09.10.05, Borghese, Carlo I d'Angiò e il Mediterraneo

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Michael Angold

The Medieval Review 09.10.05

Borghese, Gian Luca. Carlo I d'Angiò e il Mediterraneo: Politica, diplomazia e commercio internazionale prima dei Vespri. Collection de l'École française de Rome 411. Rome: École française de Rome, 2009. Pp. 336. ISBN: 978-2-7283-0827-9.

Reviewed by:
Michael Angold
University of Edinburgh
michael.angold@btinternet.com

Much has been written about Charles of Anjou. This is hardly surprising because, even before the death of his brother, the French king Louis IX (1226-1270), he had emerged as one of the dominating figures of his day. He was the youngest, possibly posthumous, son of Louis VIII (1223-1226) and had originally been intended for the Church. The death of an older brother brought him the county of Anjou as an appanage and marriage in 1246 the county of Provence. Three years later he took part in his brother's disastrous crusade against Egypt, but managed to return home with his military reputation enhanced. He then set about imposing his authority over Provence with a ruthlessness, which became something of a trademark. His standing was such that in 1252 in the aftermath of the death of the Emperor Frederick II (1212-50) Pope Innocent IV offered him the kingdom of Sicily, or the Regno, as it is often called. After some reflection he turned down the offer, which was to be made again in 1263 by Pope Urban IV. This time he accepted. It no longer looked as though he was being asked to capture the moon, as Richard of Cornwall, an earlier papal choice for the Regno, had described the task. But then the latter did not have the resources, which Charles had at his disposal. Even so, the conquest of the Regno required two hard-fought battles in 1266 and 1268. Victory gave Charles the Norman inheritance in southern Italy and Sicily and with it immense possibilities. It brought him into contact and often into conflict with all the Mediterranean powers.

This is the subject of Borghese's book, which builds on a growing dissatisfaction with the standard accounts of Charles of Anjou's Mediterranean policies set out in Sir Steven Runciman's Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958) and D.J. Geanakoplos's Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West, 1258-1282 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959). These took at face value the accusations made against Charles by hostile chroniclers. They portrayed him as a megalomaniac, who was obsessed with the reconquest of Constantinople. The Charles of Anjou, who emerges from the present study, is quite different. He was always the realist. His Mediterranean strategy had, as its most important objective, strengthening his position in the Regno, not conquering Constantinople nor recovering Jerusalem. Borghese has deployed as his main material a different kind of evidence from the chronicle accounts used by Runciman and Geanakoplos. He has turned to the registers of the Angevin chancellery, which were destroyed by allied bombing raids on Naples in 1943. Inspired by Riccardo Filangieri--it happens very appropriately to be the fiftieth anniversary of his death--a team of archivists has undertaken the task of their reconstitution on the basis of already published documents, which are not always easily accessible and have tended to be overlooked. Borghese has undertaken one of the basic tasks of a medieval historian: to test chronicle accounts against documentary evidence. It is an exercise that almost always reveals the limitations of the former. Chroniclers seek to bring out the significance of the past. Even at its most rudimentary this involves a degree of distortion. The documentary evidence, of the kind used by Borghese, consists in the main of the administrative acts necessary to achieve a ruler's wishes. They reveal the practicalities of a situation, of which Charles of Anjou was only too well aware.

His major success, as king of Sicily, was reducing Tunis once again to tributary status. It was from Tunis that Charles's enemies organised an uprising in Sicily, which delayed his conquest of the island until 1269. Charles probably did not possess the resources at this stage to mount a punitive expedition on his own. He did not have to do so, because in 1270 his brother Louis IX diverted his final crusade to Tunis, which has always seemed a most unlikely target for a crusade. It certainly bamboozled the Genoese, who were responsible for ferrying the crusading army across the Mediterranean. Tunis was a goal that suited none of the participants, with the obvious exception of Charles of Anjou, who was the only beneficiary. With the legal tag Cui Bonum in mind Borghese assumes that Charles engineered the diversion of the crusade to Tunis, but this hardly squares with the solid documentation he has assembled, which reveals Charles's obvious lack of preparation for his brother's final choice of destination. It meant that he had the greatest difficulty in assembling the shipping necessary to transport his own forces. It meant too that he arrived late to find that his brother was already dead. But once at Tunis he certainly knew how to exploit the situation to his own advantage. It was his one unalloyed success.

The kind of documentation used by Borghese anchors a ruler's undertakings in the practicalities of planning and almost inevitably gives them a veneer of realism. It is Borghese's contention that Charles of Anjou's foreign adventures were designed to strengthen his position in the Regno. But was this really the case? Take the crusader states, for example! His intervention there was for reasons of prestige mixed with a degree of idealism. After the death of his brother Louis he became their de facto protector and in 1272 mediated a peace of ten years and ten months between the crusader states and the Mamluks, who threatened their destruction. He was therefore only responding to responsible opinion, such as it was in the crusader states, which looked to him as their only possible saviour, when five years later he accepted the crown of Jerusalem. Borghese suggests quite persuasively that the ideal ruler of the kingdom of Jerusalem sketched by Fidenzio of Padua in his Liber Recuperationis Terre Sancte owes much to Charles of Anjou. (Incidentally, Fidenzio's name does not appear in the book's index, which is quite erratic.) Charles fulfilled his responsibilities to his new kingdom by supporting it with money, men, and supplies. It is difficult to see how this worked to the advantage of the Regno, for it was a considerable drain on the exchequer and contributed to the increasingly oppressive character of Angevin rule.

But Charles's support for the crusader states was nothing like as expensive as his Greek policy. He had a legitimate interest in the Ionian Islands and the Adriatic coasts opposite southern Italy, because they were already dependencies of the Regno. But he immediately found himself drawn into the power struggle between the Byzantine Emperor Michael Palaiologos and a series of petty rulers, Greek and Frank, who were determined to protect their independence rather than to submit to the Byzantine emperor. They turned to the Angevin ruler as a way of blocking Byzantine expansion. The first to approach Charles were William de Villehardouin, the Frankish ruler of the Peloponnese, and Baldwin II, the exiled Latin Emperor of Constantinople. In May 1267 he concluded separate treaties with them. Since there was a clause in the treaty with the Latin Emperor whereby Charles of Anjou promised to provide him with a force of 2,000 cavalry within seven years for the reconquest of Constantinople, it has always been assumed that this was his major target, which was certainly what the Byzantine emperor professed to believe. Borghese, on the other hand, is convinced that the purpose behind these treaties was defensive: to help Charles of Anjou to establish himself in the Regno. The documentation deployed by Borghese establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Charles had no serious intentions of conquering Constantinople. Quite fortuitously, he derived immediate benefit from his treaty with William de Villehardouin, when the latter provided invaluable help at the battle of Tagliacozzo (1268), which finally secured the Regno for Charles of Anjou. But the main purpose of the treaty was quite different. It had to do with the image, which he was creating for himself, as the protector of the Frankish territories in the Levant. If there was an element of self-interest, it lay in their potential as a recruiting ground for loyal servants and soldiers, who would reinforce the French element in the government of the Regno. A surprising number of Charles's most trusted commanders came from families distinguished for service in the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Frankish Peloponnese, or Lusignan Cyprus. They made it difficult for him to abandon his commitments in Greece and Albania, despite the costs incurred. They involved him in a very expensive war, in which his opponent the Emperor Michael Palaiologos (1259-1282) usually had the upper hand. It had very little to do with the security of the Regno and a great deal to do with prestige.

This struggle with the Byzantine emperor was resolved in March 1282 by the Sicilian Vespers. As Sir Steven Runciman made clear in a judicious appendix to his Sicilian Vespers, the Byzantines had no part to play in fomenting the Sicilian uprising. This apparent lack of a direct connection with Charles's Mediterranean policies has persuaded Borghese to stop his study short of the Vespers. Borghese also thinks that a single event has distorted any fair assessment of the development of Charles of Anjou's foreign policy. What is the point, he wonders, of starting from its failure? This would be all very well, were it not for the fact that he insists on its realism, when the evidence he deploys reveals that in one important respect it was anything but realistic. Its essential weakness lay in the excessive fiscal demands, which it imposed on the Regno. These created the resentments, which finally erupted in March 1282. Borghese is in something of a dilemma. He wants to write history blocking out subsequent developments. In British terms he is trying to avoid the trap of the Whig theory of history, but this path has its pitfalls too. It is easy to miss signs of impending disaster. There are parallels with the recent banking crisis, which very few people saw coming, but allowed many to be wise after the event. The Angevin regime was equally unprepared for the Sicilian Vespers, but the signs were there. Borghese's absorption in the details of Angevin administration means that, if he too does not miss them, he tends to dismiss them. He interprets his evidence in a way designed to emphasise the pragmatism of Angevin strategy. However, his material is full of incidents, which shed light on the growing dissatisfaction that would explode in the Sicilian Vespers. He has plenty of examples of the way Charles of Anjou bullied and intimidated the provincial administrations in his constant search for men and materiel for his foreign ventures, but they elicit little in the way of comment. Borghese is far more interested in how Charles of Anjou's ambitions were sustained rather than in their consequences or motivation. He has failed to make his case that behind Charles of Anjou's foreign policy was an overriding concern for the security of the Regno. This would be, I would say, to misunderstand the psychology of medieval kingship. The driving force behind Charles of Anjou seems much more to have been the search for status and prestige.

Charles of Anjou was not a realist in any modern sense, but neither was he the megalomaniac, who emerges from the Byzantine sources. Borghese's final chapter considers the Byzantine image of Charles of Anjou. He has no difficulty in demonstrating what an artificial construct it is. The wonder is that it has commanded the credence of so many modern historians, who have tended to privilege George Pachymeres, the main Byzantine historian of the period, over his western counterparts. Borghese convincingly demolishes the credibility of Pachymeres's account of Louis IX's deathbed reception of two Byzantine envoys and assurance of peaceful intentions towards Byzantium. The scene is entirely tendentious and designed to create an idealised image of the French king, which would throw his brother's evil character into sharper relief. Borghese is puzzled that in The Sicilian Vespers Runciman has nothing to say about this Byzantine embassy, but preferred (152) to present Louis IX as an enemy of the Byzantines without, however, providing any references. Though failing rather unusually to give chapter and verse Runciman was relying on a passage from the History of George Akropolites (§37.1-2), which refers to Louis's support for the Latin Emperor Baldwin II's overland expedition in 1238 to Constantinople. The circumstances were different. Louis was then performing the role of protector of the Latin Empire, later taken on by his brother, and was therefore judged an enemy by the historian of the Nicaean Empire, who was picking up on opinion at the Nicaean court, just as Pachymeres was reflecting Michael Palaiologos's fears of Charles of Anjou. These emerge from the two autobiographies, which the Byzantine emperor wrote at the very end of his life. They reveal how much the emperor needed to exaggerate the Angevin threat, in an attempt--unavailing, as it turned out--to unite church and society behind him. Lack of appropriate evidence makes it difficult to judge whether Charles had equal need of Michael Palaiologos, but what is clear is that their struggle compromised the Byzantine Empire and split the Regno and thus radically altered the political landscape of the Mediterranean.

Borghese has made a valuable contribution to an important episode of medieval history, but occasionally forgets that the documentary evidence he uses can be as deceptive as the testimony of chroniclers. That a ruler has an administrative machine at his beck and call does not make the ends he pursues any more realistic.

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Michael Angold

University of Edinburgh