the origins of the mafia -- 10/04/16

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 gli amici 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.

1900 map of Mafia presence in Sicily.

"Even today the more traditional Mafia men try to maintain the fiction that they are not ordinary criminals but the enemies of criminals; that they do not commit crimes but are sometimes regretfully compelled to employ force in order to finance themselves and to enforce their law, which, after all, they explain, has been for centuries the only valid law in Sicily, the only defense against anarchy. In effect, the visible lives of the old high-ranking Mafia men are generally spotless. They are good fathers, good husbands, good sons; their word is sacred; they fastidiously refrain from having anything to do with spying, prostitution, drugs, or dishonest swindles. They never betray a friend. They are always devoted churchmen, who give large sums to the local parish or to the deserving poor. Many have sisters in convents and brothers in holy orders. When considering the società, one must not forget this remnant of the Middle Ages, this cherished rhetoric which is not wholly fictitious. It is important. It distinguishes the Sicilian Mafia from strictly criminal organizations or plain rackets, as the American so-called Mafia really are. It also furnishes a noble alibi to honest men for their occasional collaboration.

"Most leaders of compagnie d'armi, like the sheriffs in Western films, found it convenient at times to recruit new men among the bandits themselves, usually the older bandits who tired of life in the woods, wanted stability and longed for the respectability of family life. They were the only men around who did not fear taking risks. The dividing line between law-breaker and law-enforcer became more and more indistinguishable. It was easy for men to put from one group to another and back again. The compagnie d'armi degenerated. It was tempting for them, so far from any control, to come to a working agreement with their enemies, the outlaws, so that all could co-exist and prosper peacefully. If the bandits played the game, and did their robbing and killing in other territories, they were well taken care of; if they wanted trouble, they were destroyed.

"The landowner was usually far away, in Palermo or in Naples. If he was on the spot and he discovered that his guards were the accomplices of the bandits, he was quickly placed in a distressingly awkward position. He had no choice. He had to accept the will of his men. They protected him, his family, his castle, his cellars and granaries, did they not? What did he care if they played havoc at times with his neighbours' possessions? His guards could impose their will on him. In return for their services, he naturally had to pay them a share of the crops (did one not always do that with governments?), overlook their crimes, defend them from the official authorities with his influence, and see to it that they were never punished for the outrages, kidnappings, extortions, robberies, and murders which they committed else­where.

"The primordial and arcadian form of the Mafia with its mixture of ruthless brutality and noble sentiments still exists in Sicily wherever large estates survive."


Luigi Barzini


The Italians


Penguin Books


Copyright Luigi Barzini, 1964


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