influence of pannonian costumes and western dress, this has been replaced by a separate blouse (ćupag) and skirt.
Suknja, sogna, namicaljka – long skirt with velvet trimmed hem, generally of material woven in two colours; entered Vlach costume mid 20th century through influence of central Serbian and Morava valley costume.
Fst’k, prestilka – front apron, very different from the short fringed ones of Ungurjanke; these are long, rectangular and generally embroidered with vertical floral designs.
Opreg – back apron, always longer than the front apron, but generally a contrasting colour to it and with less ornamentation.
krcan, krecan, vlnik – short gathered skirt, worn in place of one of the aprons, generally back but sometimes front.
Mesal – diadem shaped cap worn under a draped kerchief, giving a veil-like appearance; also worn by Serbian women in the distant past, and thought to be of medieval origin.
Kaica – a wool cloth cap with an upper brim, worn under a kerchief. (The same term designates a girls’ cap in areas around Pirot and Crna Trava, but looks entirely different)
Preveska, krpa – two types of kerchief worn with the mesal or kaica; the former covered the hair and the latter was longer and of finer quality and draped over the cap.
Kacavejka, kožok – a leather or sheepskin vest, with tanned leather and wool cloth applique ornaments; worn with the fleece turned inwards as a lining, but sewn so that some of the fleece shows as a type of trim or border.
Men’s costume among the Ungurjani and the Carani differs mainly in colour, the former being of mainly white klašnja and the latter of this and of dark brown sukno. There are certain differences in cut and pattern, such as the narrower trousers worn by Carani.
Kamaša – a long white linen or hemp shirt, worn untucked in the summer or tucked in during the winter.
Ćoreš, čakšire, brevenici – straight-cut trousers, generally more narrow than that worn by Ungurjan men; ćoreš are sewn from white cloth, while brevenici or čakšire are always of dark cloth.
Grudnjak, pjeptar – an open woollen cloth vest, unornamented other than braid along the edges.
Dolaktenik, zabun k mješ – a type of open coat with elbow-length sleeves and limited braid ornamentation along all of the edges, generally black and red; Ungurjan costume element.
Šuba, ajna, gunj – sleeveless winter garment worn for warmth during the winter.
Zubun, zabun – an open long vest worn over the aforementioned upper garments, more frequently worn in the Ungurjan costume, where it was retained much longer; sewn from white klašnja.
Kaiš, kurao – narrow leather belt worn to bind the trousers and upper garments.
Brašir, Kanica – woven woolen sash worn over the the kurao and to bind the zabun.
Čarape, Kalconje – socks, the former being knit from wool and the latter sewn from cloth
Obojci, obelj – strips of goatskin or lambskin wrapped around the calf during winter
Gluga – a hooded cape made from roughly woven mixed fibre, wool and goat hair; generally a winter or rain garment for shepherds.
Opanci, opink – the rawhide footwear worn throughout the region.
Kašula, ušanka – lamb or sheepskin hats of the šubara type; the kašula is a distinctly Vlach style, as it is round, with untrimmed long fleece; the ušanka is the pointed type worn throughout Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, often with flaps that could be pulled out to cover the ears in winter.
It is tough to find very old Vlah costume pieces, especially the šukure. They have been snapped up by museums and the large folklore ensembles in Serbia, and what can be found is often in terrible condition. I was thrilled to hear from a collector in Smederevska Palanka who had one in excellent condition, as well as three šapce – even rarer! Over a number of years, I acquired various pieces that allowed me to highlight the costumes shown below.
FOR FURTHER READING
Aranđelović-Lazić, Jelena. Mesalj – Kapa u obliku krune. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 30, 1967, Belgrade.
Aranđelović-Lazić, Jelena. Nošnja Vlaha Ungureana Krajem XIX i početkom XX veka. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 26, 1963, Belgrade.
Aranđelović-Lazić, Jelena. Narodna Nošnja u Negotinskoj Krajini – Vlaška Nošnja, pp. 278 – 296. Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 31/32, 1968-69, Belgrade.
Chalcocondyles, Laonicus, and Anthony Kaldellis. The Histories. Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, 2014.
Gacović Slavoljub. Kud Se dedoše Rumuni Tihomira Đorđevića: kritički Osvrt Na Knjigu Tihomira R. Đorđevića “Istina u Pogledu Rumuna u Srbiji” i Na Njen Pogovor priređivača Radomira D. Rakića “Tihomir R. Đorđević i Vlasi”. Matična Biblioteka “Svetozar Marković”, 2014.
Gavazzi, Milovan. Vrela i Sudbine Narodnih Tradicija: Kroz Prostore, Vremena i Ljude: etnološke Studije i Prilozi Iz Inozemnih Izdanja. Liber, 1978.
Draškić, N. Pantelić, Razmatranja o stanovništvu Resave. Glasnik Etnografskog muzeja, 28-29 1965-1966, 13-25.
Durlić, Paun. S., Sacred Language of the Vlach Bread. 2011 Balkankult, Belgrade.
Pijović, Marko. Nekoliko misli od mogućem podrijetlu termina Vlah. 2010 Studia Mythologica Slavica, vol. XIII, pp. 199 – 210
Sikimić, Biljana. Etnički stereotipi o Vlasima u Srbiji. 2002 Balkanološki Institut SANU, Belgrade.
Vlahović, Petar. Neke Etnološke Odrednice Vlaha Severoistočne Srbije. Zbornik Radova Muzeja Rudarstva i Metalurgije, vol. 1, pp. 103-111, Bor.
Vuylsteke, Herman C. Yougoslavie 1 (Serbie Orientale) Les Bougies du Paradis. Notes and Audio Recording. Harmonia Mundi, Radio France 1981. Paris.
Živančević, Vladimir. “Volos-Veles, Slav Divinity of Theriomorphic Origin.” Glasnik Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu, vol. 26, 1963, Belgrade.