In Corsica, relations between the sexes have always been regulated by unbreakable codes of honour. I have been researching courtship and marriage customs on the island for a work in progress set there during the 18th century. The Corsican ideal of honour is central to the story.
Compromising female honour
Until quite recently, a man who seduced a young woman laid both himself and her open to severe punishment. Honour killings were not uncommon and sometimes the young woman would commit suicide. On other occasions, the girl would be driven from her village and left to fend for herself.
But it took less than outright seduction to compromise a young woman. For a man outside the family to touch her face, pull off her headscarf or kiss her in public constituted a serious disgrace, known as the attacar. The girl was called “dishonarata” by witnesses.
The attacar could be resolved only by vendetta or marriage. In fact, young couples whose parents would have disapproved of their marriage sometimes engineered this situation to force the outcome.
Until the interwar years, “Marriages were nearly always the outcome of long, careful negotiations between fathers. The children were rarely consulted.” (Dorothy Carrington, Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica). Sometimes a go-between was charged with finding a suitable husband for a girl.
Few people on Corsica were rich, so the power and prestige of the families were more important motives for marriage. Land was often a motive, too, especially when it involved neighbouring plots. Cousins often married to keep landed property “in the family”.
This is what happened to the young woman on whose true story I based my first novel, The House at Zaronza. She and the village schoolmaster met and corresponded in secret in the 1890s, since her bourgeois parents would have disapproved. In the end she had to marry a cousin to keep the family possessions together.
Once a marriage was contracted, the agreement was sealed by a ceremony called l’abbracciu. The young couple were allowed to kiss publicly and in some places shared a fritter made of chestnut flour.
In isolated parts of Corsica, such as the Niolu Valley, the families sometimes allowed the couple to live together after l’abbracciu and before the church ceremony took place. Dorothy Carrington cites evidence that they sometimes dispensed with the church ceremony altogether.
A bride customarily came with a dowry and could not expect to get anything else from her family, since the inheritance was divided equally between the sons. The dowry could take the form of money, goods or land – or all three.
Marriage customs varied among regions. In the Asco Valley, the bride remained at the church door until her groom came from the altar to fetch her. Around Sartène, the bride stopped at the village fountain on her way to the groom’s house and make the sign of the cross with the water in a kind of purification rite.
When they lived in different villages, the groom and his party had to go to the bride’s village. Sometimes they met with mock resistance and pretended to kidnap the bride.
The whole village came to the wedding breakfast, which was often ruinously expensive for the families. Far from being the sombre affair one might associate with the Corsicans, it was usually accompanied by salvos of gunfire and loud rejoicing.
Afterwards, the couple retired to a bed prepared by the bride’s friends. If one of the couple was a widow or a widower, the young village people would make a din beneath their window with saucepans, whistles and cowbells – le charivari – until the groom paid them off.
In a future post I’ll explore the place of woman in Corsican society – a very pertinent topic for my current WiP.
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