What Jesuit Missionaries Discovered about Blood Feuds and Reconciliation

Photo by: Alexandre Degrand. In the photo: The kaimakam of Mirdita, Gjon Marku, Don Domenico, Summa my dragoman and the brothers and the guards of the kaimakam, 1890s. 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.

Photo by: Alexandre Degrand.In the photo: Procession in the yard of the cathedral in Shkodra, 1890s. Source: http:www.albanianphotography.net


“It wasn’t the governor, nor the tribe which had come to ask for forgiveness, but the ministers of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ himself.”

1893, March 11 – Kiri

Someone had publicly offended the bajraktar (standard bearer). To avoid an immediate vengeance, the offender would have had to give a pledge and submit to the elders, that is, to the judgment of the village leaders.  He would also have had to give gifts right and left in order to obtain a milder sentence. Maybe the judgment of the elders would not have been accepted and trouble would have followed. So, we called the bajraktar and in front of the Bishop and the missionaries, we begged him to forgive everything for the love of Jesus Christ and the saint of that day. He was a very reasonable and conscientious man, and he did it.

By chance that day a guy from Sciosci [Shoshi] was in Kiri; he had some trouble with a leader of Kiri, Lul-Pali, for some bloods between the two vllazni (brotherhood). Everyone knows that the reconciliation of bloods done by the government at different times does not work at all, because it is forced, and the government only provide guarantees for four years: if peace is broken within those four years, and blood is taken, the government punishes you; if one takes the blood after the fours years, there is nothing to fear because the government is responsible only for four years.

Now, the Christian man from Shoshi, though reconciled by the government with Lul-Pali, knew that on the first occasion he would be killed, and seeing all those reconciliations in the villages, he hoped to be forgiven. He begged the Bishop and me to help him obtain forgiveness, to go to the family of his enemy who lived near the church, and with the cross in our hands obtain that grace for the love of Jesus Christ. It was a difficult case, because Lul-Pali was a proud man, well-known for the murders he had committed, for which he had also been arrested and sent to exile. He then escaped and returned to his mountains but he couldn’t come down the city, or the government would arrest him. Further, the forgiveness was not to someone in the village, but to someone from another village and another bajrak, a much more difficult case. We did not hope much, also because Lul-Pali, suspecting that we would have tried, had sent notice, “Don’t even think about it.” Trying was not a problem, because we would obtain forgiveness either on this occasion or never.  

We then went, the Bishop, the prefect, the parish priest and the missionaries, to the house of Lul-Pali. People who saw us guessed what we were doing, and followed us, and when we got to the house it was full of people. They were in part curious people, partly hoping to drink some glass of raki on that occasion, while others were there because interested in that reconciliation.

As soon as Lul-Pali saw us, he understood the goal of the visit. The bishop signalled to me that I should talk, and in a total silence, I began with thanking Lul-Pali for the help given to the Mission by hosting everyday people who lived too distant from the church and stayed at his place to eat and sleep, and also because he had engaged in the reconciliation of bloods and enmities; and I begged him that after having been such model for the village, he would also do something which would have been the best thing done in those days: to reconcile with the family of Shoshi with which he was in enmity and for the love of Jesus Christ forget the past, and bury the past with a generous forgiveness. Lul-Pali wanted to avoid it. He said that the government had already reconciled the case, that he was home alone, that his brother war far, that before talking to him he could not do anything, and all those excuses that are usual in such circumstances.

But we cut him short. We told him that today’s ceremony was not profane but sacred: it wasn’t the governor, nor the tribe which had come to ask for forgiveness, but the ministers of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ himself who had done and suffered so much for us (and here I pulled the cross and placed it in front of him), Jesus Christ who in those days had blessed everyone and did not want to leave that house without blessing it etc. etc.  “Don’t make it too long and tell us now and clearly what could you do for the love of Jesus Christ.” Lul-Pali did not say anything, but took off his hat, crossed himself three times, took the cross, kissed it three times, touched his forehead with it three times, and gave it back to me saying, “I kioft alhalh” (May he be forgiven). Everyone was moved and said, “Kiose face e bardh,” (May you always have a white face, or honor).

I stood up and blessed him and his family with the cross, asking God for all the best in the world for them.  I asked the person who had been forgiven, who was among the crowd, to come closer. Lul-Pali hugged him and repeated, “May you be forgiven.” The other took his gun and gave it to him in sign of thanks. Lul-Pali said he had forgiven for the love of Jesus Christ and did not want to get anything, but the other insisted and everyone said, “Take it, take it,” and he took it.  It is a common ceremony. We already know that in those circumstances, if the offended forgives, the other must give him a gift more or less precious, according to circumstances of the two enemies and the forgiven offense. Then the pardoned brought two jebrik, or terracotta vases full of raki, and distributed it, beginning from the Bishop. After the usual “Glory to Jesus Christ,” which we always say holding the glass before drinking, we wished the one who forgave, as it is usual in such circumstances, to always have a white face, that God would reward him for the mercy shown, and so on. The Bishop and we, the other clergy, drank two glasses, then stood up and left while the others continued.

Father Domenico Pasi S. J.

Lettera Edificante della Provincia Veneta della Compagnia di Gesù; Serie V, pp. 106-108.

In: Giuseppe Valentini (ed.), La Legge delle Montagne Albanesi nelle relazioni della missione volante . 1880-1932, Firenze: Leo. S. Olschki Editore, 1969, pp. 84-86.

Photo by: Alexandre Degrand.In the photo: View of the fish weirs in Lake Shkodra, 1890s. Source: http://www.albanianphotography.net/


The Vali and the Bishop

1893, March 11 – Kiri.

The best outcome of this mission was a law that banned the scandal of living with women in concubinage, without the blessing of marriage. This, as we said many times before, is the major plague of the mountains. Here, there is no idea of marriage. They do not know the affinity born of the sacrament of marriage. They marry only for base and vile human reasons. When Monsignor Marconi arrived, everywhere in the diocese there were illegitimate unions with the sister–in-law, the uncle’s, the son’s, the cousin’s wife, kept in the house or given as a wife to someone in the family when the husband died.

The Bishops and the priest always fought against this abuse, using ecclesiastical censure, but with small success. The people here did not care about the prohibitions, because of customs, passion, interest, honor,  and the hope of being able to confess before dying and be forgiven the censure. As soon as he became Bishop of Pulati [Pult], Monsignor Marconi tried something else. Beside the ecclesiastical censures, he used also the secular arm; he asked and obtained the Government’s support. And the Government immediately acted.

His Excellency Kerim Pasha, Vali of Scutari [Shkodra], convened the heads of Pulati and after welcoming them with good and pleasant manners, began to talk to them in this way, “Do you know why I called you?” Those answered, “No, Excellency, we know nothing.” And he, “They told me that you have the desire of changing your religion and pass to Mohammedanism.” Those were surprised by such statement and said, “No Excellency, we never said such thing, we are Christian and desire to keep our religion.” And the Governor,  “You talk like this perhaps because you fear to be punished for this change of religion. But don’t fear anything, because I promise that nothing bad will happen to you, on the contrary, you will be very happy and I will help you as I can.”

Seeing that the governor insisted, they were embarrassed to receive such proposal. And answered, “Excellency, we are Christians, our ancestors were always Christian, and they died Christian: we also desired to live and die in this religion. We are ready to obey the Sultan, His Excellency the governor, but regarding religion we beg you not to annoy us anymore, because we don’t feel like changing.” Then the governor deposed the mask which he had worn until then, took a letter that he had kept on the desk and said, “Here, a letter of your Bishop that says that you, though Christian, live as if you weren’t, and openly do things that your religion forbids, because you kill, rob and live with women as wives while your religion does not allow you to do that…Well, if you don’t want to be Christian anymore, you are free and nobody will stop you, but if you want to remain Christian you must obey your Bishop and live according to the rules of your religion.” And he dismissed them.

This preaching was effective, because it showed that the Governor and the Bishop were in agreement and the Governor helped the Bishop. Seeing that the spiritual and temporal branches were united against them, the mountain people declared defeat and separated from the women that they had illegitimately kept as wives.

To stop them from going back to that custom, the Bishop thought another thing. Without telling them why, the Bishop convened the heads of Giovanni [Shëngjin] and Planti [Plani] in Kiri on Sunday 12 March, the day of the closing of the Mission. After lunch, the heads of the three flags gathered in the field near the church and sat down in circle, waiting for the bishop and the missionaries to tell them the reason of that assembly. Then His Excellency the Bishop lauded first the commitment they had shown the Mission in their parish, and the visible results, exhorted them to continue, and proposed that the three flags unite to make a law that banned living with women in sin, whether they were relatives or not, and asked to observe the laws of the Holy Church. Whoever had sinned until now could have excused himself claiming ignorance, customs or other pretexts; now the time had come that whoever was Christian had to show it with his actions, without staining religion.

After the Bishop finished talking, Prel Nika of Planti talked. He was a well-known speaker, and he said that according to the rules they could not make this law, because of the five flags of the government of Scutari, the first is Shala, the second Shoshi, then their three. Shala and Shoshi had to begin and they would follow. However, this was not an issue of civil affairs, but ecclesiastical, and the Missionaries had not been in Shala or Shoshi, but only in Giovanni, Planti and Kiri and there was no reason to follow precedents. If these latter agreed on this law, the others would have followed.

The conclusion was a law by the three flags of Giovanni, Planti and Kiri, according to which nobody would be living with a woman in sin, without the blessing of their union by a priest. If someone broke this law, he would have to pay one thousand piastre (200 Francs) to the village and two sheep to the Bülükbaci, or the employee of the Government for the affairs of the mountains, and this in order to have also the support of the government. After paying the fine, the guilty one would have also to send back the woman. If he did not want to do it, he would be ipso facto excommunicated from the village, and nobody would have been with him on holy days, funerals, work, nor offered offense or defense in case of a blood or something else. If someone in the village helped him, he would be fined one bull, which the three flags would eat. This is the worst punishment that could accompany a law of the mountain, where everyone needs help from others, because they cannot live in isolation in the village. His Excellency the Bishop approved the law and promised that he would help.

When we thought that everything was fine and we thanked the Lord, the devil tried to ruin the work of God with an incident that we need to tell in order to teach other Missionaries how to deal with reconciliation. In the two families that forgave blood, there were only women and children, and because there was solidarity among the relatives of the victim regarding blood, close relatives of the victims were looking for blood until the orphans grew up and could have been charged with taking the blood of their father.  There was someone who thought about secretly promising 500 piastre (100 francs) to each of the relatives who wanted blood, so they would ask women and children to forgive, or at least not oppose it. Because sometimes what happens is that it is more difficult for a distant relative to forgive than for the close relatives, so it does not look like they do not care about the blood, that if the victim were close he would not have forgiven, but because he is distant he forgives, and leaves him without being avenged.

The same killers had sent message that beside the usual blood money they would have given something more. There was no time to make the deal quietly; we proceeded a bit amateurishly, the blood was forgiven and the guarantors were already in place, but nobody talked about what had been secretly agreed, that is, the 500 piastre, the 100 francs, to be given under the table to those who had worked towards the reconciliation.

But when the killers saw that the blood had been forgiven and the guarantors were in place, they refused to pay anything else. Until then, we had not known anything about the secret commitments. Now, when the people involved saw that the 500 piastre had been lost and there was no point in negotiating in secret, they openly declared that if the family of the victims, that is, the women and the orphans, had forgiven the blood, they had not forgiven it; and if nobody cared that they did not forgive, the guilty ones should go to their homes and work their fields, if they had the courage. It was a general disappointment; we saw all the work done for the reconciliation go lost; we tried to fix things; impossible. We cried, we argued until evening, and finally the two parties went home protesting and threatening.

We had to go to Shoshi with the Prefect, and His Excellency the Bishop went to his residence in Giovanni. In the early morning the two parties came to church for the Holy Mass, I am not sure if just for it or to try to reconcile. But issues of interest among mountain people are terrible, and before they pay or lose 20 piastre they make all possible effort. Here the case was to gain or lose 500 piastre, and until they saw that they were forced to pay or give up, nobody gave up.  We said a few good words, we recommended the friends and the heads of the tribes to keep the reconciliation and we left, the Bishop for Giovanni and we for Shoshi. A few days after my arrival in Shoshi, I got a letter from the Bishop that said he had gone to Kiri again and had cut the evil in half, and each party was happy with 250.

I learn from this that in the reconciliation of bloods and enmities we should only use religion and ask to forgive for the love of Jesus Christ; if human interests enter in this, the best part of reconciliation is lost, gossips and disappointments follow and peace does not last long. Moreover, it is opportune that before closing the deal all the steps are made and all is clear and sure if needed, with pledges and guarantees. If something is not well decided, the smallest argument is enough to ruin everything. Moreover, the priest must mediate and encourage forgiveness, but without promises or guarantees; nor should he trust promises by others, even strong ones, if he does not have pledges or guarantees. In fact, he should not get pledges  and guarantors, but let the pledges be deposited with the most important people in the village, and those should chose the guarantors, so the priest will not meet hatred and disappointment.

Father Domenico Pasi S. J.

Lettera Edificante della Provincia Veneta della Compagnia di Gesù; Serie V, pp. 106-108.

In: Giuseppe Valentini (ed.), La Legge delle Montagne Albanesi nelle relazioni della missione volante . 1880-1932, Firenze: Leo. S. Olschki Editore, 1969, pp. 86-88.

Photo by: Alexandre Degrand. In the photo: The Drin River below Scutari, 1890s. Source: http://www.albanianphotography.net/


“Unhappy people! They find themselves in a very sad situation for lack of government and justice!”

1891 – Lent

There was a very moving case in Bugioni.

A twenty year old young man comes to me and tells me, “Father, I really desire to confess, I want to confess, but first I want to tell you the situation I am in, because I know that if I cheat on an confession the absolution has no value, because one cannot cheat with God.”

“Ok, tell me what it is about.”

“Let me tell you very clearly: I am trying to avenge a blood, but please understand, this blood is not like the others, and if you want, you can confess me. Some years ago some thieves came to my stable at night to steal sheep; without knowing who they were, my brother shot them and killed one. The dead was from Berisha. The next day his family burned our house, and hurt us as much as they could; they continued to follow us to take revenge, and almost every night our house was surrounded by people who threatened us and never left us in peace. The time came when the government ordered the reconciliation of all bloods, and we had to sell our livestock and land, and became poor to collect the six borse (six hundred francs) to pay blood money to the brother of the killed. A little later this person betrayed us, and killed my brother for that blood that had already been forgiven, and if he could, tomorrow he would also kill me, to completely destroy my family. You can see that in this case I cannot do anything else but kill that man.”

“No, you cannot kill him: your religion forbids that.”

“What do you mean, I cannot? Don’t you see that he committed such an outrageous injustice?”

“Yes, this is true, but the Lord wants us to forgive those who hurt us and does not want us to take revenge.”

“If it were another injury, yes, but in this case it is impossible to forgive.  You are a priest, but if someone treated you the way my rival treated my family and me, would you forgive him and let him treat you in such a vile way, as a man of no value? After the damages received?”

“But you are not trying to kill only the murderer of your brother, who would like to kill you and destroy your family, but are willing to kill anyone in his family, or in his vllazni [brotherhood].”

“No, others do this in similar cases, but if today I met the son of the killer of my brother I would not touch him, because I know he is innocent; I only intend to take revenge on the five people who are guilty, who participated in the death of my brother and in the damaged done to my family.”

I tried to inspire him to forgive, but it was all useless.

“If I forgave him, “ he said, “I would be dishonored in front of all the people from the mountains; my relatives would turn against me, and they would burn my house, and everyone would feel entitled to injure me.”

He begged me to confess him, because he had to do what he had to do, and added, “Had I wanted to lie to you, I would have confessed without telling you anything, but I did not do it. I am ready to subject to any punishment, but I must confess, because I am not sure I will live, and maybe I will not see you anymore.”

He was telling me this more with his heart than with his mouth. He hugged me and I was crying, but how to do it differently, if the Albanian Council clearly forbids absolving those who don’t renounce vengeance? It is true that theologians and especially Cardinal De Lugo, dealing with similar private vengeance done with moderation, and in places where there is no authority that punishes the murderers and keeps law and order, resolve these cases in ways that are favorable to the person who is looking for absolution. But it is also true that the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fide has an answer dated May 9, 1763 that says, “licitum non esse hominibus privatis in iniurias ulcisci, licet in iis locis degant, in quibus nemo est qui vindicandis criminibus praesit; proindeque eosdem, nisi animum ulciscendi deponant, non esse absolvendos”  [one is not allowed to seek private vengeance of an injustice, even if he lives in places where there is nobody who can adjudicate crimes to be avenged, and for this reason those who do not renounce vengeance will not be absolved].

So I had to leave him without listening to his confession. Two days later, I saw him again in another village, where he had followed me, and he insisted so much to be confessed and he lobbied so well, that I was moved to tears. Unhappy people! They find themselves in a very sad situation for lack of government and justice!

Father Domenico Pasi S.J.

Lettera Edificante della Provincia Veneta della Compagnia di Gesù; Serie IV, pp. 93-94.

In: Giuseppe Valentini (ed.), La Legge delle Montagne Albanesi nelle relazioni della missione volante . 1880-1932, Firenze: Leo. S. Olschki Editore, 1969, pp. 51-52.