The Corsican Vendetta Knife

@euchreiade asked:

What’s your opinion on Vendetta knives? They are Corsican small knives made to shank your enemies (generally for stealing your donkey). They are smol but often pretty and I find the concept of a knife you use only for revenge so freaking… typically Corsican xD

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Great question! So these little folding knives have a very characteristic shape and decoration. First there’s a Maure, aka Moor’s head, from Corsica’s flag and coat of arms.

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Flag of Corsica

(This weird heraldic symbol originated in Spain, in a completely racist and hostile-to-Moors context, as in “we’re so badass we cut off Moors’ heads”. But as it spread around, the original meaning wasn’t necessarily retained, and by the time the Corsican Republic adopted it, it had changed from a trophy of war to a portrait and identifier: “yes, that’s us Corsicans, we wear a bandanna and we’re badass and we’d like to be independent, please”.)

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Asterix in Corsica

Then there are some simple floral patterns, and then, there are the words. Big words, harsh words, words that show how badass you are and how you’ll shank to death anyone who questions your honour. “May my wound be lethal”, says the little knife. Or “Death to the enemy”. Or simply “Corsican Vendetta”.

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“Che mia ferita sia mortale” / “Vendetta Corsa”

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“Morte al nemico”

There are only two problems with calling them “Corsican vendetta knives”. One, they’re not Corsican. And two, they’re not vendetta knives. They’re not for shanking people, in a blood feud or otherwise, they’re souvenirs. They first appeared around 1900, and they were manufactured in Italy and continental France, to be sold at their respective markets. (In fact, the big harsh words are typically inscribed in Italian, not Corsican. They’re similar but not the same.) They arrived in Corsica a bit later, to be sold to, you guessed it, tourists!

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Note that both France and Italy have a tradition of regional knives, where each region supposedly produces a different, characteristically shaped knife. I say supposedly because some designs are indeed traditional, but some are made up, and look, there was no copyright, designs weren’t strictly formalised or unique, and everyone copied everyone else. With a few exceptions such as the Laguiole knife, this is mostly an industry/marketing thing.

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French regional knives according to the industry.

Actual Corsican peasants didn’t carry official “vendetta knives”, they made their own knives, from the materials they had available – horn handles were the most common (curnicciolu, literally “little horn”, was the standard name for “knife”), wood was also popular – and without a big production. And there was no design unique to the island, they were all similar to their neighbours’.

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A modern-made Corsican knife in actual traditional style.

Today, some Corsican knife-makers are actively trying to keep alive (or resurrect, as the case might be) the older knife-making traditions of the island, and want nothing to do with those fake “vendetta knives”. That said, they may be “fake” but they’re not new, they’ve been available to Corsicans since ~1910, and some people really inherit them from their granddads. In a sense, this is peak Orientalism (which is not only about “the Orient”): a marginalised culture encounters the dominant outsiders’ distorted, exoticised perception of its own self, and embraces it and accepts it as its self-image. It falls for its own myth, if you will. But in another sense, hey, these knives are really pretty, so why NOT cherish them, corny inscriptions and all? I’m open to both interpretations, and at the end of the day it’s nobody’s business but the Corsicans’.

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But wait, whatever the knives looked like, did they really use them to shank people for stealing their donkey honour? Oh yes. Corsican vendettas were similar to other blood feuds in the Mediterranean (especially the big islands, like Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus), and it could get GNARLY. Stabbing (with a knife or dagger) or shooting (the whole thing peaked in the 19th century, we’re in the modern period and firearms are very much in play) were the polite versions. Occasionally they went beyond the practical (”I will shank this man”) and straight into the performative: “I will shank this man, gouge his eyes out, spill his entrails all over the place, cut off his member, and hang his lungs on that branch yonder.” I am not exaggerating. Hey, remember Timmet Son of Timmet (or whoever it was) who kept threatening Tyrion Lannister that he’ll cut off his manhood and feed it to the goats? George R. R. Martin makes up shit a lot less than people give him credit (or grief) for.

But I don’t want to leave you with gory sensationalism, so here’s one of my favourite panels from “Asterix in Corsica”. I’ve never been there, it must be gorgeous.

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Sources / see also:

  • Le couteau corse et son histoire
  • Les couteaux de nos régions
  • René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, Astérix en Corse
  • Stephen Wilson, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century Corsica (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Paul Sant Cassia, “Banditry, Myth, and Terror in Cyprus and Other Mediterranean Societies” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Oct., 1993)

P.S. Please note that this isn’t me stupidly explaining Corsica to a Corsican, I just wanted to tackle this for a long time and @euchreiade gave me the prompt so I just spilled out everything I wanted to say about the subject. 🙂

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