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Dialect Proverbs
The longstanding diffidence of the people towards “the caste” L’abbucatu è ccomu lu préviti,
ti tutti tiémpi, méti

[The lawyer is like the priest / in all seasons he reaps]
(Taranto)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

      In the last few months we have commented on some proverbs that hold the maps of power of a pre-modern society up against the light so as to see the outline of the powerful more clearly, from below, from the poorer, more vulnerable strata of society. We have found the pope and the king, distant and abstract holders of power, and lu patrunu, the concrete boss that the peasant had to deal with in everyday life.

      The proverb this month picks out two more personifications of power, again concrete and real ones, two pillars of social life: the priest and the lawyer. These figures, in folk culture, are surrounded by an aura of great prestige but also of unsettling mystery: the former is the middleman between the real world and the other side – the world of angels and demons, ritual prayers and terrible punishments –, the other is a link connecting the world of bare facts with the mysterious world of ‘school’ words: words which can change your life, bring good or evil, even in its most extreme manifestations. The former is the expression of divine law, the latter of earthly law, and that is why they are respected and feared, loved and hated.

      If we look more closely, the figure of the priest, in many folk cultures, is not very different from that of the shaman, with his mysterious magic formulas, the complex rituality of his esoteric symbols, his solemn gestures and his ceremonial robes, all so different from the gestures and clothes of everyday life, and the constant reference to powerful, mysterious (or even cult) divinities. The figure of the lawyer, too, is surrounded by a cult-like aura: he, too, uses incomprehensible ‘magic’ words, he expresses himself in formulas and rituals, he dons a toque and a toga, he makes constant reference to a fearsome tablet of laws… In the most flattering of characterizations he has the physiognomy of Manzoni’s Azzeccagarbugli: a word-juggler (the words of cunning and trickery, the dog-Latin that serves to confuse), always on the side of the powerful.

      The underlying diffidence towards these two figures who know all the secrets of their community, but who are never perceived of as fully-fledged members, derives from this suspect use of Latin and the constant alliance with the powerful.

      Thus, in many folk representations, priests and lawyers are wholly negative figures, as they are in our proverb. To the disenchanted eye of the peasant, the daily experience is more convincing than the fascination with liturgical and courtroom ceremony: he sees that his miserable earnings are subject to the whims of the seasons and the years, they are occasional and irregular, sometimes dwindling to nothing, while the priest with alms and donations, and the lawyer with his hefty fees, guarantee themselves a robust income throughout the year. The peasant reaps once a year; the priest and lawyer all year round.

      Not ‘superior’ figures at all! The lawyer could even bring you to ruin: another proverb goes “A cci vè ddò l’abbucatu / pérdi l’ùrtumu tucatu” (Whoever goes to the lawyer / loses his last ducat). The priest is even worse, because peasant culture, when dealing with hostile figures, never lets them off lightly: a Calabrian proverb – known elsewhere in slightly different versions – dares to pass sentence: “Priéviti, muénici e ppàssili / Càzzili lu capu e llàssili”, or rather “Priests, monks and sparrows / squash their heads and leave them like that”.

      They used to call it class hatred. These days people speak of caste privileges. But in the social structure, if you scratch the surface, it doesn’t look like anything has changed much.

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