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22.04.16 Winkler/Fitzgerald (eds.), The Normans in the Mediterranean

22.04.16 Winkler/Fitzgerald (eds.), The Normans in the Mediterranean

The activities of Norman adventurers and mercenaries in Italy and the wider Mediterranean region during the eleventh and twelfth centuries have long been a source of fascination for scholars. Norman expansion culminated in the creation of a kingdom under Roger II (r. 1130-1154), with the spectacular new political entity based in Sicily at the meeting point of Latin, Byzantine and Islamic cultural influences. The volume edited by Emily Winkler and Liam Fitzgerald brings together a mostly strong group of essays which address the impact of the Normans’ arrival on existing social, communal and religious bonds in the region. As the Introduction states, the book’s intent is to explore “the human consequences of Norman migration and conquest” (11). It aims to balance the well-known “regional grand narrative” of Norman achievement with “personal trans-regional micro-histories” (11) and in that it succeeds. Even readers familiar with the Norman story in Italy will come away with a stronger sense of the social fabric that the Normans stretched and redesigned but did not tear apart. The introduction usefully considers the conceptual background of key terms, including those as obvious as “Normans” and “conquest.” When assessing the idea of the “Mediterranean,” tracing its intellectual history back to Pirenne and Braudel, the editors align themselves with David Abulafia’s view of the sea and its coastal regions as a site of connection between peoples and cultures, one where long-term factors of environment were balanced by individual choices and actions. The essays collected here show examples of how these balancing factors worked in practice.

A chapter-by-chapter summary is not usually the most dynamic structure for a review such as this, but when dealing with an edited collection it seems the best way to give readers a sense of the diverse contributions. Part One presents three essays on the theme of “Motivations and Strategies.” Matthew Bennett’s opening chapter considers the nature of Norman military activity and the mythmaking surrounding it. While the author has an admirable scholarly record, this essay feels somewhat slight, with short sections going over familiar ground including the debate over Normanitas, or the sense of Norman identity and character. Large chunks are made up of lengthy quotes from the major chronicle sources with minimal analytical commentary on their significance. The brief conclusion claims there is “no doubt that, in the final analysis, that Normanitas is a myth” (sic; 63). Sadly, the chapter is marred by similar small but annoying grammatical lapses and basic errors of fact, as on page 47 where Roger II is wrongly referred to as Bohemond’s nephew (they were cousins) and Bohemond’s wife Constance is identified as the daughter of Philip II of France, who lived a century later (her actual father was Philip I). It is curious though fortunate that such lapses, which should easily have been corrected by the editing and reviewing process, are not evident elsewhere in the book. More importantly, I found it difficult to discern the aim of the chapter, beyond summarizing existing knowledge on the “state of the field.”

On a brighter note, Aurélie Thomas presents a crisp, perceptive argument about Norman marriage strategies in Italy. In the early phases of their involvement with the Lombard regimes of the south, Norman military leaders began to seek marital alliances with the ruling families they served. Thomas observes that this strategy was less successful, though not unknown, in gaining entry to the power structures of the princedoms of Benevento and Capua, whereas in the case of Salerno it proved remarkably fruitful. In the author’s view, the contrast can be explained by differing inheritance practices in each region, making it either less or more attractive as a political and economic tactic to invite new Norman blood into ruling dynasties. In the final contribution to Part One, Lucas Villegas-Aristizábal turns our attention to Iberia. Using the Normans’ Italian experience as a point of comparison, the author examines the motivations for Norman intervention in the east of Iberia in the eleventh century, and later in the west culminating in the siege of Lisbon in 1147 by forces on their way to the Second Crusade. The context of the Reconquista against Muslim powers adds a unique element, yet Norman ambitions appear, as elsewhere, to have been driven as much by material and political priorities as by spiritual ones. The knight Robert Burdet was able to establish a short-lived Norman principality at Tarragona in the 1130s and 1140s, but unlike contemporary entities in Italy--most famously Roger II’s kingdom--it did not survive. Some Normans appear to have stayed in the region of Lisbon after 1147, but although the episode has similarities to examples of Norman conquest and settlement elsewhere, it is not well documented, so firm conclusions are difficult to draw. Villegas-Aristizábal’s chapter is useful in that it surveys Norman activities in Iberia up until the Third Crusade, and places them within their wider European context.

Part Two addresses the “Implications” of conquest in Italy and Sicily. The five chapters deal with themes of social structure, patronage, and community in the wake of the Normans’ arrival in the south. It opens with Sandro Carocci’s iconoclastic study of the received wisdom around the powers of lords and their influence over rural society, developing the Italian scholar’s earlier work on a similar theme, now published in English as Lordships of Southern Italy (Rome: Viella, 2018). Carocci argues for the prevalence of small-scale “micro-lordships” held by minor figures more closely integrated with their communities than the traditional picture of a “feudal revolution” would allow, and for their greater influence over local affairs than that held by the more powerful territorial lords. While new Norman lords brought change at the local level, for Carocci this amounts to “a shock rather than a revolution” (135), accentuating developments that were already under way before the Normans arrived.

Graham Loud, the most eminent of Anglophone scholars of Norman Italy, surveys the evidence for our knowledge of the nobility between 1085 and 1127, something of a “lost period” because of the paucity of narrative sources. Using charter evidence and other documentary records--substantial in some places, patchy in others--Loud highlights the prominence of several Norman kin-groups among the southern aristocracy, but also notes the continued presence of Lombard families. He draws on Thomas Bisson’s influential The Crisis of the Twelfth Century (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), observing that the fragmented nature of power in Norman Italy during these decades fits well with Bisson’s model, but also that any designation of the period as characterized by “anarchy” should be applied cautiously. In contrast to Loud’s broad survey, intended very much as a preliminary step toward a more in-depth study, Maddalena Vaccaro focuses closely on one representative example, the city of Salerno. She takes as her evidence changes to monumental and ecclesiastical architecture after Salerno’s absorption into the Norman domain by Robert Guiscard in 1076. Patronage of the rebuilding of important churches and cathedrals allowed Norman rulers to place their imprint on the urban landscape and to present themselves as the providers of more magnificent structures to house the cults of local saints.

Similarly, Theresa Jäckh examines a single city, in this case Palermo, capital of Roger II’s new kingdom after 1130. Her focus is the city’s transition from an Islamic capital of Sicily to a Norman one. Some scholars have argued for Palermo’s decline as a political centre before the Normans’ arrival in Sicily from the 1060s. Based on a close reading of the key narrative sources (especially Amatus of Montecassino and Geoffrey Malaterra) along with crucial Arabic documents, Jäckh contends that Palermo’s importance had continued in the later Islamic period and may have been characterized by “a mercantile community which sought to develop a semi-independent form of urban self-government” (199). As tantalizing as this suggestion may be, the evidence is thin and only becomes more robust in the wake of the Normans’ military success. If anything, it was rivalry between competing Norman powers that weakened Palermo’s position before its revival under Roger II. Finally in Part Two, Nicole Mölk continues the focus on Sicily, taking an archaeological approach to examine the hilltop village on Monte Iato. Here, material evidence suggests Muslim and Christian communities lived alongside each other. Relative harmony may have prevailed under the Norman regimes, until the village met a violent end during the Hohenstaufen era in the thirteenth century. A summary of archaeological evidence from this important site provides a welcome addition to the usual narrative sources, and hints at the difficulties of day-to-day life for medieval Sicilians.

Part Three contains only two chapters linked by the theme of “Perceptions and Memories.” Each deals with representations of religion. Matt King looks at contrasting descriptions of Roger II’s short-lived conquest of Africa (approximately modern Tunisia), wrested from the Muslim Zirid dynasty with whom the Normans had previously traded. Among the Latin sources, as Giles Constable and other scholars have observed, Roger’s campaign was considered largely political and economic in nature. Even though contemporaneous with the Second Crusade, it was not seen as religiously motivated, nor as part of the wider crusading strategy. King agrees but looks at the contrasting view of Islamic sources to add a new perspective. Though mostly written much later, Arabic texts consistently group Roger’s campaign together with the crusade, considering the totality as part of a “Frankish” offensive against Islam which needed to be countered by jihad. Thus, King argues for a “fundamental disconnect” (244) between the varying interpretations of Roger’s campaign, aligning with religious viewpoints. Kalina Yamboliev’s fascinating study of hagiographical texts engages with the theme of cultural memory to show how Norman patrons and authors appropriated the vitae of both Greek and Latin holy figures over time. In doing so, they gained legitimacy among local communities and “inserted themselves into established literary and hagiographical traditions” (258). Along with the building of churches and the establishment or support of religious orders, Yamboliev argues, this tactic supported the solidification of political power. Religious patronage and the manipulation of local cultural memories thus became a form of conquest by other means for Norman regimes in Italy. As in other studies of memory, the theme of forgetting is important here too: Norman rulers may have stressed their connections with popular local saints, but this also encouraged the erasure of memories of the violence on which conquest was more realistically based.

It is sometimes difficult to be persuaded by the connections and justifications claimed for the selection of essays in edited collections, based as they often are on loose associations and the vagaries of conference panels. In this case, such fears are unfounded. The volume has internal coherence, helped by the fact that it maintains a relatively narrow focus on the Norman regimes in Italy and Sicily. When it does depart from this core, as in the chapter on Iberia, comparative elements ensure that the links to other chapters remain clear and logical. The range of scholarly styles and varying methodological approaches from a strong group of scholars, some highly eminent in the field and some much earlier in their careers, ensure that the volume succeeds very well in continuing debate and furthering our knowledge on the ever-intriguing topic of those Normans who ventured south to create what John Julius Norwich once called “the Kingdom in the Sun.”