The social structure of the country was, until the 1930s, basically tribal in the north and semifeudal in the central and southern regions. The highlanders of the north retained their medieval pattern of life until well into the twentieth century and were considered the last people in Europe to preserve tribal autonomy. In the central and southern regions, increasing contact with the outside world and invasions and occupations by foreign armies had gradually weakened tribal society.
Traditionally there have been two major subcultures in the Albanian nation: the Gegs in the north and the Tosks in the south. The Gegs, partly Roman Catholic but mostly Muslim, lived until after World War II in a mountain society characterized by blood feuds and fierce clan and tribal loyalties. The Tosks, whose number included many Muslims as well as Orthodox Christians, were less culturally isolated mainly because of centuries of foreign influence. Because they had came under the rule of the Muslim landed aristocracy, the Tosks had apparently largely lost the spirit of individuality and independence that for centuries characterized the Gegs, especially in the highlands.
Until the end of World War II, society in the north and, to a much lesser extent, in the south, was organized in terms of kinship and descent. The basic unit of society was the extended family, usually composed of a couple, their married sons, the wives and children of the sons, and any unmarried daughters. The extended family formed a single residential and economic entity held together by common ownership of means of production and common interest in the defense of the group. Such families often included scores of persons, and, as late as 1944, some encompassed as many as sixty to seventy persons living in a cluster of huts surrounding the father's house.
Extended families were grouped into clans whose chiefs preserved patriarchal powers over the entire group. The clan chief arranged marriages, assigned tasks, settled disputes, and set the course to be followed concerning essential matters such as blood feuds and politics. Descent was traced from a common ancestor through the male line, and brides usually were chosen from outside the clan. Clans in turn were grouped into tribes.
In the Tosk regions of the south, the extended family was also the most important social unit, although patriarchal authority had been diluted by the feudal conditions usually imposed by the Muslim bey (see Glossary).
Social leadership in the lowlands was concentrated in the hands of the semifeudal local tribal bey and pasha (see Glossary). The region around Tiranė, for example, was controlled by the Zogolli, Toptani, and Vrioni families, all Muslims and all owners of extensive agricultural estates. Ahmed Zogu, subsequently King Zog I, was from the Zogolli family. Originally pashas ranked slightly higher than beys, but differences gradually diminished and just the term bey remained is use. In the northern highlands, the bajraktars (see Glossary) was the counterpart of the bey and enjoyed similar hereditary rights to titles and positions.
The Geg clans put great importance on marriage traditions. According to custom, a young man always married a young woman from outside his clan but from within his tribe. In some tribes, marriages between Christians and Muslims were tolerated, but as a rule such unions were frowned upon.
A variety of offenses against women could spark blood feuds. Many females were engaged to marry in their infancy by their parents. If later a woman did not wish to marry the man whom the parents had chosen for her and married another, in all likelihood a blood feud would ensue. Among the Tosks, religious beliefs and customs were more important than clan and tribal traditions in the regulation of marriage.
For centuries, the family was the basic unit of the country's social structure. To a great extent, the privacy of the family supplanted that of the state. Children were brought up to respect their elders and, above all, their father, whose word was law within the confines of his family.
Upon the death of the father, family authority devolved upon his oldest son. The females of the household occupied an inferior position; they were confined at home, treated like servants, and not allowed to eat at the same table with the men. When the time came for sons to set up their own households, all parental property was distributed equally among them. Females owned no property and did not have the right to seek divorce. In northern Albania, the ancient Code of Lek permitted the husband "to beat his wife and to bind her in chains if she defies his words and orders."
Geographical conditions affected Tosk social organization. Southern Albania's accessibility led to its coming much more firmly under Ottoman control. In turn, the Ottoman Empire's rule resulted in the breakup of the large, independent, family landholdings and their replacement by extensive estates owned by powerful Muslims, each with his own retinue, fortresses, and large cohort of tenant peasants to work his lands. These landowners' allegiance to the sultans was secured by the granting of administrative positions either at home or elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire.
The consolidation of the large estates was a continuous process. Landowning beys would entrap peasants into their debt and thus establish themselves as semifeudal patrons of formerly independent villagers. In this way, a large Muslim aristocracy developed in the south, while the majority of the Tosk peasants assumed the characteristics of an oppressed social class. As late as the 1930s, two-thirds of the best land in central and southern Albania belonged to large landowners.
The tribal society of the Geg highlanders contrasted sharply with that of the passive, oppressed Tosk peasantry, most of whose members lived on the large estates of the beys and were often represented in the political arena by the beys themselves. This semifeudal society survived in the south well into the twentieth century. After independence was achieved in 1912, however, a small Tosk middle class began to develop, which, in the early 1920s, finding common interests with the more enlightened beys, played a major role in attempts to create a modern society. But in 1925 Ahmet Zogu curbed Tosk influence and cemented his power in the tribal north by governing through influential tribal and clan chiefs. To secure the loyalty of these chiefs, he placed them on the government payroll and sent several back to their tribes with the military rank of colonel. In 1928 a new constitution declared Albania a kingdom and Zogu the monarch. King Zog I ruled until the Italian invasion in 1939.
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