By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
VIII. TILLERS OF THE SOIL
I remember watching an old man stubbornly digging a field by himself. He toiled through the flaming hours, and what he lacked in strength was made up in the craftiness, malizia, born of long love of the soil. The ground was baked hard; but there was still a chance of rain, and the peasants were anxious not to miss it. Knowing this kind of labour, I looked on from my vine-wreathed arbour with admiration, but without envy.
I asked whether he had not children to work for him.
“All dead–and health to you!” he replied, shaking his white head dolefully.
And no grandchildren?
“All Americans (emigrants).”
He spoke in dreamy fashion of years long ago when he, too, had travelled, sailing to Africa for corals, to Holland and France; yes, and to England also. But our dockyards and cities had faded from his mind; he remembered only our men.
“Che bella gioventu–che bella gioventu!” ("a sturdy brood”), he kept on repeating. “And lately,” he added, “America has been discovered.” He toiled fourteen hours a day, and he was 83 years old.
Apart from that creature of fiction, the peasant in fabula whom we all know, I can find little to admire in this whole class of men, whose talk and dreams are of the things of the soil, and who knows of nothing save the regular interchange of summer and winter with their unvarying tasks and rewards. None save a Cincinnatus or Garibaldi can be ennobled by the spade. In spleenful moments, it seems to me that the most depraved of city-dwellers has flashes of enthusiasm and self-abnegation never experienced by this shifty, retrogressive and ungenerous brood, which lives like the beasts of the field and has learnt all too much of their logic. But they have a beast-virtue hereabouts which compels respect–contentment in adversity. In this point they resemble the Russian peasantry. And yet, who can pity the moujik? His cheeks are altogether too round, and his morals too superbly bestial; he has clearly been created to sing and starve by turns. But the Italian peasant who speaks in the tongue of Homer and Virgil and Boccaccio is easily invested with a halo of martyrdom; it is delightful to sympathize with men who combine the manners of Louis Quatorze with the profiles of Augustus or Plato, and who still recall, in many of their traits, the pristine life of Odyssean days. Thus, they wear to-day the identical “clouted leggings of oxhide, against the scratches of the thorns” which old Laertes bound about his legs on the upland farm in Ithaka. They call them “galandrine.”
On occasions of drought or flood there is not a word of complaint. I have known these field-faring men and women for thirty years, and have yet to hear a single one of them grumble at the weather. It is not indifference; it is true philosophy–acquiescence in the inevitable. The grievances of cultivators of lemons and wholesale agriculturalists, whose speculations are often ruined by a single stroke of the human pen in the shape of new regulations or tariffs, are a different thing; their curses are loud and long. But the bean-growers, dependent chiefly on wind and weather, only speak of God’s will. They have the same forgiveness for the shortcomings of nature as for a wayward child. And no wonder they are distrustful. Ages of oppression and misrule have passed over their heads; sun and rain, with all their caprice, have been kinder friends to them than their earthly masters. Some day, presumably, the government will wake up to the fact that Italy is not an industrial country, and that its farmers might profitably be taken into account again.
But a change is upon the land. Types like this old man are becoming extinct; for the patriarchal system of Coriolanus, the glory of southern Italy, is breaking up.
This is not the fault of conscription which, though it destroys old dialects, beliefs and customs, widens the horizon by bringing fresh ideas into the family, and generally sound ones. It does even more; it teaches the conscripts to read and write, so that it is no longer as dangerous to have dealings with a man who possesses these accomplishments as in the days when they were the prerogative of avvocati and other questionable characters. A countryman, nowadays, may read and write and yet be honest.
What is shattering family life is the speculative spirit born of emigration. A continual coming and going; two-thirds of the adolescent and adult male population are at this moment in Argentina or the United States–some as far afield as New Zealand. Men who formerly reckoned in sous now talk of thousands of francs; parental authority over boys is relaxed, and the girls, ever quick to grasp the advantages of money, lose all discipline and steadiness.
“My sons won’t touch a spade,” said a peasant to me; “and when I thrash them, they complain to the police. They simply gamble and drink, waiting their turn to sail. If I were to tell you the beatings we used to get, sir, you wouldn’t believe me. You wouldn’t believe me, not if I took my oath, you wouldn’t! I can feel them still–speaking with respect–here!”
These emigrants generally stay away three or four years at a stretch, and then return, spend their money, and go out again to make more. Others remain for longer periods, coming back with huge incomes–twenty to a hundred francs a day. Such examples produce the same effect as those of the few lucky winners in the State lottery; every one talks of them, and forgets the large number of less fortunate speculators. Meanwhile the land suffers. The carob-tree is an instance. This beautiful and almost eternal growth, the “hope of the southern Apennines” as Professor Savastano calls it, whose pods constitute an important article of commerce and whose thick-clustering leaves yield a cool shelter, comparable to that of a rocky cave, in the noonday heat, used to cover large tracts of south Italy. Indifferent to the scorching rays of the sun, flourishing on the stoniest declivities, and sustaining the soil in a marvellous manner, it was planted wherever nothing else would grow–a distant but sure profit. Nowadays carobs are only cut down. Although their produce rises in value every year, not one is planted; nobody has time to wait for the fruit. [Footnote: There are a few laudable exceptions, such as Prince Belmonte, who has covered large stretches of bad land with this tree. (See Consular Reports, Italy, No. 431.) But he is not a peasant!]
It is nothing short of a social revolution, depopulating the country of its most laborious elements. 788,000 emigrants left in one year alone (1906); in the province of Basilicata the exodus exceeds the birthrate. I do not know the percentage of those who depart never to return, but it must be considerable; the land is full of chronic grass-widows.
Things will doubtless right themselves in due course; it stands to reason that in this acute transitional stage the demoralizing effects of the new system should be more apparent than its inevitable benefits. Already these are not unseen; houses are springing up round villages, and the emigrants return home with a disrespect for many of their country’s institutions which, under the circumstances, is neither deplorable nor unjustifiable. A large family of boy-children, once a dire calamity, is now the soundest of investments. Soon after their arrival in America they begin sending home rations of money to their parents; the old farm prospers once more, the daughters receive decent dowries. I know farmers who receive over three pounds a month from their sons in America–all under military age.
“We work, yes,” they will then tell you, “but we also smoke our pipe.”
Previous to this wholesale emigration, things had come to such a pass that the landed proprietor could procure a labourer at a franc a day, out of which he had to feed and clothe himself; it was little short of slavery. The roles are now reversed, and while landlords are impoverished, the rich emigrant buys up the farms or makes his own terms for work to be done, wages being trebled. A new type of peasant is being evolved, independent of family, fatherland or traditions–with a sure haven of refuge across the water when life at home becomes intolerable.
Yes; a change is at hand.
And another of those things which emigration and the new order of affairs are surely destroying is that ancient anthropomorphic way of looking at nature, with its expressive turns of speech. A small boy, whom I watched gathering figs last year, informed me that the fig-tree was innamorato delle pietre e cisterne–enamoured of stones and cisterns; meaning, that its roots are searchingly destructive to masonry and display a fabulous intuition for the proximity of water. He also told me, what was news to me, that there are more than two or three varieties of figs. Will you have his list of them? Here it is:
There is the fico arnese, the smallest of all, and the fico santillo, both of which are best when dried; the fico vollombola, which is never dried, because it only makes the spring fruit; the fico molegnano, which ripens as late as the end of October and must be eaten fresh; the fico coretorto (” wry-heart “–from its shape), which has the most leathery skin of all and is often destroyed by grubs after rain; the fico troiano; the fico arzano; and the fico vescovo, which appears when all the others are over, and is eaten in February (this may be the kind referred to in Stamer’s “Dolce Napoli” as deriving from Sorrento, where the first tree of its kind was discovered growing out of the garden wall of the bishop’s palace, whence the name). All these are neri–black.
Now for the white kinds. The fico paradiso has a tender skin, but is easily spoilt by rain and requires a ridiculous amount of sun to dry it; ihe fico vottato is also better fresh; the fico pezzottolo is often attacked by grubs, but grows to a large size every two or three years; the fico pascarello is good up till Christmas; the fico natalino; lastly, the fico -----, whose name I will not record, though it would be an admirable illustration of that same anthropomorphic turn of mind. The santillo and arnese, he added, are the varieties which are cut into two and laid lengthwise upon each other and so dried (Query: Is not this the “duplex ficus” of Horace?).
“Of course there are other kinds,” he said, “but I don’t remember them just now.” When I asked whether he could tell these different fig-trees apart by the leaves and stems alone and without the fruit, he said that each kind, even in winter, retained its peculiar “faccia” (face), but that some varieties are more easy to distinguish than others. I enquired into the mysteries of caprification, and learned that artificial ripening by means of a drop of oil is practised with some of them, chiefly the santillo, vollombola, pascarello and natalino. Then he gave me an account of the prices for the different qualities and seasons which would have astonished a grocer.
All of which proves how easy it is to misjudge of folks who, although they do not know that Paris is the capital of France, yet possess a training adapted to their present needs. They are specialists for things of the grain-giving earth; it is a pleasure to watch them grafting vines and olives and lemons with the precision of a trained horticulturist. They talk of “governing” (governare) their soil; it is the word they use in respect to a child.
Now figs are neither white nor black, but such is the terminology. Stones are white or black; prepared olives are white or black; wine is white or black. Are they become colour-blind because impregnated, from earliest infancy, with a perennial blaze of rainbow hues– colour-blinded, in fact; or from negligence, attention to this matter not bringing with it any material advantage? Excepting that sign-language which is profoundly interesting from an artistic and ethnological point of view–why does not some scholar bring old lorio’s “Mimica degli Antichi” up to date?–few things are more worthy of investigation than the colour-sense of these people. Of blue they have not the faintest conception, probably because there are so few blue solids in nature; Max Mueller holds the idea of blue to be quite a modern acquisition on the part of the human race. So a cloudless sky is declared to be “quite white.” I once asked a lad as to the colour of the sea which, at the moment, was of the most brilliant sapphire hue. He pondered awhile and then said:
“Pare come fosse un colore morto” (a sort of dead colour).
Green is a little better known, but still chiefly connected with things not out of doors, as a green handkerchief. The reason may be that this tint is too common in nature to be taken note of. Or perhaps because their chain of association between green and grass is periodically broken up–our fields are always verdant, but theirs turn brown in summer. Trees they sometimes call yellow, as do some ancient writers; but more generally “half-black” or “tree-colour.” A beech in full leaf has been described to me as black. “Rosso” does not mean red, but rather dun or dingy; earth is rosso. When our red is to be signified, they will use the word “turco,” which came in with the well-known dye-stuff of which the Turks once monopolized the secret. Thus there are “Turkish” apples and “Turkish” potatoes. But “turco” may also mean black–in accordance with the tradition that the Turks, the Saracens, were a black race. Snakes, generally greyish-brown in these parts, are described as either white or black; an eagle-owl is half-black; a kestrel un quasi bianco. The mixed colours of cloths or silks are either beautiful or ugly, and there’s an end of it. It is curious to compare this state of affairs with that existing in the days of Homer, who was, as it were, feeling his way in a new region, and the propriety of whose colour epithets is better understood when one sees things on the spot. Of course I am only speaking of the humble peasant whose blindness, for the rest, is not incurable.
One might enlarge the argument and deduce his odd insensibility to delicate scents from the fact that he thrives in an atmosphere saturated with violent odours of all kinds; his dullness in regard to finer shades of sound–from the shrieks of squalling babies and other domestic explosions in which he lives from the cradle to the grave. That is why these people have no “nerves"; terrific bursts of din, such as the pandemonium of Piedigrotta, stimulate them in the same way that others might be stimulated by a quartette of Brahms. And if they who are so concerned about the massacre of small birds in this country would devote their energies to the invention of a noiseless and yet cheap powder, their efforts would at last have some prospects of success. For it is not so much the joy of killing, as the pleasurable noise of the gun, which creates these local sportsmen; as the sagacious “Ultramontain" observed long ago. “Le napolitain est pas-sionne pour la chasse,” he says, “parce que les coups de fusil flattent son oreille.” [Footnote: I have looked him up in Jos. Blanc’s “Bibliographic.” His name was C. Haller.] This ingenuous love of noise may be connected, in some way, with their rapid nervous discharges.
I doubt whether intermediate convulsions have left much purity of Greek blood in south Italy, although emotional travellers, fresh from the north, are for ever discovering “classic Hellenic profiles” among the people. There is certainly a scarce type which, for want of a better hypothesis, might be called Greek: of delicate build and below the average height, small-eared and straight-nosed, with curly hair that varies from blonde to what Italians call castagno chiaro. It differs not only from the robuster and yet fairer northern breed, but also from the darker surrounding races. But so many contradictory theories have lately been promulgated on this head, that I prefer to stop short at the preliminary question–did a Hellenic type ever exist? No more, probably, than that charming race which the artists of Japan have invented for our delectation.
Strains of Greek blood can be traced with certainty by their track of folklore and poetry and song, such as still echoes among the vales of Sparta and along the Bosphorus. Greek words are rather rare here, and those that one hears–such as sciusciello, caruso, crisommele, etc.–have long ago been garnered by scholars like De Grandis, Moltedo, and Salvatore Mele. So Naples is far more Hellenic in dialect, lore, song and gesture than these regions, which are still rich in pure latinisms of speech, such as surgere (to arise); scitare (excitare–to arouse); e (est–yes); fetare (foetare); trasete (transitus–passage of quails); titillare (to tickle); craje (cras–to-morrow); pastena (a plantation of young vines; Ulpian has “pastinum instituere”). A woman is called “muliera,” a girl “figliola,” and children speak of their fathers as “tata” (see Martial, epig. I, 101). Only yesterday I added a beautiful latinism to my collection, when an old woman, in whose cottage I sometimes repose, remarked to me, “Non avete virtu oggi “–you are not up to the mark to-day. The real, antique virtue! I ought to have embraced her. No wonder I have no “virtue” just now. This savage Vulturnian wind–did it not sap the Roman virtue at Cannae?
All those relics of older civilizations are disappearing under the standardizing influence of conscription, emigration and national schooling. And soon enough the Contranome-system will become a thing of the past. I shall be sorry to see it go, though it has often driven me nearly crazy.
What is a contranome?
The same as a sopranome. It is a nickname which, as with the Russian peasants, takes the place of Christian and surname together. A man will tell you: “My name is Luigi, but they call me, by contranome, O’Canzirro. I don’t know my surname.” Some of these nicknames are intelligible, such as O’Sborramurella, which refers to the man’s profession of building those walls without mortar which are always tumbling down and being repaired again; or O’Sciacquariello (acqua–a leaking–one whose money leaks from his pocket–a spendthrift); or San Pietro, from his saintly appearance; O’Civile, who is so uncivilized, or Cristoforo Colombo, because he is so very wideawake. But eighty per cent of them are quite obscure even to their owners, going back, as they do, to some forgotten trick or incident during childhood or to some pet name which even in the beginning meant nothing. Nearly every man and boy has his contranome by which, and by which alone, he is known in his village; the women seldomer, unless they are conspicuous by some peculiarity, such as A’Sbirra (the spy), or A’Paponnessa (the fat one)–whose counterpart, in the male sex, would be O’Tripone.
Conceive, now, what trouble it entails to find a man in a strange village if you happen not to know his contranome (and how on earth are you to discover it?), if his surname means nothing to the inhabitants, and his Christian name is shared by a hundred others. For they have an amazing lack of inventiveness in this matter; four or five Christian names will include the whole population of the place. Ten to one you will lose a day looking for him, unless something like this takes place:
You set forth your business to a crowd of villagers that have collected around. It is simple enough. You want to speak to Luigi So-and-so. A good-natured individual, who seems particularly anxious to help, summarizes affairs by saying:
“The gentleman wants Luigi So-and-so.”
There is evidently some joke in the mere suggestion of such a thing; they all smile. Then a confused murmur of voices goes up:
“Luigi–Luigi. . . . Now which Luigi does he mean?”
You repeat his surname in a loud voice. It produces no effect, beyond that of increased hilarity.
“Luigi–Luigi. . . .”
“Or the figlio d’ O’Zibalocchio?”
The good-natured individual volunteers to beat the surrounding district and bring in all the Luigis he can find. After half an hour they begin to arrive, one by one. He is not among them. Dismissed with cigars, as compensation for loss of time.
Meanwhile half the village has gathered around, vastly enjoying the fun, which it hopes will last till bedtime. You are getting bewildered; new people flock in from the fields to whom the mysterious joke about Luigi must be explained.
“Luigi–Luigi,” they begin again. “Now, which of them can he mean?”
“I never thought of him,” says the good-natured individual. “Here, boy, run and tell O’Cuccolillo that a foreign gentleman wants to give him a cigar.”
By the time O’Cuccolillo appears on the scene the crowd has thickened. You explain the business for the fiftieth time; no–he is Luigi, of course, but not the right Luigi, which he regrets considerably. Then the joke is made clear to him, and he laughs again. You have lost all your nerve, but the villagers are beginning to love you,
“Can it be O’Sciabecchino?”
“Or the figlio d’ O’Chiappino?”
“It might be O’Busciardiello (the liar).”
“So he is. I quite forgot. Well, then it must be the husband of A’Cicivetta (the flirt).”
“He’s in prison. But how about O’Caccianfierno?”
Suddenly a withered hag croaks authoritatively:
“I know! The gentleman wants O’Tentillo.”
Chorus of villagers:
“Then why doesn’t he say so?”
O’Tentillo lives far, far away. An hour elapses; at last he comes, full of bright expectations. No, this is not your Luigi, he is another Luigi. You are ready to sink into the earth, but there is no escape. The crowd surges all around, the news having evidently spread to neighbouring hamlets.
“Luigi–Luigi. . . . Let me see. It might be O’Rappo.”
“O’Massassillo, more likely.”
“I have it! It’s O’Spennatiello.”
“I never thought of him,” says a well-known voice. “Here, boy, run and tell-----”
“Never mind the G----- d----- son of b-----,” says a cheery person in excellent English, who has just arrived on the scene. “See here, I live fifteen years in Brooklyn; damn fine! ’Ave a glass of wine round my place. Your Luigi’s in America, sure. And if he isn’t, send him to Hell.”
Sound advice, this.
“What’s his surname, anyhow?” he goes on.
You explain once more.
“Why, there’s the very man you’re looking for. There, standing right in front of you! He’s Luigi, and that’s his surname right enough. He don’t know it himself, you bet.”
And he points to the good-natured individual. . . .
These countryfolk can fare on strange meats. A boy consumed a snake that was lying dead by the roadside; a woman ate thirty raw eggs and then a plate of maccheroni; a man swallowed six kilograms of the uncooked fat of a freshly slaughtered pig (he was ill for a week afterwards); another one devoured two small birds alive, with beaks, claws and feathers. Such deeds are sternly reprobated as savagery; still, they occur, and nearly always as the result of wagers. I wish I could couple them with equally heroic achievements in the drinking line, but, alas! I have only heard of one old man who was wont habitually to en-gulph twenty-two litres of wine a day; eight are spoken of as “almost too much” in these degenerate days. . . .
Mice, says Movers, were sacrificially eaten by the Babylonians. Here, as in England, they are cooked into a paste and given to children, to cure a certain complaint. To take away the dread of the sea from young boys, they mix into their food small fishes which have been devoured by larger ones and taken from their stomachs–the underlying idea being that these half-digested fry are thoroughly familiar with the storms and perils of the deep, and will communicate these virtues to the boys who eat them. It is the same principle as that of giving chamois blood to the goat-boys of the Alps, to strengthen their nerves against giddiness–pure sympathetic magic, of which there is this, at least, to be said, that “its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science–a faith in the order or uniformity of nature.”
I have also met persons who claim to have been cured of rachitic troubles in their youth by eating a puppy dog cooked in a saucepan. But only one kind of dog is good for this purpose, to be procured from those foundling hospitals whither hundreds of illegitimate infants are taken as soon as possible after birth. The mothers, to relieve the discomfort caused by this forcible separation from the new-born, buy a certain kind of puppy there, bring them home, and nourish them in loco infantis. These puppies cost a franc apiece, and are generally destroyed after performing their duties; it is they who are cooked for curing the scrofulous tendencies of other children. Swallows’ hearts are also used for another purpose; so is the blood of tortoises–for strengthening the backs of children (the tortoise being a hard animal). So is that of snakes, who are held up by head and tail and pricked with needles; the greater their pain, the more beneficial their blood, which is soaked up with cotton-wool and applied as a liniment for swollen glands. In fact, nearly every animal has been discovered to possess some medicinal property.
But of the charm of such creatures the people know nothing. How different from the days of old! These legendary and gracious beasts, that inspired poets and artists and glyptic engravers–these things of beauty have now descended into the realm of mere usefulness, into the pharmacopoeia.
The debasement is quite intelligible, when one remembers what accumulated miseries these provinces have undergone. Memories of refinement were starved out of the inhabitants by centuries of misrule, when nothing was of interest or of value save what helped to fill the belly. The work of bestialization was carried on by the despotism of Spanish Viceroys and Bourbons. They, the Spaniards, fostered and perhaps imported the Camorra, that monster of many heads which has established itself in nearly every town of the south. Of the deterioration in taste coincident with this period, I lately came across this little bit of evidence, curious and conclusive:–In 1558 a number of the country-folk were captured in one of the usual Corsair raids; they were afterwards ransomed, and among the Christian names of the women I note: Livia, Fiula, Cassandra, Aurelia, Lucrezia, Verginia, Medea, Violanta, Galizia, Vittoria, Diamanta, etc. Where were these full-sounding noble names two centuries later–where are they nowadays? Do they not testify to a state of culture superior to that of the present time, when Maria, Lucia, and about four others of the most obvious catholic saints exhaust the list of all female Christian names hereabouts?
All this is changing once more; a higher standard of comfort is being evolved, though relics of this former state of insecurity may still be found; such as the absence, even in houses of good families, of clocks and watches, and convenient storage for clothes and domestic utensils; their habits of living in penury and of buying their daily food by farthings, as though one never knew what the next day might bring; their dread of going out of doors by night (they have a proverb which runs, di notte, non parlar forte; di giorno, guardati attorno), their lack of humour. For humour is essentially a product of ease, and nobody can be at ease in unquiet times. That is why so few poets are humorous; their restlessly querulous nature has the same effect on their outlook as an insecure environment.
But it will be long ere these superstitions are eradicated. The magic of south Italy deserves to be well studied, for the country is a cauldron of demonology wherein Oriental beliefs–imported direct from Egypt, the classic home of witchcraft–commingled with those of the West. A foreigner is at an unfortunate disadvantage; if he asks questions, he will only get answers dictated by suspicion or a deliberate desire to mislead–prudent answers; whoso accepts these explanations in good faith, might produce a wondrous contribution to ethnology.
Wise women and wizards abound, but they are not to be compared with that santa near Naples whom I used to visit in the nineties, and who was so successful in the magics that the Bishop of Pozzuoli, among hundreds of other clients, was wont to drive up to her door once a week for a consultation. These mostly occupy themselves with the manufacture of charms for gaining lucky lottery numbers, and for deluding fond women who wish to change their lovers.
The lore of herbs is not much studied. For bruises, a slice of the Opuntia is applied, or the cooling parietaria (known as “pareta” or “paretene”); the camomile and other common remedies are in vogue; the virtues of the male fern, the rue, sabina and (home-made) ergot of rye are well known but not employed to the extent they are in Russia, where a large progeny is a disaster. There is a certain respect for the legitimate unborn, and even in cases of illegitimacy some neighbouring foundling hospital, the house of the Madonna, is much more convenient.
It is a true monk’s expedient; it avoids the risk of criminal prosecution; the only difference being that the Mother of God, and not the natural mother of the infant, becomes responsible for its prompt and almost inevitable destruction. [Footnote: The scandals that occasionally arise in connection with that saintly institution, the Foundling Hospital at Naples, are enough to make humanity shudder. Of 856 children living under its motherly care during 1895, 853 “died” in the course of that one year-only three survived; a wholesale massacre. These 853 murdered children were carried forward in the books as still living, and the institution, which has a yearly revenue of over 600,000 francs, was debited with their maintenance, while 42 doctors (instead of the prescribed number of 19) continued to draw salaries for their services to these innocents that had meanwhile been starved and tortured to death. The official report on these horrors ends with the words: “There is no reason to think that these facts are peculiar to the year 1895."]
That the moon stands in sympathetic relations with living vegetation is a fixed article of faith among the peasantry. They will prune their plants only when the satellite is waxing–al sottile detta luna, as they say. Altogether, the moon plays a considerable part in their lore, as might be expected in a country where she used to be worshipped under so many forms. The dusky markings on her surface are explained by saying that the moon used to be a woman and a baker of bread, her face gleaming with the reflection of the oven, but one day she annoyed her mother, who took up the brush they use for sweeping away the ashes, and smirched her face. . . .
Whoever reviews the religious observances of these people as a whole will find them a jumble of contradictions and incongruities, lightly held and as lightly dismissed. Theirs is the attitude of mind of little children–of those, I mean, who have been so saturated with Bible stories and fairy tales that they cease to care whether a thing be true or false, if it only amuses for the moment. That is what makes them an ideal prey for the quack physician. They will believe anything so long as it is strange and complicated; a straightforward doctor is not listened to; they want that mystery-making “priest-physician" concerning whom a French writer–I forget his name–has wisely discoursed. I once recommended a young woman who was bleeding at the nose to try the homely remedy of a cold key. I thought she would have died of laughing! The expedient was too absurdly simple to be efficacious.
The attitude of the clergy in regard to popular superstitions is the same here as elsewhere. They are too wise to believe them, and too shrewd to discourage the belief in others; these things can be turned to account for keeping the people at a conveniently low level of intelligence. For the rest, these priests are mostly good fellows of the live-and-let-live type, who would rather cultivate their own potatoes than quarrel about vestments or the Trinity. Violently acquisitive, of course, like most southerners. I know a parish priest, a son of poor parents, who, by dint of sheer energy, has amassed a fortune of half a million francs. He cannot endure idleness in any shape, and a fine mediaeval scene may be witnessed when he suddenly appears round the corner and catches his workmen wasting their time and his money–
“Ha, loafers, rogues, villains, vermin and sons of bastardi cornuti! If God had not given me these garments and thereby closed my lips to all evil-speaking (seizing his cassock and displaying half a yard of purple stocking)–wouldn’t I just tell you, spawn of adulterous assassins, what I think of you!”
But under the new regime these priests are becoming mere decorative survivals, that look well enough in the landscape, but are not taken seriously save in their match-making and money-lending capacities.
The intense realism of their religion is what still keeps it alive for the poor in spirit. Their saints and devils are on the same familiar footing towards mankind as were the old gods of Greece. Children do not know the meaning of “Inferno"; they call it “casa del diavolo” (the devil’s house); and if they are naughty, the mother says, “La Madonna strilla"–the Madonna will scold. Here is a legend of Saint Peter, interesting for its realism and because it has been grafted upon a very ancient motif:–
The apostle Peter was a dissatisfied sort of man, who was always grumbling about things in general and suggesting improvements in the world-scheme. He thought himself cleverer even than “N. S. G. C.” One day they were walking together in an olive orchard, and Peter said:
“Just look at the trouble and time it takes to collect all those miserable little olives. Let’s have them the size of melons.”
“Very well. Have your way, friend Peter! But something awkward is bound to happen. It always does, you know, with those improvements of yours." And, sure enough, one of these enormous olives fell from the tree straight on the saint’s head, and ruined his new hat.
“I told you so,” said N. S. G. C.
I remember a woman explaining to me that the saints in Heaven took their food exactly as we do, and at the same hours.
“The same food?” I asked. “Does the Madonna really eat beans?”
“Beans? Not likely! But fried fish, and beefsteaks of veal.” I tried to picture the scene, but the effort was too much for my hereditary Puritan leanings. Unable to rise to these heights of realism, I was rated a pagan for my ill-timed spirituality.
Madame est servie. . . .