Patterns and Values
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
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.
Data as of April 1992