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If the growth of the identity of a Sicilian people
could be attributed to the influence of a single historical figure, the eleventh-century
ruler Roger I would be a good candidate. This is not to suggest that the social and
political unification of the Sicilians had never been attempted very seriously
before his time, but the arrival of the Normans marked a significant turning point
in the polyglot island's complex history.
It was a complicated evolution over some twenty centuries, for if the
native Sicanians lacked anything resembling
a nation, Sicily's Greeks were perpetually at war
with other Greeks and the hated Carthaginians.
The Romans, who inherited the rivalry with Carthage from the Greeks (leading
to the Punic Wars), managed to unite Sicily as a province, but Sicily's
Greeks never truly thought of themselves as Romans. The Byzantines
continued the Roman tradition, but with a Greek flavour, and to the Arabs Sicily most often consisted of several emirates
along the contested fringes of the Fatimid empire. Despite their great success
in making Sicily prosper, the Arabs never achieved a completely egalitarian
society, something the Normans accomplished with
Greek, Arab and Jewish help (more about that later).
Religious tolerance, of course, was as best incidental to the attitudes of the
first Norman adventurers who arrived in Italy during the eleventh century.
In practice, these ostensibly Christian mercenaries fought for whoever paid
them, be it a Byzantine Greek or a member of the "Lombard" feudal
nobility, and perhaps occasionally a Pope of Rome. Prominent among the knights
were the many sons of the Norman lord Tancred of Hauteville. Too numerous
to inherit their father's estate in the Cotentin, they sought their fortunes
abroad. By 1042, the Normans of Italy had their own capital city, Melfi.
The Schism of 1054 established a solid pretext
for the conquest of Sicily. The Papacy encouraged the island's confiscation
from the entrenched Muslims, with the added proviso that Sicily's "Greek
Christians" would eventually be latinized.
Arriving in Italy around 1056, the future Count Roger was born in Normandy
around 1031 to Fredisenda, second wife of Tancred Hauteville. Roger wed
(firstly) in 1061 the valiant Norman lady Judith of Evreux, who eventually
bore four daughters but no surviving sons. He then married, in 1077, Eremburga
of Mortain, who bore eight daughters. Roger's third wife, Adelaide del Vasto
of Savona, who he wed in 1087, was mother of Simon and the future Roger II, first King of Sicily.
Judith, daughter of a first cousin of England's William "the Conqueror,"
was perhaps Roger's most-beloved wife; it was she who was with him under
siege and snow at hilltop Troina, in the Nebrodi Mountains,
during a very cold Winter in 1063 following the Battle of Messina two years
earlier. That was not everybody's idea of a honeymoon. (Sadly, much of this
town and its fortress was destroyed centuries later during a later battle between Americans and Germans
In its earliest stages, the conquest of Sicily was complicated by a brief
quarrel between Roger and his elder brother, Robert, in 1062, a dispute
rooted in questions of wealth and territory.
The Battle of Palermo led to Norman control
of perhaps half the island in early 1072, but Noto,
the last Arab stronghold, was taken only in 1091, and in that year, with
little resistance, Malta
was also conquered; indeed Malta and Gozo remained part of the Kingdom of
Sicily until the last years of the eighteenth century, when the Knights
of Saint John, who owed fealty to the Sicilian kings, were expelled
by the French. At Count Roger's death in 1101, Sicily was a unified nation
- though not yet a kingdom - which could boast its own identity.
In terms of government and law, Roger's rule in Sicily was far more effective than Robert's in mainland Italy.
The feudal investitures of 1072 and 1092 found
Norman, French and Italian vassals bound to Roger. From 1098, the Apostolic
Legateship allowed him a voice in the appointment of bishops in new
Latin (Roman Catholic) bishoprics around Sicily - part of the gradual trend toward
latinization as henceforth the establishment of Greek
Orthodox monasteries and parishes, let alone dioceses, was virtually
unknown. In the event, most of mainland Italy south of Rome eventually became
part of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Under Roger's rule, the Muslims kept their mosques, kadis, and freedom
to trade, particularly in the cities. In rural areas, they were subject
to the new Norman lords (enfeoffed knights who were vassals of the king),
though whereas serfdom was introduced it was not as widespread or enduring
in Sicily as in, for example, the Norman realms of Normandy or England.
However, Roger always drew a good part of his infantry from the loyal
Muslims. Visiting him at the Siege of Capua in 1098, Saint Anselm observed
that "the brownish tents of the Arabs were innumerable." Clearly,
Arab institutions and culture were preserved throughout Roger's reign, and
into that of his great-grandson, Frederick II. (An
incidental example is the coinage, and the copper coin shown here, displaying
a mounted Norman knight, is a tarì, its name taken from an
Arabic word, minted during Roger's rule; this denomination of coinage was
minted in Palermo until 1860.)
Roger's respect for the Arabs as soldiers reflected his esteem for them
in his civil administration. It may seem a paradox that into the twelfth
century the Arab soldiers were often more loyal to the Hautevilles than
were many "fellow" Norman knights and nobles. True, the Arabs'
collective destiny depended on their European leader being kindly disposed
to the Muslim population (Roger himself never embarked on Crusade
though some Normans did, including his nephew, Bohemond of Taranto), but Roger cultivated Arab support for his own
reasons. To his Arab subjects, he was emir of emirs and highly respected. Economically speaking, Arab Sicily had been somewhat
isolated from Europe; now, under the Normans, commerce expanded, making the island's Arab merchants richer than ever.
Envy characterized the Norman ranks; why, thought many knights, should
the Hautevilles be the leaders when back in Normandy they were just another
landed clan? A few of the Lombard vassals imported from northern Italy might
be equally cynical. Wisely, Roger and his immediate heirs maintained Melfi,
the Calabrian town of Mileto and San Marco d'Alunzio in Sicily's Nebrodi
region as faithful - and fortified - enclaves well into the twelfth century.
One never knew when a revolt might occur, and the most dangerous kind could
be sparked among the Norman population. Beautiful as Palermo was, it was
always prudent to have a place to retreat to in time of danger. Medieval
kings travelled often, and Roger was almost always on the move. His children,
meanwhile, were raised at San Marco, a refuge far from the chaos and potential
peril of Palermo.
Roger is a good example of the medieval ruler as a warrior knight whose
success depended on military prowess and efficient conquest. Like the
Franks and Saxons, the Normans (and their Viking forefathers) were fighters
first and Christians second. It would not be too bizarre to compare them to a
motorcycle gang on horseback. They were exceptional, of course, in what
they accomplished in Italy. In London, William the Norman was already a
powerful monarch by the time the Hautevilles arrived in Palermo; in Sicily it
would take another generation for the Norman knights to become kings.
Sicily's Golden Age could be said to have flourished until 1250, when Frederick II died. In
reality, the multifaith culture advocated by Roger I and his immediate successors was already disappearing by
1200, a reality reflected in the growing number of conversions of Sicily's Muslims to Catholicism and the coevel latinization of the
island's Greek Orthodox dioceses and parishes. By the end of Frederick's reign there were very few Muslim communities - many Arabs having been
transferred to Lucera in Apulia and many more having converted to Catholicism - and just a handful of Orthodox monasteries in the Nebrodi region.
How did Sicilian life change under Roger I? Under the Arabs, no (new) churchs could be constructed. Precedence was given to
Arabs (or to Greek-Sicilians who converted to Islam) for public positions. Christians had to make way for Muslims in
public places, and rise when a Muslim entered a room. Special taxes were levied upon non-Muslims, namely Christians and
Jews. Certain services were forbidden - or at least restricted - to non-Muslims; for example, Christian and Jewish women could only
use the public baths during restricted hours, and never with Muslim women. While Christian and Jewish women were not required to wear veils (though some did),
their behaviour in public (especially in matters of modesty) had to comply to Muslim norms in many ways. This situation
could hardly be considered religious persecution, but the Normans treated Sicilians of all faiths equally, and in fact
(into the reign of Roger II) permitted Christian, Muslim and Jew each to be judged by the laws of his own religion.
In practice, specific aspects of Islamic law came to be woven into the fabric of society. In effect, society
moved beyond the mere "tolerance" of Sicily's Arab period toward genuine equality among the people. True, there were still
serfs tied to the land, but slavery per se was eventually abolished. The Assizes of Ariano and (in the thirteenth century) Frederick's
Constitutions of Melfi addressed all manner of social issues, including the rights of women - something virtually
unheard of in those times.
Islam would eventually disappear in Sicily (so would Judaism, though much later), but during the Norman period the greatest
threat was to the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christians. It was easier, and far more subtle, to alter the liturgy and hierarchy of a sister church
than to influence diverse faiths.
Rather few buildings remain which can be attributed to Count Roger's thirty-year reign.
He enlarged coastal Milazzo Castle and Palermo's al Kasr (this became the Normans' palace), which
had been an Arab fortress built upon Phoenician walls. The "crypt" of
the Palatine Chapel founded by Roger II is, in
fact, the palace's original chapel built and consecrated during the last years
of the eleventh century (the newer one above it dates from 1140).
Roger died at Mileto in June 1101 aged seventy, of natural causes. John
Julius Norwich writes about Roger I in The Normans in the South (1967),
in which he dedicates a few pages to the beautiful Judith.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written for various publications, including this one.