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April 26, 2005


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Andrew Reeves

More homocidal Albanian goodness, please. Oh, and you might be interested to know that when a friend of mine was looking through late medieval Italian law on vendetta, he came across one particular statute concerning vendetta by a priest on behalf of his bastard son. So much wrongness there...

Bernard Guerrero

Glass half-full, Andrew. There's so much there that's _right_. :^)

Doug Muir

Probably worth a post in her own right is Edith Durham. For now, I'll just quote a bit from her classic, High Albania:

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 chieftain 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 should accidentally strike the next man, for a blow even by chance must be avenged. And this law was to keep peace...

[several hundred words on the ancestry and identity of Lek removed]

As for the laws and customs ascribed to him, the greater part are obviously far earlier than the fifteenth century, when he is said to have lived. They probably were obeyed by the unknown warriors of the bronze weapons in the prehistoric graves.

Lek possibly put together the then existing tribe law, but his own laws are probably those only that are designed to check or reform old usage by enforcing punishment. It is impossible to believe, for example, that -– as the people declare–Lek both ordered blood-vengeance to be taken, and condemned the taker of it to be severely punished. Rather, that he devised a heavy penalty to check blood feud. But it has signally failed.

He gave his sanction, it would appear, to much barbarous custom–nor with such a conservative people could he well have done otherwise. It is said that Pope Paul II. (1464) excommunicated him for his most un-Christian code. Some have suggested that, as Lek came from Rashia, he must have been of Slavonic blood. This is improbable, as the Canon does not resemble the famous Servian Code of Tsar Stefan Dushan (1349), which we may fairly presume was founded on old Slavonic usage. On the other hand, the "old law" that prevailed in Montenegro and the Herzegovina till the middle of the nineteenth century resembles very strongly that of the Albanian mountains. The chief differences seem, so far as I have learnt, to have been in the punishments. These therefore I take to be Lek's, and the rest, old tribe law common to this Serbo-Illyrian group of people...

[snip an interesting discussion of the Code as applied to misdemeanors and non-lethal crimes]

Cases of compounding blood feuds or murder have to be referred (when they take place in Maltsia e madhe) to the Djibal in Scutari. This is said to have been started because on one occasion the tribes could not agree on some point and asked Turkish advice...

The Djibal is a mixed council. Each of the five above-mentioned tribes has a representative in it (called krye t malit), and there is a Moslem representative of each (called a bylykbasha), appointed by the Turkish Government. One Bylykbasha can represent more than one tribe. The president of council is the Sergherd, a Government-appointed Moslem. The penalty for murder is about £24 paid to the Sergherd and £12 to the Bylykbasha of the tribe. Twenty-four pounds is payable also to the Church if the murder be on Church land. Twenty-four pounds also to the xoti i ghakut (lord of blood=that one of the deceased's family who has the right to demand blood, or its equivalent). Should he accept it the feud ceases. But he usually prefers to shoot the offender himself, and the blood feud thus started is not compounded till several on either side have been killed.

To compound it the guilty party must send emissaries to the xoti i ghakut. If he be willing to compound, a council is called. It is usual, when the blood-gelt is accepted, for the two chief parties to swear brotherhood. If the feud is with a member of another tribe, and the parties are not consanguineous, it is usual also to give a daughter in marriage to some member of the offended family, and thus establish peace.

The Sergherd and Bylykbashas have no other pay than the fees they can collect for "blood," so are reported not to wish to stop the practice. They are called on sometimes for an opinion in other cases, and are said to require bribing.

Neither Sergherd nor Bylykbashas venture into the mountains save on rare occasions under promise of safe-conduct. If their fees are in arrears they arrest any man of the same tribe that comes down to market, and imprison him as hostage till paid. As a rule in Maltsia e madhe it is paid punctually, and all shooting cases are notified to Scutari by the tribes with surprising speed. They say Lek ordered a fine to be paid, and that they themselves accepted the Djibal–"It is the law, so must be obeyed."

You'll be amazed to hear -- or maybe not -- that the office of Sergherd was de facto for sale to the highest bidder. (Though public opinion had to be considered, so that entirely unsuitable bidders were screened out.) So he was, as it were, a legal entrepreneur. Also that his power to call on government (i.e. Turkish) resources was extremely limited. So, he had to hew quite closely to the Code of Lek; otherwise, his judgments, and those of the Djibal, would be called into question and they would lose all authority.

Note also that this only applied in the Maltsia e mahde, the part of Albania where there was a faint shadow of central authority. In the rest of the country pretty much pure anarchy -- modified by the Code of Lek -- prevailed: "Among the tribes called Dukaghini, customs are found in more primitive form than in Maltsia e madhe."

Just a bit more:

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...

Blood can be wiped out only with blood. A blow also demands blood, so do insulting words. One of the worst insults is the marrying of a girl betrothed to one man, to another. Nothing but blood can cleanse it.

Abduction of a girl demands blood, as does of course adultery. This does not appear to be common. It entails so much blood that "the game is not worth the candle." The blood taken need not be that of the actual offender. It must be male blood of his house or tribe. The usage differs in various districts, and will be noted in the accounts of them.

A man is answerable, too, for his guest, and must avenge a stranger that has passed but one night beneath his roof, if on his journey next day he be attacked. The sacredness of the guest is far-reaching. A man who brought me water from his house, that I might drink by the way, said that I now ranked as his guest, and that he should be bound by his honour to avenge me should anything happen to me before I had received hospitality from another.

Blood-vengeance, slaying a man according to the laws of honour, must not be confounded with murder. Murder starts a blood feud. In blood-vengeance the rules of the game are strictly observed. A man may not be shot for vengeance when he is with a woman nor with a child, nor when he is met in company, nor when besa (oath of peace) has been given. The two parties may swear such an oath for a few weeks if they choose, for business purposes. There are men who, on account of blood, have never been out alone for years.

When the avenger has slain his victim, he first reaches a place of safety, and then proclaims that he has done the deed. He wishes all to know his honour is clean. That he is now liable to be shot, and, if the blood be taken within the tribe, to heavy punishment also, is of minor moment to him.

Finally, a note on how punishment works when the faint excuse for authority -- the Djibal council -- has no executive power. In medieval Scandinavia, the answer would be to declare the man outlaw -- open to being killed by anyone, without punishment. The Albanians had the same general idea, but with a twist: they declared the offender's home and farm outlaw.

In the Dukaghini tribes the council has power not merely to burn his house, but to destroy his crops, fell his trees, slaughter his beasts, and condemn him to leave his land unworked. An incredible amount of food-stuff is yearly wasted, and land made desolate...

A man can save his house only if he can return to it and defend it successfully for three days, so that no one can approach near enough to set fire to it. A "very brave man" was pointed out to me in Berisha, who has three times been condemned to have his house burnt, and each time saved it thus...

As Carlos will soon point out at more length it was a very sophisticated system... just as complex, and rather longer-lasting, than the Icelandic one that gets the Creative Anachronism libertarians all fluttery.

_Much_ longer-lasting. There are Albanians alive today who grew up under the Kanun, and saw blood-feud done and avenged.

Doug M.


That chapter of Durham also contains a little on the Albanian practice of "sworn virgins", which does continue to the present day, although changed to fit modern conditions.

No one knows much about the antecedents of the kanun. There are parts that seem adaptations from Roman law. Other parts very likely do go back to the Bronze Age. There's a very old Albanian oath -- IMS, "by rock and by tree" -- which might be an ancient Indo-European survival. (Again, my Watkins is in storage, dammit.) The word kanun itself is from the Greek, like English 'canon'... but through the Turkish, where it was applied to non-ecclesiastical rulings.

The Code of Lek was not the only code in Albania. Some regions attributed theirs to Skanderbeg -- although the English language sources on the kanun mention traditions that Lek bested Skanderbeg at legal interpretation. And there were areas outside of the kanun which practiced recognizable (and recognized) variants.

One aspect I have not been able to uncover is the extent to which non-Albanians used similar codes. Durham mentions some Montenegrin similarities, a fact which I am sure pleases no one today. On the other hand, the Code of Lek is not much like Stefan Dushan's -- which is also worth a post or two in itself, should I ever discover which box it's in.

Doug Muir

Stephan Dushan's Code is... medieval. Separates society into recognized castes (peasant, noble, royal) with different punishments for each. Spends a lot of time on obligations to the king. Lots of mutilation.

BTW, the Code of Lek was not just about killings and crimes. It was a fully realized system of law -- 12 "books" and nearly 1300 "articles", covering everything from trade law to marriage to the proper care of cemetaries.

Doug M.

Jussi Jalonen

"There's a very old Albanian oath -- IMS, "by rock and by tree" -- which might be an ancient Indo-European survival."

That's very interesting. Swearing "by rock and by tree" still happens to be a usual proverb in Finland.

(Actually it's by "stump" rather than "tree", but that's not much of a difference.)

By the way, this proverb also begins the Finnish Boy Scout's oath: "I promise and wear by rock and by tree that I shall not disturb the nature's peace..."


Doug Muir

Brief googling hasn't turned up an online English text of the Code of Lek. That's odd, because I've seen hard copies of it in German, Italian and of course Albanian. Will ask around if there's an English translation available somewhere.

In less-good news, it appears that the blood feud has reappeared in northern Albania. Here's a Guardian article from 1998, and here's an International Crisis Group reportfrom 2000, and a Radio Free Europe article from 2001. Note that the last two agree that it's not the Code of Lek that's the problem -- it's people using the Code as a cover and justification for criminality. Though I wonder whether the good old days were really much different.

I haven't found a more recent article on the status of the Code and the blood feud. Anyone?

Doug M.


Doug, there's an English translation of Father Gjecov's compilation and notes that is marginally in print. Remember, it's an oral code, and Gjecov's work is more of a collection of aphorisms and guidelines with commentary. And the form of the Albanian language used, by all accounts, is difficult and archaic.

Thus the Code, as English language scholarship has it, is not like the Anglo-American conception of a law code, although Gjecov tried hard to be thorough. There are a few dozen 'cases' also available, some of which Gjecov collected, and some others Margaret Hasluck recounts.

I was going to bring up the use that organized crime has made of the Code later. It's become almost a stereotype in discussions of the newer crime wave.

Older life under the Code seems to differ (and this strikes me as very different) in the deep psychological effect the first killing often had on the initial agent. Custom provided mechanisms for him to flee -- apparently, many would otherwise remain rooted, in shock -- and to leave evidence of his identity -- since doing otherwise would be dishonorable, and one wouldn't want an otherwise honorable man to forget this, at such an important occasion.

Not much like GoodFellas or The Sopranos.

JJ, that's very interesting! I think at some point I will have to revamp the Indo-European substrate posts I made on shwi into blog form.

Doug Muir

Yes, of course it was an oral code. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be transcribed, any more than the Iliad or Njal's Saga any other lengthy oral work. (I have the strong impression that memorizing ~1300 articles of law would have been no big deal for the Old Albanians.)

I just had the Italian version -- "il Kanun di Lek" -- in my hands a few hours ago. Slim paperback of about 120 pages. German version, same thing. The text in both cases is at least 30,000 words. It's definitely more than a collection of aphorisms.

I assume these are translations of the Albanian version. How that got transcribed, and when and by whom, I have no idea.

Doug M.


Um. Doug, the Code was first compiled by the aforementioned Father Gjecov, an Albanian Franciscan who was later assassinated for his troubles, "murdered by Yugoslavs", as Hasluck puts it. (Guess which Balkan country Hasluck identified with.) It was not systematized before then, and didn't see print until 1933. I've read the English translation with facing Albanian text. It's exactly as I described.

Gjecov, as a priest, was protected under the kanun; and using his protected status, he asked ethnological questions from traditional kanun experts about which aphorism would be applied in which situation. He then arranged the results into 'books', by topic.

(Gjecov was also an Albanian nationalist, and his organization can be viewed -- was intended to be viewed -- as an act of helping to create a national consciousness.)

It's not like the rhymed couplets used by the castaways in Heinlein's short story, "Universe", which I am getting the impression you think it must have been like. So much of the code was internalized before Gjecov that in large part, one might say that the kanun of Lek is also the kanun of Shtjefen as well.

Doug Muir

Rhymed couplets? No... I had the idea, rather, that it was a single work which was passed down orally. Something like a saga.

But you're saying it was a... body of retained wisdom, not organized until Gjecov wrote it down.


That seems... a little odd. On one hand, okay, it's not necessary for a body of law to be a single comprehensive work; and it's certainly not necessary for it to be organized into books and articles.

On the other hand, it is /very/ desirable for there to be clear distinctions between what is and isn't part of the code. Otherwise it quickly turns into Calvinball. There can be variations from place to place, and over time, but it should be clear here-and-now what the law is.

That's why I have a little trouble with the idea of a "collection of aphorisms". From a legal POV, that seems a little problematic.

At a minimum, I'd expect some sort of internal markers. Mnemonics ("The Twenty Four Rules of the Road") or something.

Maybe I'm projecting the internalized assumptions of my culture. But it's hard to imagine a large body of law without some sort of internal organization.

-- Pause; let's not argue in a vacuum unless we have to. Let me see if I can scare up an English translation around here.

Doug M.

Bernard Guerrero

"On the other hand, it is /very/ desirable for there to be clear distinctions between what is and isn't part of the code. Otherwise it quickly turns into Calvinball."

Heh. It was mentioned above that the Kanun is rather self-contradictory in parts, no?


Fortunately, I have some excerpts of Gjecov's work on hand, Xeroxes from the Fox translation. Here's section CXXIV, entitled "Blood":

§ 886. In the Kanun of the mountains of Albania, every male child born is considered to be good, and all are equal.

§ 887. The value of a man's life is the same, whether he is handsome or ugly.

§ 888. Everyone considers himself good, and says to himself, "I am an honorable man," while he is greeted with the phrase, "Are you an honorable man?"

§ 889. If distinctions were made between the blood of one person and that of another, the law would not have an exact application and different standards based on individual character would be used with regard to pledges, but in fact all men have the same value [lit. 'each person considers that he weighs exactly 400 drams on his own scale'.]

§ 890. If distinctions of blood were permitted, the ugly and the poor could be killed with impunity; murders would increase, since no one would be answerable for killing the ugly and the poor.

§ 891. For that reason, "Leka [Dukagjini] considered all blood equal; the good are born from the bad and the bad, from the good." "Soul for soul, God creates all."

§ 892. Whoever kills a human being, whether man or woman, boy or girl, or even an infant, handsome or deformed, Chief, Elder, or principal Elder, rich or poor, noble or baseborn, must pay the same penalty: 6 purses [i.e. 3000 grosh], 100 sheep, and half an ox in fine.

§ 893. If someone wounds another person, whether male or female, the penalty is one half that stated in § 892.

§ 894. "The wound is evaluated according to the limb or the judgment of the physician." (The cost of medical attention is fixed by the physician.)

§ 895. If a Chief or the people act to reconcile the parties in a case of murder or wounding, then the fine is only 6 purses for murder and 3 for a wound. If good friends mediate for reconciliation in a case of murder or wounding, in addition to the 6 or 3 purses, the costs of medical attention must be paid.

§ 896. If the murder has been committed in his own village, the murderer, together with the males of his house -- even infants in the cradle, must leave the village and go to stay with friends, in order to avoid the danger of being killed.

§ 897. The family of the victim may not take vengeance on the women of the murderer's family, because "A woman and a priest do not incur the blood-feud."

As you can see, Gjecov's work is an odd mix of the descriptive, the interpretive, and the aphorism (in double quotes).

Further sections and articles deal with further applications of aphorisms, such as "Blood Follows the Finger", "Blood is Paid for with Blood", "A Crime may not be Recompensed with Blood", "Blood is not Paid for with a Fine", "The first gun incurs the fine", and so on.

(The firearm parts of the code rather obviously do not date from Lek's time.)


Here's another example. Gjecov recorded the following case:

"Words do not cause death." "It is the finger, not the mouth, that places someone in blood." (Cf. Book VII, article LXXXVI.)

Around the year 1860, a person from Fregnar, from the Banner of Dibr, Mirdit, told a comrade of his to go and kill another man, saying that on the day of reconciliation of blood, he would help him with money to pay for the blood. In accordance with his friend's promise, the man took his gun, went to ambush the other person, and killed him on the highway.

During the general amnesty, this case of murder came to the consideration of Bib Doda, of the House of Gjomarkaj.

The Murderer went to the house of the instigator and asked for the blood-money, in order to indemnify the family of the victim. The instigator was shameless enough to rebuff him.

Bib Doda, together with the Chiefs, summoned the instigator and asked him whether he had told the other man that if he killed the intended victim, he would be given money on the day of reconciliation of blood in order to pay for the blood. The instigator could not deny it.

Bib Doda, together with the Chiefs, then deliberated on the basis of the Kanun, which states: "Blood follows the finger [i.e. the person who pulls the trigger is responsible for the murder]," "A mouth does not place anyone in blood," and "Words do not cause death."

THe murderer was obliged to pay for the blood of his victim: one cannot walk with his own feet and with the mind of another; but the instigator's house was burned as punishment for a broken pledge.

Stanislaus B.

The burning and robbing home was a traditional penalty among German and Slav peoples. In "Russkaja Pravda" it is called "rozgrablenije" (robbery).

It was punishment for crimes not against individual, but against the whole tribe, eg opposition against the decisions of the moot, not accepting or killing a guest etc.


Interesting! I have an article on ancient Neolithic house burning in the Balkans -- Stevanovic's "The Age of Clay: The Social Dynamics of House Destruction" -- where she goes through the archaeological evidence of the practice in the old Vinca culture. She concludes that many houses were deliberately burned, and more over, in some ways, designed to be fired.

It's unlikely that the Vinca people spoke an Indo-European language -- pace all you Renfrewists out there -- and moreover, there's a gap in the practice in the archaeological record as the area enters the Bronze Age.

However, I wonder if there's not some continuity of practice, either directly, or through some transvaluation or reinterpretation, possibly by later groups. (By which I mean, maybe the New Guys decided to burn houses as a form of punishment instead of keeping whatever ritual significance it had before.)

Bernard Guerrero

'the old Vinca culture'?

I could Google, but asking you is probably more efficient.

Doug Muir

I wonder if there was a name-and-shame aspect to it.

BTW, the good news is I found an English copy of the Code. The less good news is that it's the Fox edition. That is, it's a big coffee-table size book. It has the Albanian on one side (my Albanian interlocutor agreed that was archaic and difficult... somewhere between the King James Bible and Robert Burns, say) and the English on the other. Very nice, but it's $75! And it appears to be the only one in English. Particularly annoying given that there are slim paperback versions in Italian, German, and Albanian.

It's very interesting. You're right that parts of it are collections of aphorisms. But other parts are, no kidding, codes. "The responsibilities of the husband are A, B, C. Duties of the husband are X, Y, Z. Responsibilities of the wife are..."

Then there's a whole long book on procedure -- things like the selection of jurors, or finality of judgment. Like, if you appeal to an elder for judgment, it's public and final. You don't get to go to another elder hoping for a better ruler. You don't have perfect freedom to pick your elder, either; and there are procedures for what happens if you and the other guy can't agree. It's more than a little reminiscent of modern Alternative Dispute Resolution -- mediation and arbitration, and such. (Well, except for all the killing.)

So it's a mishmash of this and that. The good father's codification -- the twelve-book structure -- was his own invention. But within some of the books, there's a high degree of internal organization, and I don't think all of that was ex post facto.

It's damn interesting, and I was sorely tempted to drop the $75 and spend a few hours just studying.

Apparently it's very similar to codes of the North Caucasus. IDK if anyone has done anything with this recently.

-- Lots of interesting bits. Women absolutely cannot "carry blood" -- that is, they can't be killed in a blood feud. In fact, they can't be killed at all, except for adultery. If a woman commits a blood-worthy offense, the vengeance falls on her husband, or if unmarried, her family. (Killing a woman presumably would ignite a blood feud, but Durham tells us this was an offense viewed with the liveliest horror, and the Kanun doesn't even mention it except for _in flagrante_ adultery.

Women's rights seem to track shari'a (AFAIU shari'a, which is not very far) but there are little anomalies. Like, widows have a great deal of independence, much more than either maidens or wives... and traditional Albania must have had a lot of widows running around. Oh, and there's a provision for legal separation, which can lead to either divorce or reconciliation, or simply become a long-term status quo in its own right.

Anyway. Besides the Fox edition, the go-to book seems to be _The Unwritten Law in Albania_ (1954) by Margaret Hasluck.

Doug M.


The Fox is cheaper via Amazon. Odd.

Check out the critical comments in the foreword and the introduction. Camaj and Fox are both agreed on the adage nature of the 'original' kanun, and IMS Camaj says that not even Gjecov has managed to collect the whole thing. Fox's mention of the north Caucasus similarities is interesting, but note when the original comparison was made. Not a good time for cross-cultural comparisons.

I have a Xerox of Hasluck -- the whole damn thing -- as well. I'm comparing it to William Ian Miller's book on Icelandic feud and law, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, in the next installment. Patience.

(Incidentally, Hasluck mentions a Fascist use of the kanun, of which more later.)

Note that kinship was not reckoned in terms of the female line. There was the tree of blood, and the tree of milk. I didn't find it much like sharia myself -- the husband is absolutely dominant within the marriage, and separation not through death is difficult. And then there are the "sworn virgins", who occupy a small place within the Code as recorded, but seem to have been a significant option for Albanian womanhood.

Bernard, the Vinca culture was a Neolithic culture of the lower Danube region. No biggie.



JJ, turns out Calvert Watkins' How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European poetics is available through Google Print Beta. Watkins relates Greek and Indic variants of the formula, 'by rock and by tree', to a passage from Edith Durham's High Albania:

"He told us of oaths which, if very solemn ones, are always sworn in Rechi and among all the Pulati tribes on a stone as well as on the cross: "Per guri e per kruch" (By the stone and the cross). The stone is the more important and comes first."

(Watkins gives the modern orthography as pr guri e pr kryqi.)

The semantic shift between 'tree', 'wood', and 'cross' is not an uncommon one.

Azem Kola

I would like to get in touch with Doug Muir and Bernard Guerrero. This is regarding a student project from University of the Arts London. I have recently read your posts on this website about the The Canon of Lek Dukagjini. If possible I would like to interview you since you known alot about the Canon. Here is my email address where you can get in touch with which is "azemkola@postmaster.co.uk"

Thank you and looking forward to hear from you.

Azem Kola

Bernard Guerrero


While I'm flattered, I believe you're looking for Doug and one Carlos Yu, another one of the HDD troika. You can fit everything I know about Balkan law in a degetar.

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