In the photograph: The abduction of the bride among Catholic peasants. Photo by Alexandre de Grande 1980s. Source: http://www.albanianphotography.net/

Among the classic studies of customary law [Kanun] in the society of the Northern Albanian Ghegs, research conducted by the Catholic clergy is particularly rich for its combination of legal and political analyses as well as ethnographic details.  Yet, while the work by the Franciscan Shtjefen Gjeçov [Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjin, first serialized in the magazine Hylli i Dritës in 1913, then published posthumously as a book in 1933], is widely known thanks to translations in several languages, precious material published originally in Italian or Albanian has not had a similar diffusion.

We found a trove of stories dealing with blood feuds and the Kanun in the reports that Jesuit missionaries in northern Albania and Kosovo sent back home to their provincial authorities at the turn of the nineteenth century. These Italian Fathers did not share the nationalist fervor of Gjeçov, who codified the traditional unwritten law focusing on its uniqueness, but did not quite remained detached observers. Deployed in the field, they could neither completely ignore local notions of morality, nor simply denounce their contradictions with religious principles, as did the highest authorities of the Church. Their approach was instead both analytical and practical. They studied and understood the traditional customs of the mountain Albanian tribes, and even when shocked by what they considered unjust or intolerable, they managed to make a pragmatic distinction between what should be abandoned and what could be salvaged in order to make virtuous Catholics of the men of the Kanun.

For those Fathers, two were the most egregious abuses of customary law: the practice of concubinage, and the blood feuds. They dealt with them using all the means at their disposal, including forms of punishments or mediation foreign to their sense of justice: for example, burning the house of the person living with a woman who was not his wife, or resorting to guarantors who might punish violators of besa with murder, inciting further vengeance.

Luckily for us, the Jesuits travelled through the Archdiocese of Skopje and Shkodra, following an old organizational model practiced in distant regions such as the Far East and the Americas, moving from parish to parish in groups of two, the so-called missione volante [literally, flying mission, in the sense of visiting mission]. In the same missionary tradition that produced volumes of observations and analysis of the non-European world during the eighteenth century, they sent lettere edificanti (reports), to the Provincia Veneta of the Compagnia di Gesù, to inform their superiors and the public about their mission in Albania. The authors of the lettere are Father Domenico Pasi, from Verona, Father Francesco Genovizzi, from Bergamo, and Father Angelo Sereggi, an Albanian from Shkodra.

Two books inspired us to translate the stories that the Jesuits sent home: Giuseppe Valentini (ed.), La Legge delle Montagne Albanesi nelle relazioni della missione volante . 1880-1932 [The Law of the Albanian Mountains in the reports of the visiting mission. 1880-1932], Firenze: Leo. S. Olschki Editore, 1969; and Father Fulvio Cordignano, L’Albania a traverso l’opera e gli scritti di un grande Missionario italiano il P. Domenico Pasi S.I. (1847-1914) [Albania in the works and writings of a great Italian Missionary, Father Domenico Pasi S. I.] Vol. II, Roma: Istituto per l’Europa Orientale, 1934. Valentini [1900-1979], trained as a Jesuit, and a former missionary turned professor of Albanian studies at the University of Palermo during the Second World War, is also the author of further studies on the Albanian customary law. Father Cordignano (1887-1952) working in Albania from 1926 to 1941 as a member of the missione volante, became a renowned scholar of Albanian studies.

A Higher Motive for Reconciliation in Novosela

On February 10, 1893, the Jesuit Fathers Domenico Pasi and Angelo Sereggi, this latter from Shkodra, traveled to the north of Gjakova, to Upper Novosela, which was formed by 32 Catholic families of Fandesi [from the mountains of Fandi]. This village became the base for daily visits to surrounding villages, whose Catholic inhabitants were either Fandesi or from Merturi [Berisha].  

In Novosela there was no church, but Nëkollë Gjetja had loaned his house to the Mission and Father Pasi moved the altar to the front door, so the women could be inside the house, and the men and youth outside. On the sixth day of the Mission, the Father asked whether there was anyone who would forgive an offense or injury in the name of Jesus Christ.  Below, Father Pasi’s story:

“Nëkollë Gjetja who was near me said, ‘Father, call Gini and make him forgive.’  Gini was the Fandese from Palabardh who had been so hospitable in his village […]. Some days earlier, Gini had come to me, and while I confessed him, he said, ‘Father, I would not miss confession for anything in the world these days, but I cannot do it before telling you in which state I find myself, because I know that one cannot steal an absolution. Some year ago, while in a nearby village they were shooting in the air because a bride had arrived, a bullet fell in my courtyard and wounded a little boy from my family who was blinded in one eye. It was not intentional, it was really an accident, and I, even though according to the world could exact half blood, that is, a wound, knowing that the perpetrator was not guilty, would have forgiven him if he had asked me.’ But instead things went another way and that person who shot in the air was krusck, or a person of the escort of the bride, and he wanted that the wound did not go to him, but to the head of the household where the bride was going, because he had shot for her. Instead, the head of the household wanted that the wound be attributed to that who had caused the injury.

Our Gini told the two litigious men, ‘The fact of the wound is certain, that I have the right to half blood is certain, that one of you owes me this blood is certain, now tell me with whom I should deal, whether with the one who shot and wounded, with the one who got married, with both of you, but do not leave me suspended, don’t make me the joke of the people; let’s come to an agreement and do not make a casual wound the beginning of a chain of bloods.’  Despite all this, many years passed without a decision about who was the one who had to pay for that wound; and this was a dishonor for the poor Gini, who appeared to the world as a coward not to be feared, and people began to make fun of him and gossip about him, and he found himself to be forced to a vengeance he did not want, and which would certainly have bad consequences for him, because none of the two to whom the blood belonged wanted to recognize his debt, and thus had Gini shot any of the two, he would have caused an injury which would have called for a new blood.

Now, Gini wanted to confess, but he saw he could not do it before coming to an understanding about this problem with the father confessor. I asked him whether he felt like forgiving the injury on those holy days . ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘I would sincerely forgive it, and without asking for anything in return, because I know the injury was not intentional, but I would need that the ones who are responsible recognize that they owe me and ask for forgiveness. If they do not do this, which saves my honor, it is impossible for me to forgive, because I would become the joke of the village. I cannot forgive if the person who offended me does not ask for forgiveness, on the contrary, he does not care and shows contempt for me.’

I suggested him to make it clear that he would come to an agreement when the two who fought to avoid that blood asked him. ‘Father,’ he answered, ‘we told them and we begged them to not leave me and themselves in this state, but the Lord made them blind and they said they don’t care about me, maybe because they know that I am averse to spilling blood and fighting, and they force me to a vengeance that I don’t want.’

I told him to wait for a few days, to come to the Mission, and I personally would talk to his debtors. And I did it, but he had not had any answers, by the time, after the sermon on forgiveness, that we tried to reconcile the bloods. I had already decided to begin with Gini, who was well disposed to it, and when Nëkollë Gjetja told me to call Gini, I raised my voice and said, ‘Where are you Gini?’ And he said that he was in a nearby room, looking at the function from the door, and he immediately cut across the crowd and come to me, waiting for what I would say to him. ‘Gini,’ I said, ‘many among those who are here have hatreds to forgive for the love of Jesus Christ, and they desire to do it and be blessed on this day; someone has to begin, give the good example. Forgive the person who injured the boy and come to kiss the cross and receive the blessing for you and your family.’

Gini, as I said, was a good man, and would not have happily taken revenge on the person who injured the boy, but he needed another reason to forgive in order to save his honor publicly. Well, now he had one and immediately said, ‘Yes, I forgive for the love of Jesus Christ,’ and kissed the cross. Then, he called the other people in his family to kiss the cross, and they did it.”

After the forgiveness of Gini, others followed. One forgave the murder of a friend. A woman forgave the blood of her brother. Because she was alone, a man from another village had taken upon himself the task of avenging her; she told him to stop. The mission was considered a great success, because all the bloods were reconciled without any exchange of money, in fact when one asked for blood money, everybody protested, saying that forgiving in the name of Jesus Christ must be done without interest or gain.
Fulvio Cordignano, L’Albania a traverso l’opera e gli scritti di un grande Missionario italiano il P. Domenico Pasi S. I. Volume II, Roma: Istituto per l’Europa Orientale, 1934, pp. 157-62.