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Jan. 27, 2023

74 Chapter 10: The Golden Age of Norman Italy

74 Chapter 10: The Golden Age of Norman Italy

Norman Sicily enters its golden age and becomes one of the greatest kingdoms in medieval Europe.

Norman Sicily enters its golden age and becomes one of the greatest kingdoms in medieval Europe.


“The prosperity of the island surpasses description. It is enough to say that it is a daughter of Spain in the extent of its cultivation, in the luxuriance of its harvests, and in its well-being, having an abundance of varied produce, and fruits of every kind and species….The finest town in Sicily and the seat of its sovereign, is known to the Muslims as al-Madinah, and to the Christians as Palermo. It has Muslim citizens who possess mosques, and their own markets, in the many suburbs. The rest of the Muslims live in the farms (of the island) and in all its villages and towns, such as Syracuse and others. AI-Madinah al-Kabirah [,the great City' -Palermo], the residence of their King, [Guillaume], is however the biggest and most populous, and Messina is next. In al-Madinah, God willing, we shall make our stay; and thence we hope to go to whichever of the western countries that Great and Glorious God shall at His will determine…This King possesses splendid palaces and elegant gardens, particularly in the capital of his kingdom, al-Madinah. In Messina he has a palace, white like a dove, which overlooks the shore. He has about him a great number of youths and handmaidens, and no Christian King is more given up to the delights of the realm, or more comfort and luxury-loving. [Guillaume] is engrossed in the pleasures of his land, the arrangement of its laws, the laying down of procedure, the allocation of the functions of his chief officials, the enlargement of the splendour of the realm, and the display of his pomp, in a manner that resembles the Muslim Kings. His kingdom is very large. He pays much attention to his (Muslim) physicians and astrologers, and also takes great care of them. He will even, when told that a physician or astrologer is passing through his land, order his detainment, and then provide him with means of living so that he will forget his native land. May God in His favour preserve the Muslims from this seduction. The King's age is about thirty years. May God protect the Muslims from his hostility and the extension of his power.”

            -Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr


            “[Palermo] is the metropolis of these islands, combining the benefits of wealth and splendour, and having all that you could wish of beauty, real or apparent, and all the needs of subsistence, mature and fresh. It is an ancient and elegant city, magnificent and gracious, and seductive to look upon. Proudly set between its open spaces and plains filled with gardens, with broad roads and avenues, it dazzles the eyes with its perfection. It is a wonderful place, built in the Cordova style, entirely from cut stone known as kadhan [a soft limestone]. A river splits the town, and four springs gush in its suburbs. The King, to whom it is his world, has embellished it to perfection and taken it as the capital of his Frankish Kingdom -may God destroy it…

            “[Messina] is the mart of the merchant infidels, the focus of ships from the world over, and thronging always with companies of travellers by reason of the lowness of prices. But it is cheerless because of the unbelief, no Muslim being settled there. Teeming with worshippers of the Cross, it chokes its inhabitants, and constricts them almost to strangling. It is full of [filthy smells] and churlish too, for the stranger will find there no courtesy. Its markets are animated and teeming, and it has ample commodities to ensure a luxurious life. Your days and nights in this town you will pass in full security, even though your countenance, your manners [lit. 'hand'] and your tongue are strange.”

            -Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr [Quotes read by Benjamin Hoffman of French Press]                                 


            The Kingdom of Sicily was constantly in crisis from Guillaume II’s childhood until he came of age. The Normans faced attacks from the Eastern Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and the Almohad Caliphate. Rebellious vassals tried to overthrow the king. The Pope consistently led the faithful against the Hauteville ruler. Unfortunately for the realm, its king was Guillaume I, a man who ordered his ministers not to talk to him unless the kingdom was under immediate threat. Perhaps the best thing that Guillaume I “the Bad” did for the country was to die and leave his wife Marguerite to rule. Not only did the queen address the country’s problems much better than he ever had, but she provided an example of leadership for her son. From a young age Guillaume II toured his kingdom met his people and watched his mother and her chancellor Étienne of Perche sagely address their needs. When Guillaume II assumed leadership he ruled with compassion and wisdom.

            Sicily’s government calmed after the 1168 rebellion. A new ruling order settled in as aristocrats and clergy entered the halls of power. But calm never lasts. Guillaume II’s first crisis came on 4 February 1169. That day an earthquake ravaged the city of Catania during the feast day of the city’s patron Saint Agatha killing 15,000 people, levelling castles, churches, mosques and homes alike. The city’s bishop and forty-five monks died when Saint Agatha’s cathedral collapsed while they were inside reciting their matins, the morning prayers. When news arrived of what had happened Guillaume II and his mother left the palace at Palermo and travelled to the city to offer aid and comfort. In his first official address Guillaume II stated, “Let each of you pray to the God he worships. He who has faith in his God will feel peace in his heart.” [Jacqueline Alio]. While Guillaume II oversaw a majority Christian kingdom ruled by Christian lords he respected the other two major faiths in his country and would care for all of his subjects. As he grew he became an incredible polyglot, speaking, reading and writing Norman French, Latin, Greek and Arabic.

            Of course, one of the most important jobs for a king was to sire heirs and in his mid-teens he and his mother shopped for a suitable bride. Queen Marguerite maintained close contact with the Plantagenet House that ruled Normandy, England and Anjou. Moreover, she was in regular contact with Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury. Marguerite negotiated for the four-year-old Aliénor, daughter of Henri II, the French King of England, to marry Guillaume II, when she came of age. This was not a formal arrangement, but a tacit agreement. Trouble stirred in England as the king and archbishop were constantly at odds. Henri II was so flustered at Becket that he said in the company of his knights, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?" You’ve probably heard a shortened version of the quote as, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Whatever he did say, his vassals took this as a not-so-subtle hint and assassinated the archbishop in his cathedral. The killing of one of Marguerite’s favorite pen pals strained relations between the two kingdoms and the Norman royals began looking elsewhere.

            Guillaume II and his mother turned their attention to the Eastern Roman Empire. For roughly a century Byzantine Emperors and Italo-Norman lords floated the idea of uniting their families in marriage. However, these arrangements inevitably fell apart when the Normans invaded Greece. Yet, Marguerite and Guillaume II were different rulers than their predecessors. They wanted to build up the kingdom that they had rather than invade foreign lands. After over a century of on-and-off warfare between Normans and Byzantines the two countries were ready for peace. The two sides arranged for Guillaume II to marry Maria, the daughter of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos.

            In early May 1172 Guillaume II and his 12 year-old brother Henri left their mother for the first time with a royal entourage to travel to Taranto to receive Maria. They arrived at the city and eagerly eyed the horizon. The seas were calm, and at any moment they expected a virtual fleet of ships to arrive bearing the royal, her followers and her dowry. Ten days passed without any sign of her Highness, nor explanation of the delay. After such a long time waiting, Guillaume II left some officials in case she arrived while he travelled to Monte Gargano to visit the shrine of Michael the Archangel, the holy site that served as a lodestone for so many Normans over the centuries. After a few more days it was clear that Maria was not coming. Furthermore, the Byzantines did not explain why they had suddenly cancelled the wedding.

            Guillaume II was disappointed, but he decided to take advantage of his time on the mainland to tour his realm. He went west to Benevento when Henri fell ill. Guillaume II sent Henri to Salerno where he was attended to by the best physicians in Italy and from which he sailed back to Palermo. Despite all the physicians’ efforts they could not heal Henri, who died in Palermo in mid-June at the age of 12. Henri was Marguerite’s third son to die at a young age and yet another heartbreak for the aging queen. The boy’s death also meant that the Hauteville dynasty was in jeopardy. Like his father, Guillaume II was now the last male scion of the house. However, unlike his father, there was one other legitimate member of the immediate royal family who could take up the crown: Constance, daughter of Roger II and Beatrix of Rethel, who was Guillaume II’s aunt despite being eleven months younger than him.

            Guillaume II searched for another bride, one who hopefully would show up this time, when the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa offered his daughter Beatrix. However, the Emperor was then at war with the Papal States and Guillaume II did not want to risk excommunication by marrying into the family of His Holiness’ enemy. After searching for years another offer came from England. Henri II was determined to rebuild the relationship between his house and the Hauteville after Becket’s assassination and offered his daughter Jeanne. Guillaume II agreed and on 13 February 1177 she arrived in Palermo where they wed. She became Queen of Sicily at the age of 11 while Guillaume was then 23.

It is likely that troubadours were among Jeanne’s retinue. These uniquely-French bards combined music and poetry into a new art form: the chansons de geste, “songs of heroic deeds.” These musical stories laid the foundation for chivalry, a new elite male aristocratic culture based around Christian virtue and martial prowess. These songs certainly influenced the court in Palermo, inspiring the 13th century Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini to invent the sonnet.

            In late Spring Frederick I Barbarossa invaded the rebellious states of northern Italy who had united against him in the Lombard League. On 29 May the Germans decisively lost the Battle of Legnano. The emperor admitted defeat and began peace negotiations. These culminated that summer in the Treaty of Venice 1177, which established peace between all the states of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. With the German Emperor largely removed from Italy the Kingdom of Sicily faced no serious threats. The other Italian states were small territories, often city-states. The only naval power in the Mediterranean that could threaten the Sicilians were the Byzantines and they were completely preoccupied fighting, who else (?), the Turks. The Byzantines were also incredibly worried about the powerful newly-formed Sultanate of Egypt, led by the great general Saladin. Thus, the Kingdom of Sicily was secure from all foreign threats. The kingdom was also internally stable ever since select members of the clergy and aristocracy became ministers in the government. These familiares vied for the king’s patronage, whereas before they had fought against the monarch to achieve their coveted positions. With no serious internal or external threats, Sicily entered its golden age.

            Sicily’s already remarkable literary culture blossomed. In Latin Sicilians wrote epic histories of Norman warriors and rulers. The clergy primarily wrote in Greek, while the poets wrote in Arabic. Arabic was the predominant language of the island and all coinage had Arabic writing. An indigenous Sicilian language began to gain ground as well, though its writers only came to the fore after the end of Hauteville rule.

            The longest-lasting and grandest of the Normans’ works were their monuments. The Normans constructed pleasure palaces in the Islamic style, with touches of Byzantium and their own native flair. Guillaume II’s crowning accomplishment was the palace complex the Geonardo, from the Arabic, ‘Jannat al-arḍ,’ meaning “Earthly Paradise.’ Contained within the Geonardo were the great palaces the Zisa and the Cuba. As historian Karla Mallette writes, the vast grounds included hunting areas stocked with deer and boars, fishing preserves, reflecting pools, fountains, “gardens, piazzas, even artificial lakes,” and groves for all kinds of fruit trees. The palaces were also built to incorporate remarkable views of the city, which was then the grandest urban area west of Constantinople.

            The palace grounds alone were enough to awe the travelers who passed through the kingdom. The buildings themselves were wonders of their time. The palaces used sweeping arches to create space for light. The walls and ceilings employed creative geometric patterns. Their grand entrances boasted Persian-style muqarnas, large vaults with honeycombed patterns, often made of brightly-colored tiles and ornamented with Arabic calligraphy. The Zisa even had an interior cooling system as pipes pumped water into pools and fountains throughout the building to lower the temperature in the hot summers. These wonders amazed all those who travelled there. Even Ibn Jubayr, who had seen Fatimid Egypt and the palaces of Cordoba awed at the Normans’ splendor. The restored Zisa and Cuba remain standing and are a testament to the greatness of the Hauteville kingdom.

            Like many medieval rulers, Guillaume II made additions to existing structures to leave his mark on the buildings. The most notable of these was of course the royal palace in Palermo. The palace had a long, long history. The first known building on the site was a Phoenician fortress made in the 7th century BCE to overlook the bay. A millennia later and the Arab conquerors of the island built a fort over the ancient site. When Roger Bosso conquered Palermo he built a Norman castle. As was the case with Norman castles, the fortress was a simplistic, roughly rectangular edifice of stone, one which originally looked out of place amidst the opulent, Islamic capital. Over the century the fortress became a palace, with gardens, fountains and a breath-taking interior which combined Mediterranean art-styles. Today, the Norman Palace at Palermo is the oldest still-standing royal residence in Europe.

            In the center of the palace is the Palatine Chapel, one of the most magnificent of all the Norman constructions in the Mediterranean. The personal chapel of the royal family draws from each tradition which influenced it. From the Normans comes the architectural layout with a central nave leading to an apse with columns delineating aisles. The columns are made of stone, while their Corinthian tops are gilded. It is from there that the Islamic contributions begin. The Corinthian columns support Arabic arches which lead to perhaps the most intricate muqarnas in Europe which form the wooden ceiling. Egyptian artists spent countless hours crafting recursive geometric patterns of eight-pointed stars which combine to form a cross. Interspersed with the geometric shapes are intricate calligraphy and paintings of everyday court life. One of the paintings is particularly interesting as it shows two men playing chess and is possibly the oldest still-surviving depiction of the game in Europe. At the time of the construction Europeans were adopting the game from the Arab world; no doubt Sicily’s intricate connections to Muslim countries spread chess across Christendom.

            The final culture to leave their mark on the chapel was the Eastern Roman Empire. Greek artists covered every inch of the chapel with mosaics made of gold and painted tiles. Each arch depicts a saint while Biblical scenes adorn the walls. The nave’s central mosaic depicts Christ flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel with Saints Peter and Paul above two lions. Since the lion is the symbol of the Normans the mosaic demonstrated that Christ and his saints were bestowing spiritual power upon the Hauteville family.

            Crowning the chapel is a golden dome, modeled on the famous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Like that most famous church, the Palatine Chapel’s dome has numerous windows to let in light. In its center is a massive depiction of Christ surrounded by angels. When one looks up at the gold-covered dome from directly below on a clear day it radiates with light. The chapel still stands to this day, a symbol of the glory of Norman Sicily, which produced syncretic masterpieces of trans-Mediterranean culture. Originally built between 1132 and 1142 by Roger II, his sons each added to the chapel.

            The Normans kings were the island’s greatest patrons but they were not alone. The emirs George of Antioch and Maione of Bari each built their own still-standing cathedrals. Walter of the Mill, the English head of the government under Guillaume II, sponsored the construction of Palermo Cathedral. But the greatest of all these is Monreale Cathedral, the jewel of Sicily, which was left behind by Queen Marguerite. On 31 July 1181 the queen-mother died in her sleep at the age of 48. She was buried in Monreale Cathedral in tombs alongside her sons Roger and Henri.

            Guillaume II’s reign was the zenith of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and he was respected across the Mediterranean. In 1179 a Sicilian fleet encountered a floundering ship carrying the daughter of an Almohad Caliph, who they returned to her father. The Almohads responded with an embassy reaffirming a trade treaty with the Normans. In December 1184 the famous traveler Ibn Jubayr sailed to Sicily when the ship was damaged and stalled within sight of Messina. Some Messinians sailed out to the ship and offered to take its passengers to the city for a price which the mostly Muslim crew could not pay. When Guillaume II heard about this he personally sailed to the ship and rescued everyone onboard and not a moment too soon as the following day the ship sank. This act of generosity did not go unnoticed and Ibn Jubayr wrote that he was astonished that a Christian king would personally oversee the rescue of Muslims. Guillaume II then hosted the famous traveler in his palaces which were so fabulous that even this worldly man marveled at them. When Ibn Jubayr wasn’t admiring the palaces, he was commenting on the syncretic culture of the island. He wrote that along the roads and in the cities there were churches that served the sick which were clearly modelled on Muslim hospitals. Moreover, Christian women dressed like Muslim women, wrapping cloaks around them and wearing veils. They also wore jewelry, henna and perfume. On feast days they dressed in robes of gold-embroidered silk with gilt slippers. Moreover, these women were more literate than most European women.

            While Guillaume II practiced tolerance towards all faiths, Sicily was becoming less tolerant under his reign. For more than a century the central government had favored Christians, sponsoring their churches and forcing Muslims and Jews to pay the gizya tax. Each subsequent monarch sponsored Arabic intellectuals less and Christian ones more, meaning that Muslim scholars from across the Mediterranean visited the kingdom less and less. This soft pressure led many to convert. If Guillaume II was personally tolerant, his Christian vassals could be outright violent against their neighbors. Soft and hard pressure gradually changed the demographics of the island. When Roger Bosso conquered Sicily the people were majority Muslim. By the time of Guillaume’s reign his kingdom was one-quarter Muslim and less than one-tenth Jewish. It was still a great multicultural kingdom and grander than ever, though intolerance against non-Christians was growing, despite the king’s benevolence towards all of his subjects.

            Near the end of Guillaume II’s reign conflict broke out between the Normans and Byzantium. Tensions rose to a fever pitch following the Massacre of the Latins in 1182. A little background: over time, Italian merchants, mostly from Genoa, Pisa and Venice established themselves in Constantinople. They came to dominate maritime trade and established ties with the rich aristocracy. While the Italian traders and Byzantine nobility grew rich this all came at the expense of local sailors. When Andronikos I Komnenos entered the city to enact a coup it inspired an angry crowd of Greeks to turn on the Italians, slaughtering men, women and children by the thousands. None were spared; the papal legate was beheaded, and the head tied to the tail of a dog who dragged it through the streets.

            The massacre infuriated the northern Italians and their Norman allies in the south. In 1184 Guillaume II sent a force to attack the Balkans. The Normans took Corfu and a number of Ionian islands before sacking Thessalonica in 1185. Then, on 7 November 1185 a Greek army defeated the Normans at Demetritzes. In short order the Byzantines expelled the invaders. However, even as the Byzantines retook the occupied Greek territories, the Norman fleet sailed to Cyprus to aid their rebellion and captured 70 warships. This was a staggering loss for the Byzantines and a nice consolation prize for the Normans after losing the war.

            Despite Guillaume II’s long, and by all accounts loving, marriage to Jeanne, she bore no children. This was probably not her fault; more likely Guillaume II was infertile as he had no illegitimate children either. Without an heir there were only two Hauteville who could inherit the throne: his aunt Constance or his illegitimate cousin Tancred of Lecce. Constance was a learned and well-loved member of the family; she may have even been close with Guillaume II. Despite being his aunt, she was 11 months younger than him. But there was the fact that she was a woman, meaning she was less respected, particularly by the male, soldier-elite who ruled the country.

            Tancred was a more complex figure. At the age of 23 he had joined his uncle Simon in rebellion against Guillaume I and Queen Marguerite, a conspiracy which resulted in the death of Roger IV, Guillaume II’s older brother. The death of the heir-apparent forced Simon and Tancred to flee to Constantinople where they lived in exile. In 1166, Enrico, Count of Montescaglioso led a successful rebellion which did not overthrow the monarchy but did force it to make concessions to the nobility. Among these concessions were pardons for exiled nobles, including Tancred who returned to Sicily. If Tancred and his cousin Guillaume II had a strained relationship, the returned noble did seem to want to make amends. In 1174 he led a fleet to Egypt to support the Fatimids against Saladin, though the Normans left when they realized that their Latin allies would not be joining them.

While Tancred wanted to let bygones be bygones, Guillaume II seemingly never forgave him for the murder of his brother. In 1184 the king declared Constance his successor and forced his nobles to swear to uplift her after his passing. Later that year he arranged for her to marry Heinrich, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa. The one major condition Heinrich had to accept was that he would relinquish his claim on Southern Italy, though any children he had with Constance would inherit the kingdom. From Salerno 150 mules carried prized silks, furs and tarí to Milan. There, on 21 January 1186 Constance and Heinrich married in the presence of the Emperor.

The marriage between Hauteville and Hohenstaufen proved to be a major miscalculation on Guillaume II’s part, one which turned the nobility firmly against his aunt. It is possible that the Normans would have accepted Constance as their leader. Women had previously served before, albeit as regents. Moreover, the nobility might have even welcomed a woman in power, rather than a strong king who could more easily impose his authority over them. But the aristocracy could not countenance the marriage. The Normans were wary of Heinrich’s promise not to take control over the Kingdom of Sicily. As heir to the Holy Roman Empire and with his wife as queen he would be in prime position to seize power. Yet, even if Heinrich kept his promise that would only delay the takeover of Sicily by a German ruler. Most European descent was patrilineal, meaning that any children Constance and Heinrich had would be a Hohenstaufen, not a Hauteville. Even if their future children were part Norman by blood, they would be German by familial affiliation.

            On 11 November 1189 Guillaume II died, having ruled for 23 years. His reign marked the golden age of Norman rule in southern Italy. His passing inaugurated a new chapter of conflict over the throne of this great kingdom.