Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.05.10, Dunbabin, The French in the Kingdom of Sicily, 1266-1305

13.05.10, Dunbabin, The French in the Kingdom of Sicily, 1266-1305

In 1266 Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France and the pope's champion in Italy, conquered the kingdom of southern Italy and Sicily from the heirs of Frederick II. Although many participants in this and subsequent campaigns in the Regno came from Charles' counties of Anjou, Provence and Maine, there were also large contingents from the kingdom of France. Indeed, this northern French support for Charles of Anjou and his son Charles II remained steadfast for the next forty years or so. French financial contributions poured into Angevin coffers at the same time as many Frenchmen journeyed to southern Italy to perform military service and take up administrative and ecclesiastical posts. The aid that the Angevin dynasty received from northern France proved vital for its control of the Regno but the benefits--as Jean Dunbabin suggests in this four-part study--were not as one-sided as they may seem. The close links between the two dynasties opened a window of opportunity that facilitated an influx of influences from southern Italy to northern France. Yet by the early fourteenth century, the Peace of Caltabellotta (1302) and French preoccupations with Flanders meant that the movement of Frenchmen toward the Regno had "dwindled to the almost unnoticeable" (2). It is the argument of the book, however, that while the duration of those contacts was brief, their impact on the society and institutions in the kingdom of France was "diffuse, in some spheres long-lasting, and felt by a broad section of the population" (4).

Part I surveys the channels of communication facilitating the northward transfer of customs and ideas out of Angevin Italy during the crucial years 1266-1305. After a brief but useful description of the land and sea routes linking Paris and Naples (chapter 1), Dunbabin turns to the opportunities for contacts between the rulers of the two dynasties (chapter 2). Charles of Anjou and Louis IX were in frequent communication from 1265 until Louis' death in 1270, during which time messengers and envoys shuttled regularly between the two courts on business related to the Regno, Louis's crusading plans, and matters concerning Charles' counties in the kingdom of France. Charles also cultivated a strong relationship with Louis's heir Philip III. Through his lawyers, Charles was often in touch with the Parlement of Paris, while other envoys of his were in northern France to procure French cloth, robes and headdresses for the royal household in Naples. The Sicilian Vespers revolt of 1282 and Charles of Anjou's death in 1285 precipitated years of conflict with the Aragonese, so that that Charles II was a regular visitor to France well into the 1290s.

Visits by Angevin royals and their representatives no doubt reminded some in northern France of the strong bonds between their ruler and the house of Anjou. As chapter 3 makes clear, however, far more people would have experienced those bonds through the contributions that they made to prop up an Angevin regime whose financial needs "were almost boundless" (56). The demands made on the French church were especially high, as also on the inhabitants of Flanders. Substantial loans came from the French monarchy, the nobility, and merchants, as well as those who went to fight in southern Italy. There were also voluntary donations made in return for spiritual benefits since the wars of the Regno frequently fell under the umbrella of a crusade.

The individual and collective experiences of the many men and some women from northern France who stayed in southern Italy from 1266 until 1308 come under the spotlight in parts 2 and 3 (chapter 4 and chapters 5-9 respectively). Chapters 8 and 9 provide ample evidence that most Frenchmen travelled to the Regno to fight. Some were encouraged to do so by the spiritual privileges offered in return, but presumably many also fought in Italy because they were called upon by their lords. Among the latter, Charles of Anjou enjoyed a formidable military reputation, as did Robert of Artois, who took command of military operations in the Regno after Charles' death. Moreover, the Vespers revolt was widely viewed in France as an affront to French honor. Many noblemen who responded to Charles of Anjou's call for help in 1282 had either fought with him in 1266 or were their descendants or relatives. For some knights and aristocrats there was also the appeal of a fief, a pension or an office in return for military service. In the end, however, many Frenchmen who received fiefs in the Regno were all too often unable or unwilling to hold them for long. Combat operations and disease claimed the lives of many, while absence from the kingdom for more than a year almost always entailed an automatic confiscation of fiefs.

Prominent French aristocratic figures and lineages present in the Regno for an extended period of time are discussed in detail in chapters 5-7. By showing the extent of their commitment to the Angevin cause, Dunbabin argues that these groups played a particularly important role in the dissemination northward of knowledge and ideas derived from their service in Italy. Their connections to the Regno were especially close either on account of their friendship and, for some, kinship, with Charles of Anjou, or because their family's history of involvement in Eastern Mediterranean affairs dovetailed with Charles' own military and political plans in that region.

Chapter 5 reconstructs the remarkable career of Robert II, count of Artois, posthumous son of Louis IX's brother Robert who had died in Egypt in 1250, and cousin to king Philip IV. Robert participated in Louis' 1270 crusade and met Charles of Anjou during his return to France. Thus began Robert's association with the Regno, which lasted almost until his death. Robert was in southern Italy in 1274-5, and again from 1282 until 1291 when he held high-ranking military and administrative posts. Following his return to Artois, Robert seemed keen to introduce some of the "tough surveillance practices" (111) characteristic of the highly exploitative regime he had served in southern Italy. Robert pushed through further bureaucratic and fiscal innovations in Artois between 1291 and 1299 under the direction of Rinaldo Cognetti, who had previously served Robert as controller of the ports in Apulia. More significantly in the context of this book is Robert's influence at the French court of Philip IV, which Dunbabin discusses in Chapters 14 and 15.

The connections between the Dampierre counts of Flanders and the house of Anjou are the focus of Chapter 6. The bond was forged in the 1250s when Charles of Anjou lent critical military assistance to Gui Dampierre against his two half-brothers. In 1265 Gui's son Robert married Charles' daughter Blanche before joining the Angevin army heading for Italy. Although Blanche's death in 1270 prompted Robert's departure for Flanders, the links with Charles of Anjou and the Regno endured. Thus when Robert remarried the choice fell on Yolande of Nevers, sister to Charles' wife Marguerite. Robert's brother Philip arrived in southern Italy after 1284, staying until 1303 when he was forced to give up his fiefs to return to Flanders. The Dampierres' sustained involvement in the affairs of the Regno took a heavy toll on their finances and on those of the Flemish population yet because that involvement was brief its longer-term impact on the county was rather limited.

From the time of his accession to the throne of Sicily until the revolt of the Vespers, Charles of Anjou pursued an ambitious and complex project to extend Angevin influence in the eastern Mediterranean. In chapter 7, Dunbabin examines French aristocratic lineages that gravitated toward the Regno because of their family connections with the Levant and the Latin empire of Constantinople. Groups such as the Courtenays, the Villehardouins, the Montforts, and the Briennes believed that Charles of Anjou represented their best hope of recovering lost titles and fiefs in Greece and in the Byzantine heartland. In the end, however, many of these families "found themselves doing more for Charles and his successors than the Angevins were prepared to do for them" (133).

Part 4 finally turns to the tricky issue of the Regno's impact on northern French society, culture and institutions. Eight chapters examine distinct areas of possible influence, namely royal ideology, religion, education, medicine and science, law, administration, navy and army, and literature. Chapter 10 offers an engaging discussion of how Charles of Anjou's diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Hungary may have shaped the emergence of the concept of beata stirps or saintly lineage within the French royal family. Viewed in this context, Charles' energetic support for the canonization of his brother Louis, as well his promotion of the cult of their sister Isabelle, may be seen as a desire on Charles' part to establish the ideological underpinnings for a long-term project embracing the entire Capetian lineage.

Chapter 11 looks at the Regno's influence on French ecclesiastical politics and religious practices. Dunbabin is skeptical of claims that the crusades in southern Italy, especially those fought between 1282 and 1302, weakened the French crusading ethos. Rather, by emphasizing the enduring French commitment to the crusades in southern Italy, Dunbabin argues that the Regno may have in fact bolstered, rather than weakened, French commitment to papal crusades, including those outside the Holy Land. French relations with Rome also emerged strengthened during the brief pontificate of Celestine V (July to December 1294), a former hermit from the Abruzzo over whom Charles II of Anjou came to exercise considerable influence. Among the twelve pro-Angevin cardinals appointed by Celestine V were five Frenchmen, including two who later played a significant role in the quarrel between Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII.

Chapters 12 and 13 examine possible links between the universities of Naples and Paris and the transfer of medical and scientific knowledge from the Regno to northern France. From its foundation at the time of Frederick II, the university at Naples enjoyed strong ties to a royal court eager to draw on the expertise of graduates in medicine and the law. That tradition continued after the Angevin conquest. Charles of Anjou's substantial support for the university helped establish a medical faculty there. Charles and his son Charles II were also particularly keen to attract lawyers from other parts of Italy, whom they subsequently also employed as envoys and diplomats. And the two rulers' patronage of the Dominican studium in Naples brought some distinguished theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas, to the Regno. That these royal initiatives encouraged links between the universities of Naples and Paris is not in doubt. Still unclear, however, is the extent to which the Angevin dynasty's control of the Regno was directly responsible for these developments.

Chapter 14 makes the case for the diffusion in France of legal norms and practices originating in the Regno. On his accession to the throne of Sicily Charles of Anjou continued the practice of acting at once as the source of royal law and the final court of appeal. Although in the early fourteenth century other European monarchies were also moving along the path of greater legal sovereignty, Dunbabin believes that in France that shift was much more pronounced, such that in the years 1266-c.1305 "French royal law became increasingly similar to that of the Regno...and that the facts are compatible on occasion with direct borrowing" (235). Among other things, Dunbabin suggests that the sumptuary laws enacted by Philip IV in 1294 were modeled on similar legislation introduced by Robert of Artois during his years of service in the Regno. Dunbabin also sees parallels between the harsh punishment inflicted by Robert on Adenolfo IV, count of Acerra, who was found guilty first of treason and later of sodomy, and similar accusations and punishment in France against Pierre de la Broce in 1278 and the French Templars in 1307.

Chapter 15 focuses on the development of new French administrative practices in imitation of those found in the Regno. Dunbabin concurs with the view that the reign of Philip IV represented a turning point in that regard. Yet while previous historians emphasized the role of Philip IV's civil servants, Dunbabin suggests that Robert of Artois may again have provided the critical impetus for change. Robert's presence at the French court from 1295 to 1301 coincided with innovations in three key administrative spheres, namely the introduction of direct taxation, the rise of "national" assemblies, and emergence of a fully-developed royal chancery. War in Gascony and the deteriorating situation in Flanders resulted in the levying of a hearth tax on the southern inhabitants of France in 1294, followed by realm-wide impositions in 1296, 1297 and 1300. These efforts bring to mind the subventio generalis that was well-established in the Regno. There are likewise echoes of administrative practices from the Regno in the great assemblies called by Philip IV to challenge the authority of Pope Boniface VIII. And Robert's chancery may have served as a model for innovations within the French realm.

The impact of the Regno on French military developments comes under scrutiny in chapter 16. Dunbabin rightly points out that the wars in the Regno provided French knights and foot-soldiers with an opportunity to gain valuable combat experience during an almost half century of near-complete absence of fighting on French soil. At the same time there is little evidence that any new military lessons or techniques were learned and transmitted from southern Italy. Indeed, one view--which the author refutes--is that service in southern Italy may have had a negative influence on the conduct of military operations in France, pushing French commanders toward an over- reliance on heavy cavalry, with disastrous results when the French army encountered the Flemish at Kortijk in 1302.

The closing chapter (chapter 17) offers a brief look at how the Angevin court in Naples brought together Provençal, northern French and southern Italian influences that may have shaped French literature, music and lyrical poetry during the period under study. Drawing on recent scholarship, Dunbabin points to Angevin influences on the emergence in northern France of the virelai which brought together in a new way a combination of song, dance and music; to Adam de la Halle's Jeu de Robin et de Marion, produced when the author accompanied his patron Robert of Artois to southern Italy in 1283; and to Adenet le Roi's L'enfances Renier, that drew on le Roi's memories of the journey through Sicily and southern Italy during his return from the crusade in Tunis.

Dunbabin deserves congratulation for her careful treatment of a difficult subject. Through her deft reading of Angevin, French and papal sources, along with her ability to tap into the substantial secondary literature from France, Italy and the English-speaking academic world, Dunbabin has produced an engaging and thoughtful work that significantly adds to our understanding of the links between northern France and Angevin Italy in the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.