Of Mountains and Men: How Corsica’s Landscape Shaped its History

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The Tavignanu Valley in Corsica’s central mountains

Corsica’s terrain is a feature that has had a significant influence on its history and culture. The island is one big mountain range that rises 2,706 metres from the sea at its highest point, Monte Cinto. These are comparatively young, jagged mountains, not yet rounded by erosion.

Until quite modern times, the mountainous landscape has made communication between different parts of the island difficult. It was the bane of successive conquerors, whose traditional armies found it hard to counter the kind of ferocious guerrilla warfare the Corsicans excelled in. Very few roads existed until the early 19th century; most of them were ancient mule tracks.

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Mule track along the Tavivnanu, along which Napoleon Bonaparte’s parents escaped from Corte in 1769, when his mother Laetizia was pregnant with him.

It was Napoleon III in the mid-19th century who commissioned the road that runs around the coast of Cap Corse, the peninsula in the north-east of the island. Even today it takes a long time to get anywhere. It took us 45 minutes to drive the 15 kilometres from Ponte Leccia to Morosaglia to see the house of Pasquale Paoli, the 18th-century leader of the Corsican republic.

Forgotten Revolutionary: Pasquale Paoli and #Corsica / The story of the man who led Corsica's republic 1755-69 and almost won the island its independence.

Pasquale Paoli’s house in Morosaglia, now a museum dedicated to him

Development of clans

This mountainous environment led to quite closed communities and the development of clans within villages, who were frequently in conflict with each other. The family or clan was the overriding unit of social organisation and personal ambitions or wishes were often subordinated to the good of the family. This in turn led to very deeply-held beliefs in family honour and ferocious conflicts when this honour had been assailed.

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Riventosa, typical mountain village built on a hill

Marriages were often strategic partnerships in which the young man and woman had little say. It was not uncommon for first cousins to marry, for example, to keep the family lands together. Sometimes young lovers found ways of circumventing arranged marriages, but generally people accepted them as the norm.

Rough justice

A second, and related, effect of Corsica’s terrain is that successive conquerors found it difficult to dispense consistent justice. It took too long to get anywhere and the resources required were too draining. Instead of venturing into the hostile interior, they tended to stay in the coastal towns, such as Bastia, Ajaccio and Calvi.

For the Corsicans, the process of lodging a complaint against someone was simply too complicated and took too long. They took justice into their own hands: the vendetta.

Vendettas could start for what seem to us like paltry reasons: a goat straying onto someone’s land or someone cutting down your olive tree. This is partly because, in a subsistence economy, where you produced enough for your own consumption but not a lot more, guarding your resources was paramount. Any assault on your resources was also an assault on your honour. In the highly-charged clannish atmosphere, these disputes could quickly get out of hand and someone would get killed. It was then incumbent upon that person’s family to take revenge in kind.

In the absence of standard justice, a vendetta could go on for generations until people had forgotten what had caused the dispute in the first place. In some cases, so many people were involved that the vendetta could only be stopped by the authorities negotiating a peace treaty between the parties, which happened on some notable occasions in the 19th century.

This topic is obviously greatly simplified for this blog post. Dorothy Carrington’s Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica (Penguin) is an excellent exposition of Corsica’s history and culture.

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You might also like:

Vendetta in Corsica: Myth and Reality
Forgotten Revolutionary: Pasquale Paoli and Corsica
Courtship and Marriage Corsican-style

Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2018, all rights reserved

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