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Kingship & Knighthood in Medieval Sicily
by Alberto Lanza

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King David I of Scotland knighting a squire.King, Queen, Count, Baron, Knight, Esquire. Certain words are more familiar to us for their literary connotations than for their actual meanings. Owing largely to impressions from literature and cinema, entire historical periods and institutions are understood, or perceived, from just a few key elements, while important facts relating to the terms are conveniently ignored. But historical context should never be overlooked. With this in mind, let's cast a glance over some features of medieval Sicily's royal and feudal institutions, specifically kingship, nobility and knighthood. This is intended only as a brief overview to consider how these institutions existed in Sicily, and to dispel misconceptions. For those who visit Sicily, it may be helpful in better understanding those many details not mentioned by travel books or tour guides. In the interest of brevity we'll stick to generalities and the frequent simplification. Books on these topics are listed at the end of the article.

While fundamental Sicilian institutions shared much with their Norman counterparts in England, they were coloured by unique factors, particularly concepts inherited from the Arabs and Byzantines. During the period in question (the Norman and Swabian era from 1061 to 1266) the Kingdom of Sicily included not only the island but most of the Italian peninsula s outh of Rome, ruled from the capital, Palermo.

Like most European monarchies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Sicily's was essentially "absolute" in almost every respect, though parliaments and legal codes (early precursors of constitutional law) certainly existed, even if there was never any Sicilian Magna Carta. The Normans in England were generally the sons of important families of Normandy; those in Sicily were usually the children of poorer barons, and the Hautevilles were no exception. England was already a kingdom long before William arrived there; Sicily, on the other hand, was a loose network of emirates which evolved into a European monarchy from 1061 until 1130. Before 1130, Roger II, like his father (also Roger), was Count of Sicily, just as there were counts (not kings) of Toulouse and Savoy. Crown, sword, sceptre and orb are important symbols, but royal authority does not depend on them except when it is necessary for a king to defend his birthright with a sword - not an uncommon occurrence in the Middle Ages.

When Roger de Hauteville was crowned Sicily's first king in Palermo Cathedral in 1130 he was anointed by a bishop. It was a universal constant that medieval Christian kings, be they Catholic or Orthodox, were crowned during public religious ceremonies (coronations) in cathedrals. Though a widowed queen might serve as regent for her young son (and future king), Salic Law meant that, strictly speaking, the king's wife was a queen-consort and not a queen in her own right. This is still true in Spain, and it was the case in Italy until the end of the Savoy monarchy in 1946. The last queen of Sicily (later known as the "Two Sicilies") died in 1925. That said, Queen Constance, mother of Frederick II (and daughter of King Roger), was a particularly powerful and assertive queen-regent.

When a monarchy already exists (this obviously was not the case in 1130 when Roger was crowned), succession is actually automatic if an heir apparent has been designated and is living. Hence the phrase: "The king is dead, long live the king!" A coronation is a religious rite which confirms the ascendant monarch's right , authority and ability to rule. This usually presumes the material power to reign (over an actual defensible territory), approval by the Church at the time of coronation (hence the bishop's role), and consent of the people (the nobility). To avoid possible contestations, the Norman kings of Sicily and England sometimes nominated their eldest sons successors Roger crowned by Jesus.during their own lifetimes, and coronations were held to confirm these choices. William, son of King Roger of Sicily was crowned in 1151. Henry, eldest son of King Henry II of England, was crowned as "rex filius" in 1170, though he pre-deceased his father and thus never actually ascended the throne (which went to his brother, Richard I "Lionheart"). Medieval kings were occasionally deposed; in the 1260s Charles of Anjou deposed the young heirs of Frederick II (through victorious battles in mainland Italy) to become king of Sicily, only to lose the island to Peter of Aragon through the Sicilian Vespers uprising in 1282, though Charles was able to retain the peninsular territories, which he continued to rule from Naples.

Sicilian royal authority was thought to emanate from God Himself (reflected in the mosaic shown here of Roger receiving the Crown directly from Christ), and this influenced government and ecclesiastical policy in Sicily until the death of the oft-excommunicated Frederick II in 1250. While it is true that battles, such as that of Hastings in 1066, were often fought between the armies of reigning monarchs, the idea of a king single-handedly duelling a challenger to retain his kingdom owes more to legend than to history. Moreover, true chivalry usually existed more in theory than in fact, at least outside the military-religious orders. The duel planned between Peter of Aragon and Charles of Anjou at Bordeaux in 1283 (under the auspices of King Edward of England) for the Sicilian Crown never took place, and by 1150 the Normans were already setting aside the idea, inherited from their Viking forebears, of "trial by battle," duels between knights to establish guilt or innocence of crimes.

Until the arrival of the Normans, the emirs of Bal'harm (Palermo), Kasr'Janni (Enna) and other cities exercised what may have seemed like sovereign authority. In fact, the "Khalbids" (who succeeded the Aghlabids) were at least nominally part of the larger Fatimid Empire. An emir's role was more akin to that of a powerful feudal lord than a king, and Muslim religious authorities monitored the emirs' actions to prevent abuses of power and ensure conformity to Islamic law. Arab society imposed a certain class structure, but nothing so rigid as the feudal system.

Barons and Enfeoffed Knights
A fief is a territory held by a baron or lord (seigneur), vassal or enfeoffed knight on authority of the Crown. The internal administration of a fief (or seigneury or manor), and the relationship of a baron (or vassal, lord or enfeoffed knight) to his underlings and serfs, is properly described as manorial, while the relationship of the baron to the king is feudal, but I'll keep things simple by using the term "feudalism" more broadly. The typical fief or manor was a small village or town built around a castle or tower or (in Sicily) a bailey (baglio), which is a tower attached to a walled courtyard. In Sicily only a few coastal fortresses (Castello al Mare in Palermo, Ursino Castle in Catania) had moats. Most Sicilian castles are on hills or mountains, though a baglio might be built on flat land.

By the time of the Vespers uprising (1282) the feudal system was universal in Sicily, but well into Frederick's reign there were still Arab and Byzantine land holdings administered under the prior systems. It is true that there were serfs (peasants tied to the land) and even a few slaves (held by Arabs) during the Norman era, but in Sicily serfdom was never as commonplace as it was in the German lands, France, England and Russia. That doesn't mean that by 1250 a poor peasant farmer could simply decide to leave the hinterland for the city, as he might have debts and obligations to the lord on whose land he lived, but it does mean that he was not formally the property of that same lord.

In demesnial cities and towns appertaining directly to the Crown (Castrogiovanni, Calascibetta, Messina, Catania, Siracusa, Piazza Armerina, Trapani, etc.), as opposed to feudal cities, there were no feudal lords, and in many districts the feudal authority was the abbot of a monastery - though these clerics were not always any more charitable or humane to peasants than were the arrogant barons. The numerous Arab-founded towns and hamlets were only gradually incorporated into the feudal system as the Muslims converted to Christianity.

The earliest barons were actually enfeoffed knights who held their tenure to the fief at the will and pleasure of the king, to whom they rendered military service (typically 40 days per year) for this privilege. They didn't have a "freehold" ownership of the land, and were succeeded by heirs (sons) only with royal approval. By 1282 the military obligations still existed but most feudal lands had become, in effect, the personal property of the barons. It is interesting that at this date inheritance was still influenced by a family's ancestral traditions: the Lombard families followed the self-destructive Longobard system of dividing a fief among sons, while the Norman and Angevin families enforced transmission of the entire fief to the eldest son according to the Frankish practice.

Some Norman barons initially resisted King Roger's royal authority because of rivalry within his Hauteville family (with certain barons supporting Roger's cousins or other Norman claimants to territories on mainland Italy), or because of resentment that the grandson of a mere knight would claim kingship. However, this phenomenon was not restricted to Sicily; the rebellion of Symon de Montfort against King Henry III of England in 1264 comes to mind.

The procedure for assuming a fief formally is called feudal investiture (sometimes undertaken during a "commendation ceremony"), though it differs from the chivalric investiture of knights (below). The hierarchy of titles of nobility beyond baron (viscount, count, marquis, duke, noble prince) came into wide use in southern Italy after the period under consideration here. Nobility was hereditary along legitimate lines, but only a king could ennoble a common man. In general parlance, the terms seigneur, vassallo and chevalier were most common in Sicily until the end of the thirteenth century, on occasions when titles of this kind were even used. Use of the title "baron" came later. In fact, a toponym was often sufficient to identify a member of the nobility. (This is explained under 'surnames' below.)

Knights and Esquires
There were two forms of knighthood. Enfeoffed (feudal) knights, described above, were a landholding class in the service of the king. Primogeniture determined which son succeeded his father, meaning that younger sons might inherit nothing, even though they were trained as esquires who aspired to become knights. The younger son of a baron or feudal knight, not standing to inherit property, might go on Crusade with one of the military-religious orders, such as the Hospitallers, Templars or (during the reign of Frederick II) the Teutonic Order. An interesting Sicilian custom which survived into the early years of the twentieth century was rooted in this latter practice; the younger son of a baron was often addressed as "cavaliere" (sir knight) even if he had not been knighted. It is possible that there were never more than about three hundred knights of the military-religious orders present in commanderies or preceptories on the island of Sicily at one time.

Norman knights at Monreale.Whichever destiny awaited him, a postulant to knighthood would acquire his military training as the esquire of a knight, perhaps living for a few years at the castle of a neighbouring lord or performing service at court. Knights were usually drawn from the landholding class, though there in practice were actually many exceptions to this rule.

Chivalric investiture was a dubbing ceremony following an all-night vigil spent at prayer in a chapel. We associate dubbing with the tap of a sword blade on each shoulder but the earlier version was the slapping of the kneeling esquire's cheek with a leather gauntlet. The sons of the king might be knighted at sixteen or eighteen, and this marked their coming-of-age as well as their earliest stage of military training. Ordinary esquires might be knighted around the age of twenty. While feudal investiture (bestowing a fief upon a lord) was not necessarily a religious ceremony, chivalric investiture (bestowing the state of knighthood upon a squire ad personam) usually was a rite performed in a church or chapel. It should be mentioned that chivalric investiture became a religious ceremony after 1100; the earliest Norman knights present in Sicily were dubbed in very simple ceremonies.

A knight was more than a fighting horseman, and feudal knights were usually invested by the king or his designated representative (a member of the royal family, a bishop or a noble), but certain nobles, and even senior feudal knights, could also dub knights on their own authority. In the military-religious orders the duty of investing knights was the prerogative of the order's leader, the grand master, though some of the men serving in these orders would have already been dubbed by their own kings before enlisting. By 1200 the Hospitallers, Templars and Teutonic Knights all had commanderies in Sicily.

The code of chivalry, to the extent that it ever reflected more than an ideal, was probably more evident in the military-religious orders than among the feudal knights. At its best, and when extended from theory into practice, it embodied honourable behaviour of the knight: fealty to his sovereign, respect for women, children and clergy, honour in combat, honesty. In principle at least, it epitomised all the virtues. Sadly, it was rarely applied, and then it usually had classist overtures, with knights treating members of their own social class chivalrously while showing little respect for peasants.

Knights were not the only men-at-arms. There were also footmen (infantry), archers and such, many of whom normally performed civilian roles during times of peace. On short notice the Sicilian kings could count on raising a mounted army of as many as 800 knights from around the island (in addition to those from the mainland).

Certain Italian dynastic orders of knighthood still exist, though today's knights can hardly be compared to the warriors of old.

If noble titles per se were less important in the twelfth century than later in the Middle Ages, was there another means of recognising identity? Until the Vespers period (1282) few Sicilians outside the aristocracy had surnames except for simple patronymics (as "di Giovanni" meaning "son of John") or the occasional nickname. Often, though not always, a nobleman or enfeoffed knight would use the toponym derived from the name of his fief as his surname. (Incidentally, this is why so many Sicilian-Normans bore surnames that sound more Arabic or "Italic" than French; they were based on place names in Sicily.) The names of the oldest royal dynasties follow this pattern, hence the Norman kings of Sicily were the de Hautevilles and the Swabians were von Hohenstaufens. So the lord of a fief called Boscogrande might be called "de Boscogrande." There are no firm rules on this usage, but as a matter of social fact it would have been difficult for a serf to impersonate a knight, and the penalty for doing so was grave. The vast majority of Sicilians assumed formal, hereditary surnames only in the early decades of the fifteenth century.

Bishops, Priests, Monks
Into the middle years of the thirteenth century the rapport of the Sicilian Crown with the Papacy was rarely amicable. Nevertheless, the King of Sicily held extraordinary authority to appoint, or at least approve, bishops, and the Crown endowed many monasteries.During this period, when there were still many Muslims and Jews in Sicily, there were also many Orthodox monasteries of the eastern (Byzantine) rite. Monasteries were, in effect, a peripheral part of the feudal system, so abbots exercised the same authority over Church lands as secular lords did over their fiefs and manors.

Coats of arms, namely shields and surcoats emblazoned with symbols representing a knight and his family, came into use in Sicily sometime after 1180. These soon became hereditary. In those days, of course, feudal lords were also knights. Early on, armourial heraldry developed its own rules regarding pictorial composition and the use of colour. By 1200, virtually every knight had a coat of arms (a painted shield whose design would be repeated on seals and carved into the portal or wall of his castle or bailey). Coats of arms had become marks of gentility and the warrior class.

Many explanations have been suggested for the use of these insignia on shields for identification during combat or at tournaments. They supposedly identified the helmeted, armoured knight to friend and foe, but why was no such need determined centuries earlier? The tournament theory seems the more likely. "Canting arms" were popular in Sicily. This meant that the symbols on the shield were literally allusive to the knight's surname - a lion for Leone, an ox for Bue, an olive tree for Oliviero, a red field for Rosso, a tower for La Torre, a horseshoe for Maniscalco, a fountain for Fontana, a mountain for Montagna, a sword for Spada, and so forth. The keeping of heraldic records was the job of court officers known as heralds. (Our heraldry page links to articles on related topics.)

Suggested Reading:

The Sicilian Nobility on Best of Sicily

The Middle Ages. Morris Bishop

The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130 and the Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194. John Julius Norwich

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Donald Matthew

Roger II of Sicily: A Ruler between East and West. Hubert Houben.

Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. David Abulafia

The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century. Steven Runciman

The Monks of War. Desmond Seward.

About the Author: Alberto Lanza has written various articles on Italian heraldry and related topics. He resides in Catania and conducts historical and genealogical research in eastern Sicily.

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© 2007 Alberto Lanza