It is important to get an idea of the natural environment and the way of living of the Albanian feudal lords and the indigenous population during the 14th century, for it was then that the real historical and cultural background of the Albanians was formed, and its traces are distinguishable to date.
The great Albanian princes lived in fortresses: the Thopias – in Kruja (Krujë), and the family coat of arms on their standard was a crowned lion; the Muzaka – in Berat, their coat of arms a two- headed eagle with a star in the middle; the Dukagjin – in Lezhë (Lesh) – one-headed white eagle on their banner. The arms of the Kastrioti family, a double-headed black eagle against a red background, is the familiar Albanian national flag of today.
The rough natural setting of the Albanian topography, perhaps most notably of all other places in the Balkans, exemplifies F. Braudel’s thesis of the intricate relationship between mountains,
civilisations and religion. “The mountains, says Braudel, are as a rule a world apart from civilisations, which are an urban and lowland achievement. Their history is to have none, to remain almost on the fringe of the great waves of civilisation, even the longest and most persistent, which may spread over great distances in the horizontal plane but are powerless to move vertically when faced with an obstacle of a few hundred metres”.
In the mountainous areas of Albania the majority of the inhabitants were free peasants, petty owners, engaged predominantly in stock-breeding. The contacts between the highlanders and the feudal lords were reduced to a minimum, to the payment of taxes agreed in advance, most commonly travnina, a rent for tenancy of pastures. There were also mountain-dwellers who never paid duties and maintained no contacts with the authorities or the princes. Entirely free, they occupied infertile, and small, patches of land up in the hills. Therefore, they lived in utmost poverty and were sometimes forced to interrupt their isolation seeking to make a living. Frequently, their coming down to lower and more productive areas and their migration were of the nature of raids on the villages, towns and feudal estates. Irrespective of the cruel punishments imposed by the Byzantine army, the incursions and the movement of the highlander Albanians did not cease. Together with their livestock, large masses of Albanians migrated to the north nearly as far as Ragusa and the Danube, and to Epirus and Thessaly to the south. In this way, the Albanians settled in lands abandoned by the Greek and French feudal lords in Peloponnesus, Attica and some of the Aegean islands. The tradition of a steadfast migration of the Albanians seeking to overcome indigence has lasted throughout the ages of Ottoman rule up to the modern times. The ethnic Albanians, who settled in Kosovo and Macedonia during the 17th century, were part of precisely these North Albanian highlanders.
Actually, the tradition of an aggressive settlement of the highland fises in new places of residence was prompted not only by poverty, by the scarcity of land and pastures, and hence, of cattle. There was one more very important reason – blood feud. It forced not only the residents of poor communities to leave their native places, but even some who were better off. Sometimes single families would head for new habitations – for example, one family from the vllaznija (brotherhood – a kinship unit smaller than the fis or the clan) of Kaçorraj left for Lura, another – for Milot. They were fleeing from their own vllaznija, and nobody knows anything about them in Kaçorraj. Similarly, the northernmost territories were colonised by large groups of families of the clans of Kelmendi, Berisha, Shala, and others, who left the principal clan territories situated mainly in the central part of the northern region.
Even in modern times, scholars may hear from Albanians living in Kosovo, or in the valley of Bitola-Prilep, live recollections about the two reasons for their migration from Northern Albania ages ago: good opportunities for cattle-breeding and flight from blood feud, in which most of the Albanian clans have ever been involved.
Only in places where the action of the Church could be persistently reinforced, was it able to tame these independent peasants, argues Braudel. But it took an incredibly long time. In the 16th century, the task was far from complete and this applies to Catholicism and Islam alike… Everywhere in the 16th century, the hilltop world was very little influenced by the dominant religions at sea level; mountain life persistently lagged behind the plain. One proof of this is the great ease with which, when circumstances did permit, new religions were able to make massive, though unstable, conquests in these regions. In the Balkan world in the 15th century, whole areas of the mountains went over to Islam, in Albania as in Herzegovina around Sarajevo. What this proves above all is that they had been only slightly attached to the Christian church. The same phenomenon was to recur during the war of Candia, in 1647. Large numbers of Cretan mountain dwellers, joining the Turkish cause, renounced their faith. Similarly, in the 17th century, when faced with the Russian advance, the Caucasus went over to Muhammad and produced in his honour one of the most virulent forms of Islam.
Further on, when we go into the specifics of the spread and adaptation of Islam across the Albanian lands, we shall see as entirely applicable Braudel’s theory about the “separate religious
geography for the mountain world, which constantly had to be taken, conquered and reconquered. Many minor facts encountered in the traditional history take on a new meaning in this light.” The primitive originality and cultural isolation of the Albanian mountain settlements is a sound evidence that life from the plains and towns penetrated with difficulty the highland world. The feudal order as a political, social, and economic system and as an instrument of justice failed to catch in its toils most of the mountain regions, And those it did reach it only partially influenced. All imperial attempts to impose an administration and order of its own in the mountains of Albania ended in failure. F. Braudel asserts this is characteristic of any highland and “the observation could be confirmed anywhere where the population is so inadequate, thinly distributed, and widely dispersed as to prevent the establishment of the state, dominant languages, and important civilisations”. The author gives as an example the blood feud tradition so typical of the Albanians (solely among them throughout the Balkan region). A study of the vendetta would lead us to the same conclusion: the countries where the vendetta was in force (and they were all mountainous countries) were those that had not been moulded and penetrated by medieval concepts of feudal justice: the Berber countries, Corsica, and Albania, for example.
Lord Kinross, too, was impressed by the independence of the Albanians and sought the explanation in the geographical factors claiming that in many respects Albania owes its independence to the natural conditions – to the inaccessibility of the mountain ridges – as well as to the martial spirit of its own people, of those hardy mountain-dwellers allied in clans, whom Skanderbeg had united and kept under his authority.
One more characteristic feature: it is only in the lowlands that one finds close-knit, stifling communities, a prebendal clergy, a haughty nobility, and an efficient system of justice. The mountain is a refuge of liberty, of democracy, of peasant ‘republics’. ‘The steepest places have been at all times the shelter of freedom’ writes the learned Baron De Tott in his Memoirs… ‘A poor thing was Turkish despotism -‘ exclaims Braudel as a remark to these words – ‘ruler indeed of the roads, passes, towns, and plains, but what can it have meant in the Balkan highlands, or in Greece and Epirus, in the mountains of Crete where the Skafiotes defied, from their hilltops, all authority from the 17th century onward, or in the Albanian hills, where, much later, lived Ali Pasa of Tepedelenli? Did the Wali Bey, installed at Monastir by the Turkish conquests of the 15th century, ever really governed? In theory his authority extended to the Greek and Albanian hill villages, but each one was a fortress, an independent enclave and on occasion could become a hornets’ nest.”
As anywhere else in the early Middle Ages, with the growth of crafts, in the lower littoral areas of Albania there emerged guilds, corporations, and the group of urban residents engaged in trading grew in number. The Adriatic coastal centres were flourishing as a result of a busy trade, mostly with Ragusa and Venice. The ports of Durrës, Ulcinj, Vlora, and Lezhë thrived, new port centres emerged, among them such along the larger rivers. According to the privileges granted already by the Byzantine rulers, the citizens were not serfs and even enjoyed some political and civil rights: the right to take part in the council of citizens, the right of municipal self-government, considerable local autonomy.
Owing to the boom in the economy and the period of political stability, especially after the break- up of the Serbian Kingdom, the Albanian princes consolidated their power and, in the long run, sought to become absolutely independent masters of their feudal estates. Naturally, this gave rise to new political relations between the Albanian princes. Rivalries evolved and internecine wars were waged in pursuit of expansion and takeover of the more developed urban centres. Throughout the second half of the 14th century Albania was overwhelmed by clashes between the big clans, all its territory being overpowered by anarchy and the antagonism among them. In consequence, the more powerful were devouring towns, lands, and the feuds of the weaker. There appeared several big feudal estates, three of which evolved into principalities.