‘He’s just a common man, working hard with his hands, he’s just a common man working hard for the man’. Okay, so those are the lyrics to the entrance music Dusty Rhodes used in his ill-fated stint in the World Wrestling Federation, but everyone loves a working-class man done good. The first Ban (local ruler, basically) of Croatia was chosen in the 10th century, but you’ve got to run all the way to the last third of the 19th century to find the first Croatian Ban chosen from outside the nobility. He also happened to be one of the finest writers of the Illyrian Movement. His name was Ivan Mažuranić.
Mažuranić was born in the northern Croatian town of Novi Vinodolski, sitting pretty on the coast of the Adriatic Sea not too far from Rijeka. Ivan was the third of four sons, all four of whom did pretty well for themselves. Brother Josip took charge of the family estate, whilst Brother Anton became a famous jurist and philologist. Brother Matija? Well, he became a blacksmith, albeit a blacksmith that worked as a travel writer on the side. Ivan would surpass all three in his achievements but never lost sight of where he was from, being the common man and all that jazz.
Ivan took to eduction from an early age, an education that began in his home town and continued in the aforementioned city of Rijeka. He read voraciously and immersed himself in languages, speaking a grand total of nine before he was done. Which nine? Croatian obviously, but also English, French, Italian, Latin, German, Hungarian, Czech and Polish, so he didn’t even cheat by saying he spoke Serbian, Bosnian, Herzegovinian and Montenegrin as I do. Ivan continued his education in the now-Croatian capital of Zagreb, before studying philosophy at the University of West Hungary in Sopron.
You see, Croatia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, except at this point it was still known as the Austrian Empire. Significant changes in the empire would lead to Mažuranić becoming the number one dude in Croatia, but before he could get there he would become the nation’s most beloved and influential writer of this time. In 1836 Mažuranić came into contact with Ljudevit Gaj and the Illyrian Movement, and immediately began contributing to Gaj’s newspaper.
I feel I must talk further of Ljudevit Gaj, as he is one of the most important individuals in modern Slavic history, arguably the most important not to sit pretty in this tome. Gaj was born Ludwig Gay in the hilariously-named Croatian town of Krapina in the year 1809. Despite his German immigrant parents (and subsequent lack of presence in this book) Gaj himself identified as a Croat, and was one of the most important figures in the Pan-Slavic movement that swept across Central Europe in the 19th century. Gaj was a linguist first and foremost, and his alphabet is still used today by Croatia and latin-writers in Serbia. Only three individuals have more streets named after them in Croatia than Ljudevit Gaj. For those wondering, 16th century revolutionary Matija Gubec tops this list.
But back to Mažuranić. His literary reputation in Croatia was built on a relatively small catalogue, but it was a catalogue rich in influence. After slaving over the work of Ivan Gundulić ,Mažuranić was able to complete Gundulić’s epic poem ‘Osman’, putting together the final two cantos. Mažuranić also edited the Hungarian works of Nikola Zrinski, a fairly thankless job if ever there was one.
What of Mažuranić’s own work? He is best remembered for one epic, ‘Smrt Smail age Čengića’ (The Death of Smail-aga Čengić). I’ll get on to that guy further down the line in the book, but the poem itself used the story to tell a larger one of fortitude and justice, of a proud people struggling for independence under the horrifying glove of a tyrant. The slightly anti-Turkish bent of the poem pretty much guaranteed its success, and the fact that Mažuranić was turning to Montenegro as opposed to Croatia for influence showed his commitment to the Pan-Slavic cause. So not a huge canon, but there was enough within this one poem to set Mažuranić aside from his compadres in the Illyrian Movement. He did considerable linguistic work too, co-compiling a 40,000 entry strong dictionary in 1842. Many words that are commonplace today were first used in this dictionary, including the Croatian words for rhinoceros (nosorog), ice cream (sladoled) and high treason (veleizdaja).
After working as a lawyer in Kralovac, Mažuranicć rose to a position of power in Croatia in the wake of Austria falling apart somewhat. In 1861 local assemblies were reinstated, and five years later Austria was forced to negotiate with the growing power of the Hungarians. This led to the Austria-Hungary Agreement of 1867, creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire and leaving the Croats with approximately no voice whats0ever. The deal between Austria and Hungary was about Croatia to a degree, but it certainly didn’t include Croatia.
Local assembles were back however, and Croatia needed a new Ban. They chose an eminent figure in everyday Croatian life, a man with a literary reputation and extensive experience of law and administration. A man of common sense and impeccable morals. Obviously they chose Ivan Mažuranić, or you wouldn’t be reading this. In becoming Ban of Croatia in 1873, Ivan Mažuranić became the first Ban not to come from noble stock. The people knew him as Ban pučanin, or Ban Commoner. So yes, he was just a common ban, working hard for the man.
Mažuranić worked his sweet chops off (and my lord were they sweet chops) to reform the relatively primitive Croatia at the time. The reform began immediately, and by the time he had resigned seven years later a total of 60 laws had been passed by the parliament covering the entirety of the Croatian lands. Mažuranicć worked hard to impress upon folk the importance of the constitution and education, and his achievements in reform were considerable to say the least. He fixed up the educational system, fixed up the judiciary system, and worked hard for Croatian autonomy. He argued with common sense, using his considerable intellect and knowledge of the poorer elements of Croatian society to promote the national cause.
Naturally the Hungarians viewed him with reserve and suspicion, and the constant Magyar attacks led to his resignation in 1880. By then he was a whopping 66 years old, so you can’t blame him really. After leaving parliament he kicked off his shoes, sat back and put his feet up on a damn fine poof. Probably. He died a decade later, but his legacy lives on. His granddaughter, named Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, is widely considered to be the best Croatian writer for kids going.