Category Archives: Balkans

St. John’s Day, 1908, in High Albania

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 2903-2957:

The evening of the twenty-third of June was quite exciting. The Primæval had spent most of the previous evening filling blank cartridges to greet guests. The Franciscans of Berisha, Shoshi, and Toplana arrived in turn. Each hailed him of Dushmani from a distance, and greeted him with revolver shots. Out we rushed, the Primæval dancing and shrieking like a demon, with a revolver in each hand, both of which he fired at once. We had the liveliest supper – four Franciscans, Marko, and myself. The Padre of Toplana had brought a wonderful attendant with him – an elderly, most wiry creature, brave in a red djemadan, gayer and even more voluble than the Primæval. The two, who were supposed to wait at table, were inimitable – entered into the conversation, corrected their “masters,” smoked, joked, laughed, and had drinks. Old Red Coat talked every one down, and boasted incessantly of his own merits, the chief being his stainless honour. He had shot four men in its defence, had his house burnt down four times, and flourished greatly, and was ready any day to shoot four more. He had rewarded his Martini for its part of the work, with four silver coins driven in between the stock and the barrel. He got on very well with his Padre – was not his servant, but his comrade. Outside, crowds of guests were arriving at various houses near, from Shlaku and Berisha and distant parts of Dushmani, all greeted by volleys of rifle and revolver shots, to which the Primæval replied with a revolverful of blank, and Old Red Coat with ball cartridge out of window, and both with piercing yells. And the little brothers of St. Francis sang songs at the top of their powerful voices. I thought how dull London dinner-parties are, and wondered why people ever think they would like to be civilised. This was as good as being Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea-party. And so passed the Eve of St. John. No bonfire-burning took place, and I was assured that the custom is unknown in the mountains, though practised by some of the Scutarenes, which seems to show that it is not an Albanian custom, but brought in from abroad.

A great crowd came to church next day. There were stacks of rifles outside, and within their owners sang “Et in terra pax hominibus.” The Padre of Berisha preached. I could not understand him, but reflected he could have no better subject than “The Voice of One crying in the Wilderness.”

After mass there was a rush for the shooting-ground – the mark was a white stone, and the range short. The Primæval hit often, and a man with a Mauser every time he tried. Those that missed were very close. But it was not difficult, for I hit it myself, with the Primæval’s beloved Martini, which he pressed upon me, adorned as it was with silver coins, to reward it for the lives it had taken.

Drunk with noise, excitement. and the smell of burnt powder, he drew out the hot empty cartridge-cases and breathed in their odour with ecstasy, gasping, “By God, it is good!” It was like blood to a tiger, and made him wild to kill his cousin’s murderer, who had got safe away a year ago, was now in prison in Scutari on another charge, and to be released soon. I asked why he did not tell the Scutari authorities of the murder and let them punish him, but was told he would only get ten years, “and he deserves shooting, as the poor deserve bread.” At this tense moment a rumour spread suddenly that the enemy had been released, and had been seen coming to the feast.

The Primæval dashed off with Martini and revolver, in spite of the shouts of the Franciscans, but it was a false alarm, and he returned unappeased and disappointed – his enemy was still in prison. “Never mind,” said he, “he must come out some day.” And he sat and nursed his Martini, crooning a song, in which he addressed it as his wife and his child, for he wanted no other – his life and his soul—”Not your soul,” said the Padre sharply. “All the soul I want,” said he, incorrigible. His “well-beloved” had cost twelve napoleons, the price of an ordinary wife, and he spent eighty guldens a year – exactly half his income – “feeding” it.

The company discussed weapons. The accuracy and repeating power of the Mauser were admitted, but its bullets were too small to be of any use. “They just go through you and don’t hurt. You can go on fighting all the same.”

A Mirdite had recently taken part in a general squabble, and walked home a long distance. He drank the usual cup of black coffee, and was about to drink a second, when he uttered a cry, collapsed, and died shortly. It was found that he had been shot clean through the body (through the stomach, I believe, from the account); the wound had closed, and there was scarcely any external bleeding. Presumably he was unaware that he had been hit.

To prove the harmlessness of small bullets, a man clapped his right hand against a tree and begged me to fire through the palm with a Mauser pistol; it would make no sort of difference to him. He was quite disappointed at my refusal.

The afternoon passed in paying visits – sitting on heaps of fern in dark dwellings, drinking healths in rakia, chewing sheep-cheese, and firing rifles and revolvers indoors; a noisy joy that peppers oneself and the refreshments with burnt powder and wads. In one yard two girls were slowly turning a whole sheep that, spitted lengthwise, was roasting over a large wood fire. It was stuffed with herbs and sewn up the belly, and of all ways of cooking mutton, this is the most excellent.

By night-time we were all too sleepy to do much sing-song. The Primæval had emptied all his cartridges, and was again busy refilling them.

We had passed a true Albanian day, said the Padre of Toplana: “Duhan, rakia, Pushke, dashtnia” (Tobacco, brandy, guns, and love). I suggested that dashtnia should come first, because maxima est caritas. But they said, not in Albania. And so ended St. John’s Day.

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The Albanian Vocal Telegraph, 1908

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 1627-1635:

Telegraphing in Albania was far quicker than in any other land. Which is a fact. All news is shouted from hill to hill. “Shouting” gives no idea of it. The voice, pitched in a peculiar artificial note, is hurled across the valley with extraordinary force. Any one that catches the message acts as receiver and hurls it on to its address. And within an hour an answer may be received from a place twelve hours’ tramp distant. The physical effort of the shout is great. The brows are corrugated into an expression of agony, both hands often pressed tight against the ears – perhaps an instinctive counterpressure to the force with which the air is expelled from within – the body is thrust forward and swayed, face and neck turn crimson, the veins of the neck swell up into cords. There are few places where it is harder to keep an event secret than in the mountains of Albania. News spreads like wildfire. The fact that a man has been shot upcountry reaches Scutari next day at latest, often with many details.

“Theft is impossible in Kilmeni,” said the Padre, laughing; “the whole tribe hears the description of an article as soon as it is missed. Every one knows if some one has a few more sheep than yesterday.”

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Cross-cutting Tribes, Languages, Religions in Albania

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 1159-1176:

Early marriages make generations rather shorter in Albania than in West Europe.

“The tribe of Hoti,” said the old man, “has many relations. Thirteen generations ago, one Gheg Lazar came to this land with his four sons, and it is from these that we of Hoti descend. I cannot tell the year in which they came. It was soon after the building of the church of Gruda, and that is now 380 years ago. Gruda came before we did. Gheg was one of four brothers. The other three were Piper, Vaso, and Krasni. From these descend the Piperi and Vasojevichi of Montenegro and the Krasnichi of North Albania. So we are four – all related – the Lazakechi (we of Hoti), the Piperkechi, the Vasokechi, and the Kraskechi. They all came from Bosnia to escape the Turks, but from what part I do not know. Yes, they were all Christians. Krasnichi only turned Moslem much later.”

Of these four large tribes, of common origin, Piperi and Vasojevich are now Serbophone and Orthodox. Piperi threw in its lot with Montenegro in 1790, but whether or not it was then Serbophone I have failed to learn. Half of Vasojevich was given to Montenegro after the Treaty of Berlin, the other portion still remains under Turkish rule. Vasojevich considers itself wholly Serb, and is bitter foe to the Albanophone tribes on its borders. Krasnich is Albanophone and fanatically Moslem; Hoti is Albanophone and Roman Catholic.

What turned two tribes into Serbs and two into Albanians, and which was their original tongue, I cannot say; but probably they were of mixed Serbo-Illyrian blood, and their language was influenced by the Church to which either chose to adhere. It is said that the Albanophone Krasnichi were Catholic before turning Turk.

The date three hundred and eighty years ago gives us 1528. In 1463 the Turks conquered and killed the last king of Bosnia; but the whole land was not finally incorporated in the Turkish Empire till 1590 (about). The traditional date of emigration falls well within the period when the Turkish occupation was spreading, so is probably approximately correct. A large communal family, with flocks, would be some time on the way.

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One-sided Albanian Exogamy

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 400-430:

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.

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Albania’s Competing Alphabets, 1908

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 243-264:

One must live in Scutari to realise the amount of spying and wire-pulling carried on by the Powers under pretence of spreading sweetness and light.

The Alphabet question will suffice as a sample. In early days an alphabet was made by Bishop Bogdan, and used by the Jesuits for all Albanian printed matter required by the church. Briefly, it is the Latin alphabet with four additional fancy letters. The spelling used is otherwise as in Italian. Help from without had enabled Greek, Serb, and Bulgar under Turkish rule to have schools in their own tongues. The natural result has been that each in turn has revolted, and, so far as possible, won freedom from Turkish rule. And those that have not yet done so look forward, in spite of the Young Turk, to ultimate union with their kin.

Albania awoke late to the value of education as a means of obtaining national freedom, and demanded national schools. But the Turks, too, had then learnt by experience. They replied, “We have had quite enough of schools in national languages. No, you don’t!” and prohibited, under heavy penalty, not only schools, but the printing of the language.

The only possible schools were those founded by Austria and Italy, ostensibly to give religious instruction. These used the Jesuits’ alphabet. Ten years ago some patriotic Albanians, headed by the Abbot of the Mirdites, decided that the simple Latin alphabet was far more practical. They reconstructed the orthography of the language, using only Latin letters, and offered their simple and practical system to the Austrian schools, volunteering to translate and prepare the necessary books if Austria would print them – neither side to be paid. A whole set of books was made ready and put in use. Education was at last firmly started; it remained only to go forward. But a united and educated Albania was the last thing Austria wished to see. Faced with a patriotic native clergy and a committee striving for national development, Austria recoiled. Three years ago the simple Latin alphabet was thrown out of the Austrian schools and a brand new system adopted, swarming with accents, with several fancy letters, and with innumerable mute “ee’s” printed upside down – a startling effect, as of pages of uncorrected proofs!

It was invented by an influential priest. Its adoption enabled Austria to split the native priesthood into two rival camps, and – as it was not adopted by the Italian schools – to emphasise the difference between the pro-Italian and pro-Austrian parties; and that it was expressly introduced for these purposes no one who has heard all sides can doubt.

Nor can Albanian education make any progress till it has schools in which no foreign Power is allowed to intrigue. Such are now being started.

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Habsburg Austria Like the European Union?

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 188-190:

Habsburg Austria was the last remnant of feudalism that had survived into the early modern and modern ages. Indeed, according to one of the leading historians of the Habsburgs, the late Robert A. Kann, the Austrian Empire was “more diversified … in regard to ethnic, linguistic, and historic traditions” than any other imperium in modern times. “It was closer to the European Community of the twenty-first century” than to other empires of the nineteenth, writes the Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris. The empire sprawled “clean across Central Europe,” observes the late Oxford scholar C. A. Macartney, from the Vorarlberg Alps and Lake Constance in the west to the edge of Moldavia in the east; and from the Polish Carpathians in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south, uniting Germans, Slavs, and Latins. And yet “in no single case,” Macartney goes on, “was one of its political frontiers also an ethnic frontier.” Germans lay inside and outside the empire; so, too, did the Poles, Ukraines, Croats, Romanians, and so on. Thus, as Kissinger states, the Habsburg Empire “could never be part of a structure legitimized by nationalism,” for as nationalism in Europe had an ethnic and religious basis, this polyglot empire would have been torn apart by such a force. Making the Habsburg Empire doubly insecure and so dependent on the status quo was its easily invadable and conquerable geography, compared to that of Great Britain, Russia, and even France.

Habsburg Austria, whose history spans the late thirteenth century to the early twentieth, by simple necessity elevated conservative order to the highest moral principle. Liberalism was held in deep suspicion because freedom could mean not only the liberation of the individual, but the liberation of ethnic groups, which could then come into conflict with one another. Thus toleration, rather than freedom, was encouraged. And because (especially following the Napoleonic Wars) the status quo was sacrosanct in Vienna, so too was the balance of power.

For decades and centuries even, Austria’s sprawling imperium defined European geopolitics. Austria was the highly imperfect solution to Turkish military advances into Central Europe in the sixteenth century and the perennial Panslav stirrings that emanated from Russia, absorbing as Austria did the blows from both forces, even as the Counter-Reformation helped bind the heavily Catholic Habsburg lands together. Austria’s role as a geopolitical balancer was further fortified by its fear of vast, Panslavic, police-state Russia on the one hand and the liberal, democratic, and revolutionary traditions of France and the West on the other. Indeed, Austria’s position as a great power was threatened by Russian imperialsm from the east, while, as Kann puts it, “western liberalism threatened the durability of her domestic structure.” And yet Austria was so often weak, something inherent “in the far-flung nature” of her monarchical possessions and her attendant “extraordinarily cumbersome administrative and decision-making arrangements,” writes Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms. It was Romania’s geographical and historical fate to be caught between and among empires, with its position at the southeastern extremity of Habsburg Austria, the southwestern extremity of Russia’s imperialist ambitions, and the northwestern extremity of those of Ottoman Turkey.

According to other interpretations, Austria itself might have constituted a bourgeoisie civilizing force from the West, altogether benevolent in its influence. For Habsburg culture was reassuring, burgerlich, and sumptuous, at least compared to what those other, bleaker imperiums from the East had to offer—partially defined, as Austria and the Catholic Church were, by the inspirational miracle of Gothic and baroque art. But what Romanians too often received from Habsburg Austria was not inspiring aesthetics but simply the appalling hardship of war, so that the northern Transylvanian Gothic style was to remain an aspirational curiosity amid copious bloodshed as empires clashed.

But the EU lacks a Metternich.

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Michael the Brave Macchiavellian

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 71-72:

Born in 1558, Michael rose to become a leading boyar, or feudal personage, buying up villages and acquiring the throne of Wallachia in 1593 by providing the Ottoman sultanate with the requisite bribes. The next year he initiated a campaign against the same sultanate by inviting Ottoman creditors to a litigation, then locking the doors and burning the building down. This was followed by a general massacre of Turks in Wallachia. In response to Michael’s raids as far south as Adrianople in Thracian Turkey, the sultan’s troops invaded Wallachia in 1595. Michael’s overreach forced him into an alliance with the Hungarian ruler of Transylvania that allowed the Hungarian to subjugate neighboring Moldavia. Nevertheless, the alliance helped Michael defeat a Turkish army at Călugăreni, between Bucharest and the Danube in Muntenia. Yet the tactical victory was not enough to stop Michael’s retreat north toward the Carpathians, in the face of an advance by the Ottomans that saw them take Bucharest. But with reinforcements from Hungarian-controlled Moldavia and Transylvania, Michael was able to force the Turks southward. The Ottomans, now preoccupied with a war against the Austrian Habsburgs, made a temporary truce with Michael in 1598. The Poles meanwhile had invaded Moldavia, toppling the Hungarians there and removing Moldavia from the anti-Ottoman alliance. The alliance completely collapsed when the Hungarians made a deal with the Austrians over Transylvania. So Michael, rather than continue to fight the Turks, began to negotiate with both them and the Austrians for recognition of his right to retain the throne of Wallachia. But the Turks wanted too much tribute and so Michael made an alliance with the Austrians instead. Then the Poles, who held sway in Moldavia, forced the Hungarian rulers in Transylvania to break their alliance with the Austrians. This led, through more convolutions, to a deal between Christian Transylvania, Christian Moldavia, and Muslim Turkey. Michael then entered negotiations with the Turks, even as he plotted with the Austrians to topple the Hungarians in Transylvania. Michael’s successful invasion of Transylvania was secured at the Battle of Selimbar, near Sibiu, in 1599. In 1600, now in charge of both Wallachia and Transylvania, Michael invaded pro-Polish Moldavia. The victory there allowed Michael to claim the unity of all three core-Romanian principalities. But later the same year, the Austrians defeated Michael in Transylvania and the Poles defeated him in Moldavia. Michael responded by entering into negotiations with the Austrians. The Hungarians in Transylvania, fearing a deal between Michael and the Habsburgs, assassinated him near Cluj in 1601.

Romania, in this reading, emerges from the travails of history as an even more intense version of early modern Europe itself: nothing is ever secure and more bloodshed always lies in wait. If European history is a nightmare, then that of Romania is doubly so. The very unswerving energy of Michael the Brave—operating for years on end at levels of stress that would immobilize the average Western politician in the twenty-first century—was a mere requirement of any warlord of the age. And if Michael as a late Renaissance man could not conceive of a unitary Romanian state, his accomplishment, nevertheless—and however short-lived—gave Romanian speakers of later eras a vision of what was politically possible.

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