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Le pénal dans tous ses États

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René Lévy
, 
Xavier Rousseaux

- I - Acculturation juridique et intégration nationale

Feuding, Patronage and the Courts in Nineteenth-Century Corsica

Stephen Wilson

Texte intégral

  • 1 G. de MAUPASSANT, "En Corse" (1880), Au Soleil, Œuvres Complètes Paris, 1928, p. 185.

1Corsica was "the classic land of the vendetta", to use Maupassant’s phrase1. At least 65 distinct feuds occurred in the course of the nineteenth century. In the period 1826-1831 the incidence of crimes against the person was calculated to be nine times greater in Corsica than in the rest of France; by around 1890 Corsica’s homicide rate was four or five times greater than that of the Seine, the department with the next highest rate. Conflict of all kinds was extremely common, fuelled and largely operating within a traditional system of blood vengeance and honour.

2Blood vengeance is rightly seen as a system of sanctions and social control that is logically distinct and in general terms historically anterior to a formal court system. Each operated on different principles and the one came to replace the other as the bureaucratic power of the State developed and the hold of extended family and local community weakened. However, this process of replacement was slow, and in practice systems of blood vengeance and court systems could coexist and interconnect over long periods of time. In Corsica this process began well before the advent of French rule but went through its decisive and characteristic phases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, the traditional restraints upon conflict and feuding tended to be undermined once an alternative court system was in place. Mediation procedures at the local level were weakened, making conflicts less easy to settle. The customary rules, for example proscribing attacks on old men, women and children, began to be flouted, which intensified violence in some cases to what one might call a pathological level. As a result, both feuding and banditry became more common. This can be seen crudely from Figure 1, which computes the incidence of feuds by decade.

Fig. 1. Incidence of feuds, by decade

Fig. 1. Incidence of feuds, by decade

Pre- 1800- 1810- 1820- 1830- 1840- 1850- 1860- 1870- 1880- 1890- Post-
1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1900

  • 2 S. WILSON, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-century Corsica, Cambridge, 1988, p. 54. A (...)

3Concomitantly, while French officials sought to implant a system of impartial justice based on the collection and assessment of evidence and the application of general rules, Corsicans succeeded in adapting the formal framework of that system to their own requirements. For some time an uneasy compromise was reached, the judicial authorities being concerned above all to restore or keep the peace, therefore using the courts to try to reconcile parties, rather than to administer the law impartially. In a parallel way, prefects and military governors acted in the first half of the nineteenth century as referees within the blood vengeance system, brokering and guaranteeing formal peace treaties to end several prominent feuds. From around 1840, the attitude of French officials became far less compromising, but their wishes had little immediate effect. Only in this century, if then, did Corsican courts begin to free themselves from entanglement in the local culture of blood vengeance, conflict, and patronage. It is this phase of compromise and entanglement that I wish to say a little more about, with some illustration. Further details can be found in my book2.

  • 3 LORENZI DE BRADI, La Corse inconnue (Paris, 1928), p. 265.

4It used to be commonplace to attribute the existence and then the persistence of feuding in Corsica to the absence and then the corruption of official justice during centuries of Genoese misrule. This cliché was historically inaccurate, since feuding occurred well before the Genoese period, but it does express a structural truth and one that remained valid well into the nineteenth-century. By then Corsica was endowed, and overendowed, with the full panoply of French courts and judicial officials. It was noted in 1835 that the number of higher judges in Corsica per head of the population was twice the average for other French departments, while the number of juges de paix was three times as great, and these proportions had not changed much by 1900. Most of these judges were natives, and the penchant of Corsicans for careers as magistrates and lawyers was notorious (this is itself a prime example of the process of local exploitation of opportunities presented by incorporation into the modem French State). Again, full use was made of the courts, both criminal and civil, Corsica heading any list of French departments for numbers of prosecutions and of civil suits. Despite all this, Corsicans continued to express overt distrust of the courts. "Justice is obtained", Lorenzi de Bradi wrote in 1928, "by the person who is able to mobilize the most effective support: it depends on influence and politics"3. A chorus of commentators pointed out, over a century or more, that the supposedly impartial French system of justice was enmeshed with local networks of kinship and patronage, which diverted or sought to divert it to serve family and party interest and/or revenge.

  • 4 Rapport Mottet, cit. X. VERSINI, La vie quotidienne en Corse au temps de Mérimée, Paris, 1979, p. (...)
  • 5 Report, Procureur général to Minister of the Interior, 19 June 1871. A(rchives) N(ationales) BB30 (...)
  • 6 A. SURIER, Notre Corse, études et souvenirs, Paris, 1934, p. 44.

5This is most clearly shown in an assumption made by most French judicial officials about their Corsican colleagues. Mottet, who was procureur-général from 1833 to 1836, asked typically: "How can Corsican judges retain their impartiality when they have so many relatives in the island and when they are conscious of the enormous importance which a powerful suitor attaches to the success of his efforts? When people from their own districts are involved, disinterestedness becomes impossible without falling out with their closest friends and often with members of their own family"4. Even where Corsican magistrates did escape these pulls, they were still believed to be partial, and the effect was much the same. Little seems to have changed here by the end of the nineteenth century, though by then the political dimension had become more prominent, reflecting to some extent a switch from violent to non-violent forms of competition. During the Second Empire and the Third Republic, magistrates were often appointed "for electoral reasons"5. Juges de paix had always been ‘political’ figures in the general sense, often acting as local patrons or bosses. Their most important formal political role was to settle disputes about the composition of the electoral register, a role which they fully exploited in the interests of their own parties. Until the 1870s too they were actively engaged in local politics and the management of elections as department councillors and as delegates to the colleges for elections, to the Senate. As Surier wrote as late as 1934, "the protection of an influential political figure and the clientèle to which one belongs is the best of all advocates. If the ear of the judge who is a partisan of the same politicians is gained, then the cause of the faithful elector is gained also"6. These considerations had led the French authorities to maintain an exceptional judicial régime in Corsica from 1801-1831. This abolished juries, among other things.

  • 7 Letter, A.M. Santucci to Minister of Justice, 1806 (?). A.N. BB18 238 (Ministère de la Justice, Di (...)

6The importance of ‘influence’ and the venality of justice is obvious when one examines particular cases. In an early example, Anton-Maria Santucci of Loreto-di-Casinca wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice in 1806 to denounce the killer of a young priest. The man was said to be "the nephew of the wife of a Casabianca, who is a cousin of the son-in-law of the Casablanca who is a judge of the Criminal Court", and, of course, Santucci claimed, "the author of this premeditated murder will be let off because he is a relative of the judge". The local Casabianca, moreover, "had a regiment of daughters all married to people in useful positions", which reinforced the likelihood of an "arrangement"7. What we may call judicial patronage of this kind continued to operate in the later nineteenth century, though it is generally referred to in less blatant terms in the sources.

  • 8 Letters, Procureur général to Minister of Justice, 11 and 16 November 1820. A.N. BB18 1049.

7Where judicial leniency could be attributed to partiality or influence, rigour was often believed to stem from ill-will. Hence attacks on magistrates by those whom they had judged, or by their relatives, were not uncommon, especially in the first half of the century. In 1820, Colonna, the examining magistrate investigating the killing of Nunzio Gasparini at Bastelica, made the mistake of staying at the house of a family believed to be enemies of the Gasparini. On his way back to Ajaccio under armed escort, Colonna was shot and mortally wounded. The magistrate who took over the case from him was subsequently recommended for the cross of the Légion d'honneur "in recognition of the risks to which he had exposed himself"8.

  • 9 M. BIGOT, Paysans corses en communauté, porchers-bergers des montagnes de Bastelica, propriétaires (...)
  • 10 Case v. D.V. Antonmarchi, Assize Court, 4th session 1835. Gazette des Tribunaux, 26 February 1836, (...)

8Partisan testimony and the intimidation of witnesses and later of jurors were characteristic too, and become the most important means by which conflict was carried on via the courts. First, people were extremely reluctant to testify at all, and might maintain a wall of silence. As one avocat général put it, the patron saint of Corsicans in judicial matters was "Santa Nèga: I know nothing" or "I deny it"9. A case before the Assize Court in 1835, in which Domenico-Luigi Antonmarchi and his brother-in-law Romani of Pietra were accused of mortally wounding Antonmarchi’s brother, reveals what might lie behind such reserve. A key female witness admitted in court that she had withheld evidence from the examining magistrate. She explained that "before going to give evidence at Corte, I went to see the mayor, a relative of Romani. He asked me what I was going to say to the magistrate. I told him: ‘All the facts’, and when I related what Romani had said about the killing, the mayor gave a start and shouted: ‘So you want to have two men condemned to death?’, adding: ‘But you are not obliged to disclose all these things to the judge. One doesn’t have to tell all one knows’". When she still seemed unconvinced by his arguments, the mayor brought in the parish priest to reinforce what he had been telling her10. All that is unusual about the case is the woman’s resistance to the pressure placed on her.

  • 11 Report, Procureur général to Minister of Justice, 6 September 1820. A.N. BB18 1049.
  • 12 Case, Assize Court, 1 st session 1841. Gaz. Trib., 17 April 1841, No. 4871.
  • 13 Case v. A Santoni, Assize Court, 3rd session 1850. A.N. BB20 121 (Ministère de la Justice, Cours d (...)
  • 14 Letter, Judge Maniez to Minister of Justice, 29 February 1844. A.N. BB20 121.

9It was common for witnesses who did testify during the preliminary stages of a case either to miss the public hearings, or to alter or withdraw their testimony in open court. Hostile false testimony was also endemic. Witnesses in short did not behave as individuals telling the truth, but as members of families and clientèles. The procureur-général commented on a case in 1820 in which the witnesses "lied for the defence or the prosecution with no other motive than their hatred or their affection for the defendant and in fulfilment of their reciprocal duties as patrons and clients"11. In another case before the Assize Court in 1841, a boy of around 13 was asked by the presiding judge why his evidence contradicted that of other witnesses. He replied: "They are lying, which is natural enough; what would you do, sir, if someone had killed your cousin?"12. It was quite usual for opposing sides in cases of homicide and wounding to produce witnesses with completely divergent versions of the same events. Witnesses also frequently changed their evidence as circumstances changed. Antonio Santoni of Palneca was accused in 1850 of trying to kill Guidonia Santoni of Palneca, and she changed her story four times in the course of the investigation and trial. She claimed at first that Antonio, who had seduced but then refused to marry her, had tried to drown her in a river. Then under pressure from his relatives who promised that he would marry her after all to save her honour, she told the parish priest and the mayor that she had fallen into the river and that Antonio had actually tried to save her. Later, she told the examining magistrate that she had not even seen Antonio near the river. Later still, after she had been arrested herself on suspicion of perjury, she returned to her original story, on the basis of which Antonio was convicted13. Within this framework there is no doubt, as a leading judge noted in 1844, that many witnesses testified "in order to satisfy a desire for vengeance which they had been unable or unwilling to achieve by force; they cleverly fabricated evidence against defendants whom they wanted to injure or to destroy, hoping to make the Assize Court the involuntary accomplice of their passionate hatreds"14. Many specific examples may be cited from the records. True or false testimony could be the pretext for reprisals and the origin or the reason for continuing feuds. On the other side threats against potentially hostile witnesses were common, and those who ignored them were punished, often in traditional quasi-ritual ways by having their eyes, ears or tongues excised.

  • 15 P.L. ARRIGHI, Discours prononcé à la rentrée de la cour d'appel, Bastia, 1896, p. 23.
  • 16 Case v. F. Agostini, Assize Court, 2nd session 1851. A.N. BB20 152.

10Once the jury was revived in 1831, jurors were subject to the same kinds of pressures. "In nearly all cases of the slightest importance", Procureur général Arrighi declared in 1896, "the jurors are openly laid siege to from the start of the session; they are pursued by solicitations, importuned, made promises, even threatened. The most outrageous deals, the most shameful agreements, are hatched in the corridors of the Assize Court, and the soundest and best-substantiated charges, where the guilt of the defendant is evident, meet with an invincible prejudice that leads to an acquittal"15. The consequences of such lobbying can be seen in the differential outcome of two cases of premeditated homicide, tried before the same jury in 1851. In Felice Agostini’s case, the jury had been subjected to pressure, both before and during the trial, and as a result he was only convicted of simple homicide, under "violent provocation", and given a’ short prison sentence. A certain Bozzi from Zigliara, however, was found guilty of the more serious crime and condemned to death. After being sentenced, he declared: "You have condemned me, members of the jury, because I am only a poor devil. If I had had powerful protectors too, you would have let me off as well, even if I had been a hundred times guilty!"16. And indeed, as a rule, Corsican juries were extremely lenient. They tended to accept pleas of provocation and legitimate defence. They were extremely reluctant to be involved with capital sentences, which might be seen as hostile actions demanding revenge. They commonly forwarded petitions for clemency after defendants had been convicted and sentenced.

  • 17 J. BUSQUET, Le Droit de la vendetta et les paci corses, Paris, 1919, p. 121-124 and 361-364.
  • 18 Case v. N. Tenneroni, Assize Court, 2nd session 1845. A.N. BB20 130.

11Influence with judges, perjury, pressure placed on jurors, these could all be weapons in ongoing feuds conducted via the courts. Busquet referred in this context in 1919 to the "judicial vendetta"17. Here a distinction should be made between cases in which the feuding parties had reached a definitive settlement and where the court procedure was then fixed in accordance with this, and those in which the feud was still active. In the first, judges, witnesses, and jurors, would be persuaded or coached to provide the necessary acquittals or mild sentences. In a case in 1845, for example, Natale Tenneroni of Santa-Maria-Sicche was charged with trying to kill Giovan-Battiste Emilj in the course of a feud between their two families that had subsequently been concluded with a peace treaty. "In accordance with the terms of this treaty, the Emilj and other witnesses testified in court that Giovan-Battiste had been wounded by his own pistol exploding in his hands" as he was shooting his own dog. The jury was by no means taken in by this unlikely story but nevertheless took account of the treaty and found Tennerom guilty of simple wounding, which carried a sentence of only four months’ imprisonment18. In this scheme of things too, suspects only came to court voluntarily, and prison tended to be assimilated to the traditional penalty of exile, and vice versa. Killers who had spent long periods in exile (usually in Sardinia) usually had this fact taken into consideration, if and when they eventually appeared in court.

  • 19 Case v. G.G. Renosi, Assize Court, 2nd session 1833. Gaz Trib, 7 July 1833, cit. SORBIER, p. 36-38
  • 20 Case v. M. Luciani, Assize Court, 1st session 1851. A.N. BB20 152.
  • 21 Case v. A.P. Canacci, Assize Court, 1st session 1846. A.N. BB20 134.

12Where the feud was still active, court action then fitted into the pattern of hostilities. Judicial intervention could itself prompt violent conflict. Giovanni Borghetti was accused in the late 1820s of stealing a cock belonging to an Italian woman. He was convicted and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, all of which he blamed on the Taddei family. He swore vengeance, and killed one of them in 1829. When he was executed for this crime, this in turn provoked further killings over the next four years, Borghetti’s own father and the father of his victim being among the targets19. Again, and probably more commonly, violence ensued when judicial action failed to produce the results desired by one party in a conflict. Proceedings might be dropped. An accused killer might be acquitted. Reprisals in the latter event were very common. Giovan-Battiste Luciani of Venzolasca had been killed in fighting during the 1848 elections by Domenico Bottaci and others. When Bottaci was acquitted in 1850 for his part in this crime, this seemed to Luciani’s son Matteo "a denial of all justice, and inspired in him the idea of taking revenge directly himself". Matteo formally warned Bottaci in the traditional way, and then shot him in an ambush20. Where convictions were brought, the reactions of wronged parties would depend on whether they regarded the sentence as appropriate. In 1843, Fiordispina Canacci of Bisinchi had been accidentally killed in a brawl. Anton-Maria Luccioni was convicted for his involvement in the affair and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for "excusable homicide". But "this reparation did not seem sufficient to the Canacci family", and therefore Luccioni returned to the district after having served his sentence, he was shot by Fiordispina’s brothers21.

  • 22 Rapport Mottet, cit. X. VERSINI, La vie quotidienne en Corse..., p. 165.

13It is characteristic of this transactional view that little distinction was drawn at village level between accidental and deliberate killings, though the courts discriminated very clearly. At village level, too, the notion of balance was crucial, and the prosecution and conviction of a member of one party without a corresponding action, judicial or direct, against one of the other, would not remain unchallenged. Related to all this also is the notion of honour so strong in Corsican feuding. This prevented the composition of feuds by payments in money or kind, and it tended to mean that even the ideal judicial action was regarded as second-best. Procureur général Mottet related that a woman came to see him in the 1830s after her husband had been killed. He had begun to praise her for preferring justice to vengeance. "You are mistaken", she had replied. "I would have preferred vengeance, but my son is a coward who dishonours the family. I could not persuade him to kill our enemy"22.

  • 23 R. THABAULT, Mon village, 1848-1914, L'ascension d’un peuple, Paris, 1945; translated as Education (...)
  • 24 A. BLOK, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860-1960, A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs, New (...)

14I will make a few broad points in conclusion. The establishment of the formal court system in Corsica was an important vehicle for its incorporation into the French State, together with emigration, the education system, the political system, and so on. But as with these other sub-systems, and especially the last, at the same time the French court system was incorporated into the prevailing Corsican culture. In Corsica the contrast between the two systems of blood vengeance and courts was particularly acute, and the assimilation particularly rapid. But that assimilation was a two-way process. Corsican culture was strong and pro-active, using and manipulating the frameworks and resources provided by the modern State, and not simply adapting to them unilaterally. Violence did decline in the long run, though it was still significant in the 1930s, but patronage and influence thrived. The picture is very different from the model which Thabault proposed for the West of France, in which the State’s machinery (in his case the school) is only accepted once the ‘backward’ region catches up and acquires a ‘proper’ need for it. Here the region becomes fully and directly incorporated into the modern State and nation. There is no necessity for mediating networks and little or no influence by the periphery upon the institutions and procedures provided by the centre or their operation23 (whether this model adequately reflects the reality of the situation in the West of France is of course open to doubt). Corsica is closer to the model elaborated by Anton Blok and others for Sicily and Southern Italy. Here incorporation is indirect, the region remaining ‘backward’ and, to some extent, alien vis-à-vis the (new) national State and culture. This gap allows, indeed requires, a crucial role to be played by intermediaries or brokers: politicians, bureaucrats, mafiosi, who distribute resources from the State (public works, jobs, exemptions, pensions) in exchange for general compliance and political support24. But again there are significant differences. Corsica was much more successful in wresting resources from the State; its role was more active than passive, as I have said; and Corsica never developed mafias in the true sense, that is fully parallel quasi-governmental networks. Neither the Thabault nor the Blok model pays attention to the courts as agents of incorporation and acculturation, though the Corsican and other examples evoked in this book demonstrate their centrality. To investigate these problems further for Corsica alone would require a study of the more recent period, when the systems which I have investigated came to converge more. Such a study would be worth the difficulty involved, perhaps, only if it could be part of an integrated comparison.

Notes

1 G. de MAUPASSANT, "En Corse" (1880), Au Soleil, Œuvres Complètes Paris, 1928, p. 185.

2 S. WILSON, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-century Corsica, Cambridge, 1988, p. 54. A French translation is being prepared by A. Messagera and Les Editions Albiana.

3 LORENZI DE BRADI, La Corse inconnue (Paris, 1928), p. 265.

4 Rapport Mottet, cit. X. VERSINI, La vie quotidienne en Corse au temps de Mérimée, Paris, 1979, p. 181.

5 Report, Procureur général to Minister of the Interior, 19 June 1871. A(rchives) N(ationales) BB30 489 (Ministère de la Justice, Affaires criminelles, etc., 1828-71).

6 A. SURIER, Notre Corse, études et souvenirs, Paris, 1934, p. 44.

7 Letter, A.M. Santucci to Minister of Justice, 1806 (?). A.N. BB18 238 (Ministère de la Justice, Division Criminelle, 1795-1898). The Casabianca were one of the leading families of the Casinca region and played a role in French national politics in the mid-nineteenth century.

8 Letters, Procureur général to Minister of Justice, 11 and 16 November 1820. A.N. BB18 1049.

9 M. BIGOT, Paysans corses en communauté, porchers-bergers des montagnes de Bastelica, propriétaires ouvriers, dans le système du travail sans engagements d’après les renseignements recueillis sur les lieux en 1869, Les ouvriers des deux mondes, 2nd séries, II, No 64 (Paris, 1890), p. 450.

10 Case v. D.V. Antonmarchi, Assize Court, 4th session 1835. Gazette des Tribunaux, 26 February 1836, cit. P.A. SORBIER, Dix ans de magistrature en Corse, Agen, 1863, p. 72-76. Sorbier was avocat-général in the 1830s.

11 Report, Procureur général to Minister of Justice, 6 September 1820. A.N. BB18 1049.

12 Case, Assize Court, 1 st session 1841. Gaz. Trib., 17 April 1841, No. 4871.

13 Case v. A Santoni, Assize Court, 3rd session 1850. A.N. BB20 121 (Ministère de la Justice, Cours d’assises, 1830-95). Summaries of trials at the Assize Court in Bastia were written, usually by the presiding judge, sometimes by the Procureur général, and sent to Paris. The full trial papers, kept in Bastia, were destroyed during the Second World War. The official summaries in BB20 are incomplete but may be complemented by the selective accounts in the Gazette des Tribunaux.

14 Letter, Judge Maniez to Minister of Justice, 29 February 1844. A.N. BB20 121.

15 P.L. ARRIGHI, Discours prononcé à la rentrée de la cour d'appel, Bastia, 1896, p. 23.

16 Case v. F. Agostini, Assize Court, 2nd session 1851. A.N. BB20 152.

17 J. BUSQUET, Le Droit de la vendetta et les paci corses, Paris, 1919, p. 121-124 and 361-364.

18 Case v. N. Tenneroni, Assize Court, 2nd session 1845. A.N. BB20 130.

19 Case v. G.G. Renosi, Assize Court, 2nd session 1833. Gaz Trib, 7 July 1833, cit. SORBIER, p. 36-38.

20 Case v. M. Luciani, Assize Court, 1st session 1851. A.N. BB20 152.

21 Case v. A.P. Canacci, Assize Court, 1st session 1846. A.N. BB20 134.

22 Rapport Mottet, cit. X. VERSINI, La vie quotidienne en Corse..., p. 165.

23 R. THABAULT, Mon village, 1848-1914, L'ascension d’un peuple, Paris, 1945; translated as Education and Change in a Village Community, Mazières-en-Gâtine 1848-1914 (London, 1971).

24 A. BLOK, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860-1960, A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs, New York, 1974; see also, for example, S. G. TARROW, Peasant Communism in Southern Italy, New Haven and London, 1967; A. WEINGROD, Patrons, Patronage and Political Parties, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1968, 10, p. 377-400; P. LITTLEWOOD, Strings and Kingdoms, The Activities of a Political Mediator in Southern Italy, Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 1974, 15, p. 33-51.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Incidence of feuds, by decade
Légende Pre- 1800- 1810- 1820- 1830- 1840- 1850- 1860- 1870- 1880- 1890- Post-1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1900
URL http://books.openedition.org/pusl/docannexe/image/19119/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 93k

Auteur

Reader in European History at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, United Kingdom). He is the author of Ideology and Experience, Antisemitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair (1982); Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988); and some thirty articles on history and religion. He has edited Saints and their Cults, Studies an Religious Sociology, Folklore and History (1983). He is writing a book on the history of personal naming in Western Europe.

© Presses de l’Université Saint-Louis, 1997

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