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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

The Albanian nationality on the basis of popular songs

Dora D’istria
Traduction de Hugh Roberts

Texte intégral

1Title: La nationalité albanaise d’après les songs populaires (The Albanian nationality on the basis of popular songs)

2Originally published: Revue des Deux Mondes, Paris, 15 May 1866, pp. 382– 418.

3Language: French.

4Excerpts used are from pp. 383, 384–385, 387–388, 391–392.

About the author

5Dora D’Istria (literary pseudonym of Elena Ghica) [1829, Bucharest – 1888, Florence]: writer, ethnographer, historian. Dora D’Istria was the niece of Prince Grigore IV Ghica (Gr. Ghika, Alb. Gjika), the first native ruler of Wallachia (1822– 1828) following a century of Phanariot rule. She was also the niece of Prince Alexandru Ghica, ruler of Wallachia (1834–1842), and a great niece of Prince Grigore III Ghica, who was beheaded in 1777 by the Ottomans for opposing the occupation of Bukovina. Her father, Mihail Ghica, served as a high official (mare vornic) from 1835 to 1842. Although in one of her texts D’Istria states that her family came from the coast of southern Albania, the Ghica family emigrated probably from Korça (Gr. Korytsa) in the seventeenth century and soon became one of the most important families in Wallachia and Moldavia. The Ghica princes played a leading role in political and economic developments in Wallachia and Moldavia and later on in the new state of Romania. Highly educated and knowledgeable, young Elena soon became known in the aristocratic circles of Bucharest. After her marriage to the Russian Count Alexander Kosoltsov-Massalsky, she moved to St. Petersburg, where she spent seven years. After separating from her husband and his death in 1871, she lived in Geneva, Livorno, Venice, and finally in Florence. She wrote a series of books, articles and studies which were published in leading journals and scientific revues like the Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris, the Diretto in Turin, the Spectateur de l’Orient in Athens, and the Revue Internationale in Vienna. In these writings she elaborated on the ethnography and the social conditions of the Albanians, Greeks, Romanians and South-Slavs in the nineteenth century. D’Istria’s writings enjoyed great popularity in Albanian patriotic circles. In 1870 Dhimitër Kamarda (It. Demetrio Camarda) prepared an anthology of Albanian poetry dedicated to her. Moreover, D’Istria became a symbol of Albanian-Romanian solidarity to the Albanian emigrant circles in Bucharest, who were very active in defending Albanian interests during the Eastern Crisis. The historiography of the communist period emphasized D’Istria’s Albanian origin and her efforts in support of the Albanian movement. In addition, her name came to be used as a symbol of the friendship between the Albanians and the Romanians.

6Main works: La vie monastique dans l’église orientale (1855); La nationalité roumaine d’après les songs populaires (1859); Les Femmes en Orient (1863); La nationalité serbe d’après les songs populaires (1865); La nationalité albanaise d’après les songs populaires. Les albanais des deux côtés de l’Adriatique (1866); La nationalité hellénique d’après les chant populaires (1867); Le golfe de la Spetzia (1867); Les écrivains albanais de l’Italie meridionale (1867); La nationalité bulgare d’après les songs populaires (1868); La poésie populaire des Turcs orientaux (1873); Second edition of this book: La poésie des Ottomans (1877); Gli Albanesi in Rumenia (The Albanians in Romania) (1873).


7Towards the end of eighteenth century, under the influence of the ideas of German romanticism, the attention of scholars and teachers throughout Southeast Europe was directed towards the heritage of folklore. One of the most famous collectors and scholars at that time was the Serbian Vuk Karadžić, whose work inspired many others.

8In the Albanian case, a crucial role was played by the Albanian diaspora in south Italy and Sicily. After the death of Skanderbeg (Alb. Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu) in 1468, many members of the Catholic Albanian nobility, followed by large parts of the population, fled from the Albanian-inhabited lands, mainly to southern Italy. Similarly, the Orthodox Albanian population of the Morea (today the Peloponnese), fearing abusive treatment at the hands of the Ottomans, left their lands and moved to Sicily. They all bore the old name of Arbëresh—as the Albanians called themselves in the Middle Ages— and are referred to as such in Albanian historiography. There, particularly in Calabria and Sicily, several clergymen played a crucial role during the following centuries particularly in regard to Albanian culture and linguistics, to mention only Lekë Matranga (It. Alessando Matranga) or Jul Variboda (It. Giulio Variboda). From the beginning of the nineteenth century, following the Italian example, they also started to promote a political agenda. Indeed, it was Albanian literati from this community who first introduced romantic ideas among the Albanians in the Balkans.

9In 1866 Jeronim De Rada (It. Geronimo De Rada), one of the leading poets of the Albanian national movement, in line with the romantic interest in national epic poetry, published in Naples the Rapsodie di un poema albanese (Rhapsodies from an Albanian poem). It was a collection of popular songs, which, according to the author’s claims, formed a part of an old Albanian epic cycle similar to Homer’s Iliad. However, as they were popular songs collected by the author in his native village and the surrounding region, this anthology can hardly be classified as such. Moreover, De Rada altered the original texts, introducing material written by himself. Nevertheless, D’Istria took this collection as a base to ponder the origin, present situation and future of the Albanian nation.

10In the mid 1860s an essential issue for Albanian activists was the recognition of the existence of the Albanian nation and its language as different from that of the Ottomans, the Greeks or the Slavs. In this context, Dora D’Istria’s text was of crucial importance. In a series of ethnographic essays she analyzed popular poetry, presenting it as the historic and cultural heritage of the nations of Southeast Europe. In the work dedicated to Albanian folklore she presented a number of assertions, which later on became the programmatic claims of Albanian nationalism. She claimed that Albanians are descended, together with the Greeks, from Pelasgic tribes (mentioned by Herodotus), and so constitute the most ancient nations in the Balkans. This postulate became fundamental to the ideology of the Albanian ‘Revival,’ and was used even in twentieth-century debates as an argument against Serbian claims on Kosova (Kosovo).

11D’Istria described Albanians with affection as a brave and ancient nation. Analyzing the texts of popular songs, she described their way of life, customs and traditions, illustrating her arguments with examples from early and modern history. In addition, D’Istria was the first to underline the inferior position of women in Albanian society, within both the Muslim and the Christian populations. Presenting the grave situation in Albania, she argued that only through an educational and cultural movement would Albanians succeed in achieving liberty and creating a modern society.


The Albanian nationality on the basis of popular songs

13[…] Albania’s past as it is transmitted to us in popular songs is therefore more relevant than might be thought to present-day questions, and in any case it is always interesting to see the lower classes encountering the challenges of invasion and exile without losing anything of the qualities which give strength to a sense of national identity. […]

  • 1 Francois Charles Hugues Laurent de Pouqueville (1770–1839), French consul at Ali Pasha’s court in (...)
  • 2 From Shqiptar, which is the term used for ‘Albanian’ in Albanian.
  • 3 Giuseppe Crispi (1781–1859), Bishop of Lampsaco, a prominent linguist and classical philologist an (...)
  • 4 Johann Georg von Hahn (1811–1869), Austrian consul in Jannina in the 1850s, considered to be one o (...)

14Philologists have long debated the thorny question as to which language Albanian popular songs were composed in. Several, including Poqueville1 insisted in looking for the origin of Chkipetars2 in Caucasian Albania. Leibniz imagined that the language of the Albanians must have been that of the ancient Celts. Albanian-Italians, like Monsignor Crispi, Bishop of Lampsaco,3 and Angelo Masci, refuted these hypotheses in well-founded works, but they were not sufficiently up-to-date with the admirable philological discoveries in Germany to avoid regrettable errors of detail in their proofs. It was left to Mr. G. Hahn,4 the learned author of Albanian Studies, to cast new light on this question, and to a Sicilian Albanian, Father Camarda, to clarify it definitively.

15For Mr. Hahn the Albanians are descendants of the famous Pelasgi. The Pelasgi would have formed the pre-historical population of Epirus, Macedonia, Illyria, Greece, the Peloponnese and large Italian territories. In Greece, the Pelasgi would have adopted the Hellenic language, when the Hellenic population came to dominate the Pelasgic one, while the native language would have lasted until both the Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia and the Serbian invasion of Illyria. In Albania, southern Illyria and Epirus, the Pelasgic population resisted assimilation by the Slavic population. Since the fourteenth century the Epirus colonies of modern Greece have sprung from these too little studied countries. Hence there was a reverse re-run of the invasion of the first ages, with the difference that the native Pelasgi had mixed with invading Hellenes and that nowadays the new Pelasgi established in Greece are becoming more and more Hellenic. According to the author of Albanian Studies, there would now be Albanians in all the Hellenic provinces, be they in continental Greece, or the Peloponnesian peninsula, with the exception of Aetolia, Akarnia, Lakonia and Messene. In Attica, Megarid, Argolid and Boeotia, they made up the vast majority of the population. Finally, the islands of Hydra, Spetses, Poros and Salamis, southern Euboeia and the northern part of the island of Andros would be inhabited entirely by Albanians. Moreover, if Mr. Hahn thinks that the ancient Pelasgi and Hellenes were different peoples, he insists on showing numerous ties of kinship which link them: “The proto-Albanian is not only a contemporary of the proto-Roman and Greek, but there is an affinity between them, or, in other words, what the three peoples share in terms of their customs comes from a common component, the Pelasgic component.” Theodor Mommsen views “the common origin” of the Albanian, Hellenic and Italian races as an incontrovertible fact. […]

16The struggles of the Eastern Empire against the Slavs did not improve the situation of the Albanians. However, the Pelasgic nation, which had survived so many invasions, was not bound to disappear faced with the Serbian population. Part of Albania went so far as to embrace Catholicism so as to establish Albanian nationality in the face of Serbian nationality. The Turks had barely entered Europe when they tried in turn to conquer small and brave Albania. They were resisted for a long time: by the Balsa family—who, according to the tradition, were descendants of the Baux family from Southern France—as well as by the Topia and Castrioti families all of whom successively personified the various phases of this struggle. It was the Castrioti family which had the glory of producing the great Skanderbeg, the hero whose exploits almost drove out the Turks forever and who founded a veritable national dynasty in Albania.

  • 5 D’Istria is referring to Alexander the Great. The Ottomans called Gjergj Kastrioti Skander, which (...)
  • 6 D’Istria is referring to the hero of Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Albania (...)

17George Castriote, to whom the Turkish name of the Great Macedonian5 is normally applied, was a far worthier inspiration for popular poetry than the Serbian hero, Marko Kraliévitch.6 Unlike Marko, he is not an idealized hero of the popular imagination; he is still more admirable in historical terms than in the people’s songs, he did not need the myths with which Albanian bards embellished his legend to establish his greatness. […]

  • 7 In Albanian Marko Boçari (1788–1823). Member of a prominent Souliot Orthodox family. Exiled from h (...)
  • 8 The inhabitants of Souli, a remote mountainous region, free from any Ottoman control, in southern (...)
  • 9 Srb. Skadar; It. Scutari.

18The double love of independence and war, which springs from every line of these songs, offers an explanation of all of the history of these peoples from their defeat by Turkey and their enslavement to the Asiatic race. Within the [Ottoman] Empire they are warlike vassals who have no other preoccupation than that of shaking the Ottoman dominance and who often put the empire of their masters on the brink of defeat; but if shown the struggle to be undertaken, the power to be overcome, even against men of the Pelasgic race, they are ready, they launch themselves and become the strongest defense of the authorities of the Porte. An Albanian, Mustapha, fought against Marco Botzaris;7 an Albanian, Ali Pasha reached the boundaries of the Souliots.8 The gratitude owed to them by Turkey should not be exaggerated, however. Its whole internal history is, so to speak, the history of the attempts of these dangerous auxiliaries to reverse the authority of the sultans. It is remarkable when they are content, like Mahmud in Shkodra,9 Ali pasha in Jannina, to form more or less independent pashaliks in their own country, for they also attack the crown. Rejeb aga, the leader of an Albanian contingent sent to Egypt, rose up in Cairo and died heroically in battle, thereby serving as an example and paving the way for Muhammad Ali. The latter, who was the son of an Albanian aga, became the viceroy of Egypt, and, without [the opposition of] an European coalition, which France refused to join, he could have put in danger the crown of the sultans.

19These traditions have a profound influence on the mentality of Albanian populations. Popular poetry relates the names and deeds of heroes who covered themselves with glory in the war against the Turks.


1 Francois Charles Hugues Laurent de Pouqueville (1770–1839), French consul at Ali Pasha’s court in Jannina from 1809 till 1811.

2 From Shqiptar, which is the term used for ‘Albanian’ in Albanian.

3 Giuseppe Crispi (1781–1859), Bishop of Lampsaco, a prominent linguist and classical philologist and a major figure of the Albanian community in Sicilia.

4 Johann Georg von Hahn (1811–1869), Austrian consul in Jannina in the 1850s, considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern Albanian studies.

5 D’Istria is referring to Alexander the Great. The Ottomans called Gjergj Kastrioti Skander, which is the Albanian version of Iskender, the Ottoman Turkish form of Alexander. The obvious connotation was that Kastrioti was as brave as Alexander the Great.

6 D’Istria is referring to the hero of Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Albanian oral epic poetry, Kraljević Marko. The real Marko Kraljević (1335–1395), son of king Vukašin Mrnjavčević, who died in 1371 during the battle of Maritsa (Gr. Evros, Tur. Meriç) River, had ruled over the territory of today’s Republic of Macedonia, with Prilep as its capital. He was an Ottoman vassal and died in the Battle of Rovine in 1395.

7 In Albanian Marko Boçari (1788–1823). Member of a prominent Souliot Orthodox family. Exiled from his native Epirus in 1803, he joined Ali Pasha in 1820 and later he took part in the Greek War of Independence. He died in the battle of Karpenisi.

8 The inhabitants of Souli, a remote mountainous region, free from any Ottoman control, in southern Epirus. The Souliots were Albanian by origin and Orthodox by faith. Their insolent character constituted a threat both for the Ottoman authorities and for Ali Pasha of Tepelen, who, after successive campaigns, eventually managed to eradicate them in 1802.

9 Srb. Skadar; It. Scutari.


Hugh Roberts (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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