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Damned Jerina

Damned Jerina

The only thing people really remember in the folklore about the Despotess Jerina is that she was a terrible and horrifying woman.

She threw her lovers into the deep inner well of Maglič Fortress, near Kraljevo in Serbia. She threw children into the River Đetinja from the highest tower of the Užice Fortress. And she was responsible for the vast death toll of the construction of the Smederevo Fortress, built in only two years using forced labor from across Serbia and crippling taxes. If it wasn’t all her fault, after all, why would one of the towers be called Jerina’s Tower?

Jerina is considered so awful that she is associated with a Balkan Robin Hood legend from the time, of Starina Novak, who was a Serbian bandit who fought for the Serbs and Romanians against the Turks. Although Serbian poetry has them as fierce enemies, the two actually lived a century apart.

Jerina was born in Constantinople in 1400, a member of the Byzantine royalty. She married Đurađ Branković, who would go down in history as the last independent King (or Despot) of Serbia before the Ottoman conquest. And thanks to some very lucrative mining operations, the richest monarch in Europe at the time.

We don’t know much about Jerina’s marriage. We don’t know if she was happy, if she and her husband got along well, if she had actually wanted to marry him, or if she really murdered children. We don’t even know how many children she actually had. It’s rather unlikely she had enough lovers to throw into deep wells, though, as her husband died only two years before she did and Serbian royalty weren’t known for being forgiving of wives who took extra lovers on the side.

What we do know is that everyone hated her.

We also know that her sons Grgor and Stefan were blinded by the Ottomans in 1441 when the Ottomans accused them (probably accurately) of treason after being allowed to govern a province that the Ottomans had conquered from their father.

And we know that when Đurađ died in 1455, their youngest, and only “whole” son Lazar took over as despot, ignored Jerina’s prescribed regency, and revoked all her power. It was also rumored that he was very abusive toward his mother. He was so abusive that Jerina and her blind son Gregory fled to the court of their enemy, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. Gregory made it, but Jerina herself was captured by her by Lazar. Quickly after her capture, she became ill and died. Contemporary chroniclers say that Lazar poisoned her.

Jerina was not alone in being the foreign wife of Serbian royalty who became the focus of local hate, it was common enough to become a study included in literature and folklore classes. But Jerina is probably alone in being the foreign wife so hated that her name became a curse that carried through centuries: in some places the name Jerina is given to daughters to encourage the birth of sons and keep more daughters from being born.

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