Vlach Women and Modernization: A Footnote to Progress

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a paper that was written almost 20 years ago in graduate school and neither intended for publication nor subjected to academic peer review.  I include it in this Newsletter not as fact but rather as an unproven thesis that may provoke thought about the trade-offs we make as we accept the economic, cultural, social, and political benefits of the modern world, and may even stimulate further research into the lot of Vlach women in Greece. 

 In the Balkan Peninsula today, centering on the region of Macedonia, there exists a small Romance-speaking population alternately known as Vlachs, Aromanians, Koutsovlachs, Macedo-Romanians, and Tsintsars. Their self-designation is Arumani or “Romans,” and they are thought to be the descendants of the Roman and Romanized indigenous Illyrian, Thracian, Macedonian, and Greek population that arose in the Balkans after Rome’s conquest of that region in the second century B.C. Because of the importance of the pastoral segment of their population and because of their seasonal cycles of migration between mountain and valley, the Vlachs are often described as “nomads” or “transhumants,” but these labels are misleading: Not all Vlach settlements are seasonal – some are permanent.  And even when an entire village migrates with the seasons, not all the villagers are shepherds. In fact, the Vlachs are equally well-known for their commercial activities, and they played a key role in Balkan economic, social, and political development in the early modern and modern periods.[1]

One aspect of Vlach culture is its steady erosion by the surrounding cultures. Once a small but fairly compact group under the single dominion of the Ottoman Empire, the Vlachs by 1914 were divided among what are now the modern states of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Macedonia, and since then have come to be largely assimilated by these four national cultures. At the turn of the century there were thought to be 375,000 to 500,000 Vlachs;[2] an estimate for the year 1961 gave roughly 130,000 left;[3] while the most recent researcher in 1985 found only 50,000 remaining.[4] Before the national states, the major cultural force to be reckoned with in the Balkan Peninsula was that of the Greek Orthodox Church, which had managed to dominate its Slavic competitors during the eighteenth century. The majority of the Vlach population has since at least that time been under the strong influence of Greek culture, and in fact the Vlachs played a crucial role in the emergence and development of the modern Greek state.[5]

It is this phenomenon, the Hellenization of the Vlachs, that is of interest here. The remarkable power of Hellenism in assimilating the Vlachs has routinely been attributed to the idea that there was some strong benefit for the Vlachs in being Hellenized; Arnold Toynbee, for example, has said that “Hellenism stands to them for the transition to a higher social phase.”[6] In Nearer East, D. G. Hogarth saw the attraction of Hellenism for the Vlachs in the fact that it represented a “higher civilisation.”[7] H. N. Brailsford felt the connection of the Vlachs to Greece to be self-interested and opportunistic, the result of the “undisputed primacy” of the Greeks (and of Greek as the language of commerce) in the Balkans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;[8] again, the implication is functional, i.e., that there was some advantage to be gained by the Vlachs through their Hellenization. The most recent historian of the Vlachs, Tom Winnifrith, also cites the advantages and prestige of Greek language and culture as factors in the Hellenization of the Vlachs.[9]

Commercialization, the spread of literacy, and the forging of new national cultures are all aspects of the process called “modernization.”  Hellenism would seem to have been an agent of modernization for the Vlachs—a means of mobility, a way to leave behind their primitive mountain way of life and to enter the modern world of widespread education, of market society, and of nascent nation-states. The Vlachs had only to accept a Greek identity; in doing so, they moved from one traditional society that was not modernizing (Vlach society) to another traditional society that was (Greek society), largely because Greek society offered certain benefits—at least according to the above hypotheses.

Taking the plight of women into consideration has been a powerful corrective to the Western notion of progress through modernization. The question is, does it do the same for Balkan history? Did the social changes that held benefits for men also benefit women?

*          *          *

When we ask the question this way—whether, when women are taken into account, Hellenization truly represented something like “progress” for the Vlachs—we arrive at a different answer.  Hellenization turns out to have been a double-edged sword for Vlach women, a phenomenon that has gone almost completely unnoticed simply because no one has bothered to ask such a question. We can best illustrate this by comparing the position of women in Vlach culture and their position in Greek culture.

Wace and Thompson, English scholars traveling through the Balkans just after the turn of this century, were struck by the difference in the position of women in these two cultures; we will thus quote them at length. In discussing the system of social calling in Vlach villages, they observe,

The noticeable feature about these functions is the part played by women. Vlach women, unlike women in a Greek village, are treated by the men with far greater respect and in some cases almost as equals. The women pay calls like the men and both converse together freely. On the other hand the women rarely and apparently never as a regular habit eat with the men of a family. This is probably mainly a matter of convenience, since the women do the cooking, and does not necessarily imply any idea of inferiority… [W]hole families will go out for picnics together and in general both sexes meet as equals. The superior status of women…strikes one forcibly on coming from a Greek to a Vlach village… [T]he fully developed social system as regards calling which the Vlachs possess is, as far as our knowledge goes, totally unknown in Greece. Further the Vlach custom according to which a whole village or parish is at home to everyone else on the festival of the parish church is, we believe, peculiar to the Vlachs. The freer social life of the Vlachs, partly due to frequent travels, gives them in this respect better manners and a broader outlook on life. Consequently the Vlach women never become what the Greek village women so often are, drudges in the houses of their husbands, who often deem them little better than cook-housekeepers.[10]

Another unusual “freedom” enjoyed by Vlach women was the custom of visiting each other and sometimes staying the night on Saturday or Sunday nights; these overnight stays (known as azboru, “flying”) were actually more common among unmarried than married women.[11] Married women, shortly after settling down into their new households, enjoyed the custom known as merinde wherein they would visit their own relatives and friends in the village for a snack and a chat at mid-day.

The relations between the sexes in Greek culture, in contrast, have been characterized by Ernestine Friedl, a pioneer in the anthropology of Greece, as having “an atmosphere of covert mutual dislike.”[12]  While Friedl asserts that Greek men and women can “overcome overt cultural attitudes of deference and covert attitudes of sexual mistrust,”[13] it is precisely those cultural attitudes and their associated behaviors that interest us here, not how they may be overcome.

Juliet du Boulay, an anthropologist who studied a Greek mountain village in Euboea, has also described this fundamental opposition between the sexes:[14] Men are seen as logical, divine, superior, sexually pure, and strong, in contrast to women, who are irrational, demonic, inferior, sexually impure, and weak. Other attributes follow,

and are seen as deriving in principle from the inherent superiority of the man…Men are thought to be responsible, cool-headed, and brave; they alone bear the economic burdens of the house, stand between their families and starvation, fight in wars, and protect their women’s honor. Women are thought to be seductive, credulous, and fearful, endangering the house by their sexual weakness and their basic irresponsibility in the matter of gossip.[15]

These ideal roles plus the physical roles of men and women control their relationship so completely that outside of these roles, “any possibility of a personal relationship… is completely excluded.”[16] It is also central to the woman’s role, for complex reasons which make sense within the framework of Greek culture, that she is obliged to remain in the house, in fact, “she is the house… a woman’s absence from the house is contrary to her role.”[17] There is no evidence of a social calling system that is clearly women’s own[18] – quite the contrary; for example, Dr. Henry Holland, a British traveler, noted in 1815 that,

Female society can hardly be said to exist here [on the island of Zante]. The ancient habits of the country still confine the women in great measure to their own houses…[19]

There will be found here [in Ioannina], however, as in other parts of Greece, a great disparity in this respect between the sexes… [The women] seldom leave the galleries or apartments of their own houses, but when going to attend the services of the church, or when going to enjoy the luxury of the warm baths… Though not secluded from intercourse with the men who visit their houses, whether Greeks or foreigners, they seldom exchange visits with other families, or partake in any common social amusements. Their female friends they chiefly see when at the baths…[20]

Another point of contrast between Vlach and Greek culture with respect to women was the dowry; again, it is worth hearing directly from our sources:

The social life of the Vlachs in which both sexes meet on almost equal terms and the fact that a Vlach girl has no dowry means that theoretically in both betrothal and marriage there is a certain freedom of choice on both sides. How much this is so in practice it is not possible for a stranger to say. Among the Greeks no girl can hope for marriage unless her parents can give a dowry large enough to attract some suitable young man… The Vlachs all condemn this system alleging that it prevents free choice… [T]he position of women among the Vlachs is better than in Greek villages where a girl has no choice at all.[21]

The Vlachs themselves have a custom of the bride’s providing a trousseau (paya) of woven goods and household equipment at the time of marriage. The Vlachs in Greece eventually did accept the custom of the dowry,[22] which continues today in spite of recent laws against it.
Greeks, too, have the custom of providing a trousseau (roukha), but they add to this a dowry proper (proika). Once consisting usually of portions of land, the dowry is now most often paid in cash.[23]  Though some argue that the dowry gives a woman security because under Greek law she retains certain rights to the dowry even after the marriage, in practice there is ample reason to doubt this: “Material power and authority,… regardless of any economic provisions in the Greek legal code, belong to the man.”[24]

In fact, the different gender conceptions of the two cultures are embedded even in the two languages: The usual Greek root-verb for marriage of either males or females is pantrevo, which is derived from the classical hyp-andros,[25] meaning “under a man, subject to him, married.”[26] Vlach, on the other hand, has a different verb for each sex: a man marrying uses nsurare; a woman, maritare. The former is derived from Latin in + uxor,[27] meaning “in relation to” + “a wife.”[28] The latter is derived from Latin maritare,[29] which originally meant “to join or `wed’ (vines and trees grown to support them)” and in imperial Rome had come also to mean “to provide with a husband or wife, marry.”[30] The image of subjugation of woman to man in the Greek is simply not evident in the Vlach which, if anything, seems to contain an almost egalitarian notion in both male and female terms. The Vlach also may acknowledge a different experience and point of view for men and women by using two different verbs, whereas the Greek would seem to allow for no other reality than that of the man.

Among the possible explanations for these differences between two neighboring cultures are their antecedents; although both Greek and Roman classical civilizations were patriarchal in character and knew dowry systems, one study of the relative position of women in each society has concluded that upper-class Roman woman, at least, “had far more freedom than the woman of similar status in Classical Athens. The Roman woman had choices; the Athenian had none.”[31] The Englishman Henry Holland traced the disparity between the sexes in modern Greek culture to Antiquity: “Even in the ancient times of the country this disparity appears to have existed.”[32] But more research will have to be done on this subject before any definitive conclusion can be made.[33] What is offered more plausibly as an explanatory factor is the simple fact of the mobility which is a cornerstone of the Vlachs’ way of life—this inevitably must broaden their perspective and widen their social experience. Wace & Thompson, as noted above, cite the Vlachs’ “frequent travel”[34] as a factor in the relative freedom of Vlach women, while Henry Holland, in explaining the position of Greek women, says “They have none of the advantages which the men obtain from travel, but are secluded in great measure from admixture with the world.”[35]

If we consider the benefits of modernization in this light, we see that for Vlach women, Hellenization was a mixed blessing. Thus, when writers have referred to the attractions of Greek culture for the Vlachs, to the advantages it offered, or to the benefits it conferred, they refer more to the position of men than that of women.  Hellenization meant progress and mobility for Vlach men; for Vlach women, it may actually have meant a loss of prestige, of power, and of choices.

Further, Greek cultural sanctions worked against the education of women,[36] and so only in the late nineteenth century did these women begin to receive some of the direct benefits of modernity in the form of education; yet even then, that education was Greek and in part represented the efforts of the Greek nation-state to more fully assimilate the Vlachs and other non-Greek ethnic groups.[37] Vlach women may have gained something then,[38] but at what cost?  More importantly, what would women’s life have been like in a political society which embodied Vlach cultural values? My guess is that women there would have had a head start over their counterparts in Greece in the modern fight for women’s equality.

All this is not to say that Vlach society was somehow ideal for women or not patriarchal or even that it was “liberating” in any meaningful way—far from it. It is simply to say that modernization is not a series of linear steps, but rather may involve steps considered “backward” along the way; that history that is not holistic, that is, history that does not seek to examine the situation of all, can be terribly misleading in its conclusions; and that state-making, like any other process involved in modernization, does not necessarily represent “progress” and in fact can have a negative impact on people and on society.

There remains a further question, and perhaps the most important of all: Did Vlach women perceive the changes wrought by their Hellenization as having been for the worse or for the better?  In other words, had they been asked whether Hellenization represented an improvement or a misfortune for them, how would they have answered? As was pointed out earlier, the criterion of “more or less options,” though arbitrary, has the virtue of being objective; but can one use objective standards to judge something as subjective as whether lives actually improved or not?  Is there evidence of how most women actually felt about the development of Modern Greek society?[39] If so, we may need to dig it up before we can be truly confident in our assertions about women’s gains or losses.

If it does not stand as proven that the position of women has deteriorated, at least it is evident that until women’s views on the development of modern society can be determined, it cannot be taken for granted that that development has been for the better.  In other words, if “deterioration” is not proven, at least we see that “improvement” is clearly not proven, either.

[1] The key English-language work on the lifestyle, culture, language, and history of the Vlachs is A. Wace, M. Thompson, Nomads of the Balkans: An Account of Life and Customs among the Vlachs of Northern Pindus (1913). A more recent work which deals with history only is T. J. Winnifrith, The Vlachs: The History of a Balkan People (1987). On the role of the Vlachs in Balkan development, see T. Stoianovich, “The Conquering Balkan Orthodox Merchant,” Journal of Economic History XX (1960), p. 234-313, and V. Murvar, “The Balkan Vlachs: A Typological Study,” Ph.D., University of Wisconsin (1956).
[2] Wace, Thompson, op. cit., p. 10 (their estimate is 500,000; they also cite the German scholar Weigand’s figure of 373,520).
[3] See the figures in Z. Golab, The Aromanian Dialect of Krusevo in S.R. Macedonia S.F.R. Yugoslavia (1984), p. 16.
[4] Winnifrith, op. cit., p. 1-8.
[5] See, for example, J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community (1964), p. 3, n. 4; Murvar, op. cit., p. 158, makes much the same point, though his concern is to show the degree to which the Vlachs were assimilated to Serbian culture.
[6] N. Forbes, A. J. Toynbee, D. Mitrany, D. G. Hogarth, The Balkans: A History (1970), p. 242.
[7] D. G. Hogarth, Nearer East (1902), p. 149, 170.
[8] H. N. Brailsford, Macedonia: Its Races and their Future (1906), p. 185.
[9] Winnifrith, op. cit., p. 136-7.
[10] Wace & Thompson, op. cit., p. 49-50 (It is hard to generalize in a region as diverse as the Balkans; the custom of the whole village being at home to everyone else on the festival of the local church, for example, is probably not peculiar to the Vlachs); and compare the section about food-serving customs with the experience of George F. Abbott at the dinner table in a Vlach household just a decade earlier: “we sat on cushions, the ladies of the house as well as the men–an arrangement which impressed me as a sign of uncommon refinement. Among the peasants of Macedonia women as a rule wait on the guests, but do not sit down to dinner with them.” G. F. Abbott, The Tale of a Tour in Macedonia (1903), p. 254.
[11] Wace & Thompson, op. cit., p. 52. One would expect the unmarried female to be more restricted in her movements than the married.
[12] E. Friedl, Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece (1962), p. 90-91.
[13] Friedl, op. cit., p. 90-91.
[14] J. du Boulay, Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village (1974). This study is especially valuable in that it concerns a mountain village. Mountain villages tend to have certain similarities across cultural lines, as do lowland villages. Comparing a Vlach mountain and a Greek lowland village might show up contrasts that are simply the result of differences between mountain and lowland cultures; comparing two mountain cultures may better bring out differences that are more strictly cultural.
[15] du Boulay, op. cit., p. 102. In her essay in Gender & Power (p. 139-167) entitled “Women—Images of Their Nature and Destiny in Rural Greece,” du Boulay concentrates more on the fact that women can be “redeemed” from their “fallen” nature through the institution of marriage, yet she stresses that “two factors, motherhood and age, act over the years not to modify the severity of the code under which women have to live, but to increase the respect which they are accorded within it.” (p. 158-9) In other words, “while the superiority of men, with all its implications, is inevitably a value prominent in the culture, the redemption of women within the terms set by male superiority is a value that is equally important.” (p. 167)
[16] du Boulay, op. cit., p. 118. Cf. R. Kennedy, “Women’s Friendships on Crete: A Psychological Perspective,” in Dubisch (ed.), op. cit., p. 121-138: “Men and women spend relatively little time with one another, know little about each other’s domains, and have a great deal of animosity toward each other in general.” (p. 122)
[17] du Boulay, op. cit., p. 131-133.
[18] See du Boulay, op. cit., p. 26-27, 208-209. Cf. Kennedy, loc. cit., p. 129: “It is not considered correct social behavior to be outside one’s neighborhood for a purpose not recognized by mainstream culture, and visiting a woman friend is not supported by the dominant culture. This proscription means that visiting often must occur in relative secrecy… Moreover, unlike men, who have the social institution of the kafeneion [cafe], women have no place or time specifically designated for social intercourse and relaxation.”
[19] H. Holland, Travels in the Ionian Isles, Albania, Thessaly, Macedonia, &c. (1815), p. 24.
[20] Ibid., p. 153-155.
[21] Wace, Thompson, op. cit., p. 104-5; see also p. 201. Another work cites the lament of a Vlach chieftain as recently as 1953, valuable because it shows the gradual nature of assimilation of new customs as well as the direction from which those new customs come: “Ten years ago women took only their household equipment as a dowry; now they’ve started giving flocks as dowries. This accursed custom of the dowry has come up to us from the cities.” In I. T. Sanders, Rainbow in the Rock: The People of Rural Greece (1962), p. 115.
[22] See, for example, A. Foss, Epirus (1978), p. 104.
[23] See Friedl, op. cit., pp. 41-59, who also observes (p. 56): “In fact, the grooms are not interested in the rukha. As one villager phrased it, `It is land and money they burn for around here.'”
[24] du Boulay, op. cit., p. 128; see also p. 104. Cf. Friedl, op. cit., p. 59, 64-70.
[25] N. P. Andriotis, Etymologiko Lexiko tis Koinis Neohellinikis (1971), p. 262.
[26] H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (1940), p. 1852.
[27] T. Papahagi, Dictionarul Dialectului Aromân, general si etymologic² (1974), p. 907.
[28] P. G. W. Glare (ed.), Oxford Latin Dictionary (1983), p. 2123.
[29] Papahagi, op. cit., p. 782.
[30] The definitions are from Glare, op. cit., p. 1079. The history of the changing meaning of maritare is from A. Ernout, A. Meillet, Dictionnaire Etymologique de la langue Latine: Histoire des Mots(1967), p. 387.
[31] S. B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (1975), p. 188.
[32] Holland, op. cit., p. 153.
[33] It may even be that the present can help shed some light on the past, which for the common people is so obscure. To cite just one example, the name of the custom of merinde comes from Latin merenda, “lunch” or “snack.”
[34] Wace, Thompson, op. cit., p. 50.
[35] Holland, op. cit., p. 154.
[36] See, for example, E. Pavlides, J. Hesser, “Women’s Roles and House Form and Decoration in Eressos, Greece,” in Dubisch (ed.), op. cit., p. 68-96, especially the discussion (p. 93) of differential access to education in modernizing societies such as the one they studied in Greece.
[37] See the extremely perceptive discussion by Brailsford, op. cit., p. 181-184, of the culture-reproducing force represented by women in the Ottoman Empire, and the belated efforts of the Greek educational system to include females and thereby to eliminate non-Greek cultures. The most sophisticated discussion of the role of the modern Greek national ideology in the education of women is M. Herzfeld, “Within and Without: The Category of `Female’ in the Ethnography of Modern Greece,” in Dubisch (ed.), op. cit., p. 215-233.
[38] It is by no means clear that Vlach women “gained” at any point in this process, even after adopting a Greek identity; in fact, the status of Greek women has diminished “as their society has undergone the transformation from a subsistence economy to a market economy while retaining both dowry and traditional restrictions on women.” Women seem only to gain if they “leave the village for urban centers where opportunities for education and wage labor exist.” Pavlides, Hesser, loc. cit., p. 94.
[39] Sanders, op. cit., p. 154, contends that Greek women “are not discontented with their social relations.” The argument that these women are somehow self-deceived is anticipated and answered (inadequately, in my view) by du Boulay, loc. cit., p. 153-8.  In any event, we can’t know the answer unless we include women in history—at the very least—or, at most, even grant women a history of their own.


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