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Tribes and clans

Tara Canyon - Copyright by Alan Grant Škrčko Jezero - Copyright by Alan Grant
Tara Canyon

When the Ottomans conquered the medieval Balkan states in the 14th and 15th centuries, they made little effort to control these remote and poverty-stricken mountain lands of Montenegro.

Until the mid-19th century, central control of the Montenegrin rulers did not extend very far. Society was organised in tribes (pleme) that controlled a certain territory. Beneath the tribe were smaller units of families that traced their descent to a common ancestor (clan or bratstvo). A clan could number as many as 250 members and was usually headed by the oldest member. Every tribe had its chief and an assembly of elders. Many Montenegrins still today can recite the line of ancestors to the originator of the clan.

By the early 17th century an all-tribal general assembly was formed to provide guidance of behaviour among neighbouring tribes. Although this body had no executive or judicial powers, until the mid-19th century it was practically the sole "governing body" in Montenegro.

Similar structures existed also in Eastern Hercegovina and Northern Albania. The ethnographer Jovan Cvijic counted 21 tribes in "old Montenegro", 76 in the Highlands, 16 in Eastern Herzegovina and 2 on the Montenegrin coast. Blood feuds survived until the beginning of the 20th century).

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