William Granara

title.none: Bakman, The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily (Granara)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.013 97.02.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Granara, Harvard University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Backman, Clifford R. The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily: Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign of Frederick III, 1296-1337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xxi, 352. $59.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-49664-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.13

Backman, Clifford R. The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily: Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign of Frederick III, 1296-1337. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xxi, 352. $59.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-49664-0.

Reviewed by:

William Granara
Harvard University

The larger question of the great disparity between the economically, socially and politically advanced north of Italy and its poor, backward and underdeveloped south, a question that continues to be posed until today, provides a general framework for Clifform R. Backman's The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily. The author casts this question in a particular historical context and asks why had Sicily fallen into a state of collapse by the end of the fourteenth century after having once been "one of the strongest and wealthiest states in Europe."(xi)

Modern historians have taken essentially two divferent views, the author points out, in response to this question: there are those who view Sicily in a continuous state of backwardness, due to geographical and hereditary reasons; and there are those, predominantly Sicilian, who maintain that the island was in a constant position of victimization, being the target of foreign invasions and political and economic exploitation. The twentieth-century Italian historian, Benedetto Croce, sees the Sicilian Vespers, the 1282 Sicilian popular uprising against the occupying Angevins, as a point of "permanent rupture between Sicily and its traditional political and cultural partner in Southern Italy, Naples" (xii), and the major reason for Sicily's decline.

Contemporary historians have adopted the view of "economic dualism" that sees Sicily's transformation from a varied agricultural economy to grain monoculture as a key factor in Sicily's loss of economic and political independence and importance.

Backman's comprehensive study addresses the "Sicilian question" by focusing primarily on the reign of Frederick III, as the book's subtitle suggests. Backman's exhaustive use of primary and secondary sources results in an in-depth study that offers a series of detailed pictures of the many facets of life in late thirteenth- and early fourteenth- century Sicily. Although he pays careful attention to economic and political factors, the author provides us with information and explanations of ethnic rivalries, administrative and social structures, spiritual life, and demographic patterns to support his thesis that Sicily's decline was due to a combination of complex and interdependent factors.

Chapter 1 starts with the precarious situation of Sicily in the post-Vespers period. Backman provides useful geographical and historical information, including: the papal fiat of 1265 which granted the Angevins control of Sicily, ending Hohenstaufen rule; the Sicilian revolt against the Angevins in 1282; the ensuing hostilities between the Sicilians and the Angevin kingdom of Naples; and finally, Sicily's overtures to the Crown of Aragon, thus beginning the "Catalan" period of Sicilian history. Backman returns to the two opposing views of the Sicilian problem and argues convincingly for a middle position, blaming both the Sicilians aod its foreign occupiers for the problems that would plague the island throughout the next century, including its isolation from the mainland. Backman sees Frederick III as a true native son whose ambitions ended with Sicily, in contrast to the Frederick II and Charles d'Anjou's dreams of "empire."

Backman raises questions of geography and climate, natural and man-made disasters, and discusses in general terms aspects of spiritual life, the rise of a reformist movement and apocalyptic fervor which strained relations between Sicily and the papacy. He introduces the reader to areas of tension between the rural population and residents of Sicily's coastal towns, and the withdrawal into "localism" of Sicilian daily life.

Chapter 2 focuses on Sicily's relations with powers outsides its borders and the effects of these relations on the local scene, including its contentious relations with Angevin Naples and its role in the political squabbles of northern Italy. Backman supports modern interpretations that Sicily's "slow slide into agricultural monoculture" (30) and its loss of northern markets for its grain as reasons for its commercial and economic deterioration. With a close reading of the sources, Backman cites civil wars, The Black Death, famine, emigration and the decline of the birth rate as equally major contributors to Sicily's fourteenth-century decline as any foreign threat. Backman richly documents perennial tensions between the rural areas and coastal towns, the loss of an agricultural base, and the growing problems of urban crowding and local rivalries. He concludes that, in addition to natural and political forces beyond the island's control, the rulership embarked upon foolish and expensive foreign adventures, resulting in its "gross over extension of its power, resources, and loyalties." (81)

Chapter 3 e~compasses a detailed study of urban society, and Sicily's post-Vespers attempts to create a new independent state. Backman discusses social, commercial, administrative and fiscal structures, and the roles they played in these attempts. As Frederick was losing his ability to maintain order over the island, new local rivalries and loyalties were taking shape, and there emerged the power of a few "large families" who eventually came to gain effective control of the island. Wealthy traders and businessmen controlled the towns while the barons ruled the countryside. Backman cleverly weaves graphic accounts of urban decay and natural disasters into his narrative.

By contrast, in Chapter 4 the author turns his attention to rural Sicily and discusses its successes and failures as they compare to those of the city. He paints a vivid picture of feudal life, feudal laws, and the sanctity of the vow, which he traces back to the Norman rulers whose conquests, he remarks, "marked a sharp break with the Muslim past." (157) (His brief description of rural Sicily under Muslim rule as "independent domains of warlord princes" is inaccurate, given the explicit rules and regulations in Islamic law on the division and maintenance of land captured in war.) Backman argues the increasing entrenchment of the barons as large landowners and virtual masters of the Sicilian countryside. Taking a middle position, Backman asserts that under Frederick's rule the barons' restoration of the ancient "latifondi" provided at least at first some semblance of central order and protection to the peasants, but eventually evolved into bitter struggles to dominate the interior in the face of a depletion of the rural labor force and the decline of its economy.

Reworking the central themes of rural depopulation, the deterioration in the quality of urban life, economic decline and social inequity, the author devotes Chapter 5 to religious life in medieval Sicily. Once again, Backman creatively and deftly uses primary and secondary sources to draw a complex picture of spiritual life, at the same time intensely fervent and troubled. He narrates instances of local rivalries, problematic relations with a wealthy and despised church, anti-clericalism, Frederick's reformist movement, and apocalyptic fervor amidst an illiterate but pious population. There is discussion of Sicily's role in Crusader history and the weakening position of Sicily's Jewish and Muslim communities in Frederick's attempts to reform his kingdom and revitalize the Christian community.

In the preface of the book the author discusses his intention to look beyond economic and political factors in "the Sicilian problem." (xvi) In Chapter 6, Backman, true to his word, expands out into the margins of society and discusses the role of slaves, pirates, and women as mirror reflections of a society in decline. Drawing on Frederick's "Ordinationes generales," promulgated and published in 1309- 10 after Frederick's evangelical conversion, Backman shows how these groups reflect the changing times. As more and more men died in battle, women took on greater societal significance as child bearers and spiritual guides. He shows how the institution of slavery was linked to the fate of Sicily's Jews and Muslims. He argues that the increase of piracy was a result of the growing Turkish and Mongol threats to the Mediterranean.

Backman's Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily is a thorough study of an era of medieval Sicily that taps into and brings out crucial material from archival sources. Because of its dense and highly referential writing, it would be most useful to the highly interested and knowledgeable reader. However, its richness lies in exactly what the author set out to do, i.e., to look at the many dimensions of medieval Sicilian life, historical, political, economic, demographic, religious, and cultural, that contributed to its decline and fall.

The book's subtitle, Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign Of Frederick III, 1296-1337, is, in my view, more accurate than the title. This is a [minor] point with which this reviewer takes issue. Medieval Sicily, broadly defined, had many declines and falls, as it did rises, among which were those that occurred in Frederick's forty-year reign. As the author states repeatedly, fifteenth-century Sicily would witness a robwst economic recovery, albeit under circumstances different from its previous periods. In fact, both the Muslim and Norman periods of Sicily (from the ninth to the end of the twelfth century), as integral parts of its "medieval" history as its "Angevin" and "Catalan" periods, also witnessed declines and falls (and rises) similar in nature to those under Frederick III, and due to many of the same reasons. Would a sixth-generation Arabic-speaking Muslim, lamenting the loss of his beloved homeland Sicily, be any less a Sicilian than a second generation Lombard or Catalan?

That aside, The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily: Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign Of Frederick III, 1296-1337 is an excellent study of its subject and a magnificent contribution to our knowledge and understanding of Sicily's long, intricate, and often misunderstood history.