Many of the towns on the coast of Istria had Italian populations, but the rural population was predominantly Croatian. Here the traditional peasant society survived until about 1930. By “peasant society” is meant a largely self-sufficient farming or smallholding community, with a relatively limited cash economy, still living close to the land and according to cultural and religious norms which had evolved relatively little over the centuries. This is not to say that outlooks and experience were necessarily narrow, as we shall see in a moment when we look at emigration. 

For a family historian with ancestral roots in Istria, it is important to remind oneself regularly of the larger political context, as this affected many of the events in even the smallest communities. Istria was part of Austro-Hungary from 1814 until the outbreak of WW1; Italian from 1918 until 1943; and of course Yugoslav thereafter. The Austro-Hungarian era in Istria is sometimes regarded with some nostalgia. Croatia was subject to Hungarian rule, it is true, but in the villages of Istria there was peace and no interference in daily life. This was not the case during the Italian occupation, when the peninsula was subject to increasing attempts at Italianisation – for example, Italian was made the sole language of government, the courts and business, while from 1930 there was pressure upon Croatians to Italianise their names.   

These political changes affected emigration from Istria too. In general, there was restricted cultivable land, poor soil and limited opportunity. Accordingly, many peasants became part-time fishermen or sailors – often becoming cabin boys at a very young age (11 or 12) and working at sea until land was made available in the village by inheritance upon the death of the father. Others migrated elsewhere in Europe or to USA to find work and earn money – this could be temporary, during which they remitted money home before returning themselves, or permanent if they decided to settle. 

During the Austrian era, the ports of Trieste and Rijeka (Fiume in Italian) attracted many migrants from across Istria. When these ports became Italian, they were cut off from their former natural hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and started to stagnate. This meant that, although Istrian villagers were still residing in the same country as the ports, their opportunities beyond the village began to narrow. This problem was compounded by the Italians making emigration more difficult and the US imposing post-War immigration quotas. In consequence, the long slow decline of Istrian villages can be traced to the 1920s. 

The Catholic parish of Sveta Lucija na Skitači is situated south of Labin (also known as Albona in Italian) on the eastern side of the Istrian peninsula. Three small Croatian villages within the parish – Drenje, Ravni and Škvaranska – were the focus of a detailed demographic study by Rudolph Bell*. 

The parishioners in Sveta Lucija belonged to a relatively small number of extended families. Rudolph Bell calculated that the more than 500 individuals born in the parish between 1852 and 1914 carried only 15 surnames between them. The commonest names in each settlement were Blažina in Drenje, Škopac in Ravni, and Tomičić in Škvaranska. It should be noted that in the parish registers and status animarum the local surnames were often given in Italianised form, even prior to the Italian occupation: for example, Škopac may appear as Scopaz and even as Scopazzi. 

Bell’s microhistory of this small society, using family reconstruction methodologies based on the same records which a genealogist would use when researching their family tree, produced some very interesting outcomes.  

From birth and baptism records, he discovered a mid-summer dip in births, lasting from mid-June to mid-August. The annual peak was in April, with a lesser spike in September.   

In a previous blog I wrote about seasonality in marriage, focusing on Eastern Orthodox communities in the Balkans. It is interesting that in a Roman Catholic country like Croatia the same basic patterns prevailed. Bell found the same influences – ecclesiastical and agricultural – producing the same peaks and troughs. In Sveta Lucija, marriages were rare both during Lent and Advent and during the high intensity workload on the land from April to September. Marriages tended to be celebrated after Martinje (St Martin’s Day) on 11th November, with a lesser peak in February before Lent. 

Bell calculated that the mean age at marriage was 27 for men and 24 for women; that what demographers call premarital conception was responsible for between 20% and 25% of all first-born children of marriages; that women traditionally nursed their children for between 12 and 24 months as a form of contraception, and thereby were able to space their children by about three years; and that the average number of children per marriage fell from 6.25 in 1870 to 4.5 circa 1900 to 2.7 in 1930. 

Family historians tend to concentrate on the particular, what is individual and specific to their own family. However, it is illuminating to place and understand one’s one family in a larger context and the work of demographers, anthropologists, local and social historians, and others is a great aid in this respect. Nor should the general reader be deterred – not all such works are academic and abstruse.  Demographers may be statisticians but they illustrate their work with specific examples and also with anecdotal evidence gathered from personal interviews (oral history). For example, Rudolph Bell comments in passing that the unmarried couples of Sveta Lucija na Skitači sometimes used premarital conception to overcome parental disapproval of marriage – in other words, by presenting the parents with the fait accompli of the young woman’s pregnancy, they could precipitate a marriage which their parents had wanted to delay or prevent. 

*See “The Transformation of a Rural Village: Istria 1870-1972”, published in Journal of Social History, vol 7 no 3 (1974).

Filed under: Genealogy Research

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