Montenegro has a strong literary tradition dating back nearly a thousand years. The oldest literary work, Kingdom of the Slavs, was written in Bar in the 12th century by an anonymous Benedictine priest. Monasteries and other libraries contain a number of manuscripts from the 13th century, many illustrated with magnificent miniatures, but book production really stems from the introduction to Cetinje of the first printing press in southern Europe, and one of the first anywhere on the continent, in 1494.
The first Montenegrin book, Oktoih, The book of palms, was published in Cyrillic the same year, with intricate engravings. The Cetinje press played a major role in diffusing literacy and culture in the area. As a consequence of Turkish attack this early press was closed in 1496. A subsequent one was installed in 1834 by Petar 2 Petrovic Njegos but during a siege in 1852 the letters were melted down by the Montenegrins for deployment as bullets, as indeed was the roof of Njegos’s palace, Biljarda. Poetry and history both ranked highly in Montenegrin book production, though the histories were sometimes quite blatantly spun. The earliest history of Montenegro, written by prince-bishop Vasilije and published in Moscow in 1754, was really an appeal for Russian military and financial support. Montenegrin rulers also used their literary efforts for political ends, leading the way in writing and encouraging books which served to unite the disparate clans in national solidarity against the Ottomans and in the pursuit of freedom.
Montenegro has often inspired authors from the rest of the Europe, and books by Montenegrins were published abroad, especially in Venica and London. Rime Vulgari ( Vernacular Rhymes ) written by Ludovico Pasquali of Cattoro was for descriptive works on the area with his A journey to Dalmatia, written in 1682, while the various wars of the 19th century inspired a number of works on both politics (including Gladstone’s Montenegro in 1879 and a rather mediocre semi-political sonnet of the same name by Tennyson in 1877) and travel.
By the beginning of the 20th century a number of intrepid ladies were venturing into the Balkans. One of the books written in 1904 by Edith Durham, probarly Rebecca West’s only rival as doyenne, is prefaced by a publisher’s note apologising that ‘owing to the absence of Miss Durhamin Macedonie. Various books and operas in the second half of the 19th century tookup the theme of Montenegro the exotic. Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow is based on Prince Danilo and the romantic goings on of the court at Cetinje. Alphonse Daudet borrowed the persona of a real life Montenegrin con-artist and lady-killer for Tartarin de Tarascon. Paris saw the operetta The Montenegrins in 1894. Pierre Loti drew upon his military experiences in the Boka Kotorska and a number of Italian authors profited from the traditional ties to feature things Montenegrin in miscellaneous works; indeed a Montenegrin bibliography published in 1993 lists no fewer than 1.043 Italian books on the country published in Italy between 1532 and 1941.