A little perspective

02/16/2011 - 06:06

I have just receved a document from Ray Ellis which those with an interest in recent-ish history might like to share.  I don't know if I can attach it so have copied it in its entirety below - apologies therefore for length of post. Ray Ellis was a PoW in Sforzacosta, Marche and made a very dramatic escape.  You can read about it in his book "Once a Hussar".  he writes beautifully.  he was then sheltered for a year by the Minicucci family in Massa Fermana, and has returned almost every year since to visit the family.  This is his description of living the life of an Italian contadino in the 1940s:    THE CONTADINI  OF LE MARCHE CONTADINO IS THE ITALIAN WORD FOR PEASANT CONTADINI ARE PEASANTS LE MARCHE IS A REGION OF E. CENTRAL ITALY   I am an Englishman,  I love our ever changing, often wet, cold and windy weather, and I greatly treasure the lovely green and rolling countryside of England. However, I also hold in my memory a vivid recollection of the beautiful Italian countryside with its vineyards and its olive groves and winding, country tracks. I recall small towns huddled steeply on the hill tops where they had been built for safety long ago, back in the mists of time. In my mind I see the newly ploughed land and rows of weary folk swinging heavy hoes to break up the stubborn, sun baked earth, and women bearing heavy pitchers of water on their heads as they climb steep tracks from streams and wells. Clear in my mind is the memory of the white oxen yoked together in pairs, toiling patiently to obey the will of the man who trudges wearily in their wake, and little flocks of sheep, usually under the care of an old lady or a small child, as they rummage around in search of anything green and edible on land where almost every square inch is under cultivation. This was the Italian countryside of another time now passed away. A time of fading memories. The Contadini and the white oxen are to be seen no more.  Water now flows easily through buried pipes and heavy, noisy tractors till the land and harvest the crops, and pylons carry electric power to even the most solitary of dwellings.  What went before was a very special way of life but it has gone forever. It was a lifestyle that was hard and unrelenting, where there was little rest and a minimum of comfort, and where there were few rewards for endless days of heavy work. There were no holidays in those days; no radio, no television, no entertainment of any kind; nothing but endless, heavy, unremitting toil. And yet, in spite of all these detriments, it possessed some intangible quality that is very hard to define, some indefinable character that transcends description, but for those who experienced the lifestyle of the Contadini in those far off days, it gifted them with treasured memories which ever remained fresh in their minds. By a unique series of incidents I found myself, during my youth, privileged to spend almost a year living as a contadino in Le Marche.  I came to know and to love the hills and the valleys that tumble in succession from the Apennine Mountains until they reach the shores of the Adriatic Sea.  I was also fortunate enough to be able to truly share in the lifestyle of the Contadini in that region, in their toil, in their home life, in their hopes and fears and in every aspect of their being.  As the months passed I began to feel myself as part of a very special community, I too began to collect a fragment of their vast knowledge of nature and felt myself accepted as ‘one of the family’.  I became a ‘Contadino’ and as such, I too carry treasured memories of those memorable days and of those wonderful people who lived so close to the earth they tilled and whose knowledge of the natural order of things was almost mystical. It is something of a universal phenomenon that city dwellers and those who aspire to things academic, have a marked tendency to consider labouring country folk as being mentally sub-normal. They are often referred to as Peasants or Rustics and, not surprisingly, The Oxford Dictionary describes such people as being, ‘unsophisticated, unpolished, unrefined, uncouth and clownish’.  This strange phenomenon was certainly very much alive also in Italy where the Contadini (peasants) were almost invariably considered to be of low mentality. I often heard them referred to as having ‘big feet but little brain’ and other such disparaging phrases.  It is foolish and thoughtless however, for people with an academic bent to imagine that whilst they are busy in universities and colleges improving their minds by studying mathematics, philosophy or whatever, that other people are living in some kind of mental vacuum. We are all, at some level, acquiring knowledge and experience with every minute that passes but, as John Milton once wrote, we are all, no matter how clever and learned, ‘as but children gathering pebbles on the shore’. On my first meeting with the Contadini  I have to confess that  I made the same mistake, because I quickly discovered that they were, for the most part, illiterate and I mistakenly ranked illiteracy with stupidity, but experience is a good teacher and I quickly learned that the two are not inseparable. It fact, it soon  became apparent to me that many of these people were highly intelligent and it gradually dawned upon me that I was living in company with a class of people who were the victims of an iniquitous medieval feudal  system which had denied them amongst many other things, of the right to even a basic education. I also grew to understand that whilst they had been denied the privilege of a formal education they had, as a people, acquired and absorbed a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the world in which they lived. They had a profound affinity with nature and a depth of understanding of its laws and its mysteries which far surpassed my own scant knowledge and in this concept it was I who was the ignoramus.  The contadini were almost completely self sufficient; they knew how to till the land and when to sow and when to reap. They understood the benefits and the detriments of the seasons and took advantage of them. They had no need of clocks as they took their time from the sun and the shadows. Their mode of life was completely in harmony with their surrounding countryside which supplied them with almost everything they needed to survive. The maize they grew provided them first with food and then with the husks with which to fill their mattresses and heat the ovens in which they baked their home made bread. They grew the corn that provided the flour for their bread and they then used the straw to plait for later use in making hats.  They even made their own soap with which to wash their linen which they afterwards whitened by covering it with wood ash and boiling water. From the vineyards they produced wine; from their poultry they gained eggs,  the olive trees gave them oil and in return for care and attention, the sheep and the pigs and captive rabbits gave them an occasional and greatly relished flavour of meat. Choosing food from wild herbs can be a hazardous occupation, but they had a wide knowledge of plant life and the women were able to safely select wild herbs and grasses which provided us with many a tasty salad. These people who many regarded with scorn were also highly skilled in basketry and practical carpentry.  When one of the ladders was in need of replacement I was amazed to watch them carefully select and fell two trees which were dragged by the oxen up from the stream at the bottom of the valley.  Then, on the flat strip in front of the house they set to work.  Within a couple of days they had produced a ladder, ten metres long. (It is worthy of note that when visiting the same farm thirty years later that ladder was still in frequent use). Living in that environment was like being transported back into the Middle Ages and never more so than when I watched the women working with their spindles and distaffs. Even the spinning wheel had not found its way into the house where I lived. The women were just as skilled in using natural resources as were the men as the following incident must surely illustrate. Nicola was the young wife of Igino and a mother in her early thirties. She always kept a motherly eye on my needs and well being, and one day she decided that I needed a pullover.  Without more ado, she went to the stream at the bottom of one of the fields where the wild hemp grew cutting several bundles of the plant and tying them into fasces.  These she carried to the bottom of the valley where the water ran deep.  She staked the bundles under the water and there they stayed for two weeks. They were then brought back to dry in the hot sunshine for a couple of days in the front of the house where most things happened. She then beat and pummelled the plants with a heavy stick to break up the dry husks. These were then combed out by dragging them through sharp nails set vertically in a piece of flat wood until she had produced a large bundle of fibre.  Nicola then fetched her spindle and distaff and with amazing dexterity she turned that bundle of fibre into a large ball of thread which was absolutely uniform in its dimensions.   Now it was time for her to pick up her wooden knitting needles. She made me stand awhile whilst she ran her eyes over my shoulder and chest and then without any further measurement or any pattern from which to work, she began to knit. Gradually the garment took shape and she knitted  intricate designs as she worked until the garment was complete.  Then she made a further trip down into the deep valley,  this time to select barks from various trees.  These pieces of  bark she brought back to the house and immersed them in boiling water to make a dye into which she plunged the pullover.  It emerged as a delightful maroon colour and when it was dry she gave it to me with a smile. It fitted perfectly. Dear Nicola could neither read nor write, but was she stupid?  That story emphasises our complete dependence on local resources and our own skills in using them to good effect. Nothing came easily to the Contadini!  So why do I, and those few others who still survive from those times, remember them as treasured memories?  Why do we recall them as ‘happy times’?  It cannot possibly be anything at all to do with the standard of living we experienced; it can only be that our memories prefer to recall the people we knew, those who shared our hardships, those upon whom we relied, those with whom we laughed and sometimes  loved and sometimes quarrelled. It is the people we are remembering and not the lifestyle, because they were a very special people who spent their lives so very close to the land that fed them. What sort of people were they? Well, first and foremost they were individuals and therefore no two were alike.   Describing large groups of people as having ‘national characteristics’ is often the ploy of scheming politicians and it can easily lead on towards national hatred and sometimes to war. People the world over are all human beings with the same basic needs, but, having said that, it is also true to say that we are all somewhat conditioned by the environment in which we find ourselves and to this extent, we lean towards sharing similar characteristics. The contadini were so closely connected to their natural environment that this did certainly put them into a special category. Because they lived in Italy it is hardly surprising to find that they very largely followed the teachings of the Church of Rome and without doubt this had a profound effect for good upon their manner of living.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this good effect was countered to some extent however by the harshness of their way of life.  It appeared to me that the womenfolk were decidedly more religious than their male counterparts.  The women were usually very devout in their prayers which they appeared to direct mainly towards the Virgin Mary for whom they seemed to have a special regard.  Men were often very blasphemous in their speech and dilatory in their attendance at church, but in spite of all their backslidings, I very often felt that those country people were far closer to God than their rather supercilious local priest who regarded them with a barely concealed contempt. In recalling the many folk with whom I shared my life in those days, I bring to mind a complexity of characters, some were strong and some weak, some were gentle and some rough, some were  kind and some cruel,  they were just like normal people the world over. It was their way of life that made them different. In order to exist they had to depend upon their own skills and the support of their families and neighbours.  They needed each other in order to exist.  In the prevailing conditions of those times they had to share the good and the bad in every aspect of their lives and because of this they became inter-dependant and this automatically led to them becoming very tolerant of each others faults and weaknesses.  Because of this and in spite of all the adversities that were heaped upon them, they were happy in their relationships. My memory recalls a very hard and busy lifestyle with little time for rest and recreation and often, on winter nights, when cold winds and sometimes snow swept down from the mountains, there was no central heating and no cosy log fire around which to sit in warmth and comfort. Instead, I well remember how we would take a lamp and sit together in the stall with the oxen because the heat from their bodies took some of the chill out of the air.  This was virtually the full extent of our social life, spending the evenings together with the folk who had shared our long working day.  We were often nodding with weariness and huddled against the cold, but there was a warmth in our little community that dispelled any cold that winter could bring and in spite of all the adversities that were heaped upon us we were happy in each others company. What a lesson there is to be learnt from those few simple facts. Happiness comes to us, not from riches or indulgences, not from luxury or ease of life, not from power or influence; it comes from the realisation of our interdependence with the rest of humanity, and our willingness to be tolerant of each others faults and weaknesses. It was in all these ways that the Contadini in the hills of Le Marche, who I first thought to be lacking in intelligence, taught me how to recognise and value the forces of nature in our lives and that true happiness can only be found in the company of those whom we love and trust.  I remember those kind and generous people with high respect and I am forever in their debt.                                                                                                                         Ray Ellis                                                                                                                         Dec. 2003                                            



And in my part of SIcily where electricity only arrived in the 1970's this way of life continued until long after the war. But here too, now, it is a distant memory.  

In reply to by Ram

This piece of writing suggests a chap educated at Eton and Oxford, musing on a Big Society! Fascinating stuff about the hemp pullover - but it all reads to me that while all the contadini are interdependent, this has not a lot to do with the life of the author. Niente cambia.

Non e' necessario che cambiate qui Fillidie, perche abbiamo impiegato migliaia di anni per arrivare dove siamo e dovremmo riconoscere che i cambiamenti sono minimi quando diamo un nuovo volto all'istruzione.