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Festival of the Poor: Fertility Decline and the Ideology of Class in Sicily, 1860-1980.

This book contains far more and far less than its title suggests, so this review takes the form of a summary of contents, together with capsule indications of sources used by the authors and occasional critical evaluations of what they have made of the evidence.

Chapter 1 is a jaunt through Thomas Malthus and other well-known political economists writing in English in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, finding quirky merit in some of their ideas but ultimately dismissing them as too passe to offer any current intellectual danger or challenge. Critics of Malthus, especially Marx and Engels, come off as slightly less irrelevant since their work can be seen as influencing late twentieth-century demand-for-labor theorists who think that people have more children or fewer children because they believe there is a growing or shrinking demand for their labor.

Chapter 2 summarizes the ways in which capitalism contributed to Europe's population explosion between 1700 and 1900 and convincingly argues that the impact operated on many fronts simultaneously and interactively. This conclusion is drawn primarily for northwestern Europe and is based on the relevant secondary sources.

Chapter 3 shifts to Sicily's rapid population growth between Italian unification and about 1900. Some of the reported facts seem wrong, such as the statement that the 1,600 kilometers of new road completed between 1868 and 1875 amounts to a rate of 17 kilometers per year, (p. 72) and the selection of other facts might be questioned, but overall this is a good introductory survey based in part on valuable regional reports from the nineteenth century.

Chapters 4 and 5 provide an analysis of birthrates, and especially of between birth spacing, in the Sicilian agro-town of Villamaura from 1850 to approximately the First World War. Readers who remember the Scheniders' 1984 article in the Journal of Family History may be reminded of Yogi Berra's phrase, "this is deja vu all over again," and appreciating fully the subtlety of class relations in Villamaura certainly requires recalling their 1976 book on the subject. The small number of cases upon which the entire analysis is based, for example a total sample of 127 births for the landholding peasantry, artisan, and elite classes between 1850 and 1881 used in Table 4.4, (p. 114) remains troubling even two decades after the original research was published. The conclusion, however, is not surprising: elites were first to shift away from traditional Sicilian pride in large families and toward the Western European (French) preference for three children - in newly developed folk wisdom ideally a boy, a girl, and a spare. Artisans followed during the depression after the Great War and America's closing itself to immigrants, then landed peasants and finally day laborers (not until the 1950s, so we are getting ahead of ourselves here).

Chapters 6 informs us about coitus interruptus, which was the principal method used by non-elite classes in Villamaura (and certainly in all of Sicily as well) to limit births. The global treatment is based entirely upon secondary sources, especially the unpublished work of Gigi Santow, whereas the material for Villamaura consists primarily of interviews conducted during field visits dating back to 1977 and even a decade earlier. "Reverse gear" (marcia in dietro), as coitus interruptus is called throughout Italy, was not a taboo topic back then but the entire subject of sex was sufficiently delicate that the authors asked questions separately, she of village women and he of the men. The Schneiders handle this interview material with great sensitivity and insight and their conclusion rings true that artisans and later peasants made the "sacrifice" of accepting lesser sexual gratification in a successful effort to limit offspring. Elites, on the other hand, apparently gave up entirely on sexual intercourse within marriage after reaching desired family size and left husbands to philander with local fallen women while taking advantage of women from the peasantry in their employ or otherwise dependent upon them. Elite wives did without. The evidence for all this, wherein an image from II Gattopardo buttresses the forceful words of an unnamed informant, cannot go beyond the suggestive and for this reason it is particularly unfortunate that the authors were not less discreet in 1977 or did not go back in subsequent years to ask about oral sex, anal ("Greek style" is what Sicilians I've interviewed always called it) intercourse, and mutual masturbation of various kinds. Apart from all the technical ways of "leaving the seed outside the vase," which admittedly on its own can be an effective means of limiting births anywhere in the world, the particular case of Sicily's fertility decline must give due weight to physical absence (transoceanic migration, seasonal swing work, very long hours in the fields), cultural habits (getting drunk playing cards at the local bar, obeying what the priest says about paying the marriage debt and proper preparation for days of religious observance, falling asleep watching TV), and medical realities (introduction of the pill and then IUDs, availability of abortion both legal and traditional, lowered fertility of one or the other partner or both). Only at the microlevel in an intense study of one village over a long duration, such as the present work, could answers to such questions potentially emerge.

The Scheniders opt instead (chapters 7 and 8) to survey and comment on a substantial literature, itself stronger in theory than in application, concerning the big global picture. They touch upon everything from the emergence of romantic love in Western Europe to the point at which children in rural Bangladesh have repaid the cost of their upbringing and whether they represent additional value as some sort of old age insurance. These and other matters are treated in a sure-handed although necessarily cursory way but at the cost of bringing the reader very far from the title of the book. Festival of the Poor refers to sexual intercourse, which was often the only festival available to poor people (and still is, I suppose) but how much fun can there be in coitus interruptus? Maybe a lot, maybe only a little - the Schneiders never tell us how the Villamaurese enjoyed sex, and why.

Chapters 9 and 10 return to Villamaura to explain how and when artisans and peasants chose to limit the size of their families. As with chapters 4 and 5 on the pre-1914 period, these draw from the authors' earlier published work based on.intensive research in the town's vital records office and on field interviews. The argument that artisans informed themselves of the techniques and virtues of coitus interruptus not from local gentry but from their solidarity with the working class of Europe is especially forceful, and the treatment of artisan disdain for the drinking holes of the peasantry in favor of the more refined culture of their workers' club is rich and nuanced. The effort to recapture changes in gender relations back in the 1950s, when landless peasant families joined all other Villamaurese in sharply limiting family size, is imaginative and ambitious. The parents of these husbands and wives had refused to practice coitus interruptus in the 1930s but by the 1950s and 1960s respectability and any prospect of sharing in Italy's economic miracle required limiting one's offspring. Landless peasants made the sacrifice, even though they never fully adopted the "companionate" marriage style of their artisan neighbors and the men still boasted of an unexpected third child late in marriage as proof they could still do it. Reports of a less-than-satisfactory sex life were more common than among artisans.

Appropriately for this first volume in a series on "Hegemony and Experience," a speculative closing chapter harks back to Antonio Gramsci's assertion that moralizing about the sexual behavior of subaltern classes is a particularly effective way of exercising control over them. (p. 282) That is certainly something the Schneiders successfully avoid, even at the expense of sounding on occasion just a trifle too politically correct.

Rudolph M. Bell Rutgers University New Brunswick
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Author:Bell, Rudolph M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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