Albanian Highland Tribal Society and Family Structure in the Process of Twentieth Century Transformation

By Fischer, Bernd J. | East European Quarterly, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Albanian Highland Tribal Society and Family Structure in the Process of Twentieth Century Transformation


Fischer, Bernd J., East European Quarterly


Albania has been and remains the enigma of Europe, isolated from its neighbors by underdevelopment and, for some fifty years, by ideology. In the midst of this isolation are groups, sheltered in their mountain fastness, which until recently were cut off even from their fellow Albanians. These primitive, rather violent and extremely patriarchal groups existed (and in some cases still do) in conditions of desperate poverty and social and political stagnation. With the collapse of communism, it has once again become possible to visit these barely accessible mixed Catholic/Moslem regions of the remote northern highlands of Albania, offering the researcher a unique opportunity to study the impact of twentieth century modernization on a society and family structure, modernization which dragged the region from the mists of the fifteenth century and forced it into the modern European world. Three distinct phases of twentieth century development in the highlands can be identified, often corresponding to radical political changes: the period of the premature declaration of Albanian independence and the construction of the first indigenous government; the period of the construction of the communist regime in 1944; and finally, the period of the rapid moves towards western modernization since the advent of at least limited democracy and a market economy in 1991. The purpose of this paper is to examine some aspects of the foundation and structure of this society and the families within it, as well as the impact of these three periods of transition on the northern Albanian highlands.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little to distinguish the region from the way it must have appeared in the fifteenth century. It was an area dominated by patriarchal tribes and the blood-feud. While the original tribal structure dates back to the ancient Illyrians, who Albanian historians maintain predate the classical Greeks, the coming of the Turks in the fourteenth century consolidated and strengthened the structure (Marmullaku, 1975, p. 15). Turkish unwillingness to expend the blood and money which complete subjugation of the Albanians would have required, allowed for considerable autonomy and occasional outright independence in the sparsely populated north of Albania. The Albanians, therefore, were forced to regulate their own political, economic, and social relations. In order to facilitate this process, the Albanians divided themselves into scores (some sixty still existed in 1913) of highly patriarchal tribes and adopted a complex system of intra- and intertribal relations.

The structure of the tribes varied, but within a strict framework. Some tribes combined and recognized a prince (prenk), constructing a form of aristocratic republic (Jacques, 1995, p. 176). Individual tribes ruled by hereditary chiefs (bairaktars), were divided into clans (fis) then groups of houses (mehola) led by a hereditary head (krue). Each mehola was subdivided into single houses (shpi) headed by a head of house, usually the oldest male member (Swire, 1929, p. 22). Houses could be quite large--and included the families of a series of brothers often growing to well over 100 people (Pichler, 1995, p. 66). By the mid-twentieth century, however, houses tended to be no larger than twenty people, essentially an extended family which was and remains the basic social unit in Albanian society.

Supreme power rested with the assembly of the whole tribe but day to day justice was dispensed by a council of elders presided over by the bairaktar. Since the inefficient Turkish legal system provided no protection of any sort, and since tribes had common land, pastures, forest, and water rights, these councils were responsible for administrating civil, criminal and family law and were required to impose both legal and moral sanctions (Marmullaku, 1975, pp. 82-86). The decisions of the council were usually based on their interpretation of the unwritten (at least until 1933) code called the Canons of Lek. …

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