views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYM: Calabrians



The Calabrese are a geographically and, to a degree, culturally defined people of the classic latifundia Region of southern Italy.

Location. Calabria lies between 38° and 39° N and approximately 16° E, constituting the "toe" of the Italian "boot." It has coasts bordering on the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas. The island of Sicily lies just off to the west, across the Strait of Messina. The region consists of three provinces, with provincial capitals at Cosenza, Catanzaro, and Reggio Calabria. The terrain is predominantly hilly, with some mountains. The climate is typically Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and mild, humid winters. Mean annual rainfall varies from 60 to 120 centimeters. Summers are a time of drought, and what rain does occur falls in short, heavy showers that wash away the soil and damage the crops. Most of the soils are poorthin and highly porous. The farmlands are confined to the clayey regions. Forested areas of the region have been dramatically reduced over the years, especially Recently, because of overgrazing and overcropping, resulting in much soil erosion.

Demography. According to a 1981 census, Calabria's population is 2,061,182. Person-to-land ratios are extremely low throughout most of the region, because of the wide dispersal of settlement centers. The population has been steadily declining over the last several decades, largely because of the out-migration of residents. Overall mortality rates have Declined, but infant mortality rates remain quite high relative to the rest of Italy. As is the case for much of western Europe, Calabria is experiencing a demographic shift toward an older population, which is exacerbated by the fact that most outmigrants are drawn from the younger segment of the adult population.

linguistic Affiliation. The Neapolitan-Calabrian dialect predominates in Calabria, although there are communities of Calabrian-Albanian speakers as well. Although the two languages are linguistically distinct, they are both Indo-European languages. The former belongs to the Gallo-Romance Family, the latter to the Albanian.

History and Cultural Relations

The archaeological record discloses a long and rich history of habitation for the region; Neolithic, Copper Age, and Bronze Age sites are abundant. Earliest records mentioning the Region refer to it as "Bruttia," a name retained until the Byzantine period. Few monuments of the Roman occupation remain, but during that time Christianity was introduced to the region. Byzantine control of all of the south, including Calabria, continued for centuries after the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. It was broken by the arrival of the Normans in the eleventh century. Prior to this, during the tenth century, was a time when monastic settlements were established in great numbers throughout the region, particularly those devoted to Saint Basil of Caesarea. Napoleon's conquest of the south inaugurated the "French Decade" at the turn of the nineteenth century, and during this period feudalism was abolished, although changes in the law had Little effect on local practice. Large estates owned by absentee landlords remained the norm. Still, during this time the partition of municipal commons (called "domains") for public sale began. The last half of the nineteenth century saw the start of heavy emigration, as the land became less and less able to support the people, and disease and natural disasters took their toll. Agriculture was in crisis, and efforts by the Italian state were confounded by countervailing actions on the part of the traditional landholding families of the region. The volatility of the social and economic situation of the period was increased with the introduction of anarchism and Socialism, and during years of crop failure riots were common. The years between the two world wars saw a concerted movement toward land occupations, which were ultimately legitimated by the state government. This broke the traditional pattern of the feudal estates, as many of the newly occupied properties were even then run on collective lines. In the years immediately following World War II, the Italian government embarked upon the largest regional development program known to Western Europe, specifically intended to address the reality that the south lagged behind the north in industry and infrastructure. Calabria, however, received little benefit from this new effort to improve infrastructure and to develop industry.


Calabria is characterized by the form of settlement known as "agrotown": large, isolated towns centrally situated in a much more extensive territory made up of agricultural lands. The concentration of people in these centers is great: approximately 80 percent of the regional population is town-based, with less than 20 percent living in dispersed settlements across the countryside. Average settlement populations are between 2,000 and 8,000, and some are as large as 20,000 to 40,000. This settlement pattern derives from Roman times and was designed to facilitate defense in times of war or invasion. Most of the townspeople are landless, having only their manual labor to sell to the farmers of the surrounding area.

While urban in size and physical layout, these settlements are strongly focused on the rural, agricultural world, whose laborers they shelter and whose products they consume.


The crops grown in the region are typical of Mediterranean extensive-farming communities. The principal crop is wheat, olives and grapes are also important, and citrus and cotton are grown as well. There is little industrialization. Traditional Calabrian farming was, and in many places still is, done on the basis of leasehold access to a portion of an absentee landlord's property. Leases are commonly issued on a multiyear basis, and the tenant is responsible for managing the operation, hiring the necessary labor, and providing his own seed and tools. Multiyear leases are contracted on the basis of the landlord receiving a portion of the proceeds of the harvest, usually wholly in cash and often representing as much as three-fourths of the total product. One-year leases are also common, though less favored by tenants. Women's participation in agricultural labor is and traditionally has been Marginal. Merchants and artisans reside in the towns, and the overwhelming influence of the estates upon the orientation and conduct of town life has diminished somewhat. Very few employment alternatives are available locally, other than in farming. For this reason, and because smallhold farming is unsuitable in all but a few parts of the region, there has long been a high rate of out-migration of youth and men to the industrial north, other European countries, and the United States. These workers usually send back a portion of their wages to support the families they have left behind. Because of this, there has been a process of "feminization" of local town populations, and often a change in local conceptions of "men's work"often the men simply are not there to do it, so women must take over. Thus, although there is a long tradition of women's avoidance of the "public" sphere, such avoidance is today followed less assiduously.


The hard facts of economic life in Calabria have had implications for the structure of the local kin group. Unlike in the north, where the patrilinear extended family is the form most commonly associated with farming communities, in the south the nuclear family is largely detached from any broader kinship unit. Ties beyond the nuclear family are also difficult to maintain because of the high degree of mobility required when farm laborers must circulate through the region in search of temporary or seasonal employment, or when Individuals must leave the area entirely to find factory work.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is celebrated within the Catholic church, and matches are often arranged. A woman is expected to be chaste before marriage, and courtship is carried out under the watchful eye of the family and community. Long courtships are common, and age at marriage is generally in the mid-twenties for women and late twenties or early thirties for men. Marriage is expected to be for life, and divorce is not an option.

Domestic Unit. The household consists, as a rule, of the nuclear family. Families tend to have many children, though high infant mortality rates keep families small. The widowed parent of either the husband or wife may, for economic reasons, move in. When this occurs, it is generally the case that a widowed mother will move in with her married son, while a widowed father will live with a married daughter. This is intended to avoid conflicts with regard to household authority, but in practice such arrangements are rife with tensionparticularly between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It is generally understood that these arrangements, when they occur, are far less than ideal. In practice, although the Domestic unit consists of the husband-wife pair plus their children, the residential unit is quite frequently a female-headed Family, as husbands are gone for much of the year to work in the north or out of the country.

Inheritance. Those who have real property are a small Minority of the population, but among them land tends to pass to sons rather than daughters. A daughter's inheritance, if there is to be one, usually passes to her as a marriage settlement, in the form of household goods.

Socialization. The mother is the primary care giver for young children and often remains their sole adult focus until they reach maturity. Older daughters are expected to help care for their younger siblings as soon as they are competent to do so. Free schooling is available and is mandatory for the first few years, after which usually only the boysand only a small percentage of thosego on to higher levels of education.

Sociopolitical Organization

The population centers provide an administrative link Between the region and the national polity, politically integrating Calabria into the Italian state. Traditionally, because of the economic focus of the town upon the needs of the estates, local leadership was drawn from the landowning families, if they were resident in town, or from the numbers of the leasehold masters of the estates. Like much of southern Italy, the region was historically plagued by bandits, against whose depradations the estate guards were expected to defend. However, this arrangement often resulted in the abuse of authority by the guards themselves, who then became an extortionate and violent class. The strongly held social value of individualism makes it difficult for individuals to operate in groups larger than the family, but on occasions that require the recruitment of outside helpto conduct official business, secure a job, or the likesuch transactions are frequently couched in the terms of a patron-client relationship.

Social Control.

Local police enforce the official law in the community, and courts mete out punishment. However, informal sanctions also play a major role in ensuring that Individuals comply with local norms and standards of behavior. Gossip is a powerful means of social control and is most frequently concerned with allegations regarding the honor or virtue (or lack of same) of an offending individual or family.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Calabrians are Roman Catholic, but their religious beliefs depart, sometimes quite radically, from the formal tenets of Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general. There is a strong faith in a distant, all-powerful God, but this deity is seen to have little interest in or concern for humanity. The focus of religious expression is, therefore, upon a mediatorsome saint or supernatural entity that can be importuned to intercede on behalf of humans. In Calabrian beliefs, the Madonna is the most important intercessionary figure among a myriad of saintsbut within the term "Madonna" are implicit a great variety of entities, not all (or perhaps any) having much to do with traditional Christian beliefs. Her intercession is sought for help in all sorts of matters, from finding a husband to ensuring the fertility of one's fields or livestock. The retention of superstition and pre-Christian beliefs is evident also in the still strongly held belief in both good and bad (but usually bad) magicparticularly the concept of the "evil eye."

Religious Practitioners. Formal religious practice, through the church, is led by priests. Magicoreligious practice outside the formal structure of the church is the province mainly of women. However, this status is attributednot achieved or inherited. Essentially, a witch is a witch because people say she is one, and such accusations tend to be Reserved for the anomalous or marginal people in the communitypeople who are, for example, possessed of greater-than-usual economic success, or who fail to live up to local expectations of behavior.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremonial occasions are the feasts of local patron saints and the feasts of the liturgical calendar devoted to the Madonna. Bonfires, processions, and fireworks all form characteristic parts of such celebrations. The seven sacraments of the Church (baptism, confirmation, confession, Communion, marriage, ordination, extreme unction) are honored, and both Christmas and Easter are important religious holiday periods.

Medicine. Calabria is a poor and unhealthy region. Malaria is common in many areas, particularly along the coast. Modern medical care is not well distributed throughout the population, and a strong reliance on traditional curing techniques that combine the use of poultices and infusions and beliefs in magical interventions remains. Prayer, or the lighting of votive candles, is one frequently tried avenue to healing.


Arlacchi, P. (1983). Mafia, Peasants, and Great Estates: Society in Traditional Calabria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berkowitz, Susan G. (1984). "Familism, Kinship, and Sex Roles in Southern Italy: Contradictory Ideals and Real Contradictions." Anthropological Quarterly 57:83-92.

Chubb, Judith (1982). Patronage, Power, and Poverty in Southern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cornelisen, Ann (1977). Women of the Shadows. New York: Random House.

King, Russell, Jill Mortimer, and Alan Strachan (1984). "Return Migration and Tertiary Development." Anthropological Quarterly 57:112-124.

Moss, Leonard W. (1974). "The Passing of Traditional Peasant Society in the South." In Modern Italy: A Topical History since 1861, edited by E. R. Tannenbaum and Emiliana P. Noether, 147-170. New York: New York University Press.



views updated May 29 2018

calabrese An annual plant (Brassica olearacea italica), a variety of broccoli which yields a crop in the same year as it is sown. Also called American, Italian, or green sprouting broccoli. A 75‐g portion is a rich source of vitamin A (as carotene), folate, and vitamin C; provides 3 g of dietary fibre; supplies 25 kcal (105 kJ).