The "Schiavoni" and the Turkish invasion in the Balkans in the 15th century

The clash between the Western civilization and the expansionism of the Islamic Turkish empire was the background of a long, massive migration of refugees from the Balkans to Abruzzo, Molise and other areas in southern Italy.
During the 15th and 16th century a massive Turkish offensive against the Venetian Republic and Austria seriously endangered the safety of the Italian people living along the Adriatic, which became a very unsafe sea. At the same time the warlike atmosphere gave more freedom also to the pirate raids from Northern Africa.

The Turkish Invasion

The worst attack was in the year 1566, when the Turks destroyed or seriously raided Francavilla, Ortona, Vasto, Petacciato, Termoli and many smaller centers along the Adriatic coast. As a consequence, trade and other commercial activities almost stopped, while all those who could retreated into the hinterland, seeking the protection of the mountains.

In this situation of danger, the kingdom of Naples fortified the coasts, with a total 366 sighting towers built all along the coasts of Abruzzo and Molise between the years 1567 and 1569; there soldiers were stationed permanently, with small cannons and horses. These soldiers were called "torrieri" and "cavallari".

The earliest settlements were recorded since 1362, when in Vasto a small Albanian community had erected a church in honor of their patron, San Niccolò. In 1461 an Albanian army under the leadership of Giorgio Castriota Skanderbeg landed in Southern Italy to help king Ferrante of Aragon against the Turks. In reward, the king granted to Scanderbeg a number of fiefdoms, where many settlers from the Balkans moved permanently.

The greatest migration came however after Skanderbeg's death, in 1467, which gave the Turks way to a massive invasion of the Balkans; all those who could tried to cross the Adriatic to save their families and sought refuge in the Kingdom of Naples. The exodus continued up to 1494: Albanian refugees settled in Ururi in 1465, in Campomarino in 1495, in Montecilfone in 1907, and in other centers of the Termoli-Larino areas. The slavic refugees instead settled prevalently north of the Trigno river, where they established Villa Capella, Villa Alfonsina (in the area of Ortona), Stanazzo, Santa Maria Imbaro, Villa Caldari (near Lanciano). The source of this information is mostly in the documents of the bishopries, since most of the refugees followed the Orthodox rite and the Catholic church kept records of the communities following different rituals.

A historian of the period (G. Vegezzi-Ruscally, "Le colonie serbo-dalmate del Circondario di Larino", p. 15) writes:
"Among the communes I find recorded as slavic colonies the first is Montelongo, then Castelluccio degli Schiavi, Cologna (a district of Montepagano), Ripalda, San Biase, Cerritello, that was devastated by the epidemics of 1837 and changed its name into Acquaviva, San Felice, celebrated for its renowned truffles, and Montemitro, Tavella, Petaccio, rising in the middle of a forest of the same name and founded by Schiavoni that moved not from the Balkans, but from the earlier colonies in Molise. Also, a great number of Slavic people settled in Vasto, and others repopulated Palata, where they also built a church.... In 1522 there were in Vasto 50 Slavic families with their own priest."

In the Molisan centers of Montemitro, Acquaviva and San Felice a slavic idiom is still spoken, in a variety that had origin between southern Dalmatia and Albania. At the same time, also Jewish communities settled in Abruzzo and Molise. In "Gli Ebrei in Abruzzo", Armando Liberato states what follows: "the immigrant movement of Jews into the Kingdom of Naples was partly a consequence of strong anti-semitism in central and southern Europe, partly greatly favored by the friendly attitude to the Jews of the Aragonese kings."

The new settlements were favored by the feudal lords especially after the many plagues and famines of the early 16th century. Here is a precious first-hand testimony from Friar Serafino Razzi in his book "Viaggi in Abruzzo ":

"On the first of September 1577 I visited a Valla of "Schiavoni" (=Slavic people) two miles away. I celebrated Mass there and gave a sermon at the altar. Then had a meal with their priest, and came back to Vasto since I had to give a lesson there on Sunday after the Vespers.

It is to be observed that, because the Turks since many years ago have conquered all the Schavonia up to the sea, many of the people, to keep their Christian faith and not to be ruled by the Muslims, have come across the sea to these area of Abruzzi and Apulia, where the lands are wide and spacious.

And the royal governors, in compassion, assigned them a number of different places. Here they settled, living first in huts made with hay and canes, Then they tilled the land, sowed, and with great hardship built their stone houses, and started to increase in numbers and skills, and recognize with pacts and agreements the Royal power and those who assigned them the lands where they have homes. And the same had happened long ago to the refugees from Greece, especially down in Apulia which was nearer and more convenient for them.

This Village therefore, where I was called, has 100 families, and most live under huts, where they have rooms, a cellar and stable. And they live quite well, as all those who with their own sweat skillfully work the land, which gives them its fruits they can obtain."