December 7, 2010

Village Justice

Community, Family, and Popular Culture in Early Modern Italy by Tommaso Astarita
By John Stavola

All men are created equal? We are not used to seeing a question mark after that sentence. It is treading on dangerous ground even to suggest it. In our developing, coerced "egalitarian" society there are those who have been ostracized for daring, even unwittingly in the course of unbiased research, to consider the question.

Every child entering the social arena whether it be school or sports soon discovers the difference in the abilities of their peers. They are then forced by those currently in charge to accept another ideal.

The best that could be hoped for would be that " all men are equal in the eyes of the law". But man-made law is just that and as such can be remade, applied differently, or simply ignored. There are also specious legal arguments that find a way around this ideal. We read about these decisions everyday. An equality that is enforced is a contradiction in terms. Reality will always intrude despite our best intentions and reveal itself.

Our English based jury system provides many advantages to the accused. A trial by a "jury of your peers" provides a safeguard against unjust laws that may be imposed by a ruling class. How many people are aware they they have this right of jury nullification. They may decide the case however they choose regardless of what a judge may "charge" them to do. If you ever need to avoid jury duty just tell the judge when interviewed that you are aware of your rights as a fully informed juror.

The court wants to have full control to steer the trial in their chosen direction and will most likely dismiss you immediately. This is a shirking of our obligations as citizens, but how many can afford the economic cost of being sequestered on a jury for an indefinite length of time. This makes the potential jury pool consist of the financially independent or those on welfare. Can the middle-class get a fair trial by their peers in this situation?

In Village Justice Tommaso Astarita treats us to a detailed study of a criminal trial from 1710 that occurred in a remote corner of Calabria. Using the original transcripts he shows the way justice was applied in a feudal society. He also shows that the Kingdom of Naples of the time was definitely in the center of European thought on judicial theory and its application, and once again how the people of southern Italy are often underestimated and misrepresented.
"Certain notions have long accompanied the image of southern Italian villages in the minds of foreigners, and indeed often Italian observers. Ideas of poverty and backwardness, of isolation and alienness, of illiteracy and ignorance, and of beliefs and ritual practices understandable at best through anthropological analysis have long characterized outside observers' perceptions of rural society in regions south of Rome and Naples. I do not reject all these characterizations, and, indeed in this book I stress the significance of some of them. I argue, however, that the southern villages were similar to those of many regions of western Europe. More important, although undoubtedly poor and often remote, they were home to dynamic and flexible communities that were able effectively to handle their internal tensions, to maintain a lively and autonomous culture, and to interact frequently and successfully with external authorities. The land was often formidable and the villagers mostly illiterate, but southern Italian rural people were far from passive and fatalistic victims of larger natural or human forces." pg xii
Pentidattilo is considered to be typical of many such small towns in the Kingdom of Naples of the time. It is located at the tip of the toe of Calabria, 5 kilometers inland from the coast in an easily defended location below a group of jutting peaks which suggest five fingers; hence the name which is of Greek origin. As in many areas of Southern Italy the population centers shifted here to escape the malarial coasts and the predation of Muslim raiders, and also to enjoy the "good air" of the heights.
The local dialect shows the influence of early Byzantine Greek settlement. After the depopulation caused by the Black Death further settlement was encouraged by the rulers of the kingdom and Greek speakers naturally found a home here. The Greek dialect was still reported to be spoken into the eighteenth century and official documents still contained Greek spellings and names. Professor Astarita doesn't consider this Greek influence to have been a significant factor differentiating it from any other "Latin" Calabrian town. 
The area of Pentidattilo is hot in summer, deforested, earthquake prone and contains only seasonally flowing rivers. Despite this there were many small peasant holdings which produced grain, olives and fruit.  The economy was self sufficient and only entered international markets with the introduction of mulberry trees for silk production and later in the 1700's with citrus fruit production.
At the time of the story Pentidattilo was still a self sufficient organic community and the villagers were highly dependent on each other  for survival. There were no deep economic divisions between it's citizens. Outsiders, better described as persons of undetermined integrity were suspect. Is this the negative "characterization" Professor Astarita doesn't reject? However, in the author's words:
"...The villagers shaped a lively, autonomous culture which long maintained its own values, rules, and traditions. Personal honor and achievements,which were reflected in each villager's reputation, remained more important than inherited wealth or status within the local community." pg XVII 
"...Village culture was characterized by a practical attitude, and when villagers took a negative view of their neighbors, it happened less on the basis of abstract notions of morality than because someone's actions endangered the stability or well-being of the community. Judgment was much more severe with outsiders than with well-integrated members of the village." pg 139
The small size of Pentidattilo enabled it to maintain a surprisingly democratic form of governing by all male heads of household. Larger and more prosperous areas soon developed an oligarchy based on wealth. 
"The village was administered by two mayors (sindaci) and four or five eldermen (eletti) who all served one year terms..." pg 130
The crime in question, at the center of this study, was murder by poisoning. Domenica Orlando was accused of poisoning her husband with the help of a neighbor and friend Anna de Amico, ten years her senior, and Pietro Crea, her lover. The accusation of poisoning and also abortion was brought by the victim's brother.The circumstances of the death and a subsequent investigation of the body by the local "barber" indicate that a poisoning did occur. There was further testimony by a young girl who fetched the arsenic which was in use locally to control rodents.
The trial was held in a feudal court as opposed to a royal court. In cases such as this appeal could later be brought to the attention of the royal courts.
"Like many noble landowners throughout Europe, Neapolitan lords enjoyed the right of jurisdiction over practically all inhabitants of the villages and towns enfeoffed to them. Until the abolition of the feudal system in 1806, the term vassals was indeed used for all those subject to their lord's jurisdiction in the Kingdom of Naples. The Neapolitan feudal lords (known also as barons) were, however peculiar both in the extent of their jurisdictional powers and in the percentage of the kingdom's population subject to those powers." pp. 48,49
The trial was conducted by a feudal governor appointed by the baron. The governor in charge of this case had no training in the law and was therefore assisted by a counselor. A scribe from the town wrote out the record of the proceedings as well as assisted in the translation and interpretation of the local dialect.
"...Neither the governor nor his counselor, in keeping with laws and traditions, was a native of Pentidattilo or belonged to village families." pg. 47
This governorship sheds light on the sophistication of the feudal system. The baron was required by law to appoint a governor to oversee all administrative and judicial matters and could not interfere. This was an attempt at fairness by the neutrality of this intermediary position. Villagers could bring grievances against the governor after his term had expired. Counter to the impression that many have of feudal society and justice there was a true desire for the truth to prevail.The character of witnesses was also weighed as was the potential bias of friends and enemies.
"...Jurists insisted that the questioning not be leading or in any way suggestive and that the witnesses always be asked de causa scientiae, that is how they knew what they knew..." pg.60
After giving initial testimony the three defendants were tortured, but not in a manner and for reasons  many would assume. The most common form throughout Europe at this time was suspension by rope with the hands tied behind the back.
"...When, as in most cases the defense failed to sway the court, and when the crime was punishable with corporal or harsher penalties (which was the case with a large number of crimes), the judge could order the torture of the defendant in order to obtain a confession. The use of torture was justified not only by the concern with the repression of crime but also the very emphasis on avoiding the arbitrary decision of the judge on creating absolute, objective standards of proof. Torture was carefully regulated in law and doctrine, as to duration and method. Unlike its twentieth-century incarnation, early modern torture was a regular, thoroughly structured part of criminal procedure. Because it could not simply be applied until the defendant confessed, torture could therefore be resisted."
"The defendant was to be encouraged  and threatened until the very last minute before torture and throughout its duration, in the hope of diminishing the infliction of pain. A medical examination was necessary before torture could be applied, and a physician was to attend the torture, in order to prevent life threatening pain. To avoid excessive pain and vomiting, torture had to be inflicted several hours after the defendant had eaten. Certain categories of defendants, such as the old, the infirm, the very young, or pregnant women were exempted from torture, as were at least for most crimes, privileged groups such as priests, nobles, and -perhaps unsurprisingly- judges and illustrious jurists."
"...Torture could usually be applied up to three times in separate days, though again for grave crimes it was possible to continue further. A confession given under torture had no validity unless ratified the next day by the defendant. Refusal to ratify, however usually resulted in renewed torture. Although we do not know much about the effectiveness of torture, it seems to have been, if not a "relatively mild ordeal," certainly not as effective as legislators might have hoped."  pp 62,63
Although there was no formal jury, 
"...Public opinion and the reputation of the parties involved in a crime were, as we have seen, essential elements in early modern judicial practice...when it came to the final assessment of what the events had meant the court turned to the men of Pentidattilo, to solid citizens, to give confirmation and legitimation to, and offer a commentary on, what the court had done and learned. In this sense, these seven witnesses played a role not unlike the Greek tragic chorus." pg. 78
In spite of this or maybe because of it, Professor Astarita claims that family connections often determined the outcome of trials. As the older of the two female defendants Anna de Amico was considered to be more responsible for the crime and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Domenica Orlando fled the village but was also never convicted. Perhaps the villagers, who knew intimately the character of the two women, determined that the younger Domenica was put up to the crime. Pietro Crea was also released.
"Village Justice" by Professor Tomasso Astarita is a highly recommended study from primary sources, and should be read by every student of southern Italian history.

(Reprinted with permission from Southern Italian History, Culture, and Genealogy Blog)