15.03.07, Theotokis, The Norman Campaigns in the Balkans

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G. A. Loud

The Medieval Review 15.03.07

Theotokis, Georgios. The Norman Campaigns in the Balkans, 1081-1108. Warfare in History. Woodbridge:Boydell, 2014. Pp. xii, 262. ISBN: 9781843839217 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

G. A. Loud
University of Leeds
G.A.Loud@leeds.ac.uk

At first sight the title of this book is something of a misnomer, in that only a third of the text is actually devoted to the campaigns waged in the Balkans against the Byzantine Empire by Robert Guiscard, the Norman Duke of Apulia, and his son Bohemond. This reflects the relative paucity of evidence concerning these undoubtedly dramatic events, by far the most detailed account of which comes in the Alexiad of Anna Komnena, written at least sixty years after the earlier expedition of Guiscard, and almost forty years after that of his son in 1107-8. To place these campaigns in context—or, the uncharitable might suggest, to pad out this study, and the thesis on which it is based, to book-length--the first two-thirds of the volume comprise a lengthy introduction to the military background, both in eleventh-century Normandy and southern Italy, and in Byzantium. These introductory chapters do indeed paint with a very broad brush. To what extent a summary discussion of castle-building in Anglo-Norman England, or a history of the Byzantine theme system going back to Heraclius, really enhances our understanding of the conflict between Guiscard and Alexios Komnenos is a moot point. At the same time, the concentration on warfare and tactics means that the political and social background to these campaigns in the Balkans is very hastily sketched. In other words, this book tends to fall between two stools, being neither a full study of warfare and military affairs in Norman Italy--still much needed--or in Byzantium--rather less so in the light of a number of excellent modern works--nor a fully-rounded discussion of the conflict between the Normans of Apulia and Byzantium.

The discussion of the Byzantine army and navy is, to be fair, very competent and not uninteresting; and while inevitably drawing heavily upon the works of John Haldon, John Pryor, Warren Treadgold and others, it also benefits from a careful reading of the various military manuals, mainly from the ninth to the eleventh century, that give us insights into Byzantine strategy and tactics. Theotokis argues that such treatises, far from being purely antiquarian, remained part of the military education of senior Byzantine officers, and that the lessons derived from them informed the strategy adopted by Alexios Komnenos following his initial defeat by the Normans outside Dyrrachium in October 1081. This strategy was ultimately successful in thwarting both the attack of the early 1080s and that of 1107-8. So, while the excursus into the earlier centuries of Byzantine history is perhaps unnecessary, the core of this chapter is certainly relevant to the later discussion of the campaigns of 1081-1108.

However, the chapter on "Norman military institutions in southern Italy" is less satisfactory, and the author only occasionally shows how the discussion here enhances our understanding of the Balkan campaigns. He does (rightly) point to the importance of paid troops in Norman Italy--and indeed he would have found more evidence for these had he also used twelfth-century sources. (I would, however, be careful about calling these "mercenaries"--they were not for the most part mercenaries in the strict and pejorative sense of the word, such as the much-feared "Brabançons" of the later twelfth-century.) But the discussion of the south Italian background as a whole appears to suffer from a fundamental misconception, that there was a significant import of "military institutions" and practices from Normandy to southern Italy in the eleventh century. While one would obviously not deny that there was some influence, the administrative and military institutions of Normandy were still largely inchoate at the time when the majority of Normans emigrated to southern Italy. As the late Marjorie Chibnall pointed out, there are only some four references to fiefs in Norman sources before 1066, and three of these would appear to be after c. 1050. The emergence of customs of military obligation--"institutions" is perhaps the wrong word--in southern Italy was slow. We have, for example, no reference to a time-limited term of service as part of the obligations agreed in return for the grant of a fief until at the earliest 1087, and probably somewhat later. Here our evidence is one undated charter, which is not from southern Italy proper but from the Abruzzi diocese of Chieti--a region that was less fully colonised by the Normans than the rest of the south--although the bishop granting the fief was almost certainly a Frenchman. We cannot assume therefore that this was general practice throughout the south. And as a number of scholars have shown, most notably Vera von Falkenhausen, the new Norman rulers of the Mezzogiorno drew heavily on indigenous administrators and practices of government, far more than they did on any Norman models. The Norman and French immigrants, as Theotokis does mention, were relatively few; and while much of the existing ruling class on the mainland was displaced, by no means all were, and intermarriage was probably the rule rather than the exception.

It might have been better if the author had eschewed some or all of the discussion of warfare and military affairs in Normandy and England, and devoted more careful attention to southern Italy. Thus, for example, we have a discussion of castles and warfare in the south (not really linked with the later account of the Balkan campaigns) that seems to be based on two or three secondary articles only, and is limited to Byzantine south Italy and Sicily. Yet the use of fortifications in Lombard south Italy, which certainly predates the Normans, was very different--here castelli were largely fortified villages rather than "castles" in the north European sense. And while the archaeology of the central Middle Ages in southern Italy is still in relative infancy, there is a good bit more available than one would gather by reading the account here.

While Theotokis has carefully examined the eleventh-century south Italian chronicle evidence, such as it is, he also appears to be less familiar with the documentary evidence--it is revealing that several volumes of charters are included in the "secondary" section of his bibliography. Indeed, a number of quite elementary errors suggest that his knowledge of Norman Italy lacks real depth. So, for example, in his initial discussion of his sources, he writes that the continuator of the Montecassino Chronicle of Leo Marsicanus "was a certain Peter the Deacon" (11). This ignores the complexity of the later stages of this chronicle, where there were at least two continuators before Peter, who probably only wrote the very last part of the chronicle, for all his mendacious claims to have been responsible for the work of his predecessors. There is a very considerable literature about this topic: not least in English by Herbert Bloch, H.E.J. Cowdrey and the present reviewer, as well as by Hartmut Hoffmann, the chronicle's editor, and a number of earlier German scholars. When we turn to the military campaigns in southern Italy, we should note that neither Salerno nor Naples were papal territory (as is alleged on p. 125). We are variously told that the second excommunication of Henry IV of Germany was in November 1078 (139) and June 1080 (148). It was in fact at Gregory VII's Lenten synod in March 1080; and Gregory and Robert Guiscard met in June 1080 at Ceprano, on the border between Norman Italy and the papal lands, not at Canossa, which is in northern Apulia (148). There was no "Count of Brienne" involved in Guiscard's expedition against Byzantium (168, 174)--the reference is to Briennus the constable, attested in several south Italian charters, and never with a comital title. Briennus was his first name, not a family name or title, and it suggests that he was a Breton--a view backed up by the considerable authority of Léon-Robert Ménager. There is no evidence that Henry IV intended to campaign south of Rome in 1084, and by that time much of his army had already gone home. There was no danger posed by the German army to Guiscard's capital Salerno in that year (178). Ralph of Caen was not the nephew of Bohemond (186)--he was the biographer of Bohemond's nephew Tancred--and the chronology of Bohemond's disputes with his half-brother Roger Borsa is a good bit more problematic than is suggested here. Richard of the Principate and Humphrey of Montescaglioso were certainly not "the two most powerful and influential Apulian magnates after Roger Borsa himself" (187). Richard of the Principate was a younger son, and the county of the Principato, held by his elder brother Robert (d. 1099) was anyway not in Apulia--the principality in question was that of Salerno. Humphrey of Montescaglioso was much less powerful than for example the Counts of Conversano and Loritello, both descended from brothers of Robert Guiscard, or the Counts of Ariano--relations of Guiscard's first wife. That the lords of Montescaglioso did not enjoy a comital title is significant in this respect. And when Theotokis turns to discuss Bohemond's role on the First Crusade, one should note that Duquq of Damascus and Ridwan of Aleppo were the nephews of the Sultan Malik-Shah, not his sons (191). Some of these mistakes may simply be carelessness--but collectively they do not give the reader confidence in the author's grasp of his material.

One would not wish to be wholly negative. The discussion here of Norman warfare in southern Italy is sensible enough, if somewhat disorganised. The study of the actual military campaigns in the Balkans is indeed careful and thoughtful, although it would have been helpful to have had at least one large-scale map of the Albanian coast--many of the places mentioned during the discussion are not included in the small-scale map of the entire peninsula at the front. The assessment of the contemporary and near-contemporary narrative accounts is generally judicious. It is certainly a much better book than the quite dreadful one published on the Norman invasions of the Balkans some years ago by A.G.C. Savides. But it could, with more care and wider reading, especially in the Italian-language literature, have been a much better one. The discussion of medieval warfare here has virtues--but the wider background and context needs more careful attention.

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G. A. Loud

University of Leeds