As Noel Malcolm explains in his study on Kosovo, the Kanun provided an extensive basis of law and social customs that cover a wide and diverse range of issues (beyond just crime and punishment) during an unpredictable and lawless era:
The importance of the Kanun to the ordinary life of the Albanians of Kosovo and the Malesi can hardly be exaggerated. `Whenever in the mountains I asked why anything was done,' wrote Edith Durham in the 1920s, `I was told, "Because Lek ordered it." ... "Lek said so" obtained more obedience than the Ten Commandments, and the teaching of the hodjas [Muslim clerics] and the priests was often vain if it ran counter to that of Lek.' Anyone who has read Ismail Kadare's novel Broken April will associate the Kanun above all with the archaic and terrible laws of the blood-feud; and some news reports on the revival of the blood-feud in post-Communist Albania have given the impression that the Kanun, which is now being implemented again in the Malesi, is nothing more than a system of vendettas. But the Kanun covered most aspects of human life (there are sections, for example, on the duties of blacksmiths and millers); it specified the system of assemblies, judges and juries; and it laid down punishments for a range of criminal offences (fines for minor ones, and execution, plus the burning down of the offender's house and the expulsion of his family, for serious crimes).
One leading scholar has summed up the basic principles of the Kanun as follows. The foundation of it all is the principle of personal honour. Next comes the equality of persons. From these flows a third principle, the freedom of each to act in accordance with his own honour, within the limits of the law, without being subject to another's command. And the fourth principle is the word of honour, the bese (def.: besa), which creates a situation of inviolable trust. Gjecov's version of the Kanun decrees: `An offence to honour is not paid for with property, but by the spilling of blood or a magnanimous pardon.' And it specifies the ways of dishonouring a man, of which the most important are calling him a liar in front of other men; insulting his wife; taking his weapons; or violating his hospitality. The reference to hospitality here is important: entering a man's house as his guest creates, like the word of honour, an inviolable bond between the two, and there are stories of Albanians sacrificing their lives to protect a perfect stranger who had taken shelter with them for one night. The reference to weapons should also be noted: the history of Kosovo and northern Albania is punctuated by a series of revolts caused by ill-starred official attempts to disarm the population. In the words of one English traveller of the 1880s: `The pride of a farmer in his livestock, or of a collector in his specimens, is nothing to the pride of an Albanian in his weapons. They are ... the guardians of his hearth, the object of his admiration, and his perpetual glory.'
In the wake of the mammoth political, social and economic changes over the last 2 decades, some isolated areas of northern Albania have experienced a "return" of the blood feud so to speak. According to the National Reconciliation Committee, an Albanian organization dedicated to ending the practice, approximately 20,000 people have been trapped in cycle of the blood feuds since in early 1990s. Thanks to the work of the counselors, the practice has been declining dramatically over the last year; but the new blood feuds, instead of just targeting the direct perpetrator, targets his family members as well-something not sanctioned by the Kanun.
One of the more interesting side effects of the blood feuds is the reversing of traditional gender roles. Since women are supposed to be excluded from the blood feuds, they are the ones who become the family breadwinners, while their husbands and sons are trapped in their homes.
The issue of the Kanun is not black or white; it offered a system of basic law and social mores during an unpredictable and violent time. But, at the same time, as the NYT article points out, the practice of blood feuds today only creates more and more victims.