Conflict and Control: Law and Order in 19th-Century Italy 
by John Davis.
Macmillan, 308 pp., £8.95, July 1988, 0 333 28647 2
Show More
Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in 19th-Century Corsica 
by Stephen Wilson.
Cambridge, 565 pp., £45, September 1988, 0 521 35033 6
Show More
Show More

Ever since the 18th century it has been universally accepted that one of the main foundations of a civilised society is the rule of law. The Enlightenment taught that Nature itself worked by clear and invariable laws, and saw no reason why human society should not do the same. Much that was wrong with existing institutions could be explained in these terms, and when the French Revolutionaries set out to build a new order from its foundations, they proclaimed the rule of law as the most basic of all their guiding principles. All the nationalists of the 19th century who sought to build new states of their own did the same. It underlined the legitimacy and respectability of their aspirations.

But what law, and whose? Behind the bland and high-sounding slogan which we still hear parroted every day, there must always be a number of assumptions if it is to have any real meaning. One is, that the law is uniform and applies in the same way to everybody in the national community. Private law, privilege, is deemed incompatible with it. The rule of law has a single source in a sovereign state, and applies equally to all its citizens. And only that single source has the right to enforce compliance. The darker side, of the rule of law is the state’s monopoly of violence. It is, in fact, an essential prerequisite. Even in England, where the rule of law triumphed a century before the French Revolution, it could scarcely have done so without the prior existence of a precociously strong and unified state. But this means that the rule of law is the law of those who rule.

What happens, however, if the claims of those who rule are disputed, and/or cannot be enforced? This is the problem addressed by both these excellent books. Stephen Wilson’s canvas is narrower, but it enables him to ground his analysis in a wealth of illustrative detail. Nobody in Corsica had ever had a monopoly of violence; and the French authorities who tried to establish one in the century after the island became a French possession in 1768 were foreigners with no experience of, and no sympathy for, well-established local rules of behaviour which their remote and supposedly sophisticated vocabulary could only call crime. The operative rules of life in Corsica were unwritten, but no less powerful and consensual for that; and they were often at variance with the neat codes drafted in Paris under the eye (ironically enough) of the most famous Corsican of all.

They were rooted in competition for the scarce resources of a poor, relatively isolated island with an overpopulated countryside. Only solidarity could maintain or secure access to land, water and markets, and in these circumstances the only alternative to civil war was feuding. Lawlessness in the eyes of the French state, feuding was in fact, Wilson convincingly argues, ‘a regulator of conflict, a system of primitive law and restitutive justice, providing sanctions against anti-social behaviour in the absence of a strong central authority’. Private violence, or the threat of it, was essential for the system to work at all, as rival communities or families sent signals to one another in clearly understood gestures which all too often culminated in homicide. But when they did, powerful cultural norms came into play. Blood must be avenged with blood. Nothing else, and least of all cash compensation, was honourable. Thus the virtually inescapable cycle of vendetta began. One of its consequences was that other characteristically Corsican phenomenon, banditry.

Ever since Eric Hobsbawm identified bandits in the Fifties and Sixties as social rebels rather than criminals, they have been a topic of lively debate. Not much of Hobsbawm’s thesis still stands undamaged as a result, and both these books add their own blows. Wilson sees Corsican banditry as essentially a byproduct of the feud. The bandit does enjoy community support against the law, as Hobsbawm contended, but the support only of that part of the community to which he belongs. The murder which first propels him to take to the maquis is normally part of a vendetta and his flight is both from the authorities and from those against whom he has struck. Davis would broadly agree. Dismissing Hobsbawm’s suggestions as historical romanticism, he sees the Italian bandit as existing ‘in that confused and contested no man’s land where local and royal justice met, and it was precisely here that the contours of authority were beginning to change rapidly in this period.’ Italy was so diverse that no single formula can encapsulate all the many and regionally-differentiated forms of banditry. Only the crude language of the law itself endowed it, quite unjustifiably, with a uniform character. What was clear, however – and here, surely, Wilson would concur – was that ‘in the tightly knit social systems of rural society, to be alone was to be weak, and banditry was most likely to survive and persist where it was part of a wider set of interests and involvement.’

Banditry and vendetta, perhaps the dominant preoccupation of the French police authorities in Corsica, were part of a much wider range of law-and-order problems confronting their Italian counterparts. After half a century of political calm, the peninsula and its offshore islands were plunged, from 1796 on, into a century of almost constant upheaval. Unification, so long seen by liberals as a panacea for every conceivable problem, merely substituted one set of political difficulties for another, and within barely a decade of the kingdom’s coming into existence the economic crisis which broke in the early 1870s imposed new and undreamed-of strains on its economy and society – as it did on those of Corsica too.

Even before unification, the various sovereign authorities who divided Italy between them had not established an effective monopoly of violence even in their own territories. In the Neapolitan realms, Sicily and, in particular, Sardinia, variations on the Corsican pattern were widespread. Unification, whether temporary under Napoleon or more permanent under the House of Savoy, brought to all these regions an authority as remote as that of Paris was from Corsica, yet one determined to impose the forms of a modern nation-state, including the rule of law, on the whole peninsula and on Sicily.

These ambitions ran counter to a spectacular range of vested interests and traditions of local autonomy. While peasants resented the tax demands of the new state and its attempts to conscript them into its armed forces, local élites (whom Davis often invokes but tantalisingly seldom defines) resented the competition of its agents for an authority they had long viewed as their private prerogative. There were often, therefore, scarcely-veiled solidarities between rich and poor in Italian society. They took different forms, certainly, in north and south, town and country, but from the state’s point of view they all represented a challenge to its authority and therefore, by definition, to the rule of law. By the 1880s it was widely believed in Italy that no state in Europe was more dogged by crime. Davis suspends judgment on whether this was true. Crime is too much in the eye of the definer, and the neuroses of a young and insecure state doubtless led to wider definitions than might have been acceptable in more self-assured national communities. Nevertheless the elements were clearly there – a soaring population in a countryside increasingly unable to feed it, land in few and extortionate hands, and cities unable to absorb the rural exodus by providing immigrants with the employment they had come in search of.

Yet, as in Corsica, informal and unwritten rules had been established to contain the potential for savage conflict, especially in the south. In Naples such rules and habits were collectively known as camorra, in Sicily as mafia. Davis sees these notorious phenomena as ways of doing things, rather than organisations. Both represented tendencies to monopolise the supply of scarce resources. Camorra, often described today as the Neapolitan offshoot of the Mafia, is in fact a far older phenomenon. It originated in the grotesquely swollen city of Naples, by far the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe as a whole until well into the 19th century. No important industries sustained this huge wen, and with the end of the Neapolitan kingdom the Bourbon Court which had been one of its few major sources of direct or indirect employment disappeared. Camorra, a network of clientage underpinned by the threat of violence, gave a certain paradoxical order to this explosive situation. Nothing comparable appears to have existed in Sicily until the 1870s, and the word mafia was unknown before then. It arose from two sources. One was the economic crisis which devastated an already precarious economy. The other was the belated integration of Sicily into the political system of the new Italian state, when, in reaction to attempts to subject their island to greater central control, the large landowners who dominated Sicilian society discovered the power of the ballot box and sought to control it. They found that both economic and political monopolies could be sustained by the same strong-arm methods. Northern politicians might, and did, call this system organised crime. From their viewpoint, that was perfectly understandable. From another, however, mafia or camorra were simply rival systems of law, rooted far more firmly in the social realities of the South than the high principled abstractions forged in France, adopted by educated, Tuscan-speaking Northerners, and imposed as the only acceptable ground-rules.

When politicians now ensconced in the artificially-created capital of Rome invoked the rule of law, what they really meant was their own authority. Law, after all, had played little enough part in the unification of Italy. Armed force had been infinitely more important. Nor did these same politicians hesitate to suspend their own vaunted laws in the interest of public security whenever they felt threatened. Davis’s pages are full of instances of emergency powers being taken by good constitutionalists on the grounds that crime was getting beyond control by normal means. They culminated in the 1890s in the near-abandonment of constitutional government – an episode to which Davis devotes an epilogue. Beset by a simultaneous series of disasters, economic and political, which provoked a storm of discontent, the government resorted to martial law and repression on an unprecedented scale. Key elements throughout Italian society found themselves threatened, and despite widely divergent particular interests found common ground in demanding a return to – the rule of law. For the first time, in other words, Italians were coming to accept that they now lived under a single state with a monopoly of violence, and were demanding the corollary which alone could make that acceptable. Through elections they eventually achieved it, and until the next world crisis Italy enjoyed a brief period as the sort of model constitutional state her founders had dreamed of but had not lived to see.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences