A Global Crime and World Hunger

© The Author(s) 2015
Rosanna Masiola and Renato TomeiLaw, Language and TranslationSpringerBriefs in Law10.1007/978-3-319-14271-5_4

4. A Global Crime and World Hunger

Rosanna Masiola  and Renato Tomei 

Social and Human Sciences Department, International University ‘Stranieri’ of Perugia, Piazza Fortebraccio 4, 06124 Perugia, Italy



Rosanna Masiola (Corresponding author)


Renato Tomei

The law growth of sin and doth punish it

English Proverb, 1629

4.1 Cattle Stealing: Europe and the Greek Myth

This section introduces the problem of variation in register and cultural connotation of Latin, Italian and English, related to a specific crime, i.e. cattle stealing. More specifically, the social and regional varieties of English (British, American and Australian) are compared to the Latinate term used. There are socio-cultural implications derived from cultural contexts, identity and perceptions and beliefs relating to the ‘crime’ and the public perception of the crime and its seriousness. Cattle stealing is interesting because it is hardly reported in the Italian press.

The crime was punished by death under Roman law. The great myths of the Mediterranean Latin and Greek world are emblematic of the ‘epos’ connoting the stealing of oxen, horses and heifers. Crime and punishment are infused with epos and sacred connotation. In Greek mythology, as in the Homeric Hymns, Hermes steals cattle of the god of the sun, Apollo. In the Odyssey Ulysses’ companions roast the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ belonging to Hyperion (Helios). Such symbolism may be paired with myths about the abduction of women. The core myth of the Western world is itself a subversive paradox: a beautiful princess, Europa, is seduced and abducted (no rustling here) by a bull (Zeus/Jupiter). ‘Abduction’ of women and theft of livestock were practiced in many of the world’s ancient cultures. There is a divine law of ‘fate’ for the Greek Oxen of the Sun, and American literature also has its legends and legal practices.

One recent case of literary Sardinian sheep rustling is described in a historical novel (Fois 1998). In this Italian novel, the protagonist is a terracu, a young servant, and he and his attorney are accused of stealing lambs. In 1848 under the ‘Statuto Albertino’ (Albertine Statute) of the Kingdom of Italy and Kingdom of Sardinia, which became the basis of the codification of the Italian constitution of 1861, abigeato was considered together with brigantaggio (Dezza 2011, pp. 422–451). Whereas in Italy abiegato was a way of protecting the Sardinian nobility from petty thefts, in the Wild West, Arizona and Mexican territory it had a totally different perception and iconic connotation, largely as a result of popular films, where the ‘outlaw’ was portrayed as a fascinating character.

Before outlining a cross-cultural comparison between abigeato and other English synonyms (raiding, rustling, duffing), there are some distinctive traits to note in this semantic domain. For example, the term ‘kidnapping,’ which today refers to people, has it etymological roots and meaning in ‘sheep stealing.’ A ‘kid’ is a lamb, the yearling of a sheep, ‘the young of a goat or of a related animal such as antelope’ (CED). The compound with ‘knapping’ refers to the verb ‘to nap,’ and connotes the action of stealing or snatching, as recorded in the seventeenth century. Kidnapping is a ‘common law offense that overlaps with the offenses of child abduction and false imprisonment’ (OLD). ‘Abduction’ of persons is referred to as ‘taking (them) away’ against their will but may also extend to animals in some cases.

4.2 Legends of the Wild West

Legendary figures include Billy the Kidd, who was also a cattle thief, and Indians as swift and dashing horse-stealers, whom Hispanics and Americans could ‘legally’ shoot on the spot in Southern Arizona (Otero 1998). Apache chieftains, like Geronimo and Cochise, conferred an aura of legend on the whole territory. The Apache Wars were triggered by cattle raids and stealing from the American army and by the pioneers encroaching into Apache territories. More often than not, mediation and peaceful solutions were impossible because of linguistic misunderstanding and erroneous interpretations.

There are differences in practices and objects. Italian law specifically refers to small animals, sheep and goats, a demarcation that dates back to archaic and isolated agricultural communities, such as those of Sardinian shepherds who were the vassals of their ‘masters.’

American English focuses on groups of animals, such as cattle and horses presumably stampeding or running wild, supposedly branded, and cowboys and Indians have been internationally portrayed as part of the prairie in literature and by Hollywood’s. Australia has its own social and penal history, and the crime has been made ‘epic’ in Australia’s national anthem, Waltzing Matilda (see below). The Latin term abigeat, which had also been used in America (Bouvier 1850), would have seemed an unlikely charge and would not have been understood by cowboys or Indians, with the exception of Mexican raiders. American ‘rustling,’ African ‘raiding,’ Australian and New Zealand ‘duffing’ all have the connotation of a brave and smart action, even if in the former lynching was permitted, especially where ‘swift-moving’ Indians were involved. The case of Indian nations and treaties confining them to reservations is analyzed in Chap. 6.

So there is a geo-specific relevance reinforced by imagery and films featuring Texan cowboys and Indians or the ‘pastorelli or humble shepherds.’ Lynching evokes an element of dread, which Latin abigeus does not, despite its rich background as Latinate English.

4.3 South of the Border: More Languages, More Laws

There is a difference in the perception of the words of the law regarding the same crime. The Italian Latin-derived term is loftier and more abstruse and increases the perceived harshness of the punishment. English uses a common term that is easily understood, and Anglophone nations have developed their jurisprudence and slang to define crime. Texas, the Great Plains and the Mexican border are all bilingual areas and the vastness of territories can only be managed by cattle droving and cowboys ranging and mustering horses. The Wild West, the Midwest and the Great Plains were Indian territories and areas legendary for outlaws and crime. Large-scale cattle rustling is uncommon in Europe. Films and imagery of horses, cowboys and mavericks have influenced Western thinking, and have conferred an air of lore and myth to the whole context, which reinforces the ‘identity’ of today’s ‘cattle stealers’—narcotraffickers. The modality of crime as represented in the global news and then translated is another fertile area of research (Bielsa and Bassnett 2009). This may be usefully framed and thematized using the example of animal stealing as a common global crime with its differences in punishment and media resonance.

The case of abigeato, in Sardinia and the south of Italy refers to sheep and goats whereas cattle stealing in the American Far West and across the Mexican-Texan border was a historical ‘cowboy and Indian’ crime, which has seen a recent upsurge. Abigeato is derived from legal Latin and is an ‘inkhorn term’ pertaining to a specialized lexicon the stealer would be ignorant of. The term used in Spanish is current in Mexico and is derived from Latin, abigeato, and is similar to the Italian. Moreover, both the terms and the crime seem to be en vogue so that in the English-Spanish dictionary, the obsolete American English abigeat has been revived through Mexico:

Abigeat: abigeato. robo, hurto de ganado. Este delito estivo muy castigado entre los antiguos pueblos germànicos y la ley romana condeno a estos delincuentes a trabajar forzados de minas (damnatio ad metalla), al destierro o a muerte. (DES, Bossini and Gleener 1998).

It is also recorded in Canadian and French dictionaries, though definitions seem to differ: The French term troupeau is usually associated with flocks, but it can also extend to pigs and donkeys. Another definition focuses on ‘ten sheep or ten goats.’ The respective uses are taken from Jean-Paul Doucet’s Dictionnaire de Droit Criminel (2014). Historical definitions differ in time and place, and feature significant variations in the perceived offense, e.g. ten sheep, would mean the death penalty under the Customary of Bretagne. The last definition on brigands siciliens addicted to this crime from times immemorial is emblematic of the difficult relations in the Mediterranean area. Reference is made to French authoritative literature, specifically quoting authors and their works:

L’abigeat s’analyse en un vol aggravé, qui consiste à détourner un troupeau appartenant à autrui en vue d’en disposer ou de se l’approprier. Il était spécialement incriminé en droit romain et dans notre Ancien droit.

Jousse (Traité de la justice criminelle): On appelle abigeat, le crime de ceux qui détournent et emmènent les troupeaux, soit de bœufs, vaches, moutons, cochons, chevaux, ânes, ou autres, des endroits où ils paissent, pour se les approprier.

Brillon (Dictionnaire des arrêts du Parlement): Le crime d’abigeat est de détourner ou dérober un troupeau, comme de dix brebis ou de dix chèvres … la peine en est arbitraire en France.

Saint-Edme (Dictionnaire de la pénalité): L’art. 627 de la coutume de Bretagne porte que ceux qui volent des chevaux, des boeufs ou d’autres bêtes de service et de labour, doivent être punis de mort … Dans l’usage on condamnait ordinairement aux galères.

Tarde (La philosophie pénale): Une bande de brigands siciliens pratique de temps immémorial les mêmes procédés … abigeato (vol de gros bétail dans les champs) (DDC 2014, emphasis added).

More precisely, the term derives from the legal Latin: abigeātus, → abigeus, ‘cattle thief’ from the Latin verb. Abigo → ab + ago: drive away, from which the rarely used English ‘abactor’ comes.

Abactor: abigeatore; l’abigeato è detto più spesso cattle stealing; costituisce una forma di theft (FDG 1984, p. 275).

In other legal dictionaries curiously enough, the term is unrecorded (West 2009), not even entered as ‘cattle stealing.’ The syntagm is equally absent in non-specialized dictionaries, whereas the verb ‘to rustle’ in its extended meaning is entered as used chiefly in the US and Canada to mean stealing horses or cattle. A ‘rustler’ is a cattle or horse thief (CED 2000, p. 1349). The prevailing North American usage and connotative meaning of the term is the sound of low whispering or rubbing sound as of leaves, and has been extended to the swift movements of native Indians when stealing horses.

Under Italian law it refers to theft of three or more animals from the herd or flock, and cattle or horses not from the herd. Until 1999, the Criminal Code punished abigeato as a form of aggravated theft. With the assumption of aggravation, the law was intended to provide protection for livestock and the agricultural economy. In view of its lack of social relevance in Italy today, the crime was decriminalized (25 June 1999, n. 205 and by the decree of 30 December 1999, no. 507) The Italian scenario of abigeato

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