A commonly told origin myth of the Sicilian Mafia would make the secret, criminal organization over 700 years old. But is it true?
By the oldest claims, the Mafia is more than seven hundred years old, dating back to Norman rule and the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, or even earlier, to the Emirate of Sicily, in the 9th Century.
What was the Sicilian Vespers?
In 1266, the younger brother of France’s King Louis IX, Charles I of Anjou, took Sicily from the Swabian dynasty. The new Angevin king increased taxes on Sicilian subjects, and this coupled with abuse by French soldiers, sparked a peasant revolt called the Sicilian Vespers. Anyone who looked or sounded French was killed by the Sicilians.
The result of the Sicilian Vespers was not self-rule, but the division of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After Charles was ousted from the island of Sicily, he retained the mainland Kingdom of Sicily while Peter III of Aragón was crowned King of Sicily beyond the Lighthouse, or the Kingdom of Trinacria, by the island’s barons. The Aragonese dynasty held Sicily for the next four hundred years.
Beginning with Peter III, Sicily was ruled from Palermo by the Sicilian branch of the Aragonese dynasty, with a strong parliament in which the Sicilian language was spoken. A period of relative independence, in the 14th century, forged a Sicilian national identity, distinct from their ethnic heritage, or the lands from which their rulers came.
This golden age for the island of Sicily is the time that Mafia propaganda reaches back to for nostalgia. They try to take credit for forcing out a foreign monarch, and the “good old days” when the king ruled from Palermo, and Sicilian was spoken with pride. The Mafia’s version of history glosses over the next five hundred years, in which Spanish kings held Sicily and ruled its people into misery with neglect and taxation.
The Mafia has attached itself, when convenient, to independence movements for Sicily. Its power was decisive in the revolutionary movement which united Italy, for the first time ever, in 1860, after several failed attempts. But it followed this coup by supporting a Sicilian independence movement, briefly, before settling into a cozy arrangement with the Christian Democratic party. The Mafia’s wild political swings betray its true purpose: to bring about circumstances from which Mafia bosses could materially benefit.
The time frame during which the Vespers origins camp requires belief in a Mafia—with no evidence to support its existence—is truly vast. “Proof” in the form of 19th Century mafiosi who claim the Mafia’s origins were in the Sicilian Vespers is not a primary form of evidence, coming as it does 600 years after the fact, but only tells us how old the legend is.
Most theories of Mafia formation cluster in the early-to-mid-1800s. If you had to pick a year when the Mafia began, it might be 1838: the year Luca Patti, son of Giuseppe, a gabellotto from Corleone, was said to be leading a cattle-rustling ring which stretched to Messoiuso and Termini Imerese (Hess, 1973/1998, p. 98; Dash, 2009, p. 83).
In discussing Mafia origins, the question of “when” might be resolved with a mean or average of proposed start dates. For other aspects of Mafia formation—who, how, with what resources, and why—a longer, qualitative discussion is in order. To continue exploring an array of theories on how the Mafia began in Sicily, follow this link to the Mafia Genealogy blog at Patreon. Associates who support Mafia Genealogy have access to this and other exclusive content.
Dash, M. (2009). The first family: Terror, extortion, revenge, murder, and the birth of the American Mafia. Random House.
Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. (E. Osers, Trans.). London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. (Original work published 1973)
Title image: I vespri siciliani, by Michele Rapisardi