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ETHNONYMS: les Corses (French), i Corsi (Corsican)


Identification. Corsicans are the native inhabitants of the Mediterranean island of Corsica, now part of France. Corsicans consider themselves a distinct ethnic group, a claim which is vigorously promoted by the Corsican nationalist movement.

Location. Corsica lies in the central Mediterranean Sea, 168 kilometers from Provence but only 81 kilometers from Tuscany, and separated from the Italian island of Sardinia to the south only by the 11-kilometer-wide straits of Bonifacio. Corsica is the most mountainous island of the Mediterranean. Its topography has a rugged beauty but poor soils: 40 percent of the land area is covered by the maquis, or macchia, a form of vegetation that signals land degradation in the Mediterranean region; 20 percent is covered by forests; and 25 percent is suitable for pasture. Only a small (and declining) portion of the island is cultivated. The lowland plains are the only highly productive agricultural areas; yet until the postwar era, these were malarial and little used. The Corsican landscape is characterized by three altitudinal zones: coastal, dominated by the low bushes of the maquis with a few oak and olive forests; mountain, where forests of chestnut, evergreens, oak, and beech are common; and subalpine, dominated by pine forests to the tree line, above which may be found natural pasture. Unlike most of the Mediterranean Islands, Corsica receives abundant precipitation, averaging 88 centimeters per year, most of which falls in the winter. In locales above 1,000 meters, precipitation normally falls in the form of snow from December until April.

Demography. The present population of Corsica is 240,000 inhabitants, and its population density, only 28 Persons per square kilometer, is one of the lowest in Europe. Since the turn of the century, Corsica has been steadily depleted of her people, and today the majority of all Corsicans (one-half to two-thirds, according to different estimates) live outside of Corsica, with Marseille being the largest Corsican town. Of the 360 communes on the island, 316 have a natural population decrease (deaths outnumbering births) Because of the exodus of the island's youth. Unemployment and underemployment are blamed for the high emigration levels, although the lack of higher education on the island is also an important factor. The economic consequences of this demographic decline are great, thus further contributing to the downward spiral of underdevelopment. During the 1960s, the island's population was boosted by the repatriation of French colonials from Algeria, and now 10 percent of Corsica's population are such "Pieds Noirs" immigrants. Immigration since then has included large numbers of North Africans, who do primarily low-status, menial jobs, as well as continental French, employed especially in high-status positions. Of the 240,000 island residents, only 166,600 (69.4 percent) are of Corsican origin (of whom 86 percent are island-born); 33,600 (14 percent) are of continental French origin; and 39,800 (16.6 percent) are of foreign origin.

Linguistic Affiliation. Standard French is the official Language in Corsica, and it is the language of education, the media, the workplace, the government, and upward mobility. The local language, however, is Corsican (Corsu), which is spoken as a native tongue by decreasing numbers of inhabitants (despite the efforts of nationalists to revive the Language). Corsican is of the Latin Family of languages and closest to the rural dialects of Tuscany, but it has no standard form and varies greatly.

History and Cultural Relations

Invaded and colonized through the centuries by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Saracens, Tuscans, Genoese, Spaniards, English, and French, the original inhabitants of Corsica are known today only by their megalithic monuments. For the early seafaring empires of the Mediterranean, the islands were important stopping places in their commercial and military sea routes; of these groups, the Romans were the most influential rulers and provided the longest period of peace the Island has known in historic times. From the Romans, the pastoral Corsicans inherited the olive tree, the vine, new cereal crops, irrigation, the Latin language, and, eventually, Christianity, as well as a number of ports and towns along the coast. But the Vandal and other invasions of the Dark Ages destroyed most of the Roman settlements and pushed the Islanders inland, away from the coasts, which remained abandoned until modern times. In 1077 the pope gave Corsica to the bishop of Pisa, ushering in a half-millennia of conflict and competition between the European powers of Pisa, Genoa, Aragon, and France for control over the island. Throughout the seventeenth century, Genoa ruled unchallenged; However, the coasts were subject to virtually constant raids by pirates from northern Africa and Turkey, attacks which did not cease until the nineteenth century. The eighteenth century was marked by local rebellions, which weakened foreign domination, and by struggles between France, England, and Genoa for sovereignty. In 1755, Corsican nationalists declared independence, driving the Genoese to take refuge in the fortified coastal cities. In 1768 Genoa ceded the island to France, which defeated the nationalists, but the movement reemerged during the French Revolution, and Corsicans again declared their independence in 1793. The eighteenth century closed with skirmishes between nationalists, sometimes supported by the British, and the Napoleonic army, whose victory finally ensured that Corsica remained within French control. Since then, Corsicans have worked and fought along with France, in her civil service, military, colonies, and wars. Initially this peace encouraged a period of development and dynamism in the island: small-scale Industrialization began and the population grew to its highest levels ever, about 280,000-300,000. By the close of the last century, however, the trend was already slowing and reversing: competition from France's north African colonies undermined Corsican agricultural exports, industries began to close, and emigration accelerated. The combined effects of emigration and losses suffered during the two world wars brought the population level to its lowest point in modern times, about 150,000 in 1954. The postwar eradication of malaria in Corsica, endemic in the coastal areas at least since the Christian era, signaled Corsica's transformation into a modern society. Corsican modernization has been characterized by the underdevelopment and withering of traditional resources, especially agriculture; the widespread emigration of Corsicans; the immigration of Pieds Noirs colonists, followed by Sardinian and then North African laborers; the founding of a new, large-scale coastal agricultural industry, largely by the Pieds Noirs, with French government financing and North African labor, the development of a mass-tourism industry; and the growing importance of economic aid from the central French government in pensions, welfare, subsidies, etc. These developments have caused disillusionment and bitterness among many Corsicans, leading to the rise of a militant and occasionally violent nationalist movement. Beyond the general pattern, the turbulent history of the island has left the stamp of heterogeneity on Corsican culture: each part of the island evolved particular cultural patterns as a result of the various local experiences of subjection and local methods of accommodating and resisting the dominatore.


Today, the greater part of Corsica's population (54 percent) is concentrated in the two main cities, Ajaccio and Bastia; 80 percent of the island's 360 communes have less than 500 inhabitants, 60 percent less than 200. The interior highlands most clearly show the effects of the Corsican exodus; many villages are left with only a few individuals as permanent residents. These inland villages also have the oldest populations, with one-third of Corsica's elderly (60 years and older). Formerly, the majority of Corsicans were concentrated in the rural villages of the interior.

In the interior, dressed-stone multistory buildings cluster on the hillsides in nucleated villages; often these stand today pristine and well maintained, as the emigrant villagers residing in distant cities return only during holidays to their ancestral homes. A few old fortified coastal cities of densely built housing laced by narrow medieval streets remain home to a dwindling population of traditional urbanites descended from the colonists of earlier eras. In the main cities of Ajaccio and Bastia, and along the rest of the coastal areas, modern housing and hotel developments predominate.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence-oriented production, although the mainstay of traditional Corsica, varied widely from region to region in the degree of dependence upon agriculture, pastoralism, and other types of primary production. Most areas practiced mixed agropastoralism, incorporating the ecosystems of different elevations for transhumance and to produce different crops; agriculture was clearly dominant in only two regions. The northeast was unusual because agriculture and livestock raising, especially pigs, were overshadowed by the importance of the chestnut forests; the nuts were ground into flour or used as fodder. The abundance of this resource allowed for one of the highest population densities of rural Europe in earlier times. Many of the coastal areas were abandoned as Permanent sites for residences and for most agriculture and were used primarily as winter pasture by transhumant shepherds from higher elevations. In some of the more mountainous Regions transhumant pastoralism was of paramount importance, agriculture being a more marginal and supplementary occupation. Fishing, combined with agriculture, was of basic importance only on the Cap Corse Peninsula. Today, traditional agriculture has been virtually abandoned and pastoralism has declined severely. Modern, large-scale agriculture is profitable only in the formerly abandoned lowland plains of the coastal areas.

The collapse of the traditional economy has created severe employment problems for Corsicans, leading to high levels of emigration. The new large-scale, coastal agriculture is dominated by non-Corsicans (Pieds Noirs owners and North African laborers), thus doing nothing to combat the problems of unemployment and emigration of Corsicans. The export orientation of modern agriculture and the decline of pastoralism have led to increased dependency on food imports.

Industrial Arts. The major industry on the island is Tourism, which is growing rapidly: tourism generates revenues double that of agriculture and triple that of building and public works, the next-largest sector. However, tourism is dominated by national and international capital, employment is seasonal and dominated by non-Corsicans (43 percent French and 29 percent foreign), and most of the goods and food required by the tourists must be imported; thus, few Corsicans benefit from the tourism boom that brings millions of visitors annually to the island. There is almost no other industry, except construction and public works; Corsica is almost completely dependent on imports.

Trade. Corsica exports mainly wine and small amounts of citrus fruits, wood, cork, and other products; the percentage of exports to imports in 1979 was only 22 percent. Symbolic of the economic dependence of the island on the central state is the fact that the single largest employer in Corsica is the state.

Division of Labor. The traditional division of labor was based on the intersecting principles of gender, social status, and age. The social status of the signori, the upper class, was marked by their withdrawal from manual labor; for the women of this strata, this implied seclusion within the home to a greater or lesser degree. Among the peasants, however, everyone worked. Under normal circumstances, with a balanced family grouping, the division of labor by gender was well defined and exclusive; only under exceptional circumstances would an individual undertake tasks assigned to the opposite sex. Women's responsibilities included domestic work; food preparation; care of the young, the elderly, and the ill; gardening; fetching water; supervising the ripening of the cheeses; harvesting or collecting olives, chestnuts, wild fruits, and wood. Men were responsible for most of the agricultural tasks, herding, woodcutting, hunting, and defense. The allocation of specialized occupations varied regionally. In the highly stratified villages of the south, for example, the shepherds comprised the lowest social class, segregated from the other villagers; in the more egalitarian villages of the northeast this hierarchy of occupations was generational within the family, with the landowning peasant father being in charge of agriculture and his sons herding until their inheritance of the land allowed them to take over the agricultural tasks. In the more pastoral regions, however, shepherding was a highstatus occupation.

Land Tenure. Although a small portion of the land in Corsica is considered state-owned, most is either privately owned or owned by the village communities. The ratio of private to communal lands varies greatly, some regions having primarily private landholdings and others primarily communal. The traditional pattern was typically to hold pasture lands in common and agricultural lands in private ownership.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The symbol of kinship is blood: the blood that is shared by kin, the blood that may be shed for kin. Blood ties are considered supreme and unbreakable; for example, a woman's closest ties are to her brothers, and later to her sons. Extended family ties are very important as the basis for Political strength, and traditionally alliances were cemented by ties of marriage. Large kin groups were also economically Important, particularly in areas characterized by communal ownership of land, where wealth depended on the number of people bringing in income from diverse sources. Kinship continues to be an important resource for emigrants, who depend on kin for assistance in the initial stages of the move and who maintain village ties and assist, in turn, those who may follow.

Marriage. Marriage was traditionally arranged by the Families; the bride and groom normally had little or no say in the choice of spouse. Parental consent could be circumvented by a variety of stratagems: the couple could run away together for a few days, thus compromising the woman's (and her family's) honor and forcing the parents to choose between the marriage and a vendetta; or the couple could announce publicly their intention to marry and allow the community to judge whether to sanction the union; or a man could try to force a marriage by abducting a reluctant young woman. These alternatives always carried the risk of embroiling both families in a vendetta if unsuccessful. Village endogamy was preferred, although pieve endogamy (i.e., marriage within a group of villages) was also practiced. Residence on marriage was normally patrilocal; unmarried adults usually lived with siblings.

Domestic Unit. The family is a fundamental social unit in Corsican society. The individual is subordinate to the family in many ways and the strong sense of individualism in this culture is directed toward fulfilling familial roles and Responsibilities. The father or eldest brother is the authority figurehead, although the eldest woman also wields considerable power over her sons and daughters-in-law. The symbol of the family is the house, the place of trust and secrecy.

Inheritance. Traditionally, the general principle was that women received dowries and men inherited wealth from their natal families, but this was not a strict rule: it was modified by many other considerations, including marital status and residency, and varied throughout the island as well. Today, Village property, especially in the mountainous areas, often is not divided and is inherited jointly, to ensure that those who wish to remain in the natal village will retain use rights to the family property. After several generations of emigration, sale of village property may become impossible, as this requires consent of all inheritors and their descendants.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The traditional Corsican village was more than an aggregate of families, more than physical geographic boundaries: it was a social unit of overlapping kin ties, maintained by preferential village endogamy; an Economic unit that could ensure subsistence of its members through access to communal lands; and a moral entity characterized by strong social control and conformity of its membersthat is, it was a corporate group with well-defined collective rights and responsibilities. The most important intervillage unit was the pieve, a grouping of villages which (typically) shared the same valley and was defined in terms of the limits of marriage exchange; this traditional social Organization today is reflected in the boundaries of the French cantons.

Political Organization. Corsica was annexed to France in 1769, and was made a department in 1789 at the request of the inhabitants. The island's 360 communes are organized into 62 cantons. It is the local village and island politics, However, which most excite people's passions, because of their long tradition of effective local self-government. Also, in this society where the village community is the most important Social unit, the mayor is a man of great importance and wields significant power through his control of community property. The mayor is an elected representative, the head of the partitu with the greatest local support. The partitu (sometimes glossed as "clan") is an unstable alliance of families, kin groups, or other local political groupings. These political Subgroups support one or another of the leaders according to a variety of criteria, including kinship, clientism, sentiment, loyalty to alliances, services promised or received, etc.; voting as a block, they can use their electoral support to lobby for privileges and services and to enhance their position within the community. Corsican municipal politics, therefore, are nonideological; ideas or principles are far less important than power itself (a variation of "might makes right"). Although one of the few means by which families are unified at the subvillage level, this systemcharacterized by polarization and instability and by passionate and sometimes violent election campaigns that involve all kinds of strategies and coercionalso intensifies intravillage conflict and factionalism. The partitu has not lost relevance in modern Corsica, and in fact it has expanded its traditional role as mediator between the local community and the outside world: today, for example, partitu leaders use their ability to obtain social benefits such as pensions and welfare from the state as a major advantage with which to bargain for political support.

Social Control and Conflict. Traditionally, the lives of Individuals living in the small, insular villages of the island were subject to very strong social control by the community, especially in terms of the pervasive cultural value of "honor." Gossip was the principal mechanism by which the community evaluated and judged the behavior of individuals and Families; in extreme cases the vendetta, or blood feud, was employed to defend the family honor or enact justice or vengeance. A vendetta is usually between families, with responsibilities and limits defined in terms of degree of kinship distance from the perpetrator and victim; vendetta violence, however, varies considerably in intensity and frequency by Region. State control and justice has traditionally been ineffective against indigenous forms of informal control, although today the vendetta is gradually losing prestige and it is becoming more and more acceptable to seek justice through the state legal system.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The majority of Corsicans are Roman Catholic, although previously (as late as World War II in some cases) beliefs in spirits, sorcerers, prophecy, and magic were also common. Women have traditionally been responsible for the religious life of the family, both in the Christian church and as the practitioners of the non-Christian beliefs.

Arts. The most famous of the Corsican arts are verbal: song, chant, improvised poetry, lament, and story. These traditional skills have declined dramatically in the face of Modernization and emigration, although there has been a minor renaissance in recent times, partly in conjunction with the new nationalist mood.


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Carrington, Dorothy (1971). Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica. Longmans. Reprint. 1984. London: Penguin Books.

Holway, Bradley (1978). "Adaptation, Class, and Politics in Rural Corsica." Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University, Montreal.

Ravis-Giordani, Georges (1983). Bergers corses: Les communautés villageoises du Niolu. Aix-en-Provence: Edisud.

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