Monday, January 9, 2012

Guest Author Jannine Corti-Petska - The Medieval Mafia

I'm pleased to welcome Jannine Corti-Petska today. She's here to share some fascinating background facts related to her latest release from The Wild Rose Press, Surrender to Honor and the history of the mafia. Welcome, Jannine!

In my latest release, Surrender to Honor, the story gives the reader an idea of how the mafia began. This book is the second in my Italian Medieval Series. While the characters are not patterned after anyone in history, the facts and nuances within the story are true.

The following article first appeared in Renaissance Magazine, issue #41. To read it in its entirety, please go to my website and click on “Articles.”

There is an ongoing dispute among historians over the date of the actual birth of the mafia. Some believe it sprang to life as early as the 11th century while others believe it came at least 200 years later. But what everyone does agree on is that the mafia planted itself deeply in Sicilian soil and has never relinquished its hold. 

The first known record of the word "mafia" surfaced about 1860. The name itself has garnered many educated guesses as to its origin, the strongest argument comes from Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who believes that "mafia" evolved from Ma afir (place of refuge), an Arab tribe that inhabited Sicily until the Norman invasion in the 11th century. After the invasion, they were forced into the western region of the island, leading many to believe that the mafia's origins were racially motivated. 

Scholars believe the Mafia was organized in the 13th century to fight against the oppression of the French Angevins. Their slogan was said to be Morte alla Francia Italia anela! ("Death to the French is Italy's cry!"), where the word "mafia" was made up from the first letters of each word.
Another theory came from mob boss Joe Bonanno. He believed the mafia began with what is called the Sicilian Vespers when, in 1282, a French soldier raped a Sicilian girl on her wedding day. After discovering the tragedy, the girl's distraught mother ran hysterically through the street, shouting "Ma fia, ma fia!" ("My daughter, my daughter!") 

But still another theory derives from the early times of the Sicilian feudal baron. To maintain control over his peasants, as well as protect the estates and property of absentee landlords against foreign invasion, barons used gangs of armed guards called compagnie d'armi. They recruited bandits who were generously rewarded for their misdeeds. If the bandits rebelled against the baron's guards, they were simply eliminated. 

Finally, another widely accepted belief of the mafia's beginnings stems from the end of the Norman era. Each new sovereign who ventured to Sicily first established himself on the coast by taking over feudi, or land, which he gave to other nobles or his loyal followers, thereby securing himself more power over the island. To insure his foothold, the baron would give each feudo (those awarded a feudi) serfs to work the land. To keep the workers in line, guards and overseers were chosen for their unscrupulous reputations and criminal backgrounds, and their brutal means of supervision. This system of repression is considered by some to be the earliest model for the mafia.

It may seem that the mafia was created only to offset a lack of official security on Sicily. In fact, it was born out of two basic principles of southern Italian life--the vendetta and the Sicilians' refusal to cooperate with foreign authority. Spilling their enemy's blood appeased their vengeful nature. Yet left alone, the Sicilians were resourceful, family-oriented, and content to work their land and care for their own. 

Antonio and Prima, the hero and heroine in Surrender to Honor, are prime examples of a Sicilian’s character. Although they rebel against the evil Falcone family’s extortion, their pride and honor for their country is evident. My mother was Sicilian. There is a marked difference in their culture and personality. I know first hand as I have inherited my mother’s spiteful nature—quite dissimilar from my Northern Italian half. You might say I’m often conflicted!

Here's a little more about Surrender to Honor:

Prima Ranieri seeks retribution for her family's death and loss of home and land. Her plans go awry when the heir to the powerful Massaro family returns home. After only one glance, Prima's attraction to him undermines her furor toward those she blames for her plight. 

After a fifteen year absence, Antonio Massaro returns to Palermo to find a war raging between his family and the evil Falcone. His refusal to accept his rightful position as the head of the Honored Society carries serious consequences. The welfare of the people of Palermo is at stake. But one look at the beautiful woman Prima has become costs him his heart. She's a deadly that jeopardizes her life as well as his own.

Thank you, Jannine, for an interesting look at the history behind the mafia and your wonderful new release! Hope you'll come back again. 


  1. Wow! That's really interesting that no one really knows how the mafia name came about...

    Great blog Jannine!!! :)

    And I hope the book is a big success for you too!

    Lisa :)

  2. I had no idea the history of the Mafia was so shrouded in mystery. Thank you. Congratulations on your release.

  3. Another interesting post, Jannine. In my research, I found a variation to the origins of the word Mafia. According to Giuseppe Pitre (1841-1916), supposedly the greatest authority on Sicilian folklore, the term came from Palermitano dialect meaning "beauty and excellence." Things were said to be "mafiso" in common dialect, meaning spectacular or wonderful. The word "Mafiusi" (with a capital M) was first used in the criminal sense by Giuseppe Rizzoto in a play in 1863. There's a lot of disagreement on where the word came from, although the theories may not be mutually exclusive. The concept of the "old Mafia" in Sicily, however, is simple. "A man who wants to preserve his self-respect must personally defend his dignity and honor without turning to authorities or the law." It wasn't that way with the Mafia in the US, and that concept bit the dust in Sicily after WWII. History isn't cut and dried and doesn't have to be boring the way they teach it in school

  4. What an interesting blog! I've always wondered this. Thanks so much for keeping my interest! Oh...and I love your stories, too. :)

  5. I had no idea the Mafia was that old.
    Thank you for the history.
    Very enlightening.

  6. Ann, there are probably a dozen more theories on the mafia's beginnings. Pitre and Rizzoto were 19th century. I wonder where they gleaned their information. Thanks for sharing that. It adds to the mystery of the mafia's true origins.

    I never knew anything about the mafia (other than how they're portrayed on tv and in movies-and from stories told by one of my Sicilian relatives involved with the mafia in the U.S. back in the 50s, I believe.) before researching Surrender to Honor in the mid- to late 90s. I can't remember if that research spurred my story, or if it solidified what my story is about.

    LOL will there ever be an end to the speculation of the mafia's beginnings? Probably not, more so because historians cannot agree!

  7. Thanks, Marie. Glad your found the post interesting.

  8. Thanks for stopping by and commentin, Sandy.

  9. What an interesting post. I've never really thought about the origins of the mafia -- it seems like it was just always there. The book sounds wonderful and I love the cover. Best wishes for many sales.

  10. Thanks for the fascinating post, Jannine!