Finding proof of the high rate of cousin marriage in Corleone proves more difficult than expected.

In an earlier post, “Kissing Cousins,” I wrote about the high rates of marriage between close relations that have been detected throughout Sicily. Before 1918, dispensation was required for marriages in Sicily, out to the fourth degree of consanguinity, or between second cousins. Based on my first reading of the data, nearly half of all marriages in Palermo and Agrigento provinces required dispensation from the local archbishop. (I’ve since corrected this mistaken interpretation. 1/13/17 JC) But was it the same in Corleone?

Anecdotally, I’d noticed a lot of consanguineous marriages among families I was beginning to think of as “mafia families,” based on their surnames, professions, honorifics, and marriage patterns. Yet by “high,” I didn’t mean almost half of all marriages. I wondered what the real rate of consanguineous marriage was in Corleone, if it matched existing research for the province of Palermo, and whether Corleone’s rate, and that of the mafia families of Corleone, differed from the provincial average, or from one another.

FamilySearch has microfilm copies of the Church’s vital records from Corleone, available for free online. Originals or copies of those handwritten documents were sent to the provincial capitals or the archdiocese. The records available online are those which had been preserved at Monreale, the seat of the archbishop for Corleone.

It may be that the copies I’m reviewing, do not mention all of the dispensations that were granted. Of the 96 marriages performed in Corleone in 1860, not a single record mentions a dispensation. After not finding even one dispensation in 1860, I continued looking at the first 49 records of 1861, which brought me to the end of April, and still, I did not find any mentions of dispensations in the marriage records. Did the priests just forget them, that year?

I have come across dispensations both before and after 1860, but not in every year. I haven’t yet, to my knowledge, found a marriage between close relations that did not get the dispensation. I have found marriages that required dispensation between a couple who were more distantly related than second cousins. In at least one case, I was able to determine that, due to having multiple sets of common ancestors, their coefficient of relationship was higher than typical second cousins. Priests were instructed to look for these multiple lines of descent, before marrying a prospective bride and groom.

There are other reasons dispensations are given, too. One of them is when someone is widowed and remarries to the sibling or close relation of their late spouse. For example, when Lucia Ligotino married her first cousin’s widower, their marriage received a dispensation despite that fact that Lucia and her groom, Giovanni Provenzano, are of no known relation. I was ready for these numbers to inflate the rate of apparent consanguinity. Instead, the numbers of dispensations are far lower than I expected.

In 1864, fourteen out of 104 records that year, or 13.46 percent, included a dispensation. However, only four of those records, 3.85 percent, mentioned second degree consanguinity. (There were no marriages that recorded a dispensation for first degree consanguinity this year.) This is far lower than the staggering 48.66 percent of marriages in Palermo province between first cousins or closer relations (second degree) that Cavalli-Sforza appear to have found between 1860 and 1864.

There are several possible explanations for the low rate of dispensations in Corleone marriages. One possibility is that consanguineous marriages were conducted at the same rate in Corleone as elsewhere in the province, but that not all were being detected. The decision to request a dispensation may not be written down where I’m looking for them, in the copies of marriage records sent to the archdiocese. The decision to approve a consanguineous marriage may have been made locally, without dispensation. Finally, it’s possible that consanguineous unions are, in fact, far less common in Corleone than average.

Corleone is distinct from its neighbors in a few ways. It welcomed strangers who would enrich the town, and at the same time was well defended against foreign threats. The town has a reputation dating back to the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, for vigorous military defense and patriotism. In its streets and buildings, the town reflects its origins under Ottoman rule, in its winding alleys, gardens, and plazas. Being in the interior of the island, Corleone was protected from pirate raids, which ravaged coastal towns for centuries. Other than the city of Palermo, Corleone is perhaps the most important location in the province for trade. In the 1800s, Corleone was home to a hundred churches, a college, and a hospital. Being a free town (it was not owned by a king or lawyer, after 1648) it was attractive to skilled artisans, who made up some ten percent of the heads of household in the town. It’s hard to parse the possible reasons why Corleone would not demonstrate the same level of consanguinity, but in one regard, its relative isolation, the town may have been at an advantage over most of its rural neighbors.

This week, I plan to sample other years in the latter half of the 19th century, looking for dispensations. If I continue to find very low rates, I may have to find another way of studying consanguineous marriages in Corleone. I might use documenti matrimoniali, the documentation the priests drew up to discover common ancestors between prospective brides and grooms. I may also create a control group of families to study as closely as I have the mafia families, establish all of their ancestral lines for 3-4 generations, and determine, based on this research, whether consanguinity exists and to what degree. When I’ve solved the problem of detecting an average consanguinity rate for families in Corleone, then I can find out whether the rate for known mafia families is distinctive.

Further reading:

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Antonio Moroni, and Gianna Zei. Consanguinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy. 2004: Princeton University Press.

Image credit: An arranged marriage between Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa of Spain. Public domain. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage#/media/File:Lodewijk_XIV-Marriage.jpg

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2 thoughts on “Measuring consanguinity and dispensation rates in Corleone

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