The Meaning of ‘Mafia’

By Stephen Basdeo

The early 1860s in Italy was a decade of hope.

King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had, with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s help, unified the whole of the Italian peninsula under his rule, where previously the region had been divided into a number of small petty kingdoms, often ruled by foreigners.

It seemed like the dream of the Italian radicals – that of the Risorgimento (‘rebirth’) – had finally been realised, a sentiment that is reflected in the Cango degli Italiani (1847), which is now used as the Italian national anthem:

Noi fummo da secoli [We were for centuries]

Calpesti, derisi [Downtrodden, derided,]

Perché non siam popolo, [Because we were not one people,]

Perché siam divisi. [Because we were divided.]

Raccolgaci un’unica Bandiera, una speme: [Let one flag, one hope gather us all]

Di fonderci insieme Già l’ora suonò. [The hour has struck for us to unite].

Yet the dream turned sour and far from a unification it looked increasingly as though Piedmont-Sardinia had merely conquered or colonised the rest of Italy – Victor Emmanuel even retained the regnal number ‘II’, instead of opting to be named Victor Emannuel I of Italy. Some of the tax and conscription measures passed by the new government prompted angry rebellions in the southern part of the peninsula and banditry became rife, which of course made the government send troops into the region to put down the bands of brigands that flourished there.

Banndits 4
Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

If the southern part of the mainland had its problems, Sicily was deemed to be virtually lawless. Sicilians had often been viewed by northern mainlanders, if not with contempt and suspicion, at least as an exotic ‘Other’. They were to all intents and purposes a separate people with their own customs. Law enforcement here was practically non-existent which, as in the region of Naples, still suffered from endemic banditry.

According to Robert M. Dainotto, about this time a new word appeared in the Italian language which was ‘shrouded in mystery, eerie in sound, mysterious in origin, menacing in the images it evoked’.

The word was mafia.

It is true that the word had been around before; a record from the Inquisition in 1685 lists a case of alleged witchcraft as maffia, and a successful but short lived play by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca entitled The Mafioisi of Viccaria (1863) used the word to describe a set of law-breakers.

The word originally signified a state of mind, an attitude that was opposed to all forms of central and governmental authority, and only later was it applied to paramilitary groups which had been hired by Sicilian landowners to protect their estates from brigands. It was a marriage of convenience; it gave men from the poorer classes a wage and an escape route from dire poverty while more affluent citizens could carry on their businesses without hindrance from brigands.

Yet these ‘mafia’ paramilitary groups soon became aware of just how powerful they were – they sought to gain the upper hand over the Sicilian propertied classes by controlling local businesses and taking a cut out of their takings, while in some cases they even ejected business owners and farmers from their properties.

The first notable instance we have of a mafia-style group taking extorting money from and then taking control of a thriving business occurred in the 1870s. Just like they are today, back in the 1800s, Sicilian lemons were popular with consumers, and anyone who bought into the citrus business could make themselves a nice profit.

lemon
Italian lemon grove

So Dr Gaspare Galati thought when he inherited an already thriving large lemon grove with state-of-the-art irrigation pumps in 1872. The warden of the farm, a man called Benedetto Carollo, began taking many of the lemons under Galati’s nose and selling them for his own gain. Carollo’s main purpose, however, was to run the business into the ground so others could buy the farm for a negligible amount. Carollo was sacked and his replacement was shot; the perpetrator was identified as a man named Signor Giamonna, who according to the local authorities was a pillar of the community. Although Giamonna attempted to murder the new warden, Giammona visited him at his sickbed and apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’, after which the replacement warden retracted his accusation and Giamonna never faced any consequences for his attempted murder.

In 1875, feeling exasperated and powerless, Dr Galati abandoned the lemon grove and it was taken over by Giamonna.

In the same year, a Professor of History named Pasquale Villari decided to turn his attention to the problem of lawlessness in Sicily. In his Southern Letters (1875), he attributed the rising crime rate in Sicily to the dire economic inequality of the region and to the fact that the policies of central government were widely disliked, and he used the word ‘mafia’ to describe the groups of law-breakers and paramilitary ‘protection’ groups which flourished in the region.

220px-Pasquale_Villari
Pasquale Villari

Dr Galati decided to get in touch with Villari and relate his experiences with these new mafia-style groups, detailing their strange rituals and outlining their crimes in exact detail. Giamonna’s mafia group seemed all-powerful and sinister, willing to even resort to murder if they were crossed.

It was in Villari’s Southern Letters, therefore, that the Mafia, as we understand it today, was born.

The information for this post is taken from a reading of Robert M. Dainotto’s The Mafia: A Cultural History (2015), particularly chapter one.

 

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Outlaws vs. Vampires

By Stephen Basdeo

Vampires first appeared in English popular culture with the publication of Robert Southey’s epic narrative poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Thalaba’s bride, Oneiza, dies on their wedding day, but she returns afterwards because her body had been reanimated when a demonic spirit invades her body:

Like the reflection in a sulphur fire

And in that hideous light,

Oneiza stood before them, it was she –

Her very lineaments, and such as death

Had changed them, livid cheeks, and lips of blue.

But in her eyes there dwelt

Brightness more terrible

Than all the loathsomeness of death.[i]

After the publication of Thalaba, vampyres would become a prominent feature of English gothic fiction; two notable Victorian examples are James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Varney_the_Vampire_or_the_Feast_of_Blood
Frontispiece to “Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood” (c) Wikimedia Commons

 

Between the appearance of Thalaba and Varney the Vampyre, however, another vampire novel was written by John Polidori entitled The Vampyre (1819). The idea for The Vampyre was conceived on the same night as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). While entertaining his friends, Mary Godwin, Percy B. Shelley, Polidori, and Clare Claremont, at his house on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816, Byron suggested that each of them should write a ghost story after having read aloud to each other extracts from Fantasmagoriana (1812). When Polidori returned to England, The Vampyre was published, although at the time it was attributed to Byron, much to his annoyance.

Vampyre-Byron-Illustrated
Title page of Polidori’s The Vampyre – erroneously attributed to Lord Byron as late as 1884 (c) Wikimedia Commons

The Vampyre tells the story of Aubrey, a young English nobleman who, when he makes his debut into society, is entranced by a mysterious and aloof figure called Lord Ruthven:

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate.[ii]

One of the legends surrounding this mysterious man is that all who friends with him become usually end up experiencing some kind of misfortune. Nevertheless, Aubrey eventually becomes well-acquainted with this mysterious figure and the pair go on a tour of the continent together. At the time that Polidori was writing, it was very common for young noblemen, and the aspirant sons of the upper middle classes, to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as part of their education. As a man of high morals, however, Aubrey disagrees with Ruthven’s typical ‘aristocratic’ lifestyle, which mainly involves sleeping around with women, and the pair take their leave of each other.

Bandit 1
Illustration of a bandit from Charles Macfarlane’s Lives of the Banditti and Robbers (1833)

Aubrey travels on to Greece where, in the course of his antiquarian research into Ancient Greek monuments at Athens, he meets and falls in love with a young girl named Ianthe. However, one night she is killed in a very unusual manner:

There was no colour about her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: –– upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.[iii]

The locals immediately attribute Ianthe’s death to a vampire attack. Aubrey falls into a deep depression for several weeks and during much of the time he is insensible. When he recovers, he is startled to find that one of the men caring for him is Ruthven, who was also recently arrived in Athens. Gradually recovering, Aubrey asks Ruthven if they can begin making their way back to other parts of Greece because Athens holds too many unhappy memories.

While travelling in the northern part of Greece, Ruthven, Aubrey, and his party are attacked by bandits. Banditry always flourishes in parts of the world where the government is weak and unable to effectively enforce the law. Nineteenth-century Greece was such a place; since the fifteenth century it had been ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire but by 1819, which was when Polidori published his book, Ottoman rule in Greece was on its last legs. A war of independence would break out in 1821 and last until 1830. There was a lot of sympathy for the Greek revolutionaries; firstly they were Christians fighting against “heathen” overlords, so many in Western Europe warmed to their cause; and because Ancient Greece was viewed as the birthplace of Western civilisation, at a time of European international supremacy, it was thought by many governments and members of the public that the Greeks should be supported in their cause. Thus, members of the public in London, through the London Philhellenic Committee, raised £2,800,000 to enable the Greeks to buy arms. Some Brits took a more active role in the Greek Revolution, notably Lord Byron, who took up arms and joined the Greek rebels. While the Mediterranean countries had historically had problems with bandits, the problem got worse with the decline of Ottoman rule.

Banndits 4
Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

While Aubrey tells us in The Vampyre that he set little store upon accounts of banditry, and both he and Lord Ruthven decline the assistance of armed guards and take only two escorts with them. They soon regret this decision, however:

Scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of the rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him—his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.[iv]

Aubrey pleads with the robbers to allow him to take his friend to a nearby house, and promises them a greater reward than they would have gotten by simply robbing the party if they help to nurse Ruthven back to help. The robbers, enticed by the reward, agree to help Aubrey by accepting such a ‘ransom’. They are taken to a nearby dwelling and the outlaws stand guard outside until one of Aubrey’s men returns from the city with the promised money. The collection of a ransoms was one way in which many bandits, who often professed to be against all forms of wanton violence, made money from their victims. The celebrated Rob Roy in the Scottish Highlands often resorted to this manner of robbery; he would hold a (usually very wealthy) victim hostage and they would not be released until their family produced the required sum. One person who documented the problem of banditry in the Mediterranean was Charles Macfarlane, who published his findings in a book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (1834), and he documents several cases of bandits resorting to this method of robbery.

Bandit 3
Bandits from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Lord Ruthven seemingly dies of his injuries and the robbers take his body out of the hut to be buried the next day. Yet when Aubrey and one of the robbers arrive at the burial spot, they find that the body is no longer there. The outlaws immediately tell Aubrey that the only possible explanation for the body’s disappearance is that Ruthven was a vampire, but Aubrey dismisses this explanation, thinking that the real reason is that the outlaws have buried him secretly and stolen his clothes.

On his return to England, Aubrey is increasingly plagued by visions of Lord Ruthven, and gradually he puts all the pieces together and concludes that Ruthven was, in fact, a vampire. Aubrey temporarily loses his sanity but when he recovers, he finds out that his sister has gotten married to a young nobleman who of course turns out to be Lord Ruthven. He relates all of his adventures to his servants who immediately rush to save Aubrey’s sister, but it is too late:

When they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE![v]


References

[i] Robert Southey, The Complete Poetical Works (Paris: Galignani, 1829), p. 122. Southey also introduced the word ‘zombie’ into the English language.

[ii] John Polidori, The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819), p. 27.

[iii] Polidori, p. 48.

[iv] Polidori, p. 52-3

[v] Polidori, p. 72.

The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

In modern popular culture, heroes often possess some supernatural powers, or at other times they are so skilled at what they do that their superiority often appears to be supernatural, or at least outside of the bounds of normal humans’ abilities. In our modern and largely secular world, comic book heroes have a range of powers; Superman’s superpowers are quite literally otherworldly, hailing as he does from planet Krypton; the X-Men’s various skills are a result of the fact that they are mutants who represent the next stage in human evolution. Robin Hood was, as James C. Holt argues, a precursor to the comic book superhero.[1] And like all good superheroes, Robin Hood appears to be invincible; things always go his way. Indeed, it is important, as Eric Hobsbawm says in Bandits (1969), that thieves are represented as, or in fact represent themselves, as being supported by some sort of ‘magic’, be it a holy amulet or devotion to a particular saint who sees them through the good and bad times.[2] Thus, in medieval texts, Robin’s invincibility stems partly from the fact that he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. As we will see, however, Robin’s Marianism was by no means unique, for in a wide range of European medieval literature, Mary is cast as the friend and special patron of outlaws who protects them.[3]

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Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

One set of sources which have been largely overlooked in Robin Hood scholarship are medieval miracle tales, which is surprising as many of them feature thieves who, like Robin Hood, are often protected by the Virgin Mary. For example, in Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend (c. 1262), which was a phenomenally popular anthology of saint’s lives and other miracles (more than a thousand manuscripts of it survive throughout Europe), we are told the story of how Mary saved a thief from the gallows on account of his devotion:

There was a thief that often stole, but he had always great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and saluted her oft. It was so that on a time he was taken and judged to be hanged. And when he was hanged the blessed Virgin sustained and hanged him up with her hands three days that he died not ne had no hurt, and they that hanged him passed by adventure thereby, and found him living glad of cheer. And then they supposed that the cord had not been well strained, and would have slain him with a sword, and have cut his throat, but our blessed Lady set on her hand tofore the strokes so that they might not slay him ne grieve him, and then knew they by that he told them that the blessed Mother of God helped him, and then they marvelled, and took him off and let him go, in the honour of the Virgin Mary, and then he went and entered into a monastery, and was in the service of the Mother of God as long as he lived [tr. William Caxton].[4]

A similar tale is told in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century anthology entitled Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which we are introduced to a thief named Ebbo.

Especially among laymen the story of Ebbo the thief is told and retold with zest. No man was ever bolder breaking into rich men’s stables or burgling their houses. If his eye was caught by a steed of unusual speed or size, be rustled it by night. If anything valuable was rumoured to be hidden in a chamber, he crept right into the room however many bolts protected it, slithering like a slippery snake through the tiniest of crevices.[5]

Yet he is a good outlaw, we are assured, because he was devoted to the worship of the blessed Virgin:

Despite all this, he deeply loved our Lady Mary, so far as that kind of man could. He commended himself to her in every situation, and sometimes wept at the thought of her, even though he did not abstain from sacrilege and was driven on by an innate love of sweet greed. Even when he had determined upon a robbery, he would call upon her name, begging not to be caught. Similarly, when he had pounced upon the prey he sought and had satisfied his greed, he would make over a tenth of what he had stolen to be used by her servants, especially in a house where he heard that religion was flourishing.[6]

Ebbo’s fame appears to have been quite far-reaching; it was not only in Malmesbury’s text that Ebbo features but also in Cantigas de Santa Maria (c. 1221–84), a collection of 420 poems written in Portuguese and Galician. When Ebbo is captured, then in a similar manner to the way in which she rescued the thief in The Golden Legend, when Ebbo is hanged she makes sure that the rope does not kill him by suspending him in the air.

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Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

With the Virgin Mary being a popular figure of devotion among thieves in Europe, Robin’s devotion to her becomes rather less remarkable. Out of all of the early Robin Hood tales, there are texts in which Robin’s devotion to the Virgin is made explicit: A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1495), and also a later seventeenth-century story entitled Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (the physical ms for this text dates from the 1600s, but a similar story was known during the fifteenth century).[7] In A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the reasons why Robin Hood commands his followers, Little John, and Will Scarlet, to never harm any travelling party with women is because of his devotion to Mary:

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Guy, a bounty hunter, are fighting in the forest, Robin is almost killed.

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

It is only when Robin calls upon the Virgin Mary that he finds the strength to fight his way out of his close call with death at the hands of Sir Guy. Mary is also briefly invoked in another early poem entitled Robin and Gandeleyn (c. 1450), which might be related to the corpus of early Robin Hood texts, and she is also briefly called upon in The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305). According to their representations in medieval literature, therefore, there is a pan-European cult of Mary among many thieves during the Middle Ages.

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19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

Pointing out that Mary appears in outlaw tales is all well and good, but one has to ask: why was the Virgin Mary a popular figure of devotion with outlaws? A cynical reading of Robin Hood’s Marianism is posited by Crystal Kirgiss, who argues that while Robin pays lip service to Our Lady, ‘he is in fact devoted to the Virgin only insofar as it serves his own financial purpose’.[10] Robin does indeed benefit financially from his worship of the Virgin Mary; one year after Robin lends £400 to Sir Richard of the Lee, in order that Richard could settle his debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, the outlaws find a monk travelling through the forest with £400; the money is taken from the monk because he lies about how much money he had on his person. The logical conclusion for Robin is that, since the monk is from the Abbey of St. Mary’s, their paths have crossed because Mary is ensuring that Robin gets his money back.

I am unconvinced by Kirgiss’s argument; as it says at the beginning of the Gest, Robin’s worship of the Virgin is something that he does every day, and not every day in the outlaw’s life presented the opportunity for financial enrichment. In Catholic thought, the idea is that people pray to Mary for her to intercede with God on their behalf. Yet as Rachel Fulton-Brown points out, while Mary had a maternal aura, she was often just as intimidating as God the Father.[11] In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Mary is seen actually helping Robin Hood to win the battle. As Fulton Brown further shows, there are numerous instances in medieval literature where Mary helps those whom society would deem as sinners and wrongdoers; she intervenes in the affairs of adulterous couples, for instance, and she is representative of the mercy of Christ.[12] If Mary was already known in the medieval period as the sinners’ helper, then Robin’s devotion to her begins to make sense.

Such a perspective explains why, in countries such as Italy which still have a strong Catholic identity, Mary is still venerated among members of the most infamous criminal gangs: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, and also among the Mexican cartels.

Robin Hood is, of course, an English legend at its core. Over time, especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the Tudor period, the overtly Catholic elements of the Robin Hood story were quietly dropped, although there are a few brief references to Mary in Anthony Munday’s two influential plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98). By the time of the Enlightenment, when Joseph Ritson published his scholarly Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Robin’s piety is acknowledged but it is treated as a quaint reminder of a more superstitious age.


References

[1] James C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 6.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2003), p. 56-58.

[3] I would like to thank Rachel Fulton-Brown for bringing the story of Ebbo the Thief to my attention via Twitter. Fulton Brown has recently written a monograph entitled Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2018). Fulton-Brown also provides regular updates via her blog: fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/.

[4] Roger Chartier, ‘The Hanged Woman Miraculously Saved’, in The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Roger Chartier and Linda G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 59-91 (p. 73).

[5] William of Malmesbury, Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560; Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007) for information on dating the Gest.

[8] ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gest-of-robyn-hode [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robin-hood-and-guy-of-gisborne [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[10] Crystal Kirgiss, ‘Popular Devotion and Prosperity Gospel in Early Robin Hood Tales’, in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. by Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), pp. 165-78 (p. 165).

[11] Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 53-54.

[12] For an informative review of Fulton Brown’s book see here: Nathan Ristuccia, ‘Our Lady of Everything’, First Things, May 2018 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/05/our-lady-of-everything [Accessed 5 June 2018].

Passo di Lupo: An Italian Bandit

An outlaw’s life was not a merry one: in the 1820s, banditry in Italy was rife; at this time, a young travel writer named Charles Macfarlane was touring the country and managed to obtain a rare interview with one of these brigands.

I recently managed to track down a copy of Charles Macfarlane’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833). The early nineteenth century was a good time for an aspiring author to be writing about outlaws and highwaymen. Walter Scott had already authored Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819). Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin had released a new multivolume edition of The Newgate Calendar (1824), and Edward Bulwer Lytton had published Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), two crime novels, to critical and popular claim. Macfarlane probably presumed that he could capitalise on the popularity of the ‘Newgate Novel’ (named after the infamous London gaol), by offering an updated version of Charles Johnson’s and Alexander Smith’s famous eighteenth-century Lives of the Highwaymen books.

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Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

(A quick plug: I shall also be following in the footsteps of Johnson, Smith, and Macfarlane when my forthcoming book, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (2018) is published).

 

However, instead of the sensationalised style of writing adopted by his eighteenth-century forbears, Macfarlane pursues a different approach: he warns the reader in his preface that

You will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those that occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. [You] will meet with men strangers to that virtuous violence of robbing the rich to give to the poor.[i]

This was not mere moralising, for Macfarlane does fulfil his promise to the reader that he will not be overly romanticising them. As for the famous Robin Hood principle of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Macfarlane is sceptical, or rather, cynical, about this practice:

They [bandits] give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to induce the poor to remain passive while they carry out their work of depredation against the rich.[ii]

Thus, Macfarlane’s purpose in writing the Banditti is not to render bandits in a Scott-esque romantic mode, but to present a picture of criminality.[iii] Such intentions anticipate Charles Dickens’s remarks upon thieves in the preface to Oliver Twist (1838), where, referring to Captain Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727), he says that in his depiction of thieves there will be

No canterings upon moonlit heaths, no merry makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jack boots, no crimson coats and ruffles.[iv]

Macfarlane was first and foremost a travel writer, and one example he gives of this decidedly unromantic view of a bandit’s life is in his account of a meeting with a former bandit named Luca whose nickname was ‘Passo di Lupo’ (Wolf’s Step).

Bandit 3
Italian Bandits. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti. (c) Stephen Basdeo

Let me provide some context first: Italy is still a relatively young nation state. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, it was divided into a series of small sovereign states. This state of affairs continued until the nineteenth century, and after the upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), which in reality was the first ‘world war’,[v] the division of the country was as follows: the Pope directly ruled Rome and a large part of central Italy; the House of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the north of the country, which also included Nice (now part of France); the regions of Lombardy and Venetia were subject to rule by the Habsburg monarchy, while southern Italy and Sicily, known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were ruled by the Bourbon dynasty.[vi] None of these states had any effective form of law enforcement beyond the local militia, and these structural weaknesses make the more rural areas of a country more likely to develop a problem with banditry.[vii] Even when Italy was unified in 1861 under the banner of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, it still experienced a problem with banditry until World War Two (1939–45), as the case of Salvatore Giuliano (1922–50) attests.

And this was the state of Italy when Macfarlane met Passo, while traveling through Abruzzi during the 1820s, which was then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Passo was a former member of a fearsome gang of outlaws named the Vardarelli, whom Macfarlane met at a gathering in the town square. He made enquiries as to who the strange-looking man was, and his guide immediately recognised him as a local famous former outlaw. This is the description of his appearance that Macfarlane gives:

I was struck with  the appearance of a fellow with the deep scar of an old wound across his swarthy brow, and his left arm in a sort of sling.[viii]

Macfarlane’s first question was to ask him what motivated him to become a bandit:

“Please your excellency,” said [Luca], “I was making love with a Paesana, and had the misfortune to give a blow of the knife to one I thought my rival.”[ix]

Understandably, the authorities attempted to arrest Luca for having killed a man, although Luca himself viewed this as a wholly unreasonable persecution.[x] In fairness to Luca, however, the vendetta – the settling of feuds through violence – was a custom amongst both the elites and the plebeian classes between the Renaissance and the twentieth century, and it still persists among organised crime groups in Italy. Thus, Luca’s view of the authorities’ apprehension of him as unreasonable should be viewed in context.[xi] 

Banndit 2
Bandits in a standoff with the local milita. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Luca’s brush with the law made him seek out the company of a famous group of brigands, the Vardarelli, who operated in Ponte di Bovino, a mountain range about thirty miles from his home in Monte Gargano. However, he was not welcomed with open arms at first. The brigands distrusted him at first, and he was effectively a prisoner in the camp for a number of weeks and not permitted to venture outside of it. Only after having proved himself to them by taking an oath administered by a local priest who ministered to the bandits was he finally allowed to accompany the robbers on their excursions. Nevertheless, Luca looked back to his robbing days with nostalgia, as Macfarlane records that,

I thought the fellow’s hawk-like eyes still beamed joyfully as he talked of stopping government mails and diligences, and rich graziers from the fairs of Foggia; and as he told me, how, at times, he had scoured the whole plain of Apulia and crossed the mountains of Basilicata, and plunged into other provinces – meeting nowhere a formidable resistance – nearly everywhere an impunity of plunder.[xii]

However, Luca recalled that the bandit chiefs kept the lesser people of the gang in a state of near poverty: the guappi, or the bullies of the gang, kept the lion’s share and threw morsels only to those below them. Then again, Macfarlane says that Luca recalled never being able to spend the little money that he did get on the few luxuries he desired. The townsfolk were generally hostile to them, which made it a no-go area. It did not help the robbers’ cause, of course, that they were indiscriminate in whom they chose for their victims, for they robbed peasants as well as rich farmers. The peasants were only left alone or given money if they needed a hiding place in the winter months. Lodging in a peasant’s house then brought with it a further threat of being betrayed to the authorities for the reward money. During the milder seasons, their accommodation was scarcely more inviting as they slept in cold caves. As a result, food could often be scarce, and Luca recalls that often they were so hungry that sheep were stolen from fields and eaten raw on the spot.[xiii] Scarcity of food meant that quarrels often broke out between the bandits. Duels were conducted and these frequently resulted in the death of a gang member.[xiv]

Eric Hobsbawm in his seminal study of banditry states that bandits often have short careers due to the fact that their ‘profession’ is a high risk one and conducive to a long life. In fact, the typical bandit’s career can be as short as two years before being either captured and punished, or returns to mainstream society.[xv] The man whom Macfarlane interviewed fell into the latter camp. Macfarlane asks him what induced him to forsake his former accomplices. It transpired that his arm had been badly injured in an altercation with the Bourbon government militia. He was permitted by some sympathetic townsfolk to shelter and recuperate in one of their houses, hidden from the authorities. Although he recovered, his injuries meant that he would not be of any further use to his fellow brigands. Luckily at this time, with banditry being so endemic in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, King Ferdinand decided that, instead of fighting what seemed like an ever losing battle, he would simply extend a pardon to all bandits who wished to take up the offer. Passo was one of those who took advantage of this. Little is known of how Lupo died – after their encounter Macfarlane does not know.


References

[i] Charles Macfarlane, Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (Philadelphia: G. Evans, 1833), p. 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, rev. ed. (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1841), p. x.

[v] Michael Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[vi] For more information on the history of Italy during the 19th century see the following: Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[vii] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2004).

[viii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 16.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Raymond E. Role, ‘The War Games of Central Italy’, History Today, 49: 6 (1999), online edn. http://www.historytoday.com/raymond-e-role/war-games-central-italy [Accessed 11 November 2017].

[xii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 17.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 18.

[xv] Hobsbawm, Bandits, pp. 34-45.