"Chapter II." by Edith Durham (1863-1944)
"But natheles, while I have tyme and space,
Or that I forther in this Talé pace
Me thinketh it accordant to resoun',
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of eche of hem so as it semede me
And whiche they weren, and of what degre."
THE land north of Scutari, called Maltsia e madhe, the Great Mountain Land, is the home of five large tribes–Hoti, Gruda, Kastrati, Skreli, and Kilmeni. It is part of the same group of mountains that form the bulk of Montenegro–the grey wilderness of barren rock, called Karst, that glares dazzling in the midsummer sun and beats back the heat with cruel force, takes wondrous blue and mauve shadows at dawn and even, and, when wet, is the heavy purple-black of a thunder-cloud. Very little of it is cultivable. Great tracts are waterless, depending solely on rainfall–aching wildernesses, the bare bones of a half-created world.
The whole district consists, mainly, of two long deep valleys and the high ranges that form their watersheds.
The one is the valley of the Tsem, a swift stream, never dry, that runs parallel with and near to the Montenegrin frontier and into the Lake of Scutari. The other is that of the Proni Thaat (dry torrent), which but seldom has water in it, but in olden days must have been of great force, for it has carved a deep canyon below, and has above a wide bed of water-worn boulders. The summits of the mountain range that rises on its left bank form, roughly speaking, the frontiers of Maltsia e madhe, with its neighbours, the Lower Pulati group and Shala.
On its other sides, Maltsia e madhe is bounded by the lake and by the Montenegrin frontier (a purely political and in no way ethnographic line). In the north the mountain range called the Prokletija ("accursed," a name often erroneously applied by travellers to all the North Albanian mountains) divides it from the lands of Gusinje.
To Maltsia e madhe I first turned my steps–not to see the mountains, but to see life, history, the world, and the great unknown, as it looks to the mountain man. One race has never yet seen with the eyes of another, perhaps never will. Universal peace is a far cry. But the perspective of everything, life and modern politics included, depends entirely upon the point from which it is viewed.
To attain this standpoint one must live the life of the people, and know not merely the past, but the present facts of their life. And the main fact is the tribe (fis). It has been both their strength and their weakness. Each tribe has a definite tale of origin. Descent is traced strictly through the male line, and the tradition handed from father to son through memories undebauched by print.
The head of each fis is its hereditary standard-bearer, the Bariaktar. The office passes from father to son, or in default of son to the next heir male. The standard is now a Turkish one. Only the Mirdites have a distinctive flag with a rayed-sun upon it.
Some large tribes are divided into groups, each with its own Bariaktar. A division thus marching under one standard (bariak) is called a bariak. Such a bariak may be descended from a different stock from the rest of the tribe, or the division may have been made for convenience when the tribe grew large.
The men and women descending from a common male ancestor, though very remote, regard one another as brother and sister, and marriage between them is forbidden as incestuous. Though the relationship be such that the Catholic Church permits marriage, it is regarded with such genuine horror that I have heard of but one instance where it was attempted or desired, when against tribe law. Even a native priest told me that a marriage between cousins separated by twelve generations was to him a horrible idea, though the Church permitted it, "for really they are brothers and sisters."
The mountain men have professed Christianity for some fifteen centuries, but tribe usage is still stronger than Church law. A man marries and gives his daughter in marriage outside his tribe, except when that tribe contains members of a different stock, or when it has been divided into bariaks considered distant enough for intermarriage. But in spite of this exogamy, it would appear that, through the female line, the race may have been fairly closely in-bred. For a man does not go far for a wife, but usually takes one from the next tribe, unless that tribe be consanguineous. If not so debarred, he takes a wife thence and marries his daughter there. Kastrati, for example, usually marries Hoti, and Hoti Kastrati. The bulk of the married women in one were born in the other. A perpetual interchange of women has gone on for some centuries.
Even educated Scutarenes reckon relations on the mother's side but vaguely.
A man said to me, "She is a sort of relation of mine. Her mother and mine were sisters."
"Then she is very near. She is your first cousin."
He considered and said doubtfully, "Yes. Like a first cousin certainly, but on my mother's side."
His third cousins on his father's side he reckoned as brothers. One very near and dear cousin was so remote I never quite placed him.
The Catholic Church prohibits marriage to the sixth degree, and the law is now enforced. But among the Moslem tribes, I am told, female cousinship is not recognised. Male blood only counts. That male blood only counted under old tribe law seems fairly certain. In Montenegro, where the tribal system is not yet extinct–under the "old law," which prevailed till the middle of the nineteenth century, though marriage was prohibited so long as any drop of blood of male descent was known of–I am told relationship through the female was but slightly, if at all, recognised.
Church law in Albania has only recently had power to restrain illegal unions. Archbishop Zmajevich, in his report on Albania in 1703, laments: "Among the execrable customs of the mountain people, the wretched parents are in the habit of buying for a price young girls for their sons, who are of tender age, and keeping them in their house till they are of age to cohabit, and of omitting to contract matrimony unless a male child be born, even after fifteen years or more of sinful cohabitation. This pollution is spread throughout the mountains."
The custom exists still among the Catholics along the Dalmatian frontier of Bosnia, who, in spite of the efforts of the priests, refuse to legalise a union till sure that the woman is capable of child-bearing.
The fis is divided into the mehala, a group of closely related houses, and the shpi, or house. The head of a mehala is called the kryé (head). The head of a house is xoti i shpis (lord of the house). The house, among the outlying tribes of Pulati and Dukaghini, is a communal house, including as many as seventy individuals, all under the absolute sway of their lord. The "house" may overflow into two or three houses, all holding goods and flocks in common under one xoti.
Forbidden degrees of marriage include not only blood relations on the male side, but spiritual relationships. According to Church law, those related by having the same godfather are not intermarriagable to the sixth degree, but the Albanians consider not only those related through their kumarii i pakzimit (godfather of baptism) to be not intermarriageable, but also those related through their kumarii i floksh (godfather of hair).
It is recorded that in very early days the Illyrians shaved their heads. Head shaving was still practised by Greeks, Slavs, and Hungarians in the seventeenth century. The custom prevails to this day throughout Albania and Bosnia, and has only recently died out among the Orthodox Montenegrins. It is practised by Moslems, Catholics, and Orthodox.
Among the North Albanian tribes a patch of hair, called perchin, is usually left, varying in shape and position according to district.
Among the Catholic tribes the first shaving of the head is thought even more important than baptism. When the child is about two years old, a friend is invited to be kumarii i floksh. (In Montenegro the relationship was called Shishano Kumstvo, and prevailed till fifty years ago.) The child's hair must have never before been cut. In the case of a Catholic Albanian, the kumarii, sitting on the ground, takes first another child on his knees (to ensure that his godchild be not the last that its parents have), then takes his godchild and cuts from its head four locks of hair, one to each of the points of the compass–north, south, east, and west–thus marking a cross. The Moslems, I am told, cut three locks–a triangle is a favourite Moslem tattoo pattern. Girls as well as boys are shaven, but girls have a fringe left over the forehead.
Handsome gifts are exchanged, according to the means of the family. The kumarii gives the child several napoleons, and receives some fine garments or fancy knitted socks. Some tribes have limited the value that may be given, as the gifts became so excessive as to be a severe burden. The relationship thus acquired ranks as blood relationship, and the descendants of children who have the same kumarii, though not otherwise related, are not intermarriageable till after the sixth degree–some have told me, never.
Another forbidden degree is created by sworn brotherhood. The custom is old and widely spread. But as the North Albanians almost always call a sworn brother probo or probotin, an obvious corruption of the Servian probratim (brat =brother), they have possibly derived the custom, too, from the Serbs. There is an Albanian word, though, vlam.
In Montenegro the custom is almost dead. In Albania it flourishes. The procedure was told me by a Catholic Albanian, thus: "I travelled through a dangerous part with a young Moslem. We became great friends. He asked me to be his brother. I asked leave of my father (the head of the house). He said it was a very good family to be allied with. We waited a short time. Then, as we still both wished it, we met, and each tied a string round his little finger tightly till it swelled, pricked the finger, and let the blood drop on to a lump of sugar. I ate his lump, he ate mine. We swore brotherhood. We were of the same blood. We gave each other beautiful socks in patterns, and I went to dinner at his house. He is dead now, but his brothers are my brothers, and our children are cousins. Of course they cannot marry, they are of the same blood. They cannot marry for more than a hundred years."
In the case of two Christians, three drops of blood in a glass of rakia or wine is customary. The Church, of course, takes no notice of this relationship, but I am told that persons so related never marry unless the relationship has become remote.
There is, I believe, another relationship acquired by the woman who cuts the umbilical cord at the birth of an infant. But of this I have learnt no details as yet.
For all their habits, laws, and customs, the people, as a rule, have but one explanation: "It is in the Canon of Lek,"–the law that is said to have been laid down by the chieftain Lek Dukaghin. Lek is fabled to have legislated minutely on all subjects. For example, a man told me that Lek had ordered that men should walk the length of one gun-barrel apart, lest in turning the barrel should accidentally strike the next man, for a blow even by chance must be avenged. And this law was to keep peace. Similarly women must walk the length of one distaff apart–they always spin on the march.
Of Lek himself little is known. His fame among the tribes that still bear his name far exceeds that of Skenderbeg, and the fog of mythology is thick round him. He has left no mark on European history–is a purely local celebrity,–but must have been of insistent individuality to have so influenced the people that "Lek said so" obtains far more obedience than the Ten Commandments. The teachings of Islam and of Christianity, the Sheriat and Church law, all have to yield to the Canon of Lek.
The Dukaghini (Duke John Duka, dux in the Latin sense) were a ruling family in the fifteenth century. (Hopf Chroniques Greco-romains inédits) gives an old pedigree of Dukaghini, Lords of Zadrima, the Black Mountains (probably Mal i zion the Drin), of Pulati and Shati, as early as the end of the thirteenth century. Later come Lords of Guri kuch, Fandi and Salita, and the "last Lord of Zadrima and Dagno was dispossessed by the Turks in 1479."
Some of the Dukaghini seem then to have fled to Venice along with the Venetians when they evacuated Scutari, and a "Luca Ducagini Duca di Pulato e dell stato Ducagino" is recorded in Venice in 1506.
The pedigree contains numerous names, and is possibly inaccurate in detail, though true in its main lines–for all the districts above named still quote Lek, keep his law, and call themselves Dukaghini. When not making common cause against the Turks, there was much quarrelling between Skenderbeg and the Dukaghini Princes. They were allies of Venice, and he was friend of the king of Naples. Within the widespread Dukaghini lands there is no local tradition of Skenderbeg, no "castles" or "rocks" of Skenderbeg, but plenty of Lek–which shows that the Dukaghini were the old established hereditary rulers, for their mark on the land is deeper than that of Skenderbeg, whose victories gained European fame. There is, it is true, a tale that Skenderbeg was related to the Dukaghini, but it is vague.
It appears that there were several Dukaghini of the name Lek (Alexander–I have been told, too, Lek was related to Alexander the Great), and they have become entangled. Tradition tells that the Ljuma tribe had a chief in the fourteenth century called Lek Kapetan.
An Albanian once gave me a message to European politicians in general: "If a man tells you that he knows about the Near East, ask him what is the difference between Lek Dukaghin and Lek Kapetan? If he cannot tell, he should let the Near East alone. We suffer from people who interfere and know nothing." The question, I fancy, would "plough" many a Foreign Office.
Lek of the Canon, says tradition, fled from Rashia when the Turks overpowered it, came with the ancestors of the Mirdites, and is of the same blood as the bariak of Oroshi. The present hereditary prince, Prenk Bib Doda of Oroshi, claims to be descended from the Dukaghins. Nor is it historically improbable that one of the Dukaghins (a chieftain family, widely influential) should have fought the Turks on the plains, and been forced to retire with his men to the mountains.
As for the laws and customs ascribed to him, the greater part are obviously far earlier than the fifteenth century, when he is said to have lived. They probably were obeyed by the unknown warriors of the bronze weapons in the prehistoric graves.
Lek possibly put together the then existing tribe law, but his own laws are probably those only that are designed to check or reform old usage by enforcing punishment. It is impossible to believe, for example, that–as the people declare–Lek both ordered blood-vengeance to be taken, and condemned the taker of it to be severely punished. Rather, that he devised a heavy penalty to check blood feud. But it has signally failed.
He gave his sanction, it would appear, to much barbarous custom–nor with such a conservative people could he well have done otherwise. It is said that Pope Paul II. (1464) excommunicated him for his most un-Christian code. Some have suggested that, as Lek came from Rashia, he must have been of Slavonic blood. This is improbable, as the Canon does not resemble the famous Servian Code of Tsar Stefan Dushan (1349), which we may fairly presume was founded on old Slavonic usage. On the other hand, the "old law" that prevailed in Montenegro and the Herzegovina till the middle of the nineteenth century resembles very strongly that of the Albanian mountains. The chief differences seem, so far as I have learnt, to have been in the punishments. These therefore I take to be Lek's, and the rest, old tribe law common to this Serbo-Illyrian group of people.
The law in the Albanian mountains is administered by a council of Elders. Each tribe is self-governing. Custom varies with the district.
In the Maltsia e madhe group (Hoti, Gruda, Kastrati, Skreli, Kilmeni) a full council, i.e. one that can deal with matters affecting the whole tribe, must consist of the Bariaktar, four Voyvodas, twelve Elders (specially chosen for their intelligence and knowledge of law), and seventy-two heads of houses.
For small local affairs–quarrels, robbery–the Bariaktar and nine Elders suffice. The title Voyvoda (head of a mehala) is Slavonic, and does not occur in any other district of Albania.
The council meets near the church (or mosque). I had difficulty in unravelling the procedure, which is complicated. I believe it to be as follows:–
A man accuses another, say of theft. He lays the case before the Bariaktar. The point to be determined is whether a sufficient number of con-jurors can be found before whom the accused may swear his innocence, and who are willing to swear to it with him. The Bariaktar can decide how many to summon. The plaintiff has the right to nominate them. They must belong to the tribe. The accused may object to a certain number–it depends, I believe, on how many are called–and have them replaced. All meet before the council. The accused and plaintiff are heard. Should the con-jurors agree that the accused is innocent, the Elders acquit him. (It must be remembered that in these tribes every one knows all about every one else's doings.) Should all con-jurors but one agree to his innocence, that one can be dismissed, but two must replace him.
The plaintiff, if not satisfied, has the right to demand more con-jurors up to a fixed number according to the crime. Twenty-four may be demanded for murder, and from two to ten for stealing, according to the value of the thing stolen. Eight for a horse. If it cannot be otherwise decided, the defendant may put in witnesses from among his own family.
If the verdict be "guilty," the Elders decide the punishment. For theft, twice the value of the thing stolen must be given to its owner, and half the value to be divided among the Elders. It may, when possible, be paid in kind–for one sheep, two.
For anything stolen off church land as much as ten times the value may be exacted. In olden times a fancy value was set on a stolen cock. Probably because the cock was held of great power against evil spirits, so of much value to its possessor.
If the accused be found innocent, the whole party goes into the church. The candles are lighted on the altar, and, in the presence of the priest, the accused first swears his innocence on the gospel. Next in order swear those of his family who may have been summoned, then all the other con-jurors. Whether innocent or guilty, the accused has to pay each con-juror 20 piastres (about 3s. 4d.). The plaintiff can therefore annoy by insisting on the full number the law allows. A priest counts as twelve con-jurors. Men of importance in the tribe are sometimes also reckoned as more than one. Among Moslems the oath is sworn in a mosque.
In the case of a wounding accidentally, or with intent to kill, the damage is estimated by the Elders. For example, a man playing with a rifle shot a woman through the foot, and had to pay her husband 15 napoleons, and must pay 15 more if she ever die from the resultant lameness.
Cases of compounding blood feuds or murder have to be referred (when they take place in Maltsia e madhe) to the Djibal in Scutari. This is said to have been started because on one occasion the tribes could not agree on some point and asked Turkish advice (Kastrati has another tradition about it).
The Djibal is a mixed council. Each of the five above-mentioned tribes has a representative in it (called krye t malit), and there is a Moslem representative of each (called a bylykbasha), appointed by the Turkish Government. One Bylykbasha can represent more than one tribe. The president of council is the Sergherdé, a Government-appointed Moslem. The penalty for murder is about £24 paid to the Sergherdé and £12 to the Bylykbasha of the tribe. Twenty-four pounds is payable also to the Church if the murder be on Church land. Twenty-four pounds also to the xoti i ghakut (lord of blood=that one of the deceased's family who has the right to demand blood, or its equivalent). Should he accept it the feud ceases. But he usually prefers to shoot the offender himself, and the blood feud thus started is not compounded till several on either side have been killed.
To compound it the guilty party must send emissaries to the xoti i ghakut. If he be willing to compound, a council is called. It is usual, when the blood-gelt is accepted, for the two chief parties to swear brotherhood. If the feud is with a member of another tribe, and the parties are not consanguineous, it is usual also to give a daughter in marriage to some member of the offended family, and thus establish peace.
The Sergherdé and Bylykbashas have no other pay than the fees they can collect for "blood," so are reported not to wish to stop the practice. They are called on sometimes for an opinion in other cases, and are said to require bribing.
The Canon also punishes the taker of blood by burning down his house. And, except in cases where the slaying is thought justified, the penalty is inflicted by order of the Elders, who can also forbid him to work his ground for a year or even two.
Neither Sergherdé nor Bylykbashas venture into the mountains save on rare occasions under promise of safe-conduct. If their fees are in arrears they arrest any man of the same tribe that comes down to market, and imprison him as hostage till paid. As a rule in Maltsia e madhe it is paid punctually, and all shooting cases are notified to Scutari by the tribes with surprising speed. They say Lek ordered a fine to be paid, and that they themselves accepted the Djibal–"It is the law, so must be obeyed." What the tribesman resents to the uttermost is not the administration of law, but the attempt to force on him laws to which he has never assented.
An occasional paragraph in the English newspapers tells of an outbreak of "Albanian lawlessness,"–that troops have been sent to Ljuma, for example, to enforce the payment of cattle tax, or order the disarming of the population–an expedition that always fails. In these cases the lawbreakers are not the Albanians, but the force sent against them. The Albanians originally agreed with the Turks that they should retain their own law, and give in return voluntary military service. They have kept their part of the contract, and have quite justly resisted Turkish attempts to forcibly break the other part.
The Young Turks have broken the Turkish covenant with Albania, and fighting has in consequence taken place near Ipek.
Among the tribes called Dukaghini, customs are found in more primitive form than in Maltsia e madhe.
Dukaghini–the tribes who accept the Canon, though a more restricted district is now called Dukaghini–includes Pulati proper–that is, Kiri, Plani, Mgula, and Ghoanni; Upper Pulati–that is, Shala, Shoshi, Nikaj, Berisha, Merturi, and Toplana; and Postripa–that is, Ura Strengit, Mazreku, Drishti, Shlaku, Suma, and Dushmani. Also all Puka. The Canon is, however, much more widely spread. It is the law also in Mirdita, and Kthela, and Luria. It has been carried by branches of many of the above-named tribes into the plains of Metoja and Kosovo. It prevails also, I believe, in all the large Moslem tribes, but details of the usages among them I have not yet obtained.
The most important fact in North Albania is blood-vengeance, which is indeed the old, old idea of purification by blood. It is spread throughout the land. All else is subservient to it.
"What profit is life to a man if his honour be not clean?" To cleanse his honour no price is too great. And in the mountains the individual is submerged tribe. He is answerable, too, for the honour of his mehala, sometimes indeed of his whole fis.
Blood can be wiped out only with blood. A blow also demands blood, so do insulting words. One of the worst insults is the marrying of a girl betrothed to one man, to another. Nothing but blood can cleanse it.
Abduction of a girl demands blood, as does of course adultery. This does not appear to be common. It entails so much blood that "the game is not worth the candle." The blood taken need not be that of the actual offender. It must be male blood of his house or tribe. The usage differs in various districts, and will be noted in the accounts of them.
A man is answerable, too, for his guest, and must avenge a stranger that has passed but one night beneath his roof, if on his journey next day he be attacked. The sacredness of the guest is far-reaching. A man who brought me water from his house, that I might drink by the way, said that I now ranked as his guest, and that he should be bound by his honour to avenge me should anything happen to me before I had received hospitality from another.
Blood-vengeance, slaying a man according to the laws of honour, must not be confounded with murder. Murder starts a blood feud. In blood-vengeance the rules of the game are strictly observed. A man may not be shot for vengeance when he is with a woman nor with a child, nor when he is met in company, nor when besa (oath of peace) has been given. The two parties may swear such an oath for a few weeks if they choose, for business purposes. There are men who, on account of blood, have never been out alone for years.
When the avenger has slain his victim, he first reaches a place of safety, and then proclaims that he has done the deed. He wishes all to know his honour is clean. That he is now liable to be shot, and, if the blood be taken within the tribe, to heavy punishment also, is of minor moment to him.
In the Dukaghini tribes the council has power not merely to burn his house, but to destroy his crops, fell his trees, slaughter his beasts, and condemn him to leave his land unworked. An incredible amount of food-stuff is yearly wasted, and land made desolate.
The house is perhaps not merely the home of himself, his wife and children, but that of a whole family community, forty or fifty people. The law is carried out to the last letter. It crushes the innocent along with the guilty; it is remorseless, relentless. But "it is the Canon and must be obeyed."
A man can save his house only if he can return to it and defend it successfully for three days, so that no one can approach near enough to set fire to it. A "very brave man" was pointed out to me in Berisha, who has three times been condemned to have his house burnt, and each time saved it thus. A man can also save his property by inviting to the house the head of another mehala, who must then declare himself house lord and take command. The house is then, for the time being, his; he summons his own men to defend it, a regular battle may take place, and the house be saved. But it is usual at once to call a council of Elders to stop the warfare. In such a case it is usual to burn only the house, and spare the crop and other property (Berisha).
The Canon of Lek has but two punishments, fine and burning of property. Neither death nor imprisonment can be inflicted. Prison there is none. Death would but start a new feud. And Lek's object appears to have been to check feud.
In the case of a man accused of murder, and arraigned before the Elders, should it occur that they cannot come to any agreement as to whether he be guilty or not, a new trial can be made. But the Lord of Blood rarely waits for this. He prefers to shoot the man that he accuses, and by so doing renders himself liable to house-burning, and to being shot in his turn. Sometimes the Ghaksur (taker of blood) flies and shelters with another tribe, leaving his burnt-out family to shift for themselves. Or his relations take him in, help pay his fine–for the honour of them all is cleaned by the blood-taking–give him, one a sheep, another an ox, and he helps work their land till free to work his own again, and so he makes a fresh start. I have met men burnt clean out three times, but now in fairly flourishing condition.
Any house to which a Ghaksur flies for shelter is bound to give him food and protection; he is a guest, and as such sacred. The Law of Blood has thus had great influence in mixing the population of all the western side (at least) of the Balkan peninsula, Montenegrins have for centuries fled from "blood" into Albania, and Albanians into Montenegro. A large proportion of the Serbophone Moslems of Podgoritza are said to derive from Montenegrins, who refuged there from blood in the days when it was Turkish territory. According to the Canon a man is absolute master in his own house, and, in the unmodified form of the law, has the right to kill his wife, and any of his children. My informants doubted whether the killing of the wife would be tolerated now. She would be avenged by her own family. A man may, however, kill his wife with the consent of her family. A case in point took place, I was told, recently. The wife of a mountain man left him and went down to Scutari, where she lived immorally with the soldiers, thereby blackening the honour of her husband, and of her own family.
Her husband appealed to her brother (head of the family), who gave him the cartridge with which he shot her and cleaned the honour of them all. Had she eloped with a man, he would have been held guilty and shot. She would not be punished, as the man would be held to have led her astray. But in the above case her guilt was undoubted. It is very rare that a woman is killed. To kill a married woman entails two bloods–blood with her husband's and with her own family.
A woman is never liable for blood-vengeance, except in the rare case of her taking it herself. But even then there seems to be a feeling that it would be very bad form to shoot her. I could not hear of a recent case. I roused the greatest horror by saying that a woman who commits a murder in England is by law liable to the same punishment as a man. Shala is a wild tribe; it shoots freely. But a Shala man said, "It is impossible. Where could a man be found who would hang a woman? No mountain man would do it. It is a bad law. You must be bad people." He was as genuinely shocked as is a suburban mission meeting over the sacrifices of Dahomey. The tribe cannot punish bloodshed within the family group, e.g. if one cousin in a communal house kill another. The head of the house is arbiter. A man said naïvely on this subject, "How can such a case be punished? A family cannot owe itself blood?" To him the "family" was the entity; the individual had no separate existence. Marriage is arranged entirely by the head of the house. The children are betrothed in infancy or in utero . Even earlier. A man will say to another with whom he wishes to be allied, "When your wife has a daughter I want her for my son." A wife is always bought. The infant comes into the world irrevocably affianced, and part of the purchase-money is at once paid. She can marry no other man, is sent to her unknown husband when old enough, and the balance of the price handed over. The husband is bound to take her, no matter what she is like, or fall into blood with her family. The girl may–but it requires much courage on her part–refuse to marry the man. In that case she must swear before witnesses to remain virgin all her life. Should she break this vow, endless bloodshed is caused. If her father sell her to another it entails two bloods–blood between her family and her first betrothed's, and blood between her husband's and her betrothed's. Should she make a run-away match there is triple blood, as her family is at blood also with her husband's. In such cases the woman is furiously blamed. "She knew the laws, and the amount of blood that must be shed."
The most singular part of the business is the readiness with which most youths accept the girl bought for them. I never heard of one refusing, though I met several "Albanian virgins," girls who had sworn virginity to escape their betrothed.
The Catholic Church is making strenuous efforts to suppress infant betrothal by refusing to recognise it under the age of fourteen, and trying then to be sure that the girl consents, but as yet little progress has been made. By the Canon a man could divorce his wife by cutting off a piece of her dress and sending her home thus disfigured. The Church has not quite suppressed this among the Christian tribes. It is said to be a common practice among the Moslems. A man though married may take his brother's widow as concubine one month after his brother's death, also his uncle's or cousin's widow. Children of such unions are reckoned legitimate by the people, and may even be considered to be those of the first husband. In Maltsia e madhe this custom is now extinct; but in Dukaghini and Pulati, in spite of all the priests, it is quite common. Throughout the Moslem tribes this practice prevails; otherwise it is said to be rare for a Moslem tribesman to have more than one wife at a time.
(I was told in Montenegro that a hundred years ago it was not uncommon for a man to have two wives. Possibly it was this same custom.) Should a woman bear her husband only daughters, the family on his death have the right to turn her out penniless, though they have sold all the daughters at good prices. A woman believed capable of producing only daughters is valueless, and cannot hope to marry again. Should her own people be too poor to take her in, her lot is most miserable. On this point humaner feelings are beginning to prevail. The birth of a daughter is still considered a misfortune. Yet I was assured everywhere that there were more men than women in the land, and young marriageable widows when for sale are snapped up at once, often fetching more than maidens.
The rule as to whom a childless widow belongs seems to vary in different parts. In Kastrati and in Vukli (Maltsia e madhe) I was told she was the property of her father or, in case of his decease, his next heir male. Should she have children, she must remain with her husband's family to bring them up. The children belong to the family–not to her.
In Dukaghini, should she not be taken on as concubine by a member of her husband's family, his family and her family share the price for which they sell her again.
No man may strike a woman but her husband–or, if she be unmarried, her father. To do so entails blood.
A woman in the mountains, in spite of the severe work she is forced to do, is in many ways freer than the women of Scutari. She speaks freely to the men; is often very bright and intelligent, and her opinion may be asked and taken. I have seen a man bring his wife to give evidence in some case under dispute. I have also seen the women interfere to stop a quarrel, but where the family honour is concerned they are as anxious that blood should be taken as are the men.
The fact that a wife cannot be obtained without paying for her among the mountain tribes is one of the frequent causes of abduction.
In Maltsia e madhe a girl who has sworn virginity–"an Albanian virgin"–can, if her father leave no son, inherit land and work it. At her death it goes to her father's nearest heir male. These women as a rule wear male dress and may carry arms.
The practice of women wearing male dress existed also in that part of Montenegro known as the Brda, which includes those tribes that are according to tradition allied by blood to those of Albania. Medakovich, a Russian traveller, records meeting one at Rovac in 1855. She had sworn virginity and ranked as her father's son, he having none.
In Dukaghini, though I met several Albanian Virgins, I neither saw nor heard of an instance of a maiden in male dress.
Space does not permit further details. I have given sufficient only to make the following travels comprehensible.
This chapter has been put on-line as part of the
BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteers
Simone Fluter and Elizabeth Cowell.