Eagle and Lion: Integration, Immigration, and Conflict on the Istrian Frontier in the Sixteenth Century

Thesis author: 
Robert Kurelić
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2005 - Mar, 2013
Thesis supervisor: 
Gerhard Jaritz
Thesis abstract: 

This dissertation analyzes the sixteenth century Istrian frontier from the perspective of the subject population in the rural parts of the peninsula. Istria, presently divided between Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, was a frontier region of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages. Following the elimination of the Patriarchate of Aquileia, the peninsula was divided between the dominant Venetian Republic holding two thirds of the coast and the Habsburgs ruling the interior but isolated heartlands. Both powers reigned over a rural subject population that was overwhelmingly Slavic. Split along political lines that made them either “Austrian” or “Venetian” these subjects bore the brunt of their respective lieges’ power struggles and yet, faced with meager resources and a mutually dependent economy, the needed to coexist and cooperate in order to survive and thrive. The sixteenth century in particular is an age of great upheavals in the region. Two wars delineate this period: the War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516) and the Uskok War (1615-18). The time in between was one of uncertainty as the emergent Habsburg power reinforced by the acquisition of the Spanish Crown sought to challenge Venetian dominance of the region in order to assert its own claim to supremacy in the Adriatic. This was even further strengthened by Ferdinand ascension in neighboring Croatia and Hungary. In the shadow of this grand struggle the subject population, decimated and suffering from outbreaks of the plague and malaria, wars, and famine, became the (un)willing pawns of their princes, forced to contend not only with each other, but also with the new population of refugees from the Dalmatian hinterlands, settled in Istria by the rival powers to repopulate the region. I focus primarily on the subjects of these rural areas, living close to state boundaries, and leaving aside the predominantly Italian urban population of the coastal cities. I aim to ascertain the dynamics of frontier life, and to determine whether these frontier communities were receptive to migrants of Istrian and external origin, how the boundaries affected the interaction between the subjects and what role the boundary disputes played on the peninsula.
In the introductory chapter, I briefly outline the history of Istria, from the conquest of Charlemagne and the subsequent donation to the Patriarch of Aquileia until the ascendancy of Venice and the counts of Görz who, by exploiting their role as advocates of the Patriarchate, slowly usurped a large portion of the interior of the peninsula which formed the nucleus of what became Habsburg Istria following the death of Count Albert of Görz in 1374. The defeat of the Patriarchate in 1420 left only two powers vying for dominance, Venice and the Habsburgs. It was not until Maximillian’s reign, however, that Habsburg ambitions began to openly clash with Venice's claims to supremacy. The peace treaty of Trent in 1535 left a number of unresolved territorial disputes, the so called differenze which created an environment of near incessant tensions similar to an undeclared war. Further compounded by the raids of Uskoks, the refugee pirates from Senj who preyed on Ottoman and Venetian merchant marine aline, these tensions intensified by the end of the century and exploded during the Uskok War, leaving Istria completely ravaged. This bloody conflict that pitted neighbors and relatives against each other was the most brutal and the last war to be fought in Istria until modern times. Throughout that time Istria was a patchwork of haphazardly assembled possessions, from communes and counties under direct control of the central powers in Venice and Vienna to petty fiefs of minor lords on both sides. The local officials were jealous of their colleagues and rivals alike. Whereas the Venetian podestas were changing constantly, the Captain of Pazin in charge of the largest Habsburg fief was a more permanent presence, though weakened by the poverty and isolation of his domain – cut off as it was from other archducal territories by mountains – and his struggles with his own subjects, jealous of their ancestral liberties.
In the first chapter, The Ties that Bind, I deal with that which brought the subjects together. I compare the connections and relationships between the rural populations on both sides of the frontier in order to determine whether individuals or families would have difficulties crossing the boundary and settling on the “other side”. I do this by analyzing culture defined as a set of beliefs, values and attitudes against the backdrop of a common, shared language. A significant factor was the widespread Glagolithic script in which the Croatian Chakavian dialect was written and used both by priests and notaries which contributed greatly to the preservation of the vernacular in everyday life, which also simplified written communication between communities and made it more accessible to a wider audience. Moreover, the local administration was remarkably similar throughout rural Istria. The župan, an elected local official serving a one year term with roots dating back to the pre-migration period, was the political pillar of the community, serving at the same time as a leader and magistrate of the community and as its voice in dealings with neighbors and superiors alike. Vampire lore serves as another piece of written evidence that connects the neighboring communities, as a remarkably detailed story penned by Valvasor in 1689, but with precedents of far older origin, attests to. The belief in vampires or strigoi as they were called in Istria, as well as other popular superstitions were so deeply rooted and found on both sides that they affected the lives of the peasants and their leaders regardless of the authorities’ attempts to stomp them out. In this they cemented the bonds between the villagers and the newcomers arriving from neighboring communities sharing a compatible belief structure.
Further, I analyze the Habsburg community of Boljun on the basis of the extensive parish records and reconstruct the familial relationships at the end of the sixteenth century. The immigrant Belvederi family, as well as the župan Juraj Matijašić – himself a first generation migrant – form the backbone of this case study. The records clearly show that, when it came to the choice of marriage partners, the inhabitants of Austrian Boljun did not discriminate against their Venetain neighbors. Moreover, the Matijašić and Belvederi cases show that migrants were not only welcome in Boljun, but they could also climb the local social hierarchy and reach leading positions in the community, including that of the župan. Records also show that economic migrants and entrepreneurs were well received, as well.
In the second chapter, New Blood, I deal with the Morlak immigrants in Istria. The Morlaks – the term itself complex and constantly changing – by the sixteenth century were the transhumant pastoralists of the Dalmatian hinterlands who appeared in Istria in the second half of the fifteenth century, but were not present in large number until the second decade of the sixteenth century. It was in that time that the officials of both powers began to undertake measures to systematically colonize the Morlaks in abandoned lands under their rule, both to repopulate the demographically harmed regions and to use them as border guards and raiders as they were frequently used in Dalmatia. I reconstruct the Morlak settlement on both sides of the frontier from rent rolls and charter evidence and I explain the problem of honor, as the central driving force of Morlak society by expanding on fragmentary sixteenth century evidence with eighteenth century writings about Morlaks in Dalmatia which show striking analogies, showing the endurance and immutability of Morlak customs. I then discuss the collision between Morlak honor as the foundation of their justice system with the honor of the state seeking to curb the rampant crime frequently ascribed to Morlaks in contemporary sources. I show how problem ridden the migration became as transhumant and mobile Morlaks frequently clashed with the sedentary old inhabitants with the state often powerless to intervene as it was incapable of penetrating the veil of silence, the omerta that reigned within Morlak society. Moreover, they went about armed and were not above directly challenging constables and officials when faced with criminal charges, but they were also capable of navigating the near byzantine labyrinth of the Venetian justice system and exploiting it for their own ends. Also, the frontier itself presented a problem as it allowed them to behave like privateers, engaging in illicit dealings on the territory of one state, while acting like law abiding citizens in the other, thereby taking advantage of the hostility between rival officials to protect them from the law. In addition to internal migrations caused by criminal behavior – mostly from Venetian to Austrian soil – I also look at economic migrants at the end of the century as Venice attempted to lure Austrian subjects to its side of the frontier, promising exemptions and stipends in return.
In the third chapter, What Drives Apart, I analyze boundary disputes that plagued medieval and early modern Istria, but became particularly frequent and disruptive in the time following the peace treaty of 1535. The prevalence of a number of contested zones left by the commissioners for joint use, but almost immediately and constantly disputed by communities on both sides, created a plethora of problems for officials and governments alike. I discuss the source material itself as a reflection of the priorities of the two states. Venice, tired and defensive, sought to fossilize the boundary by means of extensive record keeping which the vibrant Habsburgs, with an ambitious and vindictive Ferdinand and his heirs sought to countermand by sheer force if necessary. I show a number of factors that worked against a peaceful and permanent resolution of boundary disputes. They were by their very nature recurrent, as both memory and written evidence of where the boundary lay faded, and the boundary markers themselves were destroyed by the passage of time or human action. Furthermore, the evidence itself was heavily contingent on the willingness of the parties involved to seek an amicable resolution. As a number of examples shows, the captains that negotiated in the name of their respective princes possessed only a limited number of options. Trapped between the desires of their subjects to increase the land set for their use, and the need to safeguard their princes’ rights and privileges, they too were mere pawns in the game. Moreover, the relationship between the princes themselves could greatly affect their disposition towards peace, and they were frequently influenced by their advisers, many of which had ample reasons to lobby for a forceful or more militant response. By comparing the dispute resolution procedure before and after the War of the League of Cambrai I show how contingent the amicable path was on the balance of power between the two states. Extant sources from the earlier centuries clearly demonstrate the superiority of Venice and the willingness of the Habsburgs to acquiesce to Venetian demands. From Maximillian on, this policy of appeasement disappears completely, giving way to escalation.
I then discuss the ritual aspect of boundary disputes which shows that a great part of the disputes themselves revolved around posturing and a show of force. Whereas in the previous centuries the rituals on the boundary were of a more peaceful nature, involving a joint inspection and the sharing of a meal, the changing circumstance and an increased militarization of the region – especially through the creation of a peasant militia called cernide – transformed these rituals into a martial demonstration of power. Armed to the teeth, the militias of both sides appeared in force on the boundary in order to protect “their” territory, while the captains, themselves more violent than their earlier counterparts, directed reprisals against the other side, beating, imprisoning or wounding the subjects of the other state. The violence became a self-serving expression of the willingness to defend one’s territory.
This transformation was taking place at a time when forests and pastures became an ever more vital economic resource, as both states issued ordinances seeking to extend governmental control over them. Transhumant pastoralism necessitated cooperation between the subjects, as cattle needed to be seasonally moved from one territory to the other, but border pastures became a hotly contested zone, as I show on the example of the Valbona dispute in which the stakes seem to have been so high that the violence escalated to a great degree and even lip service to ancient ritual forms of conflict resolution was denied.
The three different, but complementary chapters of this dissertation outline a remarkable period in Istrian history. Against the backdrop of wars and a changing balance of power in the region, as well as the influx of a large number of culturally similar, but more violent Morlaks, Istrian peasants were caught between hammer and anvil. They needed to draw new settlers to replenish their dwindling numbers, but these migrants were often more trouble than they were worth. Furthermore, they had to maintain good relations with their neighbors in order to marry find work and feed their livestock. At the same time they were forced to vigorously, and often violently defend their lands against those very same neighbors. The Istrian peasant faced seemingly impossible choices, and yet, as I have shown, he was able to balance all this pragmatically and endure in a period of great calamities and disasters, both natural and manmade.