Life as a Sicilian peasant

La quotidianità dei contadini siciliani è sempre stata caratterizzata da una lotta per la sopravvivenza, da una faticosa battaglia contro avversità e povertà. L’economia della civiltà agricola, infatti, era condizionata da raccolti incerti, perché vincolati al buono ed al cattivo tempo. Il contadino siciliano era un gran lavoratore, frugale nei cibi, lontano dai vizi cittadini, rispettoso, onesto e religioso fino alla superstizione; diffidente per necessità ed autodifesa. Classificato all’ultima fascia della scala sociale, maltrattato forse più di ogni altro lavoratore, guadagnava di meno e veniva appellato con termini poco lusinghieri. Malattie, carestie e catastrofi naturali hanno contribuito a rendere difficilissime le condizioni di vita di migliaia di famiglie.   

Life in Sicily during the 1600’s, when I began my ancestor Joseph Interizzi’s journey, was difficult to say the least. In 1633 an earthquake damaged Nicolosi. Around 1665 another wave of the Plague broke out. Sicily tried to stave off the disease by closing its ports. March through July 1669 saw Mt. Etna’s most devastating eruption; up to 16 villages destroyed including Nicolosi. Destructive earthquakes in 1693 killed up to 60,000 people, including two-thirds of the population of Catania, and razed Militello. By 1694, earthquakes, eruptions and disease eradicated much of the east coast killing 5 percent of the population.
It is during these tumultuous times that Joseph made his way to Valguarnera Caropepe, married in 1687 and began a new life. It is also during these times that Joseph and his wife, Laurentia Paula Mordenca, reared 8 children with three dying young and five surviving through adulthood to marriage.

Life as a peasant was filled with simplicity and hardships. Each day was a lesson in survival; a struggle to stay alive. Sulfur mining was not in production until the 19th century and Sicily was still under a feudal system; 90 percent of the people, including Joseph, were farmers. Most peasants were like slaves. They owned nothing and worked long days; 6 days a week, with barely enough food to sustain themselves and their families. Reading the 1714 Riveli (Tax Census) for Valguarnera, Joseph only names one male child. However, there were 4 surviving male children. Since males were taxed, we could assume Joseph hid or sent the other three boys away. Joseph and his family had nothing, were very poor and were unable to pay such additional taxes.

In 1743, five years after Joseph dies, a disastrous epidemic of the Plague arrives at the Ports of Messina. Mt. Etna continues to erupt regularly and many of Joseph’s descendants endured further outbreaks of Cholera and Malaria. 

Amidst the environmental dangers and various diseases, poor sanitation may have been the most devastating. The importance of hygiene was recognized only in the 19th century; until then it was common to see filthy streets with live animals and human parasites. Transmissible disease spread easily in such conditions. Farm land could not be cultivated as a result of spreading Malaria. Contaminated water sources and people moving to larger cities contributed to disease. 

Booker T. Washington, in his memoirs from 1908, “The Man Farthest Down,” observed the following, “I saw Sicilian peasant families living in a single room with no chimney stone hearth for cooking (when there was food to cook) bunk (a heap of straw) upon which the entire family sleeps... the coarseness of such family existence is beyond description...”

Glass and tile during Joseph’s time was expensive. Windows were small open holes with a covering during the colder months. Doors were smaller. Houses were built out of thick stone and roofs were tree timbers with some sort of covering. Floors were very compacted dirt sometimes covered with straw. The straw would be changed periodically for sanitary and cleanliness purposes. It is very likely Washington’s account is astonishingly similar to the peasant life of Joseph and his family.

Each day Joseph worked to put food on his family table, and each day, at the hour of Ave Maria, Joseph’s wife, Paula, would wait for his return. Evening meals with family and entertainment with friends became the center point of Sicilian culture. 

Meals were simple and consisted of only water and wine, bread, minestra, noodles with garlic, and field greens or other verdure. Tomatoes, as we know them to be a staple today, were, in fact, thought of as poisonous and were not introduced into peasant cuisine until the 19th century. 

Most families lived in small towns, like Valguarnera, where a sense of community among the inhabitants was as equally important as family. After the evening meal, families would gather in the streets. Men talked about work and business affairs. Women gossiped, young adults courted and children played games.
When the head of the family signaled, the household retired for the evening and prepared for sleep, only to arise again for a repeat of the volcano erupting, earth quaking, disease dodging, backbreaking day of survival and hardship which just ended. It is nothing short of a miracle and a testament to our hearty genetics that we are still here today.