Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.08.22 Drell/Oldfield (eds.), Rethinking Norman Italy

22.08.22 Drell/Oldfield (eds.), Rethinking Norman Italy

In recent decades, the study of medieval southern Italy and Sicily, especially in the Norman period, has grown significantly in the Anglo-American world with an increased number of historians and a wider range of historical subject matter. Central to this growth in the field is the work of Professor Graham A. Loud, who began publishing in the 1970s and recently retired in 2019. In this volume of essays, Rethinking Norman Italy, historians from Europe and America explore the maturation of the field of Norman Italian history, while also examining Loud’s many contributions to the field. In these chapters and especially in the introduction, the authors discuss how Loud’s scholarship created a “base of knowledge for the field” (3), his numerous translations facilitated greater engagement with southern Italian texts, and his mentorship encouraged new generations of historians of the region.

In the introduction to the volume, Joanna Drell examines how the study of Norman Italy has matured from treating the region as the other conquest, secondary to Norman England, to being recognized as “an integral player in a number of medieval worlds” (5). The geographical and chronological contours of Norman Italy vary between the essays, suggesting to Drell the mutability of the term. There are four thematic clusters in the volume: “Historiographies”; “Identities and Communities”; “Religion and the Church”; and “Conquering Norman Italy and Beyond.” The section dedicated to historiographies examines both modern scholarship and questions about Norman texts. In the grouping “Identities and Communities,” the chapters explore the formation of identity within the diverse communities of the kingdom. The cluster about religion and the church examines the role of religious houses in the region as well as norms about marriage and simony. The last section explores the process and tools of Norman expansion within Italy and Egypt.

The first section of the book explores modern historiography and Norman texts, suggesting where the field started in the twentieth century and its future growth. David Abulafia examines British scholarship about Norman Italy prior to the beginning of Loud’s publishing career in 1970s. Abulafia begins his contribution with the startling fact that, prior to 1912, the best account in English of early Norman Italy was written by Edward Gibbon. The second half of the chapter focuses on the twentieth-century pioneers of the field. Grappling with a difficult and neglected subject, these British historians made important insights about Norman governance, like Evelyn Jamison’s examination of how kings imposed their authority despite strong opposition. Abulafia balances this appreciation with discussions of the more problematic aspects of this scholarship, such as Edmund Curtis’s use of racial origins as an explanatory mechanism. Luigi Russo examines the idea of the “Norman Empire” first in twentieth-century historiography, and then pivots to Geoffrey of Malaterra’s De rebus gestis Rogerii. Russo argues that despite the widespread use of this idea in modern scholarship, empire was not regularly discussed in Norman texts. Instead, legitimation often focused on Hauteville family power.

Russo’s chapter provides a nice transition for the remaining chapters in the section (and in the book) away from historiographical questions and to a focus on Norman texts. The last two chapters of the section address Norman-era texts that the contributors believe have important insights for future Norman studies. Alex Metcalfe produces a Latin edition and an English translation of a list of Muslim villeins belonging to the church of Cefalù. Then the author uses the list to understand how Arabic names were rendered into Latin, and the taxation rates of villeins. Edoardo D’Angelo examines an episode in Falco of Benevento’sChronicon Beneventanum to understand how the chronicle was composed. Falco narrated a moment of tension in 1137 when the people of Benevento appealed to the pope requesting fiscal relief from Emperor Lothar III. D’Angelo’s close reading of the text uncovers how Falco’s chronicle was composed in stages and was intended to promote a civic, urban identity.

The second part of volume is focused on close readings of Norman texts to understand conflicts, the construction of identity, and Norman authority. In chapter 6, Joshua Birk examines how Ibn Jubayr adapts the term fitna to describe different conflicts around the Mediterranean Sea. Within Norman Sicily, Ibn Jubayr employed the concept to show how Muslims had a strong conviction to their faith in response to the seduction of the wealthy and benevolent Norman kings. The next chapter continues this focus on strife but turns to a brief civil war in 1114 in the city of Benevento. Markus Krumm argues that the main account of this violence, Falco of Benevento’s Chronicon Beneventanum, is unreliable on the subject and turns to Beneventan charters to understand underlying motivations for the conflict. According to Krumm, the civil war was rooted not in tensions within church leadership but instead between Benevento’s constable and Norman nobility around concepts of honor. Paul Oldfield also addresses unrest within the city of Messina when Anglo-Norman crusaders under the leadership of Richard I wintered there in 1190-1191. Trying to understand these tensions from the urban perspective, Oldfield argues that there were three main flashpoints: diversity within the city, the markets, and royal entrances. These three chapters share a focus on new approaches to the relationship between conflict and texts that should have been highlighted more within the volume. The fourth paper in this section examines responses to Norman rule within four Greek hagiographies, arguing that these texts were important for negotiating Italo-Greek identity. Eleni Tounta argues that the Greek community through these texts displayed strong connections with the royal family, Norman infrastructure in Sicily, and medical culture.

The third section of the book explores Latin Christianity within Norman Italy by focusing on monastic communities and religious norms. Traditionally ignored by scholars due to its limited surviving manuscripts and documents, the Benedictine monastery of St. Euphemia in Calabria was discussed by Norman monastic historians like Orderic Vitalis, Amatus of Montecassino, and Geoffrey Malaterra. Examining these accounts in conjunction with the monastery’s sole surviving foundational charter, Benjamin Pohl argues that the religious house was significantly shaped by its first abbot, Robert de Grandmesnil, who was banished from the monastery of St. Evroult located in Normandy and wanted to re-create this religious experience within southern Italy. In the next chapter, Elisabeth van Houts examines Roger II’s innovative legislation on the legitimacy of marriage, arguing that Roger II was the first king in western Europe to include the priest’s blessing as a required step for a legitimate marriage. This law also expanded the king’s control over aristocratic property and inheritance. Lioba Geis takes up many of the same themes in her chapter about simony, arguing that southern Italians were not deeply concerned about the practice, in contrast to popes and the rest of Europe. The newly created bishoprics were often quite poor, and simony was accepted as a supplement to the lack of episcopal resources. In the last chapter of the section, Jean-Marie Martin examines female monasticism prior to 1200, which, he argues, was a marginal phenomenon within southern Italy. Early in the period, these rare female religious communities were put under the control of male abbeys, but by the Norman period these structures of protection were no longer necessary, and communities of women flourished.

In the last section of the volume, the three papers examine Norman warfare in Apulia and Egypt. Charles Stanton details in great depth Robert Guiscard’s conquest of Bari, especially his defeat of Greek tactics and opposition, arguing that this urban conquest was the beginning of the Normans’ central Mediterranean Sea kingdom. Sarah Davis-Secord demonstrates that the imagery on Roger II’s silver ducalis coin is based on the Histamenon coin issued by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I. For Davis-Secord, this was not blind imitation but, instead, Roger II was emphasizing his connections to Byzantine power. These coins were also intended to build legitimacy for the next generation of Norman kings. Lastly, Alan V. Murray broadens the geographical focus of the book by examining the Norman campaigns in Egypt. Murray argues that this violence was intended to secure economic gains before power in the Mediterranean fundamentally shifted with the rise of Saladin.

As stated in the introduction, the volume has three main goals: reassess the field of Norman Italian history, honor the work of Graham Loud, and point to future directions. The introduction and many of the chapters successfully accomplish the first two tasks. The discussion of the future receives less attention within the collection. For example, the concept of Norman Italy’s “underbelly” (8, 183) is briefly mentioned in the introduction and Oldfield’s chapter, but never fully explained. Why call it an underbelly? Overall, this collection of essays is an excellent tribute to the work of Graham Loud in that it builds the knowledge of medieval southern Italy through precise histories that utilize close readings of charters and chronicles.