CASE STUDY: THE SICILIANS

“The Sicilians are a race very distinct from those who inhabit the kingdom of Naples…they are warm and high-minded, shrewd and quick-sighted, but irritable and tenacious…Sicilian women are generally handsome and very fascinating; they are fond of music and pleasure, but they are also spirited and intelligent, and susceptible of high feelings.”

Perhaps it was these very traits that helped the average Sicilian survive the difficulties of their everyday lives. Life was hard in 18th and 19th century Sicily. Sicily has a long and bitter history with rulers whose feudalistic social and governmental policies were designed to enrich the coffers of the landowners. With the landowners almost solely composed of the ruling government, the nobility and the Catholic Church, the average people faced great challenges. The majority of Sicilians were contadini or peasants who received little to no formal education outside the home. Occupations were often passed down from generation to generation within the same family, parents teaching their children what skills they knew in order to help them survive. Class distinctions were wide and practically unbridgeable. There were the rich, the ecclesiastical, and the poor, with precious few opportunities to earn a living that was somewhere in between.

The entrenched feudalistic social and governmental systems made poverty the norm. Inherent in such poverty is the struggle to provide even the most basic necessities of life for one’s family. With hunger so common, no part of an animal would go to waste. Meat was often consumed only on Sundays, if at all, with the breadwinner(s) getting the greater portion. Yet, even when a family was very poor, they took care of their own. Reliance on public charity was considered disgraceful unless there were absolutely no family members left to depend on.

The sexes held distinct roles in Sicilian society. The father was the head of the household with the mother carrying out the decisions of her husband and handling the family’s finances. The wife’s main objective was to pick wives for her sons when the time came and to make sure they had a dowry for all the daughters and a bridal gift for their sons. Church marriage was the only form of marriage until about 1870 when civil marriage took precedence. After that, you will often find a couple marrying twice, ecclesiastically and civilly.

The peasant class in Sicily consisted of five general types of occupations: agriculture, fishing, peddlers, traveling artisans and small shopkeepers. Those who lived in coastal towns were often fishermen whose work provided food as well as income for their families. Any excess catch, over and above what a family needed, was sold to provide for other necessities. Fishermen were considered a “lesser” class of peasant because they had only one useful skill, while the other peasant groups were thought to have several. A farm worker worked hard for very little wages, often leaving for work before dawn and returning long after sundown. Others plied whatever skills they had: entertaining, herb or firewood gathering…even grave digging could produce a small fee, which could put some type of food on the table. Even now you can hear remnants of the old ways in the cries of the peddler as he makes his way through the streets of a Sicilian town. His cries ring out and the centuries-old dance between peddlers and their customers continue. Older women barter from their third-floor balconies and, after reaching an agreement, lower their baskets by rope for their agreed-upon product.

Most Sicilians were Catholic and their lives centered on their families and the Church. Yet polytheism, in the forms of paganism and superstitions, was also practiced. These practices were interwoven into Sicilian culture and practiced alongside Catholicism. Even as late as the 1930s, the dead were sometimes buried without shoes, a leftover practice from the Saracens. Paganism could be seen in the type of patron saints revered, many of whom were not biblical but rather came from the Greek and Roman gods of old. Even the use of amulets or other decorations to ward off “malocchio” or the Evil Eye can be more closely linked to paganism than anything else.

The average people in Sicily did not speak the Italian language, as we know it but rather their own language. Similar to Italian in many respects “…the Sicilian prefers the i and u, which give it a Moorish or Turkish physiognomy;…[and] terminates both masculine and feminine plurals in i.” Clothing styles were markedly different between the classes, at least through the first third of the twentieth century. The poor often wore berets or scarves upon their heads and a cloak to hide the quality of the clothes underneath while the rich sported regular hats and clothing made of fine textiles.

Sicily was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, comprising southern Italy and Sicily, from about 1818 until 1865 when Italian Unification occurred. After Unification, life was not the utopia that the Sicilians had been led to believe it would be and there remained many deep-rooted problems. Landowners and peasants alike disagreed with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the General and nationalist who played a key role in Unification. The topics of disagreement included the distribution of land, representation in the Sicilian governmental process, amongst a host of other issues. After centuries of primarily Spanish rule, the average Sicilian had choices that had not been available to them for a very long time. While most had rallied to support Garibaldi and Unification, the actual realities fell short of what they had hoped. After decades of being exempt from serving in the military, Sicilian men were now required to serve 2-3 years in the military when they turned 18. Conscription began about 1871 for those who turned 18 that year. This new policy created a wave of young males immigrating to other countries to escape military service. Later, military service time was reduced to one year and nowadays Italy has a solely volunteer military. There were many growing pains, but in the end, a strong and viable region of Sicily emerged.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Sicily began to hemorrhage its people. Hunger, poverty and forced military conscription featured strongly in many a Sicilian’s decision to emigrate. Large concentrations of Sicilians immigrated to North and South America as well as Northern Africa. In the last quarter of the 19th century nearly half of all Sicilian immigrants came from the Palermo province. This mass immigration forever changed the dynamics of many Sicilian families.

So how did all of this affect the records our ancestors left behind? Understanding the history behind the records is important when seeking to determine what types of records could be found on your ancestors. Civil registration began in Sicily in 1820 and has continued unabated, unlike some areas of northern Italy, which ceased civil registration from 1816-1865. Parish records will likely be found from the end of the Council of Trent in 1583 or from the creation of the parish in which you are researching. Notarial records can likely be found back to the 16th century, depending on the town and surviving records. The Riveli dei Beni e Anime was a type of disclosure or tax list (in effect, a type of census) taken by the Church and is exclusive to Sicily. These records are often misunderstood and overlooked as a viable genealogical resource. Therefore, I wanted to end this blog post with a description of these records and how they can be used within genealogical research. The Riveli recorded the population and any taxable holdings they had. These records are separated by feudo, or large landholdings (also called latifondi). This included large animals and things like water wells, large farm tools, sheds, and even household furnishings. It was not solely a list of taxable land. Many Sicilians owned at least a small plot of land. Buildings were taxed by the number of rooms a person owned and it was not unusual to see multiple family members owning and paying taxes on different rooms in the same dwelling.

These records are separated by the three valleys of Sicily: Val di Mazara, Val di Demone, and Val di Noto. FamilySearch International has microfilmed all of these records and further separated them by town, making it easier for the researcher. Not every area of Sicily is still named as it was in the 15th century. The originals are held in the provincial archives in Palermo but some of the other provincial archives on the island have duplicate copies. They were created between the 15th and 19th centuries during various years. What years are available for one town is often not the same as is available for another.

If an animal could pull a cart it was taxed at a higher rate. Taxable animals included mules, donkeys, horses, cows, goats, and sheep. Let’s look at two of these records, one for Antonino Sirina and another for Minio Bellia. In this way, you can see how useful the records could be, when researching your ancestors in this time period.

“…Disclosure of Antonino Sirina from Santa Mauro who resides on the fifth plot of Carini. Present was priest Don Andrea de Silva, delegate charged with recording the number and description of land by virtue of the Order…”

“…Souls, Number 2
Antonino Sirina, head of household, age thirty-five
Elisabetta, ‘wife his’…”

“…Real Property
A house “in two existing bodies” [likely means two parts, perhaps a living space and separate kitchen] in the neighborhood of Santo Giuliano, bordered on one side by Antonino di Renda and on the other by Jacopo Caldarone, of twenty onze -20- [tax owed]”

In this record we see a couple with no children paying taxes on a small property in the countryside outside the current town of Carini. As there are no children, they may have been recently married. Since there was real property owned, this plot of land may be found on a cadastral map and, in fact, they tell you it will likely be plot 5.

Now the disclosure for Minio Bellia reveals the following about his family and taxable holdings:

“[Sheet] 1093
Presented in Carini on the 31st of March 1793…in the office of the same Don Andrea de Silva, the delegate by mandate…, [recorded] by the hand of the priest Don Francesco Monassi…Disclosure of Minio Bellia, of Carini where he resides, in the presence of Don Francesco Silva…”

“…Souls
Minio Bellia, head of household, age thirty-seven [born about 1756]
Laurella Bellia, his wife
Sama Bellia, his daughter
Margarita [Bellia], his daughter
Caterina [Bellia], his daughter
Salvatore Bellia, his brother, age twenty-eight – 28 [born about 1765]
Gloria Maurici, his mother-in-law
Rosa Maurici, his sister-in-law”

In this record, we see only a recording of the “souls” or people in this family unit. This family had no taxable property. Ages were given for the adult males in the household only but the relationships and names provide a great deal of information on this particular family during a time period that predates civil registration. As Minio Bellia’s sister-in-law is living with him, this implies a likely maiden name for his wife, Laurella (Maurici) Bellia.

As you can see from the examples above, the Riveli can be a valuable resource when researching your Italian ancestors! These records are exclusive to Sicily and can be used in conjunction with the parish records during the time periods that pre-date civil registration. If the parish records of a town have been destroyed or are inaccessible, these records can help supplement and extend your ancestry several more generations. The descriptions of property found in these records cannot be found in any other resource, making the information contained invaluable. I hope this discussion was helpful and, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at the email address below!

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