Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Adding Cultural Context to Your Family History

Below is a portion of a family history that I wrote on the Lo Schiavo and Catanzaro families who originated on the island of Sicily. The resources I used for this section were particularly informative as I strove to understand the lives of these ancestors.

The sexes held distinct roles in Sicilian society. The father was the head of the household with the mother carrying out the decisions of her husband and handling the families’ finances.  The wife’s main objective was to pick wives for her sons when the time came and to make sure they had a dowry for all the daughters and a bridal gift for all the sons.  Church marriage used to be the only form of marriage until 1870 when civil marriage took precedence. After that, you will often find a couple marrying twice, both ecclesiastically and civilly.[1] 

The peasant class in Sicily consisted of five general types of occupations: agriculture, fishing, peddlers, traveling artisans and small shopkeepers.  Those who lived in coastal were often fishermen whose work provided food as well as income for their families.  Any excess catch, over and above what a family needed, was sold to provide for other necessities. Fishermen were considered a “lesser” class of peasant because they had only one useful skill, while the other peasant groups were thought to have several.[2]  A farm worker worked hard for very little wages, often leaving for work before dawn and returning long after sundown.  Others plied whatever skills they had: entertaining, herb or firewood gathering…even grave digging could produce a small fee, which could put some type of food on the table.[3]  Even now you can hear remnants of the old ways in the cries of the peddler[4] as he makes his way through the streets of a Sicilian town.  His cries ring out and the centuries-old dance between peddlers and their customers continue.  Older women barter from their third-floor balconies and, after reaching an agreement, lower their baskets by rope for their agreed-upon product. 

Most Sicilians were Catholic and their lives centered on their families and the Church.  Yet polytheism, in the forms of paganism and superstitions, was also practiced.  These practices were interwoven into the Sicilian culture and practiced alongside Catholicism.  Even as late as the 1930’s, the dead were sometimes buried without shoes, a leftover practice from the Saracens.  Paganism could be seen in the type of patron saints revered, many of whom were not biblical but rather came from the Greek and Roman gods of old.[5]  Even the use of amulets or other decorations to ward off “malocchio” or the Evil Eye can be more closely linked to paganism then anything else.[6]

The average person in Sicily did not speak the Italian language as we know it, but rather their own dialect.[7]  Similar to Italian in many respects “…the Sicilian prefers the i and u, which give it a Moorish or Turkish physiognomy; …[and] terminates both masculine and feminine plurals in i.”[8]  Clothing styles were markedly different between the classes, at least through the first third of the twentieth century.[9]  The poor often wore berets or scarves upon their heads and a cloak to hide the quality of the clothes underneath while the rich sported regular hats and clothing made of fine textiles.[10] 

[1]    Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America, pp. 76-78, 86.
[2]     Ibid, pp. 24-27.
[3]     Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America, p. 22.  The average wage for a Sicilian man working the fields was $.30 a day for ten hours of work.  Primitive means of cultivation made the work difficult and the progress slow.  See also Spencer di Scala, Italy from Revolution to Republic , pp. 154-155.
[4]        In Sicily, a “venditore ambulanti”or traveling peddler sells his product on the streets of the town by calling out what he has to sell along with the price of the product.  At one time a horse/mule and a cart was commonly used but now you’re more likely to see them use a very small truck to cart their product.  They sell anything from bread to vegetables to fruit, herbs and many other products. 
[5]        Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America, pp. 135-138.
[6]        Alan Dundes, The Evil Eye: a casebook, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), information on the Evil Eye is found throughout the whole book; digital images, Google Books ( accessed 17 July 2009).
[7]        George Smith and William Makepeace Thackeray, “Sicilian Folk-Songs”, The Cornhill Magazine (Smith, Elder and Co., 1877), p. 444; digital images, Google Books ( accessed 28 April 2009).
[8]        “Dialects and Literature of Southern Italy”, The Foreign Quarterly Review (Treuttel and Wurtz, Treuttel, Jun, and Ricter, 1830), p. 181; digital images, Google Books ( accessed 28 April 2009).
[9]      Jane Holowitz, Economic development and social change in Sicily, p. 52.
[10]    Ibid., p. 52.

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