Balsha I: The Founder of the Medieval Principality of the Balshas
Balsha I (thrived and ruled circa 1331-1362) was the earliest attested noble of the notable medieval Balsha family. He was the founder of the Balsha principality, an independent state with territories corresponding to current Montenegro and northern Albania. At times, Balsha state stretched into the southern tip of Bosnia and Croatia, across south Albania and Kosova.
Life in the region before the rise of Balsha
We will not deal extensively with the origin or the ethnic background of the Balsha family. They were likely nobles from the Albanian town of Balëz / Balleza (or Ballezë, Ballezio, Ballexa, Belesium), current Rrjoll in the northeast of Shkodër, below Maranaj peak. At the time, Balëz enjoyed a significant strategic and religious role in the Rrjoll and Shkodra region. The dominant ethnic trait of the family was likely the Albanian one, preserved in the context of an increasingly shrunken Serbian dominance.
The report of Guillaume Adae or monk Burcard (intended for the French king Philip VII Valois in 1332) represents a precious account of the ethnographic landscape across Balshas’ would-be lands. It offers valuable insights into what life looked like in the time of Balsha.
The relevant section of that account goes as follows: “[the] kingdom [of Rasha]…is inhabited by two peoples, meaning the Albanians and the Latins who, in their beliefs, their rites and their obedience, both abide by the Roman Catholic Church. Accordingly, they have archbishops, bishops, abbots, and religious and secular clerics of lower rank and status. The Latins have six towns with bishops: firstly Antibarum [Bar or Tivar], the seat of the archbishop, then Chatarensis [Kotor], Dulcedinensis [Ulcinj], Suacinensis [Shas], Scutarensis [Shkodra] and Drivascensis [Drisht], inhabited by the Latins alone. Outside the town walls, the Albanians make up the dominant population throughout the diocese. There are four Albanian towns: Polatum Maius [Greater Pult], Polatum Minus [Lesser Pult], Sabatensis [Sapa], and Albanensis [Albanopolis] that, together with the towns of the Latins, are all legally subject to the Archbishop of Bar and his church as their metropolitan. The Albanians, indeed, have a language quite different from Latin. However, they use Latin letters in all their books”.
Balsha’s rise to power
We know very few things about Balsha I, with even his full name remaining obscure. He rose to political prominence after 1355, following the disintegration of the Serbian state of Stefan Uroš IV Dusân (r. 1346-1355). Before that, he likely held an administrative position within the fold of the Serbian realm. According to Robert Elsie (2013), before his appearance as an independent ruler in and of Zeta (current Montenegro), Balsha had been a commander of Stefan Dusân. In 1357 (with Dušan now demised), Balsha held power on the island of Mljet (current Croatia).
Like other regional administrators under Dusân, Balsha took advantage of the power vacuum across the Serbian state under Stefan Uros V the Weak (r. 1336-1371) to make himself ruler of Upper Zeta (upper, mountainous Montenegro). He threw away the Serbian yoke (from 1361 onwards), establishing his independent sovereignty over Zeta (or Genta, corresponding roughly to the lands of ancient Doclea). The feeling was mutual in the Serbian court. Uroš V publicly denounced Balsha I and his family as rebels and irreconcilable adversaries of his state.
The new monarch continued his detachment from Uroš through clever alliances. He took advantage of the good relations with king Vukašin [Mrnjavčević] of Serbia (co-ruled 1365-1371), further sewing disruption on centralized Serbian power and advancing his independent agenda (including territorial expansion at the expense of Serbian interests). He also linked himself with the state of Ragusa, a wealthy republic centered around Dubrovnik. In 1361, Ragusa strengthened diplomatic ties and awarded citizenship to Balsha and his progenitors.
After 1362, Balsha is no longer reported alive. However, the state he had established was about to expand a lot more. Balsha likely triggered the first signs of territorial expansion beyond Zeta in his lifetime. His troops may have descended into northern Albania, creating power structures there and entering into conflict with the local rival family of the Dukagjini. Balsha I left three sons, all rulers in their own right: Strazimir Balsha (r. 1362-1372), Gjergj I Balsha (r.1372-1379), and Balsha II Balsha (c.r. 1372-1379; r. 1379-1385), and a daughter, Voislava Balsha (who would later marry the autonomous ruler of central Albania, Karl Thopia).
Akademia e Shkencave e Shqipërisë. Instituti i Historisë. Historia e Popullit Shqiptar, I, p. 137. Botimet Toena, 2002.
Elsie, R. (2013). A biographical Dictionary of Albanian History. p. 27. Published by I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. ISBN: 978 1 78076 431 3.
Directorium ad passagium faciendum (Initiative for Making the Passage). Anonymous, (1332). Retrieved from: http://www.albanianhistory.net/1332_Making-the-Passage/index.html.