Jelena Mrnjavčević, Jefimija

Pseudonyms Monahinja Jefimija
Spouse despot Uglješa
Date of birth 1349
Date of death 1405
Web address

Personal situation

Jelena Mrnjavčević, later Jefimija, was born around 1349. She learned to read and write in Serbian and Greek, and learned fine embroidery. She was married to Despot Uglješa in 1365. Jelena was 22 when Uglješa died in the Battle of Marica in 1371, which was crucial for the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. She lost her only son, too.

Jelena lived in Milica and Lazar’s royal court in Kruševac, which would become a mythical place of Serbian culture, because of the approaching Battle of Kosovo. 
Jelena became a nun, and took the name Jefimija.

Place(s) of residence Serbia
Place of death manastir Ljubostinja
Nationality Serbian
First language(s) Serbian
Marital status widowed
Number of children 1
Name(s) of children Uglješa
Gender of children M
Religion Eastern orthodox

Professional situation

Jelena, the wife of Despot Uglješa, born c. 1349, has the distinction of being the first Serbian authoress and an exceptional embroiderer. A member of the royal family, she had the opportunity to acquire an education, learn Greek, and enjoy the company of learned clerics. It is evident from the texts she wrote that she had used her potential to the full. At twenty-two, Jelena suffered a great personal loss and family tragedy when her husband was slain in the battle against the Turks, in 1371. Little before that, she had lost her infant son, too. Bereaved, she took the veil and chose the monastic name of Jefimija. Her important contribution to Serbian medieval literature consists of three poetic works of high artistic merit, preserved in the medium of embroidery, and valuable not only as literature, but also as works of applied-decorative art. These pieces of embroidery were gifts to monasteries, and "first person singular in all three texts emphasizes Jefimija’s role both as a donor and an author." Jefimija's first text, Tuga za mladencem Uglješom (Lament for the Infant Uglješa), was composed on the occasion of the death of her son. It was wrought in silver on a small double icon, and presented to the monastery of Hilandar, by Jefimija herself. The lament, written between 1368 and 1371, is imbued with "as much pain and wisdom as with tender emotions." Her prayer "is not conventional or abstract, as it tends to be in the hagiographies of medieval saints; it is personal and concrete... The young mother confesses that, despite all her piety, she cannot help grieving for her child, and admits that, like with all mothers, her grief is stronger than her fortitude." "A Christian mother ought not to be impassioned with the sorrow for her lost child, but nevertheless, her courage is feeble because the nature... of a mother is stronger and it prevails." This was the first instance in old Serbian literature that a woman spoke openly and directly of motherly love and her child. Never had anyone written words more personal than hers.

As a nun, Jefimija lived at the court of Prince Lazar, the ruler of Serbia. After his death in the Battle of Kosovo, she composed a praise-song to Prince Lazar, and embroidered the text with golden threads on a length of silk, which she intended for the shroud over the casket with the relics of St. Lazar. "The coupling of the sentiment of personal and national tragedy, in perfect harmony with restrained expression and composition, elevates this text to the rank of the most beautiful works in Serbian literature." All Jefimija’s works were written in first person singular, as direct address to God or a Saint, a characteristic which gives them a warm-hearted and intimate tone. Another characteristic is that they do not contain abstract emotions or ethical deliberations, but sorrow and pain, personal grief, anxiety about one's own fate and the fate of the whole nation... The first woman in Serbian literature "whose writings we know of, who wrote not about someone or something else, but about herself, and who did it in a clearly confessional and direct manner." 

Data collected and author edited by Svetlana Tomin

Profession(s) and other activities nun, embroiderer (and other “travaux de dames »), and author of religious literature
Language(s) in which she wrote Serbian


Reception after death

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