Kanun and Bloodfeud – North Albania


The 1400’s was a time of chaotic struggle between squabbling princes and the invading Ottomans for control of Albanian lands. During this uncertainty, oral customs, some dating back centuries, were collected and codified into the Kanun [derived from the Greek word canon – ‘rule’ or ‘pole’]. Called the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit, the code of law was attributed to prince Lekë (or Lek) Dukagjini and spread among the tribes of northern Albania in oral form (there wouldn’t be a commonly agreed-upon written language until 1908). Several somewhat different versions emerged, the most famous being attributed to national hero Skanderbeg, and it is the Skanderbeg version that today is most often considered THE Kanun.

Honour is not a word in common use in modern Western culture, and the concept of a person’s reputation is not of paramount importance today, but that was not the case in Western Europe 150 years ago. To be considered a gentleman or a lady was a sign of “good breeding”, and an affront to one’s honour was cause for a duel in France until the World War I. Northern Albania is considered the extreme European example of honour gone amok, and the Kanun is the set of rules that defines what it means to be an honorable person.

To understand the importance of honour, consider a land where there is no ruler, no courts, no police, no written law, no writing at all. Where daily religion is a collection of superstitions, and organized religious authority is from an alien culture (the Pope –Italian or Shariah law — Ottoman). Where resources are scarce, the climate severe, making a living diffficult. Something has to be in place to maintain order, to ensure co-operation to repel frequent invaders. People have to trust each other, trust that when they meet a stranger in an unfamiliar place there are rules to determine friend from foe, and a trusted method of dispute resolution. This is the purpose of the Kanun – to provide rules for interactions when there is no authority present.

North Albania and Its Tribes

Cem River, Karst mountains, North Albania

The basic unit of social organization in the Balkans, including Northern Albanians, is the Tribe – consisting of a nuclear family and an ever-expanding circle of relatives. Among northern Albanians, the nuclear family can be quite large – a patriarch, his brothers and sisters, their wives and husbands, children and grandchildren – all living under the same roof (shpi). Cases have been recorded of nearly 100 in the same shpi. Even today, 20 is not uncommon. The family is tightly organized as one economic unit – all work for the good of the family. There are no individual ambitions — only the survival and prosperity of the family, as determined by the patriarch – the oldest male. Only he can makes decisions, allocate resources, direct daily activities. In practice, his wife or the dominant female organizes the activities of all the women and girls, as it would be beneath a man’s dignity to concern himself with women’s work, but she is subject to his pleasure.

The Kanun details the responsibilities of each individual, though individual may be a misleading term. The actions of one reflects on all – if one acts dishonorably, the whole family is shamed – everyone must keep the honour of the family foremost.

Edith Durham

Edith Durham, from a family of London physicians, first visited Montenegro in 1900, age 37, during an Adriatic cruise intended to revive her health. She was immediately smitten. To quote Wikipedia: “Durham travelled extensively in the Balkans over the next twenty years, focusing particularly on Albania, which then was one of the most isolated and undeveloped areas of Europe. She worked in a variety of relief organisations, painted and wrote, and collected folklore and folk art. She contributed frequently to the journal Man and became a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Her writings, however, were to earn her particular fame. She wrote seven books on Balkan affairs, of which High Albania (1909) is the best known. It is still regarded as the pre-eminent guide to the customs and society of the highlands of northern Albania.” For more on High Albania by Edith Durham: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/253459.High_Albania?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=Q3nTK7D08F&rank=1

Excerpts from High Albania are in quotation marks [Bold emphasis mine – DB]: “The land north of Scutari [modern Shkodër – DB], called Maltsia e madhe, the Great Mountain Land, is the home of five large tribes – Hoti, Gruda, Kastrati, Skreli, Kilmeni. [More tribes are in other parts of Albania, see map below – DB]. It is part of the same group of mountains that form the bulk of Montenegro – the grey wilderness of barren rock, called Karst, that glares dazzling in the midsummer sun and beats back the heat with cruel force, takes wonderous blue and mauve shadows at dawn and even(ing), and, when wet, is the heavy purple-black of a thunder cloud. Very little of it is cultivable. Great tracts are waterless, depending solely on rainfall – aching wilderness – the bare bones of a half-created world…”

“The perspective of everything, life and modern politics included, depends entirely on the point from which it is viewed. To attain this standpoint one must live the life of the people, and know not merely the past, but the present facts of their life. And the main fact is the tribe (fis). It has been both their strength and their weakness. Each tribe has a definite tale of origin. Descent is strictly through the male line, and the tradition handed from father to son through memories undebauched by print.”

“The head of each fis is its hereditary standard-bearer, the Bariaktar. The office passes from father to son, or in default of son to the next male heir….Some large tribes are divided into groups, each with its own Bariaktar….The fis is divided into the mehala, a group of closely related houses, and the shpi, or house.”

“The men and women descending from a common male ancestor, though very remote, regard each other as brother and siser, and marriage betweeen them is forbidden as incestuous. Though the relationship be such that the Catholic Church permits marriage, it is regarded with such genuine horror that I have heard of but one instance where it was attempted or desired, when against tribe law. Even a native priest told me that a marriage between cousins separated by twelve generations was to him a horrible idea, though the Church permitted it, “for really they are brothers and sisters,”…

“But in spite of this exogamy, it would appear that, through the female line, the race may have been fairly closely in-bred. For a man does not go far for a wife, but usually takes one from the next tribe…he takes a wife thence and marries his daughter there. Kastrati, for example, usually marries Hoti and Hoti Kastrati. The bulk of the married women in one were born in the other. A perpetual interchange of women has gone on for centuries.”

“Even educated Scutarenes recon relations on the mother’s side but vaguely. A man said to me, “She is a sort of relation of mine. Her mother and mine were sisters.” “Then she is very near. She is your first cousin.” He considered and said doubtfully, “Yes. Like a first cousin certainly, but on my mother’s side.” His third cousins on his father’s side he reconed as brothers…”

Albanian mountain men, pre-1905.

“For all their habits, laws, and customs, the people, as a rule, have but one explanation: “It is in the Canon of Lek,” – the law that is said to have been laid down by the chieftan Lek Dukaghin. Lek is fabled to have legislated minutely on all subjects. For example, a man told me that Lek had ordered that men should walk the length of one gun-barrel apart, lest in turning the barrel he should accidentally strike the next man, for a blow even by chance must be avenged. And this law was to keep peace. Similarly women must walk the length of one distaff apart – they always spin on the march….”

Wikipedia says: “The Kanun is based on four pillars:

“The practice of the oral laws that Lekë Dukagjini codified in the Kanun was suggested by Edith Durham as dating back to the Bronze Age.[22] Some authors have conjectured that the Kanun may derive from ancient Illyrian tribal laws.[23] Other authors have suggested that the Kanun has retained elements from Indo-European prehistoric eras.[24]

“However several stratifications can be easily observed in the code, beginning with pre-Indo-European, Indo-European, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, general Balkan and Osmanli.[25]

On the positive side, the Kanun’s four pillars, based on tribal custom whereby the actions of any one in a family reflects on the honour of all, results in a completely internalized, standardized code of conduct in the region. In terms of hospitality, for instance, Albanians are famous for their lavish generosity to strangers. Women are protected more thoroughly than in surrounding cultures, though they are also among the most exploited.

However, some outcomes of adherence to the Kanun can be baffling to outsiders – none more so than the gjakmarrje.

Bloodfeuds — gjakmarrje

Durham again: “The most important fact in North Albania is blood-vengeance, which is indeed the old, old idea of purification by blood. It is spread throughout the land. All else is subservient to it.”

” “What profit is it to a man if his honour be not clean?” To cleanse his honour no price is too great. And in the mountains the individual is submerged [in the] tribe. He is answerable, too, for the honour of his mehala, sometimes indeed for his whole fis….”

“The man whose honour has been spoiled must cleanse it. Until he has done so he is degraded in the eyes of all — an outcast from his fellows, treated contemptuously at all gatherings. When finally the folk pass him a glass of rakia behind thier backs, he can show his face no more among them — and to clean his honour he kills. And lest you that read this book should cry out at the “customs of savages” I would remind you that we play the same game on a much larger scale and call it war. And neither is “blood” or war sweepingly to be condemned.”

Antonia Young, in her book Women Who Become Men, 2000, has written a summary of the concept and practice of Bloodfeud, as regulated by the Kanun. Quotations from her book are in italics. “The Kanun clarifies the manner and rights of retaliatory killing, in gjakmarrje (bloodfeud), in order to restore honour to the offended….the male household head…takes responsibility takes responsibility for all decisions concerning its members. Thus he is also responsible for the family’s decisions where honour demands any action to be taken in case of a bloodfeud. Many of the Kanun laws relate to the rightings of wrongs, or thefts, or even insults, in order for honour to be upheld. The ultimate cost may be a man’s life.

However, exactly whose life may not necessarily be specified. Such is the communality of tribal life that if a family member has been killed, honour is restored by killing any male member of the offending family. The manner and place of such pre-meditated killing is highly specified. For example the man who is killed in feud must be lain on his back by his killer, with his gun beside his head. There is no question of hiding the act of killing, since the main purpose is the public retrieval of family honour.

The besa….is an essential concept in the bloodfeud process. Articles 854-873 of the Kanun on the besa, relate to the proper conduct of a murderer and his victim family towards one another. The killer should pay respect to the dead man by attending his funeral: during that time a short-term besa is enforced ensuring that he is exempt from immediate retaliation.

Avenging honour involves the parties in a very systematic procedure. Honour is thought to be of far greater importance than life itself. Avenging ‘blood’ is not considered to be murder and the pride of those involved prevents anyone from seeking state or police assistance, which in any case would not usually be forthcoming. It is only men and boys from approximately eight years of age (an age at which they are considered capable of handling a gun). who are subject to killing.

Women’s lives do not feature in retribution and a woman’s presence is an inhibition to the act of killing. Honour may require that a mother remind her son if he if he is owed ‘blood’, that he should prepare to kill. In this way women are supporters of feuding. Traditionally the bloodied shirt of the one who was last killed was hung in his home, to keep alive the urgency of retaliation.

No man should be killed in his own home or, if a guest, by his host. Rose Wilder Lane recounts how her Shala guide delighted in taking her through the area of his rival Shoshi tribe, revelling in the hospitality his enemies had to show him in the presence of a woman. Had he been travelling alone, they would have shot him. The only shelter that a man in feud can take is in his home or in a kulla, literally a ‘fortified tower’. The only kind of windows that these stone buildings have are frengji (slits to fire a rifle from). Once in feud, all the male members of a family are potential victims who need this fortified lookout for protection.

It is extremely dangerous for any male member of a family in blood to leave his home. He would certainly be found, and probably killed by a member of the feud family, in any town in Albania. He might not be safe in any village, no matter how remote — it would only be a matter of time until he might expect retaliation. This has even extended on some occasions to male family members who have become targets in foreign countries. But it has not prevented a few potential victims, fearing danger of retaliation, from seeking asylum in other European countries, Canada, and the United States.

“It is the fashion among journalists and others to talk of the “lawless Albanians”; but there is perhaps no other people in Europe so much under the tyranny of laws. The unwritten law of blood is to the Albanian as is the Fury of Greek tragedy. It drives him inexorably to his doom. The curse of blood is upon him when he is born, and it sends him to an early grave. So much accustomed is he to the knowledge that he must shoot or be shot, that it affects his spirits no more than the fact that “Man is mortal” spoils the dinner of a plump tradesman in West Europe.”

A more modern observer of North Albanian life, Margaret Hasluck lived for over 20 years in Albania prior to the Second World War. She researched the intricacies of the Kanun in the 1930’s and noted: “The self-government of the Albanian mountaineers went far towards being true democracy in the Anglo-American sense of that much-abused word. In its primitive way it was really government of the People, by the People, for the People….the legal system worked on the whole, was often speedier and always cheaper than any European counterpart, and left few crimes unsolved.”

The Kanun was not intended to be a guide to murder. Rather it was intended to make murder (and other ‘blood’ crimes) have consequences so severe that a person would hopefully think twice about committing them, and then only under controlled circumstances. Although a code of conduct that condoned revenge killing as a way of ‘restoring honour’ made some sense 500 years ago, before guns became common (think Romeo & Juliet), the increasing development of personal firearms made it easier to kill by ambush, from a distance. By 1904, when Durham first visited the area, entire families were being wiped out, the area was becoming depopulated, at least of adult males, and it was becoming commonly accepted that something must be done.

The above and following quotations, in italics, come from a book by Antonia Young, Women Who Become Men, 2000. “After the second World War, Communist laws and propaganda were fairly effective in convincing many people that the Kanun in Northern Albania was no longer respected. However with the collapse of Communism and ensuing lapse of any effective policing and judicial system, the revival of Kanun laws soon became apparent in its early area of control (Northern Albania).”

“There is currently considerable debate concerning the influence of the Kanun and how far it has been romanticized (especially by foreigners) and manipulated by those who use it to justify murder.”

If you click “show more” under the captions, a complete explanation of the YouTube appears, including translations of conversations.

Another outcome of the Kanun and gjakmarrje is the existence of ‘sworn virgins’ — burrnesha — – women who become men. For details, click: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/women-who-become-men-northern-albanias-sworn-virgins-burrnesha/


Jane Schlosberg wrote: Hi. We consult your website often. We ran folkdancing here in Nova Scotia for many years. Now in our dotage ;), we have excellent younger leaders, Jason and Jennifer Grek Martin. I’m writing today because I just discovered your article on the Albanian Kanun. You might consider adding a reference to my nephew, Joshua Marston’s excellent film, “The Forgiveness of Blood”: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1787127/?ref_=nm_knf_i2:

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