Society of Serbian Letters (1841 - 1864)


Društvo srpske slovesnosti (Society of Serbian Letters), scientific and literary society, was founded in Belgrade on May 31, 1842 after the preparations initiated in September 1841. The idea came from the ranks of the Lycée professors and the official proposal to "establish a society of learned people corresponding to ones existing in other enlightened countries" was submitted to the Ministry of Education by Jovan Sterija Popović and Atanasije Nikolić. The proposers named the future society "Srbska akademija nauka" (Serbian Academy of Sciences) and prepared drafts of a constitution, operating procedures and a seal. The Ministry of Education forwarded the proposal to the Sovet (Council, the Government), offering its support to the initiative. The Sovet accepted all of the proposed, except for the name. It was suggested that the term Academy should not be used until "we witness its labours crowned with benefit and good fruit", and that it should be named the Society of Serbian Letters instead. On the basis of this modified proposal, on November 1, 1841 Prince Mihailo issued the Constitution and Organization in the form of a decree.

According to the Constitution, the Prince was to appoint the first full members, and these members would choose the others. Three membership categories were introduced: full, correspondent and honorary members. The first full members of the Society were Dimitrije Isailović, Stefan Marković, Jovan Stejić, Dimitrije Tirol, Sima Milutinović, Jovan Sterija Popović, Atanasije Nikolić and Isidor Stojanović. The Minister of Education was to be the president of the Society. At the first elective session, held on June 11, 1842, a total of 40 new members were chosen in all categories (8 full, 21 corresponding and 11 honorary). The corresponding members included Vuk Karadžić, Jan Kolar, Jovan Hadžić, Ljudevit Gaj, Pavle Josif Šafarik and Jernej Kopitar, while among the honorary members were Njegoš, Platon Atanacković and Sava Tekelija.

At the first official meeting of the SSL, primary goals of the Society were established. The main task was the lexical and grammatical study of the Serbian language, in order to provide the material for standardisation of the language. The second task was building up terminology in Serbian language for the sciences taught at the Lycée. Immediately upon its foundation, the Society adopted 35-letter alphabet as the Society’s official orthography. It was only much later that the Society broadened and diversified its scientific work and gradually built a program which brought it closer to the learned societies of other "enlightened countries". The political turmoil interrupted the fulfillment of the initial, modest program of the Society. Only three months after its formal inauguration, the Society’s patron, Prince Mihailo, was overthrown in a rebellion led by Toma Vučić-Perišić, resulting in the accession of Aleksandar Karađorđević to the Serbian throne.

The stimulus for renewing the work of the Society was given by Jovan Sterija Popović in the summer of 1844. In 1845 the new Prince accepted to be the Society’s patron. The new Constitution and Organization were prepared at the same time, although the Prince’s decree concerning the Constitution wasn’t issued until May 1847. The new Constitution established as the main tasks of the Society to "perfect the Serbian vernacular language and teach the sciences in the Serbian language". At first, work was concentrated on creating and standardising scientific terms, expanding and enriching the vocabulary of the vernacular language, so it could be used in various fields of science. The work on the terminological dictionary was soon abandoned, partly because of its failure to gain acceptance in the scientific community, but mostly because Vuk Karadžić opposed the Society's normative activities.

After that, the Society focused on Serbian history and culture (documents, money, customs and artefacts as well as discussions of events and biographies of famous Serbs), Serbian geography (descriptions of regions, travel reports) and nature studies (the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms). Members of the Society published the results of their work in Glasnik DSS (The Herald of the Society of Serbian Letters) first published in 1846 and in separate books either published, or recommended for publishing by the Society. The recommended works were printed at the government's expense.

In 1849, division into five departments was introduced and implemented the following year: 1. linguistics or philology, 2. history, 3. philosophy, 4. law and 5. nature.

In December 1858, Prince Aleksandar Karađorđević was overthrown and the Obrenović dynasty returned to power. The political turmoil provided an opportunity for young intellectuals who had been educated abroad and who wished to implement in Serbia popular political ideas of the time. Since the absolutist regime of Princes Miloš and then Mihailo did not allow liberal political activity, the liberals focused their attention to transforming the Society of Serbian Letters in the spirit of their ideals and making it a progressive force, which would change the conditions in Serbia. The Society, presided by the Minister of Education and financed by the state budget, came under the influence of the liberals, who criticized the regime and the general underdevelopment of the Principality. Minister Kosta Cukić, the President of the Society, formulated changes to the Constitution, which would reduce the influence of the radical group. The meeting of January 26, 1864 was particularly tumultuous since the liberals proposed well-known revolutionaries and democrats of the time as corresponding and honorary members (Garibaldi, Deak, Černiševski, etc). The session was interrupted and the Society was suspended the next day, January 27, 1864. The leaders of the liberal movement were penalized: Vladimir Jovanović by being dismissed from his job, while Alimpije Vasiljević and Stojan Veljković were transferred to the interior.

All the dates in this text are given according to the existing official calendar of the time, which was, up until July 14, 1919, the Julian calendar and from that date onwards the Gregorian calendar.

List of abbreviations:

SSL – Society of Serbian Letters
SLS – Serbian Learned Society
SRA – Serbian Royal Academy
DSS – Društvo srpske slovesnosti (Society of Serbian Letters)
SUD – Srpsko učeno društvo (Serbian Learned Society)
SKA – Srpska kraljevska akademija (Serbian Royal Academy)