A shorter version of this post was first published on Blogcritics
If I’d been asked when feudalism ended in Europe I’d probably have said around the 17th century or so, at least that was until I read Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn, which tells the story of her first years living in an Italian mountain village in Liguria, near the French border in the 1990s.
It contains a compelling, shocking story of the messadri (“half-people”), who until after the Second World War “belonged to a padrone who was their master and they had to give him half of everything they produced, down to the last kilo of chestnuts, the last egg or cabbage”.
Thin Paths might at first glance look like it belongs in the Year in Provence category – foreigner goes to live in culturally different place and writes an account of the odd doings of the “natives”, but it’s a long way from that – deeply sensitive to the lives of the community she’s moved into, compelling in its detailed account of the natural landscape, and emotionally gripping in its tales of tragedy and loss. Blackburn is at the centre of the story, but she doesn’t dominate – this is the story of the place, and her relationship with it, in that order.
A lot of the tales she gradually hears from the locals are about the war, the violence, the pain, and she allows them to hint at, without probing deeply, the still unspoken events that resonate today. But it was Adriana’s story of being a messadri, and her story of her father’s life, that really got to me:
“Adriana says that she can’t have been more than five years old when her father explained what it meant to be half-people. She had asked him why he always gave their food away, even though they had so little for themselves. ‘We are nothing and we own nothing,’ he told her. ‘We don’t own the walls of the houses we have built, or the land that we work on.’ She remembered that he was upset by his own words and she tried to argue with him, saying she was not half a person and he must have made a mistake – and that made him angry – even though he was a man who rarely showed anger.” (p.71)
It’s interesting when you think back to my broadly feudal times to transpose that scene. I’m reading now David Rollinson’s A Commonwealth of the People: Popular Politics and England’s Long Social Revolution, 1066-1649, which makes the case for a long history of resistance from the “common people” to the feudal system, and it’s not hard to imagine Adriana’s scene transferred back through the centuries.
Written in a journal format, and punctuated by occasional photos, modern and historic, Thin Paths is a book that obeys the novelistic imperative of show not tell. So we go with the author into the now abandoned homes in abandoned hill villages, to the single rooms where families slept together, crowded on piles of straw on the floor mostly – the room beside being dedicated to the fire for the drying of chestnuts, the ground floor for the animals. And it’s good to know that she’s also contributed concretely to village life – transcribing and having printed the diary kept by the village priest from the late 1930s until his death in 1966 – “for three euros now you can buy a copy of the complete text in the local shop where it sits on the counter, propped up against the packets of dried figs and dates”. (p. 137)
I read Thin Paths in a hill village in France, in the Morvan region, a traditionally poor where life was probably little different to that Julia’s village – a heavy dependence on chestnuts, at least as emergency food, was even shared. In the Morvan slate roofs were known as “roofs of milk”, because often peasants were only able to replace their thatch after a woman of the house had spent a stint in Paris as a wet nurse to a bourgeois family. There’s little thought these days of what happened to their own children. Thin Paths has the testimony of one:
Armando… explains that when he was eight months old and still wrapped in swaddling bands, there was not enough food to eat, so his mother took a job as a wet nurse for a family near the coast because that was a way of earning money and they needed a bit of money more than anything. It was decided that Pino, his elder brother, could remain at home to help his father, but Armando was handed over to his grandfather who lived in the next village, the one that can be reached by the Roman bridge. … He fed the baby on goat’s milk, until he was old enough to eat solid food. He cleaned him and swaddled him and when he was old enough to walk the two of them did everything together. Armando remained with his grandfather for the next six years and during that time he never saw his parents and never thought of them either, because he had forgotten their existence. When he was finally brought back home he was frightened by the strangers who crowded around him. He says that was probably why he never really felt at ease with his mother or father; they always seemed very severe and distant. But his grandfather had come to live with him as well and he had brought the two goats along, and that reassured him. (p. 159)
As well as the human stories this is very much a nature story – by our standards today this is a wonderfully rich land of animals and birds, from peregrine falcons to 40-strong flocks of chamois roaming the high mountains – but the old people have stories to tell of how this is greatly degraded.
“People talk about great gatherings of toads after the rain; bats swarming so thickly around the streetlights in the village that they almost obscure them; snails emerging in their thousands on the walls of the terraces; clouds of fireflies as bright as the sparks from the fire in the church square on Saint Anthony’s day; dozens of hares racing through the light fields of corn in the mountains; eels as thick as your am in the river.
Now only a light scattering of fireflies moves among the bushes in the months of May and June. Last summer, Adriana’s eldest grandson caught an eel and everyone talked about it. Armando has a pair of red squirrels nesting in a tree near his house and I have hard that there is another pair close to where Finucca used to live, but I don’t know of any others. We had a couple of nightingales singing at the end of our track, but recently they have done silent, and the single pottering hedgehog who emerged in the spring has vanished without trace. During the 11 years of being here I have come across just two hares in the mountains.” (p. 205)
I’m amazed today at the ecological richness of the Morvan. I stop to take a photo of one of the myriad wildflowers that line the footpaths and pepper the fields, and invariably find half a dozen insects, beetles and bees, ants and butterflies, buzzing around it. In my garden last year’s missed potatoes throw up a new crop and abandoned fruit trees in the forest deliver a rich crop for the birds. Yet I know that while in Julius Caesar’s time this was 30% forest, while it’s now 70-80%, mostly marching lines of conifers that carry only barren ground beneath then and are nearly bare of bird life. And that once one small commune supported many thousands living a more or less subsistence life: now it’s holiday homes, people who work in town and a handful of cattle farmers (although it’s nice to see that pretty well everyone still has a serious vegetable garden). I suspect what I see as rich would have been seen even 50 years ago as pretty sparse.
What I know of the Morvan and this village comes from reading what I can lay my hands on and talking to the locals. I wish there was a book like this about my village – indeed we need many books like this to record a fast-fading history before it is lost. Not only to know what we need to rebuild towards ecologically, but also to provide us with models and ideas of a future, far more localised, genuinely richer, economy.