Norman mercenaries travel to Italy for a better life. Soon they turn from swords-for-hire to conquerors who would rule states across the Mediterranean World.
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Prologue: Forgotten History
“Who does not know that the race of the Normans declines no labor in the practice of continuous valor? -the Normans…whose military spirit, ever tempered by experience of the greatest hardships, is not quickly subverted in adversity, and in prosperity, which is beset by so many difficulties, cannot be overcome by slothful idleness.”
-Priest Raol, The Conquest of Lisbon
“By such means they persuaded many to go; some because they possessed little or no wealth, others because they wished to make the great fortune they had greater still. All of them were greedy for gain. They started their journey, each of them carrying what supplies they felt necessary, so far as was possible, for the road they were travelling.”
-Guillaume of Apulia, The Deeds of Robert Guiscard [Read by Her Half of History]
Duke Guillaume and his successors’ conquests of England, Wales and Ireland, are often hailed as one of the great turning points in medieval European history. Every British schoolchild is taught the date 1066, so the saying goes. As England and France dominated much of the planet in the early modern and modern periods, the Norman Conquest of England became a key historical date. Meanwhile, the Norman conquests in the Mediterranean are almost completely forgotten amongst the lay public. Successive campaigns by emigrants from northern France resulted in the creation of Norman-led political states in northeastern Spain, the entire southern half of the Italian peninsula, the islands of Sicily and Malta, a wide area of central-northern Africa encompassing modern-day Tunisia, eastern coastal Algeria and western coastal Libya. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Normans briefly held much of modern-day Albania, northern Greece, and eastern Anatolia while establishing the long-lasting Principality of Antioch, which included modern-day Lebanon and parts of Turkey and Syria. Thus, Norman activity in the Mediterranean was far more widespread than in Britain and Ireland.
The Normans in the Mediterranean ruled over far more people who possessed more wealth than those in northwestern Europe. From their position in southern Italy, the Normans occupied the central node of Mediterranean trade. During Norman rule, the Sicilian city of Palermo was the most populous and richest city in all of Europe outside Constantinople.
The Mediterranean Normans also had a pronounced impact on European and Mediterranean culture. Travel between Norman states led to the creation of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca, a hybrid language of Old French and the dominant languages the Norman settlers encountered. If you’ve ever wondered where the term lingua franca came from, the answer is that Normans invading and travelling through the Mediterranean established their own language as they crossed seas and continents. Aside from linguistic developments, the Normans also facilitated cultural exchange between European and Afro-Asiatic cultures. The palaces of the Kings of Sicily, some of which are still standing, are a testament to the intermixing of Christian and Islamic tastes; often taking more from Fatimid Egypt than from Italy.
From their powerful states the Normans played important political roles. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that the Normans ended the Roman Empire and inaugurated the Byzantine Empire. Before the 11th century, the Greek Byzantines ruled much of southern Italy and perpetually dreamed of reconquering the old Roman Empire. The Normans expelled the Greeks form their Italian possessions and seriously threatened their territory in the Balkans, ending any realistic goals to remake the old empire of classical antiquity. When the Normans were not fighting against Greeks they defended them against the newly-arrived Seljuk Turks who invaded Anatolia. Moreover, the Normans played a central role in European affairs; depending on the time, they were either allies or enemies of the papacy at a time when Popes sought to assert their independence against the Holy Roman Empire
The Normans in the Mediterranean were a major force in religious affairs. In 1054 Christianity experienced one of its two largest schisms when the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople excommunicated each other. This event, known as the Schism of 1054, divided Christianity between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Normans championed Latin Christianity, replacing the Greek priests in southern Italy with Catholics. Moreover, the Normans became the driving force for Crusade. In Spain, Norman soldiers expunged Muslims from the northeast and set up a Christian state in Tarragona. Other Normans seized Muslim Sicily and over two centuries turned it into a Christian country. Finally, when the official Crusades began, the French and Flemish soldiers largely passed through Norman lands alongside Norman warriors on their way to the Holy Land. There they established three states ruled by French, while the Principality of Antioch was ruled by the legendary Norman giant Bohemond I.
The Normans in the Mediterranean thus played a central role in European and Mediterranean political, economic, cultural and religious affairs. This begs the question: if the Mediterranean Normans were so important, why has their story been forgotten by the general public? I’ve read various explanations for why this is the case. One argument is that the Norman Conquest of England was long-lasting and the conquests of the Mediterranean were temporary. The longest-lasting Norman states were the Principality of Antioch and Sicily, the former of which lasted 150 years, while the latter was controlled by the Normans as a county, then a kingdom for 90. Other Mediterranean Norman conquests lasted a few decades, if that, before they were conquered from without or their leaders were succeeded by non-Normans. But this is an unconvincing argument because the Norman family of Guillaume le Conquérant only ruled England for 98 years before they were supplanted by the Plantagenets and Angevins.
I conclude that the Atlantic Norman Conquests are remembered while the Mediterranean Norman conquests have been forgotten for three major reasons: Anglo-French dominance, clear dates and easy attributability. At the height of their territorial expansion in 1920, Britain and France ruled the largest and fifth largest empires in human history, respectively, ruling over 1/3rd of the world’s landmass. Such dominant countries trumpeted their own histories at the expense of the conquered. Even as most people (including myself) remain ignorant of entire empires in Indian and Chinese history, they know about the Battle of Hastings because that is what they are taught in school. Those in power create narratives to benefit themselves and Anglo-French dominance of the world in the past three centuries has had a clear impact on historical memory. Southern Europe, North Africa and the Levant have not been nearly as powerful in the modern period, with many of those territories becoming colonies of more northern European powers. Thus, their histories have been subsumed in favor of more dominant countries.
Another reason why the Atlantic Norman Conquest is better remembered than the Mediterranean Conquests is that the former involved clear dates. 1066 for the Battle of Hastings and 1068 for the consolidation of Guillaume’s victory. In contrast, Norman conquests in the Mediterranean were piece-meal and spread across centuries. Even within one country the dates are complex; Roger II of Sicily ruled as Count in 1105 but as king in 1130. Compare this to Guillaume, who became king within months of his arrival. If there’s one thing that people like, it’s clear stories, and the Norman realms in the Mediterranean are variegated geographically and temporally.
Finally, the Norman accomplishments in the Atlantic are far more easily attributable to the Normans than those in the Mediterranean. One-third of English words today come from French; a direct result of the Norman invasion. From 1066 until the end of the Hundred Years’ War English politics was intricately connected to France due to Guillaume tying two polities together. For this reason English monarchs continued to claim the title ‘King of France’ until 1801, when Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul. It is very easy to ascertain how the Normans influenced English politics, culture, language and religion. It is not nearly as easy to do the same with the Normans in the Mediterranean because they were a very small minority ruling over large populations. It’s clear that the Mediterranean Lingua Franca was created as people travelled between Norman states. But the language itself was not even French; one historian claims that it was “poorly-spoken Italian!” Most of the words were not French, as the language incorporated every major spoken tongue in the area. Culturally, the Normans largely adopted the existing norms, traditions and architectural styles of the peoples they conquered. These areas had histories going back thousands of years; most lived in areas with Roman constructions from a millennia before the Northmen stepped foot on foreign shores. These proud peoples, with well-developed culture were loath to adopt practices of the ‘barbaric’ north; by contrast, the Normans readily adopted southern customs. If anything, the Normans were facilitators of culture between Mediterranean territories. As such, they may have had a bigger influence on culture than their northern counterparts, but it’s much more difficult to attribute developments to Normans emulating Italian, Greek and Arab styles, rather than those peoples. For all these reasons, the Normans are viewed as the dominant force in the Atlantic, and a disruptive, temporary force in the Mediterranean.
Yet, these Normans had an enormous impact on history, and their legendary adventures in the Mediterranean are even more incredible than those in the Atlantic.
Chapter 1: Pilgrims with Swords
“When this great victory had been won by the valor of these forty Norman pilgrims the Prince [Guaimar III] and all the people of Salerno gave them great thanks; and they offered them presents and promised them great rewards, and begged them to remain to defend the Christians. But the Normans did not wish to take a money reward for what they had done for the love of God. And they made their excuses for not being able to remain. Then the prince took counsel to invite Normans to come and sent them off to encourage others in all good will to go to those parts, because of the wealth that was there. So they sent the message with these victorious Normans and sent lemons and almonds and preserved fruits; imperial cloths too and iron instruments decorated with gold. And so they begged that they ought to go to this land flowing with milk and honey and all these fine things. And that everything was as they saw it, these victorious Normans themselves bore witness in Normandy.”
-Amatus of Montecassino, History of the Normans
“The first leader of the Normans in Apulia…was Thurstan called Scitel, a man skilled in many affairs. Among other examples of his courage, he once wrested a goat out of the mouth of a lion; the lion was furious that the goat should have been taken away from him, but Thurstan seized it with his bare hands and threw it over the walls of the duke’s palace as if it were only some little dog. The Lombards with great envy wished him dead and led him to a certain spot where an enormous dragon dwelt, together with a vast multitude of snakes. Then seeing the dragon coming, they fled headlong. When Thurstan, ignorant of this trick, saw his comrades fly and in his amazement asked his armourbearer for the reason for such a sudden flight, the flame-vomiting dragon suddenly came towards him and with his mouth open attacked the head of Thurstan’s horse. Thurstan, his sword drawn, struck bravely and soon killed the wild beast, but infected by the dragon’s poisonous breath he died two days later. Amazingly the flame erupted from the dragon’s mouth had burnt his whole shield in an instant.
After the death of Thurstan the Normans chose Rainulf and Richard as their leaders, and under them avenged Thurstan’s death by raising a serious rebellion against the Lombards.”
-Orderic Vitalis, Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans [Reading by Tsar Podcast]
For Europeans outside of the Byzantine Empire, Italy was a second Holy Land. It was not The Holy Land, where Christ performed miracles, sacrificed his life and redeemed all humankind. Instead, Rome was the center of the Christian faith. It was, according to Catholic theology, where Saint Peter established the church, becoming its first pope. All subsequent Popes were leaders of Christendom and people living north of the Alps adopted Italian monastic orders and liturgical practices. Wealthier people first traveled to Italy to visit its historic basilicas, monasteries and shrines before journeying east to the Promised Land. Those too poor to travel to the Levant went to Italy alone.
Of all the Europeans who travelled to Italy in the 11th century, perhaps none were as populous, organized and armed as the Normans. Contemporary chronicles claim that this was because Normandy had become overpopulated. Much as earlier manuscripts claimed that the Vikings became overpopulated and left Scandinavia to conquer northern France, they repeat this topos, asserting that Normans left their new homeland for better opportunities. There is perhaps some truth in this; Normandy was a fairly populous place by the beginning of the 11th century. It’s relatively lax laws, first set by Rollo, invited immigrants from France and Flanders seeking a better life. Longstanding connections to the Atlantic world meant Scandinavians could easily settle there as well. There was only so much land to go around and the younger sons of nobles received ever-smaller manors for their inheritance.
Unlike the Germans or French who settled into the lands they had conquered, the Normans maintained much of their Scandinavian culture, and were far more likely to travel abroad as mercenaries. It is no wonder then, why the Normans, more than anyone else, sought their fortunes in foreign lands.
There is one more reason we can add for why so many travelled abroad and that is political instability in Normandy. In 1027 Duke Robert le Magnifique came to power amidst the mysterious death of his brother, prompting insurrection. Robert eventually established himself and exiled those who opposed him. In 1035 when the young Guillaume le Bâtard became Duke of Normandy there was a prolonged period of violence as his enemies sought to assert their independence or even take control of the duchy itself. Guillaume defeated his rivals, leading to another wave of exiles. After Guillaume conquered England he faced further revolts from vassals who believed they were not properly compensated, spurring still more banishments. Overpopulation, mercenary tradition and frequent purges meant that the Normans were far more likely to travel than any of their fellow Europeans. More than anywhere else, the Northmen gravitated towards Italy.
Italy was a geographic expression at this time, rather than a country. Its northern half belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. Halfway down the peninsula, Rome and a strip of land along the western coast were part of the Papal States. The popes claimed their territory was independent, though the German Emperors regularly treated these as a subdivision of their realm.
South of Rome, politics was more complicated. The names for the various regions changed over time, and various powers divided up the country differently on their maps. I’ll give the simplest description possible while still being true to the general layout. Southern Italy was essentially divided into two regions: Calabria and Apulia. If you can imagine the Italian peninsula as a woman’s high-heeled boot, Calabria formed the long toe. Apulia rested opposite Calabria, and formed the heel, that is the lengthy Adriatic coastline facing the Balkans. Apulia owed allegiance to the Byzantine Empire whose Greek-speaking officials and Orthodox priests ruled over the local Italians. Its capital was the eastern port-city of Bari.
Calabria was largely controlled by a group of nobles who called themselves ‘Lombards’ after a Germanic people that conquered Italy in the 6th century. After centuries of intermarrying with local Italians, the ‘Lombard’ rulers were fully integrated with locals, speaking their language and adhering to Latin Christianity. While the Lombards were essentially Italians, they did form a ruling clique of families that descended from the original Lombards, as opposed to the rising power of the native Italian aristocracy. The Lombard lands were dominated by the Principality of Salerno, which occupied the arch of the Italian boot, and divided Calabria, the toe, from Apulia, the heel. In the northeast was the Principality of Benevento, while in the Northwest was the Principality of Capua. In the southwest, the long toe was controlled by the Byzantines with their largest city at Reggio.
The first Normans arrived in southern Italy before the year 1,000 as pilgrims. These Normans set down routes which they recounted to their fellows back home. Norman pilgrimage became a regular affair, as Normans visited major holy places such as Rome, while adding southern locations, the most important of which was the shrine of the Archangel, today at Monte Sant’Angelo in northern Apulia. Around 1015 one group of around forty Normans was travelling back from the Holy Land when they arrived at Salerno only to find the city under siege by Sicilian Muslims demanding tribute. The Normans decided to aid their fellow Christians and defended the city, repulsing the marauders. If you believe the later Norman chronicles, the Italians were too cowardly to fight the Sicilians and only after the Northmen upbraided them and began their own charge did the Italians rediscover their courage and fight to defend their city. Afterwards, Guaimar III, Prince of Salerno, was so grateful to the Northmen that he begged them to stay. The Normans politely refused, though they promised to spread the word back home that southern Italy was rich and in need of mercenaries.
Shortly thereafter in Normandy, the five sons of a petty noble family named Drengot became infamous when some of their number killed one of Duke Richard II’s relatives in an act of revenge. The punishment was death but Richard II showed mercy and merely exiled them. The eldest brothers Gilbert and Osmond led their younger siblings Rodolphe, Rainulf and Asclettin out of the duchy, alongside 250 soldiers with promises of foreign riches. The caravan traveled to Italy, stopping at the Shrine of Michael the Archangel. There they were greeted by a Lombard lord named Melus. Melus had been a powerful man, so powerful that he conquered the important port-city of Bari and took other towns from Byzantium between 1009-1010. The following year the Byzantines sent an army to retake what they had lost, and Melus was set to flight. Even though he lost the lion’s share of his lands, Melus gained the patronage of the Pope who wanted to expel the Greeks from Italy. When the Drengot family arrived at the shrine of the Archangel in 1017, Melus saw this as his chance to regain his lost land.
The Normans proved highly effective fighters. According to Amatus of Montecassino, “[The Normans] therefore went to the aid of Melus, crossing the borders of Apulia with him. They began to fight against the Greeks and saw that they were like women. From there, their Apulian camp at Arenula, they attacked their spiritless foes, and brought great grief through the many deaths they caused.” Exaggerations aside, the Northmen proved remarkably effective as auxiliaries to the larger Italian army. For a while. After months of success, Melus and the Normans experienced a series of defeats by a reinvigorated Byzantine force buffeted by the legendary Varangian Guard, comprised of Scandinavian mercenaries. On 1 October 1018 the Italians and Normans met the Byzantine host at Cannae where the Greeks devastated them. Adémar of Chabannes recounts, “[the Normans] were defeated, laid low and wiped out, and a great number of them were led off to Constantinople, where they spent the rest of their lives in prison. Whence comes the saying: ‘The Greeks captured the hare along with the cart.’ For three years, then, the road to Jerusalem was closed. For on account of the anger of the Normans, whatever foreigners the Greeks came across, they led them off in chains to Constantinople, and let them suffer in prison there.”
The elder brothers of the Drengot family, Gilbert and Osmond, were killed outright. The third brother Rodolphe fled north with Melus to the court of the German emperor. The last two brothers Rainulf and Asclettin led the surviving Normans, who retreated from Apulia into the Lombard lands. There they sold their services to various lords and protected pilgrims for a price. Over a decade Rainulf attracted more Normans to his cause until he led a small army. It’s unusual for foreigners to form an army within a country’s borders and no doubt the local lords resented the Northmen’s presence. Yet, Italy was divided and broad changes weakened the established powers. The Byzantine Empire came under attack from Turkic groups on its northern and eastern borders, stressing its resources and leaving their Italian possessions with less support. Meanwhile the native Italian landed aristocracy resented the dominance of the old Lombard nobility, leading to divisions. Southern Italian political instability meant no one was willing to directly take on the Normans, and instead the local lords either hired them or paid them off. As a result, the Normans grew more powerful until in 1028 Sergius IV, Duke of Naples, offered Rainulf his sister in marriage and bestowed upon him the title Count of Aversa, making him the first Norman uplifted to the Italian nobility. Meanwhile Rainulf’s brother, Asclettin became count of Acerenza while Rodolphe, returned from the Holy Roman Empire, became a minor lord of Comino.
Rainulf’s ambitions stretched beyond his immediate borders and he sent word to the men of his homeland to join him. The most important of all these was the Hauteville family, whose two or three eldest brothers arrived in 1035. With the help of the newcomers Rainulf grew so powerful that he conquered the Principality of Capua just south of the Papal States, and declared he was its new prince, though no one else recognized his presumptive title. Nevertheless, the Norman leader was now one of the most powerful men in southern Italy. However, Rainulf was not the undisputed master of the Normans, who came to Italy in waves and gave their loyalty to whoever led and paid them best. There were various factions of Normans, and Rainulf was just the most important of several.
The Drengot family laid a foundation for Norman rule in southern Italy. Rainulf, Asclettin and Rodolphe became aristocrats in this foreign land, recognized by popes and emperors, and even intermarried with the local nobility. Yet, the Drengot were one power among several. Over a 95-year period the Hauteville family outdid their predecessors when they seized the whole of southern Italy and beyond, establishing their own kingdom in the center of the Mediterranean Sea.