The Kanun is a collection of customary laws that governed all aspects of life in the mountains of northern Albania for centuries and is still ingrained in the psyche of many people who live there today.
The media has sensationalized two aspects of the Kanun—blood feuds and sworn virgins. But the Kanun is much more than this.
A little background for perspective
Some historians believe the Kanun dates back to the Bronze Age; others believe its roots lay in ancient Illyrian tribal laws or with earlier civilizations.
Lekë Dukagjini (1410-1481) was a mediaeval ruler who is believed to first codify the Kanun, and it was put to writing by the Franciscan priest Shtjefën Gjeçovi (1874-1929). Several variations emerged but the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit is the best known.
When outsiders started exploring isolated regions of northern Albania in the 1800s, they described locals as lawless, heavily armed and as not hesitating to use weapons to settle disputes. But the people of the north weren’t lawless. Quite the contrary. They had their own way of handling challenges based on the Kanun and rejected outside influences as much as they could from the Ottoman Empire and even later from Tirana.
During communism, Enver Hoxha made practices based on the Kanun illegal, but it resurfaced in the 1990s after the fall of communism when there was little faith in the government and police.
What the Kanun covers
The Kanun is based on the four pillars of honor, hospitality, proper conduct, and kin loyalty. It also covers property rights (which includes land and women) and water access (important in a dry Mediterranean country).
The English interpretation of the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini (which can be found at the bookstore in Skanderbeg Square) is divided into twelve sections:
- The Church
- The Family
- House, Livestock and Property
- Transfer of Property
- The Spoken Word
- The Law Regarding Crimes
- Judicial Law
- Exemptions and Exceptions.
The level of detail in the Kanun is impressive. A few examples (some quaint) include:
- if your bees escape and go on someone else’s property, you have the right to enter their property to retrieve them; if no one is pursuing the bees, whoever finds them can keep them
- a wedding needs to include a “wedding ox,” and the reception needs to include certain amounts of coffee, cheese, raki, etc.
- if your goat ruins someone’s vineyard, you are required to give them the amount of wine and raki that the destroyed vines would have produced
- the master of the house must wash his hands before the guest and drink the first glass of raki, while the guest must take the first bite of food. Violation of this rule is punishable by fine
While many terms of the Kanun don’t necessarily apply verbatim in today’s world, the basic premises and some practices prevail. For example, hospitality is a sacred duty with the passage shpija ësht e Zotit e e mikut (the house belongs to God and guests) and is an Albanian trait practiced in all areas of the country.
In Burrel, I also saw a cow in the back of a pickup truck munching on grass while a wedding party circle danced nearby. A friend explained that giving a cow to the groom as a wedding gift is a custom in the community. Another time, a ram spray-painted with red stripes and with red balloons on its horns passed by in the back of a trailer, apparently an acceptable alternative if the friends didn’t have enough money for a cow. (Perhaps this practice is a modern-day adaptation of a wedding ox dictated in the Kanun.)
In another village near where I lived in the north, some young men tried to divert water from a property to theirs. The dispute nearly ended with a bullet. A week later, a tribal elder paid a two-day visit to the family that owned the land with the water source. After late nights talking (often tangentially) and completing various rituals showing respect, the dispute was settled with promises that the young men would never again bother them.
Some of the most controversial rules of the Kanun specify how murder is supposed to be handled and includes statements such as gjaku s’hupë kurr (blood is never lost) and gjak për gjak (blood for blood).
While vendettas can be found in other cultures, the rules of Kanun are very specific. It states that when someone is murdered, a male relative of the victim must exact revenge—if he doesn’t, he brings shame to his family, village and even the entire tribe. Blood feuds can even pass from generation to generation for decades with revenge killings going back and forth between families until all male members are dead.
There are usually attempts to mediate blood feuds and get the parties to “pardon the blood”, but often the only resort is for men to stay in their homes (which are considered a safe refuge by the Kanun) or flee the country. The acclaimed Albanian-American movie “Forgiveness of Blood” (2011) does not sensationalize this practice but gives a realistic view of the consequences a blood feud has on a family.
Today, the Kanun code of revenge is also often distorted and misused to justify outright murder.
Women and Sworn Virgins
Under the Kanun, women were considered property whose role in life is to produce children. Women had very few rights (they could not vote, inherit property, hold certain jobs, smoke, etc.) and are described in the Kanun as a sack that men have to endure while she lives under his home.
Fathers had the right to sell daughters in marriage. The father of a bride would give the groom a wedding gift of a bullet wrapped in straw, giving the younger man permission to kill his daughter if she disobeyed him. An older teacher once told me her husband was a drunk and abusive. She slept on the couch for years to avoid his beatings. When I asked why she never left, she told me he would kill her and that the police wouldn’t do anything about it.
Even today, many girls and young women in northern villages are forced into marriages especially if they don’t have the opportunity to go to university. A friend who worked in a high school in Diber had 14-year-olds in her class who were already married because their fathers did not want to have to keep supporting them.
Some women choose to become sworn virgins and live their lives as men. Perhaps they didn’t want to accept an arranged marriage (becoming a man avoided dishonoring the groom-to-be’s family and a potential blood feud), or maybe there were no sons to inherit property after the death of a husband or father (because women were not allowed to own property, they would return to the father’s house in this case to work as a servant), sexual orientation, or simply not wanting to be treated like a second-class citizen. A sworn virgin would promise a council of tribal elders to remain celibate and take on a male role. They dressed as men, adopted male names, carried guns, smoked, became heads of households. and did male work.
While this practice of becoming a sworn virgin is disappearing, I have seen two during my time living in the north.