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21.08.13 Theotokis, Warfare in the Norman Mediterranean

21.08.13 Theotokis, Warfare in the Norman Mediterranean

This collection of ten essays seeks to remedy a perceived scholarly neglect of the practice of warfare by the Normans who emigrated to southern Italy during the eleventh century and their immediate descendants. One should say, at first, that this topic has not been entirely neglected by historians, but what literature does exist is certainly scattered and bringing these different essays together within one set of covers provides a considerable service, as well as an opportunity to take stock of how far study of the subject has progressed in recent years, and makes an addition to the still relatively limited Anglophone historiography on Norman Italy. The contributors are a good blend of established scholars and promising newcomers, and all but one of the contributions have points of considerable interest. The focus is largely on the eleventh century, from the earliest campaign of Normans in the south in 1017-1018 until the First Crusade. Only the two essays on naval warfare, by Charles Stanton and Michael Fulton, take the discussion into the twelfth century, while only the (rather discursive) contribution of David Nicolle concerning Islamic Sicily and its legacy discusses the region before the Normans.

Georgios Theotokis begins the collection with a clear but relatively straightforward introductory chapter outlining what the contemporary sources reveal about warfare in the south and where in this context they are inadequate. Then two essays by younger scholars, Francesca Petrizzo and James Titterton, make shrewd observations on the tropes and complexities of the chronicles of the Norman conquest of the south--and the latter on those of the First Crusade as well. Matthew Bennett provides an incisive essay on battlefield tactics, and Michael Fulton a convincing re-assessment of the Sicilian attack on Alexandria in 1174, with some very interesting use of Arabic sources. He argues that this episode was never more of a raid, and not an attempted invasion of Egypt, but Saladin's propagandists exaggerated its seriousness to bolster their hero's reputation as an Islamic champion. Luigi Russo re-examines the composition of Bohemond's army on the First Crusade, taking issue--at least to some extent--with the classic examination of this topic by Evelyn Jamison (now more than eighty years' old one should note). One might doubt whether his description of the leading men in the south Italian contingent as "knights" is appropriate. Those who can be identified were all from a comital or baronial background, even if mainly younger brothers or sons. But he does invite us, bracingly, to think again about south Italian participation in the Crusade, and what this tells us about the society of the region at the end of the eleventh century. Similarly, while Daniel Franke's essay on the relationship between the conquest of Sicily and the Crusade is rather too abstract for your reviewer's taste, and seems in part to be addressing a debate about strategy largely concerned with more modern periods, it still makes a very sensible critique of some recent, and overly dogmatic, theories about the conquest of Sicily as a proto-crusade. And while Charles Stanton's wide-ranging survey of the sea power of Norman Sicily, extending up to the German conquest of 1194, contains little that is not dealt with in greater detail by his (excellent) monograph on the subject from 2011, it does offer a clear, and indeed elegant, introduction to those coming new to the subject--it will surely be a useful addition to undergraduate reading lists. David Nicolle's essay, meanwhile, has valuable information on pre-Norman Sicily and Islamic warfare in the early Middle Ages in general, and as one might expect from this author, on the arms and armour employed (the latter illustrated by 22 pages of line drawings, derived from archaeological remains, sculpture and other artifacts, ceramics and manuscript illumination). By far the weakest of these essays is that by Şerban V. Marin on Venetian reactions to the Normans, which reads more like the author's research notes than a finished essay, not helped by an incomprehensible system of citation. Since this author seems to be examining a corpus of Venetian chronicles ranging from the twelfth century until well into the early modern period, the absence of any sense of chronological development or prioritising relatively contemporary historical writing in itself renders this essay nugatory.

Despite this, there is thus much else of value in this collection, and it undoubtedly merits reading by those interested in Norman Italy, and the early Crusades and medieval warfare. Nevertheless, one might venture some criticism when addressing the volume as a whole. First, there is the sense that for the most part the contributors are students of medieval warfare rather than of Norman Italy and thus lack some familiarity with the wider context within which they focus their discussion. It is perhaps revealing that only two contributors (Petrizzo and Russo, both very much south Italian specialists) refer to such a basic tool for studying the Norman role in the south as the prosopography of Normans and other Frenchmen by the late Léon-Robert Ménager, something which even if compiled over forty years ago is still indispensable for any serious analysis of the social background to the Norman conquest of the Mezzogiorno. Similarly, while David Nicolle has clearly read widely about Islamic Sicily, including a couple of unpublished theses, he makes no use of the work of Alex Metcalfe and Annliese Nef, the two scholars who have done most in recent years to advance our understanding of Arabic Sicily under Norman rule, nor of the equally important work of Hiroshi Takayama on the administration of Sicily under the Normans. Had he done so he might have rethought, or at least qualified, his assumption that little changed in the raising of Islamic troops or the administration of the island after the Norman conquest. Some quite elementary factual errors have crept in too: for example, we are told, by Titterton (62), that Richard of Aversa defeated the forces of Guaimar IV of Salerno "c. 1057", only five years after the latter's death, and Nicolle refers (93) to the defeat of Otto III in Calabria in 982, actually Otto II. (This battle, incidentally, was probably not at Cape Colonna but further south near Reggio.) Secondly, there is a tendency running through most of these essays, underlying for example even the sophisticated analysis of Matthew Bennett, to think of warfare primarily in terms of pitched battles. Yet arguably, except perhaps on the First Crusade, these were exceptionable events, and the normal course of warfare was far more a matter of sieges, blockade and "economic warfare"--the ravaging of fields, and in the south particularly the cutting down of olive trees and vines which would take years to regrow--than open-field encounters. Again, it is interesting that none of the contributors cites what is, to my mind, one of the most seminal essays written about Norman methods of warfare, and those of the Middle Ages more generally, by John Gillingham. [1] Third, the discussion here of warfare on land ceases with the First Crusade, and for southern Italy with the final conquest of Sicily in 1091. Yet Norman Italy was far from peaceful thereafter, and it seems unfortunate that there was not some discussion of land (as opposed to naval) warfare in the region until perhaps the middle of the twelfth century. This is not just to secure a wider and more comprehensive coverage--it would also greatly enhance the source base underlying these discussions. The twelfth-century narratives, read carefully, have a lot to say about warfare and its techniques--for example about the economic warfare that was so marked in conflict in the south. As it is, much of the discussion here of warfare in south Italy relies on the three main chroniclers of the eleventh-century conquest: Amatus, William of Apulia and Geoffrey Malaterra. (Only the editor, in his first chapter, makes much use of the Montecassino Chronicle of Leo Marsicanus and his continuators, although that too has quite a lot to say about low-level localised warfare.) And finally, perhaps the real elephant in the room, there is no discussion here about what is the most intractable issue concerning this subject, military organisation in Norman Italy. How were troops raised and supported? How far did military organisation dictate the emerging social structure of Norman Italy? To what extent did the Norman and French newcomers, who were never very numerous, import not just military techniques but military organisation from their homeland(s) north of the Alps? To what extent and how was the indigenous upper-class incorporated into the new military structures? Here we are still very much reliant on a short monograph published more than eighty years ago by Claude Cahen, to which, once gain no reference is made in this collection, although his equally important work on the principality of Antioch is cited. Nor has any use been made of the more recent work by Errico Cuozzo, one of the few still-active scholars to have ventured into this topic. Had the chronological bounds of this book been extended further, there would have been opportunity to address these questions, not least through examination of the Catalogus Baronum, the list of fiefs and military contingents from mainland south Italy compiled by the government of King Roger c. 1150.

One might also suggest that this book would have benefited from somewhat stronger editing than it has received; both in eliminating the minor errors, to some of which allusion has been made above, and, in particular, in achieving greater consistency in the citation of sources. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to be too critical. There is much of interest in this volume, and it will undoubtedly be helpful to those wishing to know more about the Normans in the south or to teach classes or modules about this subject, and indeed also on the Crusades. In bringing these studies together the editor deserves our gratitude.



1. "William the Bastard at War," in Studies in Medieval History presented to R. Allen Brown, eds. Christopher Harper-Bill, Christopher Holdsworth, and Janet L. Nelson (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1989), 141-158.