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The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy. Full of Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans
and Jews, the most significant general history of Sicily ever published is about much more than an island in the sun. Can the eclectic
medieval experience of the world's most conquered island be a lesson for our times? Find out as you meet the peoples! (368 pages on acid-free
paper, ebook available) Read more.
Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens & Rebels. Meet a timeless sisterhood of pious Roman
maidens, steadfast Sicilian queens, and a Jewish mother who faced the horrors of the Inquisition. Find an island's feminine soul
in the first book about Sicily's historical women written in English by a Sicilian woman in Sicily. (224 pages on acid-free paper,
ebook available) Read more.
A.D. - Anno Domini. After the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also C.E. for "common" era.|
Arabs - Semitic, Arabic-speaking peoples of Arabia and other regions. Also Moors and Saracens.
B.C. - Before the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also B.C.E., before the "common" era.
Berbers - Nomadic and trading peoples native to northwest Africa.
Byzantine - Pertaining to Byzantium or its culture. Relating to medieval successor of the Eastern Roman Empire until 15th century.
Byzantium - Constantinople (see below).
Christianity - Religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ (c. 4 BC- c. AD 28) as Son of God (and Messiah), revealed particularly through the Bible, including the New Testament.
Constantinople - Later name for Byzantium, city founded by Greeks on the Bosporus strait.
Goths - Germanic tribe of central and eastern Europe, divided into Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
Islam - Religion founded by Muhammad (570-632) in Arabia as Prophet of Allah (God), whose message is revealed in the Koran. Islam is Arabic for "surrender" or "submission."
Jews - People whose religion is rooted in Judaism (see below). Often, those whose ethnic origins are Hebrew and Jewish.
Judaism - Monotheistic religion of the Hebrews, based on the Biblical Old Testament and Talmud. From "Judea," a kingdom and later a Roman province.
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Longobards - Tribe of Baltic origin that settled in northern Italy (Lombardy) and established feudal towns in the South.
Middle Ages - Period dated from fall of Rome (AD 476) to Goths until fall of Constantinople to Turks (1453), or from 500 to 1500.
Moors - Also Saracens. Arab peoples, usually Muslim, who conquered medieval Sicily, Spain and northwestern Africa.
Normans - People of Frankish and Nordic (Viking) origin in Normandy who conquered parts of Italy and Britain in 11th century.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.
Romans - Citizens of the extended Roman Empire.
To call them "Vikings" (Norsemen) is to oversimplify the culture of the medieval Normans, for their society, heritage
and genetic make-up were as Frankish and Roman as they were Norse. The term
"Norman" refers to the residual Norse and Frankish
civilization of Normandy. Much as the Lombards of Lombardy were not purely
Longobardic, the Normans of Normandy were not purely Norse. In fact, they
were descended not only from Vikings but from Franks, Romans
and Celts, and their language was a dialect of French. Unlike their Viking
forebears, the Normans were Christians, and their society was highly evolved
in its government, law, art, architecture and literature, which during the
twelfth century profoundly influenced not only Normandy but England and
The Norsemen ("Viking" comes from the early Scandinavian
word vikingr for "pirates") were Danish, Norwegian and
Swedish adventurers who rose to power in the ninth century, raiding the
coasts of northwestern Europe in places like England and Ireland, and sailing
as far as North America. The Swedish element penetrated overland and along
rivers into the Baltics and Russia to the Black Sea. Constantinople's
Varangian Guard consisted of Vikings such as Harald Sigurdsson ("Hardrada")
who fought alongside Normans with George Maniakes in Byzantine
Sicily. The Vikings were initially pagans, and their colorful mythology
has given us the English names of several days of the week (Wednesday
for Woden, Thursday for Thor, etc.), following an earlier Roman custom
of naming the days for gods (as in the Italian Mercoledì for
Mercury and Giovedì for Jove or Jupiter).
The Franks were a Germanic tribe which settled in Gaul (France
and southern Belgium) during the decline of the Roman Empire. The Romans
abandoned part of Belgium to the Franks in AD 358. By 507, much of France
was united under the Christianized Frankish king Clovis. This included what
is now Normandy.
By 900, Vikings were raiding this region but also establishing outposts
there. In antiquity, the region of the Seine and Eure valleys had been Celtic. It fell under Roman control through the efforts
of Julius Caesar. The Franks had ruled not only in the person of Clovis,
but under the reign of Charlemagne. After 911, Charles III "the Simple"
ceded Normandy to the Norse chieftain Hrolf (Rollo), who became a Christian.
Immigration rapidly increased, and by 1000, following several generations
of intermarriage with the "native" Frankish-Celtic population
(i.e. Viking men marrying Frankish women), a distinct ethnic culture had
emerged. In the decades to follow, Norman knights arrived in Italy, first
as pilgrims and then as mercenaries, taking part (on both sides) in the
wars between Byzantines and Lombards. In some cases, these were the younger
sons of nobles who (under Frankish law) could not inherit lands destined
for eldest sons. In others, they were simply wandering men-at-arms.
In general, the Normans of England were somewhat higher-born than their
compatriots in Italy, their surnames typically based on familial fiefs in
Normandy. Like the conquest of England, the Normans' conquest of Italy was
characterized by social and political motivations, though it was much slower
than the English campaign. The patriarchs of Rome (the popes) resented Byzantine
influence in Italy, and the power of the Lombard feudatories (in peninsular
Italy) was viewed as a nuisance. There were also more racist motives. Whereas
the competition between Saxons and Normans for England was largely a question
of Saxon English-ness versus Norman greed, the campaign against the Sicilian Arabs had all the makings of a "holy
war," whether justified or not. The Papacy made it clear that restoring
Sicily to Latin Christiandom (separating its Orthodox Christians from Constantinople's
influence) was at least as important as reducing the influence of Islam
on the island. In the event, the Normans did not Latinize Sicily rapidly
enough for Papal tastes, nor did they immediately seek to convert the island's
Muslims. In fact, they were often at odds with the popes.
In 1054, the Church separated. The Great Schism left the Latin ("Roman")
West distinctive of the Byzantine ("Greek") East, resulting in
the churches now described as "Catholic" and "Orthodox."
In truth, the conflict had been brewing for two centuries or more, and far
transcended theology. In 1061, having assumed control of much of southern
Italy, a Norman force crossed into Sicily at Messina and seized the city
from its Saracen garrison. The Sicilian conquest now underway was slow and
difficult. In 1066, a Norman force, including some knights who had fought
in the Italian campaigns, won the Battle of Hastings (based in part on tactics
learned at Messina), establishing the Norman presence in England. London
was taken soon afterward. In Sicily, on the other hand, the de Hauteville
brothers, Robert "Guiscard" and Roger, reached Palermo only in
1071. While Saxon lords paid fealty to William "the Conqueror"
of England almost immediately, it took Roger and his knights more than a
decade following the Battle of Palermo to bring
the entire island under Norman control. (Emir Ibn Hamud of Kasr Yanni surrendered
only in 1087.) It was worth the effort. Their Mediterranean jewel was more important --and far wealthier--
than William's rainy realm in the North Sea; revenues from the city of Palermo
alone eclipsed those of all England.
For all that, the Normans were not the first northern European invaders
to reach Sicilian shores during the Middle Ages. That distinction belongs
to the Vandals and Goths, whose rule was short-lived
and left few visible traces. By contrast, vestiges of Norman Sicily are
everywhere to be found. --particularly churches and castles.
Sicilian society was more sophisticated than what the Normans encountered
in England or even mainland Italy. The polyglot culture of the Arabs and
Byzantines was a prosperous intellectual, artistic and economic environment
at the center of the most important region of the "Western World"
--the Mediterranean. It was a geographic crossroads between north and south,
east and west. The beautiful Romanesque architectural style of Normandy
(Cefalù's cathedral is based on Caen's Saint Etienne church), so
important in changing the face of Saxon England, was welcome in Sicily,
but it merely embellished what the Byzantines and Arabs already knew. The
"Norman-Arab" style of art and architecture was unique, combining
Byzantine, Moorish and northern European movements in a new expression of
More important than this was the evolution of the social fabric of Norman
Sicily, adapting essentially Arab institutions to European realities. Throughout
the Norman era (roughly from1070 to 1200), ethnic and religious tolerance
were generally accepted as integral parts of Sicilian society. Though there
were conflicts, multicultural co-existence usually prevailed. The Church,
but also the Sicilian language, was gradually Latinized. European institutions
such as feudalism were introduced. In effect, Norman Sicily became part
of Europe rather than Africa (under the Moors) or Asia (under the Byzantines).
On a humanistic level, its multicultural orientation was important enough,
but Sicily's emergence as one of Europe's most important regions ushered
in a "Golden Age" which continued into the "Swabian"
era (of Frederick II) during the thirteenth century.
It was probably Sicily's finest hour. The twelfth century saw Sicily become
a kingdom under Roger II (whose realm included
not only Sicily but most of Italy south of Rome). The Norman government
included clerics and from England and Normandy, great Arab thinkers such
as Abdullah al-Idrisi, and a young Anglo-Norman
Nowadays, "New World" nations such as Canada, the United States
and Australia seem to represent the epitome of tolerant, multicultural societies.
In the Middle Ages, however, the concept was a novel one. True, the Roman
Empire had embraced many cultures, but it could be argued that Norman Sicily
supported a truer equality than most places offered, and it was more
benevolent than ancient Rome. Slavery was eventually all but abolished,
and serfdom was never as prevalent as it was in England, France or Germany,
while freedom of speech and literacy came to be considered every Sicilian's
birthright. The Normans' system of justice allowed separate --but equal--
jurisdictions based on Shari'a law for Muslims, Judaic law for Jews, Byzantine
Greek law for Byzantines and Norman feudal law for Normans. Important documents
were multilingual. True, a Latin (and Roman Catholic) orientation eventually
prevailed, but until the reign of Frederick II a more or less egalitarian
society existed. At least for a time, it was a successful experiment, and
a necessary one.
Despite its ethnic diversity, or perhaps because of it, Norman Sicily
evolved into an enduring "nation" with Sicilians as its "people."
In other Italian regions such developments were literally centuries away.
(This was even true of Sardinia, which, as an island, might reasonably be
expected to assume
a "national" identity long before it did.) In time, the territory
ruled by the Normans, contiguous to Magna Graecia,
became known to Italians simply as "il Regno" ("the Kingdom").
Palermo (the Arabs' Bal'harm) was the capital of this realm and later, under
Frederick II, the capital of the entire Holy Roman Empire. The period beginning
with the arrival of the Normans in 1061 and ending with the death of their
descendant, Frederick, in 1250, was a brief --but remarkable-- shining moment
in European history.
The Normans retained much of Arab society. After all, there was no need
to change certain things which functioned well. Some everyday sights, like
the souks (street markets) and Romanesque
windows, still exist, of course, but throughout the twelfth century
it was the Arabs' institutions that truly distinguished Sicily from
other Norman territories, particularly England. Instead of abolishing existing
policies and institutions, the Normans built upon what already existed,
adapting these as they found necessary. This was enlightened rule, especially
from renegades and mercenaries who just a few decades earlier were pillaging
the Italian countryside.
It is generally believed that most red-haired and blue-eyed Sicilians
owe their coloring to the medieval Normans or the Lombards who often accompanied
them. Yet we do not know how many Normans settled in Sicily. Most were men,
most were knights or other soldiers, and many were feudatories, effectively
constituting the earliest medieval Sicilian landed aristocracy. Most married
Sicilian-born women. The best estimate of the Norman migration places it
at fewer than eight thousand persons arriving between 1061 and 1161, but
even this is highly speculative. It certainly was not a mass immigration
comparable to those of the Arabs (Saracens) or ancient Greeks. The first
Norman incursions into Sicily were measured in hundreds of Norman knights
accompanied by greater numbers of non-Norman infantry, and not all of them
remained here. Except for Benedictine and diocesan clergy, there were few
men of learning among the Norman arrivals.
Change did not come overnight. Some localities were more Orthodox Christian
and Greek-speaking while others were predominantly Muslim and Arabic-speaking.
Mosques stood alongside churches and synagogues. The Norman vassals and
knights, though Christian, were Roman Catholic. It was the Normans who Latinized
Sicily (just as they Latinized the language of Saxon England), both linguistically
and ecclesiastically. Some isolated Orthodox monasteries
in the northeast of Sicily survived this process for a time, but most
of Sicily's greatest Norman churches, though boasting some superficially
Byzantine elements, were founded (or re-constructed) as Latin (Roman Catholic)
The Norman era lasted through four rulers (two Rogers succeeded by two Williams), followed by a Swabian (German) wed to Constance, the last surviving Norman princess, in a land where --at least in theory-- only men ruled. Her son, Frederick II, could be said to have continued the Norman tradition but he was a Hohenstaufen and not a Hauteville. In the event, the "home rule" of Sicily from its own capital effectively ended with his death in the middle of the thirteenth century. Henceforth, the island was to be governed from Naples or from cities even further afield. The Sicily of the Normans represents a unique time in history which, like all such periods, was not to last forever. In the words of John Julius Norwich:
"Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe --and indeed in the whole bigoted medieval world-- as an example of tolerance and enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own."
About the Authors: Luigi Mendola is the History Editor of Best of Sicily and author of several books. Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno, who contributed to this article, has
written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.