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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Mafia's origins

Today's selection -- from The Italians by Luigi Barzini. The Sicilian mafia, which predates and is separate from the American Mafia, had its origins in the frequent invasions of Sicily, the resulting centuries of violence, and the tattered remnants of the chivalric code brought by the Normans a thousand years ago:

"Nobody really knows what the word [mafia] means, where it came from, [or] where the thing originated. ... Sicilians mention the word reluctantly, and only to make themselves understood when talking to main­land Italians or to foreigners. They prefer to call it the onorata società, or honoured association, or some other name. The members are usually known as gli amici, the friends, or gliamici degli amici, the friends of friends. Sober businessmen in Palermo use a brisk, modern,businesslike term, when mentioning the influen­tial Mafia men they occasionally turn to for help in a difficult predicament: they call them uomini qualificati, qualified men, specialists.

"This much is known of the Mafia's origins: for centuries land­owners used to set up private little armies of their own to defend their families and estates from marauding bandits. There were few roads, the island was wretchedly governed by rapacious foreigners, revolt against alien laws and institutions was endemic. These so-called compagnie d'armi maintained some sort of primitive justice by drastic means: as they had no courts of law and no prisons they had to punish the smallest crime with the death sentence. Justice was conceived as something innate in man: wrongs were righted, the weak defended, robbers punished, the outraged virgins married off to their seducers, according to what was, in reality, a rough peasant version of the code of chivalry which the Norman invaders had brought to the island in 1070, and which had been kept alive by the teatro dei pupi the puppets' theatre, frequented by grown-ups as well as children, dedicated to the noble feats of Charlemagne's knights./.../

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