Oppressed, subservient, insignificant? Does that accurately describe Corsican women in past times? Not always. That Corsica was a patriarchal society can’t be denied. But to portray the island’s women as downtrodden and overlooked is to over-simplify a complex situation.
A previous post explored marriage customs in Corsica. This time, I look specifically at the role of women, an important topic for my novel The Corsican Widow. My research has turned up some interesting contradictions.
Corsican ideas of sexual honour were rigid and deeply rooted. It didn’t take much to compromise a young woman’s honour and she could expect severe penalties for getting pregnant outside marriage. But men were also bound by these codes of honour and risked being murdered if they didn’t marry the woman they had wronged. The difference was that the man only risked his life; the girl risked her honour, which was considered far worse.
Women and marriage
The destiny of most Corsican women was to get married, usually at quite a tender age. Marriages were often contracted for practical reasons. Spouses displayed few overt signs of affection. You might expect such marriages to be unhappy and some stories reinforce this. The husband of one woman from Sartène allowed her to leave the house only three times during their marriage. Another woman considered that she had married beneath her and never uttered a word to her husband.
However, Corsican marriages weren’t always wretched; rather, they were seen as partnerships and the couple accepted this for the good of the family group. Divorce was unheard-of and adultery rare. Even so, World War II undermined the traditional Corsican code and things changed rapidly after that.
Women and work
Once married, a woman was expected immediately to run the household as well as work in the fields. In some parts of Corsica, a bride received from her new mother-in-law a spindle and a distaff – symbols of domestic chores.
The women carried heavy burdens, generally on their heads. This was a common method in pre-industrial societies. In fact, in our area of SW France, I’ve come across a headdress specially designed for this. Corsican men rarely carried anything except a gun, while their wives bore the rest.
There’s some debate about this. Was it because men wouldn’t stoop to carry out such menial tasks? Or was it because the husband had a protective role in the family and needed to keep his hands free in case of ambush? Dorothy Carrington (Granite Island) cites evidence to support the latter view.
Deferential or decision-making?
Clearly, Corsican women deferred to their husbands. In the countryside, a wife called her husband, ‘Mon maître’ (my master) or sometimes, ‘Mon frère’ (my brother). Women never sat at the table with the men. They served their husbands and sons and ate separately with their daughters.
Until comparatively recently, women never entered cafés and were excluded from public office. Widows were expected not to show themselves in public for at least three months and to wear mourning for five or six years after their husband’s death. Some voluntarily chose to prolong these restrictions for life.
Even so, women influenced material decisions, especially as they grew older, and it was the matriarch, the grandmother, who approved or vetoed family decisions. The female head of the family usually charged a vendetta victim’s next-of-kin with the duty of avenging his death.
Furthermore, evidence exists that in some villages of northern Corsica in the 16th century and later, local affairs were determined by the vote of a full village assembly, which included the women. And women certainly ruled the roost in spiritual matters. They attended church assiduously and brought up the children in the Catholic faith. I’ll discuss their role in mystical matters in a future post.
Women were the implacable perpetuators of vendettas and often bore arms. Faustina Gaffori, the wife of a chief rebel against Corsica’s Genoese masters, barricaded herself into her house at Corte, which was besieged by Genoese troops in 1750. Some partisans suggested they should surrender. Faustina held a lighted taper over a barrel of gunpowder and threatened to blow up the house if they did so. They held out until relieved by Gaffori himself. Here’s Gaffori’s house in Corte, still pocked with bullet holes.
By today’s standards, yes, of course Corsican women occupied an inferior rung of the social ladder. Corsican society operated along rigid demarcation lines between the sexes that we would now find distasteful. But it would be misleading to imply that Corsican women’s role in society was only a subservient one.
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