Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

II. Village life in Macedonia

5. The Land Question.  Family Budgets. Food and Clothing

The importance of migratory labour in Macedonia is an essentially unhealthy symptom. It is sparsely peopled, and much of its surface lies waste and derelict, abandoned to undrained marshes. It is only because the current of its economic life is stagnant that the enterprising peasant is driven to work beyond its frontier. But, despite this significant phenomenon, its main business is agriculture, and the conditions under which it is carried on, and more especially the system of land tenure, are of the first importance for the happiness of its peoples.

More grievous even than the exactions of the tax-collector and the vexations of the rural guard is the relation of abject dependence in which the peasant often stands to his landlord. The system of land tenure varies a good deal in Macedonia. There are some fortunate and relatively prosperous villages where the peasants own their fields and dwell in a compact mass in a purely Christian village. At the other extreme there are villages where the men are mere day-labourers. Occasionally the landlord is a Christian, but when he is a Greek speculator residing in town I doubt whether he allows much sympathy or fellow-feeling to enter into his dealings with his Slavonic peasants. The majority of the villages of Macedonia belong to a Turkish bey, who works his field on a system of métayage, or profit-sharing. The land and the cottages belong to the bey, who supplies seed and sometimes provides salt and petroleum, besides allowing the peasants to cut wood. The peasant finds the labour, the plough, and the draught animals, and besides working on the fields, he is liable to considerable demands in the shape of unpaid labour on the bey's private farm and in his mill, besides hewing wood for him and transporting his produce gratis to market. He pays no rent in money, but shares the produce of the fields. The bey receives a clear half of the harvest; the peasant keeps the other half,


but pays his share of the tithe. The same system obtains more or less in some parts of Greece, but there the landlord is content with one-third of the harvest, and there is no tithe. Roughly speaking, the average peasant household produces about £25 per annum. Of this £3 10s. goes to the tax-collector and £1 10s. to the rural guard, otherwise the resident brigand; £10 (and an unspecified amount of labour into the bargain) goes to the Turkish bey, while £10 remains for the peasant. A completer system of spoliation and exploitation it would be hard to imagine.

It would be easy to draw an exaggerated moral from such a typical budget as this. There is in some regions of Macedonia a degree of poverty that is abject and grinding. The Albanian marches live beneath a constant threat of famine, and there are miserable villages elsewhere which know the debasing fear that the daily bread will not suffice for bare subsistence. But on the whole, the grievance of the peasantry is that they labour for masters who acknowledge no duties in return for the privileges they enjoy. It is the proportion between rent and income, between taxation and earnings, that is wrong. For when all is said money goes so far in Turkey that an average family can somehow contrive to live upon the poor residuum of £10 that is left to it from the £25 which it earns. On this primitive level the bounty of nature is more important than the greed of the conqueror. The peasants are inured to hardship. The weaklings are weeded out by cold and coarse food and epidemic disease. [1] The endurance of those who survive almost passes belief. I well remember a sharp December morning when I stood, warmly clad in a thick overcoat, shivering in the intense frost and the biting wind, in an upland Albanian village near Ochrida. I could scarcely believe my eyes when I became aware of a little girl of seven or eight standing laughing in front of me, barefoot, bareheaded, and literally naked, save that a

1. Smallpox, happily in a mild form, is rarely absent. Typhus and diphtheria are common. Consumption is much dreaded, while tumours, cancer, and bone-diseases work frighful havoc. There are virtually no hospitals and few competent doctors.


loose jacket covered her back. She was not a poor man's child. She turned out to be the daughter of the headman in whose house I had passed the night a hospitable old marauder who had grown rich on the proceeds of his raids. It is true that to our thinking the peasantry are often poorly clad, but I am not convinced that this is really felt to be a hardship. It is true that they have no money, but on the other hand they have no artificial wants. Their material life is in all essentials that which their ancestors led a thousand years ago. From the civilised world they ask only Russian petroleum, [2] the cheapest of German-cutlery, English sewing cotton and coarse calico, cigarette papers from France, Austrian sugar, and coffee from Asia. All else the village makes for itself. The staple food is bread made from a mixture of wheat with rye or maize the flour coarsely ground by water-power by the local millers. Meat the peasant seldom touches, except on the greater feast days, nor does he make much use of milk foods. His favourite relishes are red peppers, garlic, onions, and haricot beans, and with the aid of these he is content to subsist on a monotonous diet of bread. It is the cheapest food which one could well imagine. For clothing, both men and women rely on the magnificent homespun cloth, made from the wool of their own sheep, carded, spun, and woven with primitive wooden instruments made in the village itself. A costume will last for half a lifetime, and in some districts the women's garments are embroidered with singular taste and skill from traditional designs. Each village has its own unvarying fashion, and there is little room for diversity either in quality or kind. Every detail of life is regulated by customs which have probably varied only in minutiae

2.  I half suspect that the petroleum is imported for the sake of the square tin boxes in which it is packed. The whole domestic economy of Turkey seems to depend upon these tins. Piled one upon another and roofed with boards and sacking, they serve for slum dwellings in the towns. Cut up into plates they protect the sides of the better houses from the weather. They are used as water-cans and kitchen pots. Your food, your water, and even your bread, taste of petroleum, which becomes to the fastidious traveller a sensuous symbol of the East. Nothing could illustrate better the poverty and slovenliness of Oriental life.

Peasants weaving near Ochrida


since the first Slavs settled in Macedonia. Generation after generation the women sew their garments in the same pattern; the potter kneads his clay at the wheel into the same graceful shapes, and the gipsy smith hammers out the same spades, the same bridles, the same pruning hooks and sickles. For feast days there is a crude red wine, and for daily use a white brandy (raki, mastic, or ouso), made from the skins and twigs of the grapes. Each Sunday the young folk gather round the same tree in the centre of the village and dance the same dreary and monotonous step in one long file to the same tuneless music of the flute, and the same unvarying rhythm of the drum. The calendar, with its endless feasts and holidays, its long fasts and its appointed abstinences, gives all the variety which the peasants crave. It is a simple life, laborious and limited, but not without its homely joys and its rude luxuries. It asks nothing from the outer world. It is untroubled by the march of artifice and progress. It might be happy in its simple materialism were it not for the incessant menace of violence and fraud.

The suffering that follows an insurrection occurs but seldom. Even the tax-gatherer makes infrequent visits. The Albanian raids have their periods and limits. The one element of disturbance which is constant and intolerable is that of the Moslem neighbour and the Moslem landlord. It is serious that out of its income of £25 the typical peasant family should be compelled to pay some £15 to landlord, tax-gatherer, and rural guard. But unfortunately when the relations between the peasant and his Turkish landlord have been set out in this precise fashion in black and white, only half the truth has been told. There are no written contracts, no leases, no custom which a court would enforce. If the landlord and the peasant were of the same race and the same creed, if they recognised a common moral law, and felt an ordinary human sympathy in their daily dealings, if there were a police to render violence dangerous and law courts to make chicanery risky, this vague relationship would still subject the peasant to an intolerable economic tyranny. He is a


tenant at will; he works by the grace of his master; there are no industrial towns to which he can carry his labour if he should be harshly treated. In point of fact, he is the servant of an alien conqueror, who barely recognises their common humanity.  There are no courts to which he can appeal, for he cannot afford to bribe; and no Turkish judge would ever dare to decide in favour of a Christian peasant against a Moslem landlord. The village policeman (if the bekchi deserves that name) is the bey's retainer and nominee. The sole law which regulates these complicated and elastic relations is the big revolver which the landlord wears in his belt.

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