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Feb. 18, 2023

74: The World the Normans Made

74: The World the Normans Made

Wherein we recount the incredible impact that Normans had upon the medieval Mediterranean world.


And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

-Exodus 2:22

Have the Franks for friends, but not for neighbors.

-Eastern Roman Emperor Nikephoros

It’s not an easy thing to write a history. Historians must assemble and digest whatever artifacts remain from the period they want to write about. These can be written works in the form of books, memoirs, diaries, newspapers, manuscripts, tablets, scrolls, plaques, text on coins, even bones with scratchings. Aside from written text, truly everything can be used as a historical source, from artifacts left behind by previous peoples to the environment itself. In the process of researching and writing one of the most important questions that a historian faces is what to include and what to omit. That may in fact be the most important question. What facts or theories are necessary to a historical narrative? In contrast, what facts and theories detract from the narrative, adding unnecessary information that raises more questions than answers? How much information should be included is a problem that dates to the earliest known historical writings. On several occasions the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that he was purposefully withholding information at certain points in his histories.

In the mid-20th century the most influential of all historical groups, the French ‘Annalistes’ pioneered a novel concept known as ‘total history.’ Their belief was that all histories take place within certain contexts and to understand anything in the past we must examine all relevant data. The Annalistes, particularly Fernand Braudel, became giants of the field, with books that were shocking for their incredible breadth of research. While these figures are respected for their exhaustive work, their theory of ‘total history’ has increasingly fallen out of fashion. It’s one thing to write a ‘total history’ on the medieval period, which was the specialty of the Annalistes. How could one possibly write a ’total history’ of World War 1? There are literally millions of documents in hundreds if not thousands of languages scattered across the world. Even a ‘total history’ of the soldiers on the Western Front would have to include sources in English, French, and all the European, African and Asian languages of the recruits who served. Furthermore, how much information on the homefront would a total history require? Soldiers wrote millions of letters to their loved ones and were often granted leave, so how much do we need to know about this and other topics to conduct a total history of those who fought? Histories cannot possibly encapsulate everything that has happened, or even most things. The Annalistes’ dream of a ‘total history’ remains more of an aspiration than a doctrine.

As much as I respect the Annalistes I do not pretend that the histories I make are anything near a total history. Yet, there is something to be learned from those old French masters. Namely, that there are few ‘hard borders’ in history. Like blood in water these stories bleed over into many others. It has been my aim to tell the history of France and it is my theory that no history of France can be complete without telling the history of France and the world. This is why my episode on the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains begins with a discussion of the nomads versus civilized peoples, then shifts to the conquests of the Huns in China, India and Persia. In my episode on the Battle of Poitiers 732 I detail the political structure of the Umayyad Caliphate to explain why these Islamic conquerors were initially so successful and rapidly threatened Francia’s southern border, only to collapse within a few decades of their first contact with the Franks.

These past two long episodes have taken a wide view of France’s history. Instead of looking at the world’s impact on the land we call France, the Norman conquests cover France’s impact on the world. My overriding theory is that ‘France’ does not end right at the border. Its culture, economy, cuisine, scientific discoveries, political and military power, and its peoples regularly cross over into other territories. I cannot follow every French person who ever emigrated over to a foreign land, but I would be remiss if I did not at least try to cover some major world-changing events caused by French invasion or migration. Moreover, these events reverberate backwards, revealing and changing the nature of the homeland.

Europeanists call the years 793-1066 ‘The Viking Age,’ which began with the sacking of the Lindisfarne Monastery and ended with the Battle of Stamford Bridge. I dare to offer my own periodization and propose that 1028-1214 should be called ‘The Norman Age.’ This age began when the mercenary Rainulf of Drengot became the first Norman lord in Italy and ended at the Battle of Bouvines, whereupon Philippe-Auguste confirmed his subjugation of Normandy into the Kingdom of France. For two centuries the Normans remade the European and Mediterranean religions, cultures, economies and polities.

The Normans were the greatest promoters of Roman Catholicism for two centuries. This is an odd fact when one remembers that they regularly warred with Popes. Moreover, the Normans largely fought for secular reasons and were more tolerant of non-Christians than any of their fellow Europeans. Regardless of their intentions or temperament, the Normans transformed and spread Catholicism until it was undisputedly the dominant form of Christianity.

Given how the Norman-Papal relations started you would not think that the Normans would become the church’s greatest champions. When the Northmen first began to conquer southern Italy, Pope Leo IX led a coalition of Italians, Lombards, Germans and Eastern Romans to subjugate the foreigners. This resulted in the disastrous Battle of Civitate 1053, and His Holiness was captured. The end of the Papal-Byzantine alliance reignited the divides between Western and Eastern churches. Leo IX’s confinement meant the Patriarch in Constantinople was emboldened to excommunicate the Pope in 1054, an event which historians consider the beginning of the East-West Schism that split Christianity between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

While the Normans struggled with popes for secular power, they championed Catholicism across the Mediterranean. Under the Normans, Catholicism possibly grew more than at any time since Charlemagne’s conquests of the German territories. In Italy the Normans seized Byzantine-held territories and gradually replaced Greek priests with Latin ones. The Norman invasion of Sicily brought about the gradual re-Christianization of an island that had been under Muslim control for over 150 years. The dispossessed giant Bohemond led the First Crusade across Anatolia, captured Antioch and won an unimaginable victory at the Battle of Antioch. Crusader victory led to four new polities, all of which promoted Latin Christianity. In Iberia the Normans served native Christian lords, expanding their religion southward. Finally, Norman-backed fleets regularly assaulted Muslim-held islands in the Mediterranean, from Malta to Mahdia and Majorca.

From the rise of the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century to the 10th century Islamic powers rapidly conquered an area of land twice as large as the Roman Empire. By the end of the 10th century the Caliphates transformed from conquest-and-plunder-based rule to trade and industry. At the same time, Christian countries reformed their own political-military structures to halt this threat. The migration of Normans across the Mediterranean meant that Christian forces successfully went on the offensive after three centuries of regular defeats. This was not the first time that soldiers carrying the cross won victories against those sporting the crescent. Charles Martel and Pepin the Short seized Septimania in southern France, Charlemagne took Catalonia and a coalition of French and Burgundians retook Fraxinetum. But these victories were against mere provinces. The Normans conquered entire countries, including Sicily and Ifriqiya, while contending with Caliphates, Sultanates and Emirates.

It was the French and the Normans who inaugurated a whole new era of brutal religious warfare. The conquest of Fraxinetum in 972 inspired French priests and popes to theorize holy war. The Norman seizure of Sicily convinced religious figures that Christianization of Islamic territories was possible on a large scale. Franco-Norman and Flemish victory in the First Crusade meant that for centuries dueling religious powers regularly warred with little pity for soldiers or non-combatants. If Christianization ultimately failed in the east it succeeded entirely in the west. With Norman aid the beleaguered northern Iberian Christians led a centuries-long southward march. Nowhere were the Normans more successful than in Portugal. They besieged Lisbon, taking the future capital for the new country, then fought in other major battles. In a century Portugal expanded from a small county beset by enemies across its borders to a major European kingdom.

Another major change to Mediterranean politics that the Normans achieved was to make Sicily European. The idea that Sicily was not European is strange to those of us living in the 21stcentury. The largest island in the Mediterranean is roughly 2 kilometers from the Italian peninsula at its closest point and 200 kilometers from the Tunisian coast. Moreover, the island has been connected to the Italian peninsula religiously, culturally, linguistically and politically for roughly a millennia. However, for most of its history, Sicily was a battleground for Mediterranean powers. From Western Asia the Phoenicians first established colonies on the island around 800 BCE. Around the same time Greek city-states settled the eastern rim of Sicily and incorporated it into their trans-Mediterranean culture. Phoenicia’s most successful colony, the African empire of Carthage, conquered nearly the whole island by the third century. Carthage held Sicily until its loss in the 23-year-long First Punic War against the rising power of Rome. For over a millennia it was part of the tri-continental empires of Rome and Byzantium. Then in 827 the first Muslim soldiers from Africa assaulted the island.

In 1091 Roger Bosso took Noto, the last Islamic city still standing in Sicily. From then until present the island has been part of European polities led by European lords who imposed European culture, religion and language, whose people mostly traded and traveled across European lands. The Europeanization of Sicily was never part of the Normans’ plan; quite the opposite given. Roger I conquered Ifriqiya and many Norman lords tried to conquer the Eastern Roman Empire in part or in full. Yet, history turns on the unintentional. The Normans were among the least religiously-motivated soldiers, yet they spread Catholicism more than any other people in centuries. Likewise, the Normans aimed to conquer every territory they set foot upon. But their successes in Europe and failures in Africa brought Sicily firmly within the European orbit. The establishment of their kingdom protected Sicily from other naval powers and increasingly promoted Europeanization as time progressed.

The Normans played a decisive role in the unification of Italy. Before the Normans Italy was a geographic expression, not a country. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Italian peninsula was dominated by foreigners. From the north came the Goths and Lombards. Greeks invaded from the east as they sought to retake the Mediterranean. In the late 8th century Charlemagne incorporated the north into the Frankish Empire. By the time that the Normans arrived the peninsula was a patchwork comprised of territory under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Papal States, numerous Lombard territories and Islamic Qadits in Sicily. The Hauteville dynasty expelled the Byzantines, overran the qadits and united southern Italy and Sicily into one great kingdom. This Italian kingdom, with its unified law, political structure and culture, would last until 1861 when it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. This major polity was strong enough to regularly resist invasion by foreign powers, unlike the north, whose lands were regularly gobbled up by France, the Holy Roman Empire and Austria. When in the 19th century the powerful Kingdom of Sardinia emerged in the north and revolutionary movements broke out in the south the peninsula finally reunited in its entirety for the first time since the rule of Justinian I “the Great” of the Eastern Roman Empire. In keeping with the Norman legacy, their role in midwifing Italy was unintentional. When the Italo-Normans were confined to southern Italy they and their successors led an Italian kingdom, one which greatly impacted the course of Italian nationalism.

The Normans did not just create new polities; they destroyed them too! This was the case in southern Italy where the Normans replaced Lombard rulership with themselves before Normanizing Sicily. Perhaps the most important government that the Normans destroyed was the Zirid state of Ifriqiya. The Zirids were in a difficult position in the mid-12thcentury due to war and environmental crisis when Norman fleets ensured their downfall. While Roger I envisioned a new trans-Mediterranean, Christian empire, the greatest impact that the Normans had on central northern Africa was to clear the way for the Almohad Caliphate. This Morocco-based Berber dynasty swept across the coast with the same speed and ferocity as the Arab conquerors of early Islamic expansion, perhaps in part thanks to the Normans clearing a path for them. Ifriqiya had been weakened politically by the Normans. After the Almohads defeated Berber tribes on the far edges of Ifriqiya they increasingly met friendly indigenous Muslims who eagerly joined the new Caliphate to expel the Christian interlopers, among them the last Zirid ruler, al-Hasan. Had the Normans not divided the Ifriqiyans it is possible that the Almohads would not have been so successful.

The Norman relationship to the Eastern Roman Empire was complex. The Normans expelled the Byzantines from Italy and regularly invaded their territory. Mercenaries in the Greeks’ service frequently rebelled, leading to chaos in the east. Despite this, the Normans were among the most prized fighters in the region and Byzantine Emperors hired as many as they could even knowing they were duplicitous. The Norman heavy cavalry was particularly effective against the new Turkish foe. Furthermore, Norman involvement in the First Crusade restored enormous amounts of territory to the empire. The subsequent creation of Crusader States gave Byzantium much-needed relief from Islamic attacks from the south, even if the Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox-following Empire was not always on good terms with the French-speaking, Latin Christians. Neither saviors nor villains, the Normans were among the Byzantines’ greatest supporters and its worst enemies.

If the Normans travelled with swords in hand, they accomplished much more than winning battles. From their position at the heart of the Mediterranean they were the most important hub of cross-cultural exchange between Christendom and the Dar al-Islam. Hauteville tolerance of Muslims and Jews allowed merchants, artists and scholars to travel between two worlds. The Mediterranean World economy benefitted immensely from trading with and through the Kingdom of Sicily, none moreso than the country itself. The Hauteville kingdom became one of the greatest of its time. It was the only European country west of Byzantium to regularly mint gold coinage. Its kings funded revolutionary scientific endeavors that physicians, naturalists and geographers studied for centuries afterward. Their palaces combined Islamic, Byzantine and European art to create unrivalled masterpieces.

The Normans also spread their version of French culture to the Mediterranean. They violently introduced their martial spirit as mercenaries and soldiers. Their language became the court language of Sicily, the Levant and some courts in northeastern Spain. The cross-cultural exchanges to and between Norman states led to the birth of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca a mostly Italian-based language, which was facilitated by Norman military conquest.

The Normans in the Mediterranean remained connected to the homeland and cultural developments there spread throughout their world. When Jeanne of England sailed from Norman-controlled England to Sicily she likely brought troubadours with her who brought with them the chanson de geste and introduced chivalry to Italy. This new musical style in turn inspired the Sicilian Giacomo da Lentini to pioneer the sonnet. If the Normans gave the Mediterranean their own cultural innovations the Mediterranean responded in kind.

One final place that these people changed was their own homeland. Tens of thousands of Normans left Normandy during periods of political turmoil, depriving it of countless knights and lords. This certainly played a role in the duchy’s decline. Under Guillaume I the dukes of Normandy were more powerful than the kings of France with their possessions in England and elsewhere. Union with the House of Anjou only increased their territory until they held more land in France than the monarch. Then the duchy’s fortunes soured and Philippe-Auguste conquered it between 1202-1204 and secured his victory at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.

For two centuries the Normans refashioned the old world into something new. But everywhere they went they were a small minority of mostly aristocratic soldiers. In Iberia, Italy and Antioch the Normans adapted to the local culture and intermarried with the native peoples until they were fully assimilated, passing on some French words and their red hair.

If you ask someone in the Anglophone or Francophone world about the Norman Conquest they will inevitably tell you about Guillaume’s, or ‘William’s’, victory at Hastings in 1066. But the Norman Kingdom of Sicily was just as great as the Norman Kingdom of England; in some ways much more so. Why do so many people know the story of Guillaume I but not of Robert Guiscard? Why Hastings and not Civitate? Aliénor of Aquitaine was queen consort of England while Marguerite of Navarre ruled the Kingdom of Sicily. Yet, Eleanor, as the English say, is a regular fixture of popular culture. Eleanor of Aquitaine is a playable character in Civilization VI and Katharine Hepburn won the Academy Award for best actress for portraying her in the classic film The Lion in Winter. I don’t know of any films, games or songs which include Marguerite of Navarre despite her being possibly the most powerful woman in the world at the time.

General historical knowledge is molded by power and popular culture. George Orwell’s cryptic statement, “who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” while oversimplified, has some truth to it. Politicians and educators in Britain and the United States have promoted a version of history that is forever moving westward. ‘Western Civ’ courses often retell how power moved from Sumeria to Ancient Greece, to Classical Rome and Normandy until it finally settled in England and Colonial America. The dominance of the British Empire and the United States has ensured that story is retold in other countries under the influence of these historical superpowers.

The Francophone version of history mirrors the Anglophone one, as it emphasizes the Norman Conquest of England because of its impact on France. Guillaume I’s fateful decision to set out across the Channel united these two countries, whose kings progressively fought for dominance of Western Europe, the entire Continent and even the globe itself. In contrast, the Normans who emigrated to warmer climates had little impact on France.

Anglophone and Francophone dominance is only one explanation for why the Norman Conquest of England is so well-remembered and the Norman Conquest of the Mediterranean is largely forgotten. Another reason is that some of the places where the Normans lived have largely forgotten them. A small minority of Norman soldier-elite ruled foreign lands for a few centuries at most, before assimilating into the local culture. For Western Asia, which had cities dating back many thousands of years before Christ, Hauteville lordship of Antioch was a historical blip.

Likewise, where do the Normans fit in national narratives? So many histories of the modern era have been crafted to explain and justify the existence of nations. The Normans were traditionally seen as interlopers who overthrew the existing political structures before they were repulsed or integrated with the local population.

Finally, the Norman Conquest of the Mediterranean has fallen off of the pages of history because of how complex it was. Normal people don’t like to remember dates and numerous different characters, unlike yours truly. The Norman Conquest of England was just that: a quick invasion with a central leading figure and one big battle. In stark contrast, it took the Normans roughly a century from their first arrival in southern Italy before its conquest. It took another 39 years before southern Italy and Sicily merged into a kingdom. Guillaume I’s ascendancy is the sort of thing you can retell in a song or a film. The Hauteville rise to power in Italy would take an 8-season long HBO series.

For all of these reasons and more the Norman Conquest of the Mediterranean has largely been forgotten. Yet, these men and women changed the world between 1028-1214, or as it should be called, ‘The Norman Age.’

I want to thank all my guest readers who brought the historical quotes to life; you can find links to their shows on our website. In order they were, Her Half of History, a podcast dealing with the often-overlooked other half of humanity and the role that women played throughout time. Passed Podcast, about those historical figures who were passed over for rulership. The Political History of the United States Podcast, which unravels the complex history of this fascinating country. Spotlight on France Podcast, by Radio France Internationale which covers current events and highlights historical ones in France. Grand Dukes of the West, which follows the Valois Burgundy. The History of the Germans covering Germany’s history from 919 to 1990. The History of Westeroswhich does deep-dives in George R.R. Martin’s magical world. The History Cache Podcast, in-depth looks into little-known historical episodes. French Press, Ohio State University’s official podcast on French literature. A History of Italy, covering the history of Italy from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to present. La Historia de España, a Spanish-language podcast covering the history of Spain. And the Podcast on Germany, covering the history of the Germans from forever ago to present. Be sure to check these out and support them if you need more podcasts in your life.


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Youtube: The Royal Palace and the Palatine Chapel Palermo, Istituto Italiano di Cultura New Delhi, 2020.