Sicily and the Normans

green Sicily en route Palermo © Joanna Maitland

© Joanna Maitland 2022

Sicily was a surprise to me when I visited last month. It’s amazingly green and lush. Not at all what I expected.

My mental image of Sicily was derived from watching the arid backdrop to the Montalbano TV series. Wrong 😉

I snapped this picture from our moving bus. It shows the road through the mountainous interior as we travelled from the airport at Catania in the east of the island to Palermo on the north coast.

Green Sicily with citrus trees

© Joanna Maitland 2022

And there was more. Lush citrus groves as shown left. Plus lots of olive trees and vineyards.

I arrived just at the beginning of the hot season. There wasn’t a spot of rain during the 10 days I was there and it was hot. So I can understand how the dry and dusty backdrop to Montalbano comes about.

History of Sicily?

Too complicated to describe in detail here. Except that, since Sicily was strategically important in the Mediterranean, all sorts of peoples strove to control it. It was colonised by, among others, the Phoenicians (also known as Carthaginians) and the Greeks. The two groups were rivals there from the 8th century BC.

Temple E (5th c. BC) at Selinunte

Temple E at Selinunte, built 460-450 BC, rebuilt 1950s © Joanna Maitland 2022

Frieze fragment, temple E, Selinunte

Marriage of Zeus and Hera © Joanna Maitland 2022

Frieze fragment, temple E, Selinunte

Actaeon punished by Artemis © Joanna Maitland 2022

The Greek temples were built of local limestone as there is no marble on Sicily. But costly marble was imported for parts of the frieze on the temple, as shown in the fragments here.

On the left, the marriage of Zeus and Hera; on the right, Actaeon dies, torn to pieces by dogs, after he had come upon Artemis bathing naked. (These and other metopes are to be found in the Palermo Museum.)

After the first Punic War (3rd century BC), Sicily became a Roman province, for seven centuries.

sarcophagus of the Amazons AD 190, Palermo museum

sarcophagus of the Amazons AD 190, Palermo museum © Joanna Maitland 2022

The Byzantine Empire reconquered the island in AD 535 and ruled for about 300 years. Saracens invaded in AD 827 and made Palermo their capital. They introduced many changes including new crops such as citrus, sugar, flax, cotton, silk and date palms. They also brought new art and architecture and learning. However, much of the population was still Byzantine Greek Christians. So Sicily had an amazing mixture of peoples and cultures.

Phew, quite a history. Then, in the 11th century AD came the Normans.

Who were the Normans?

The Normans are fascinating. To me, at least. We think of them as French — William the Conqueror and 1066 and all that — but actually they started as Vikings. They were pagan, they had little written culture apart from runes, and they spoke variants of the Old Norse language. And they travelled, and conquered, far and wide, as you can see below, including to modern Russia.

Map of Viking Voyages

By en:User:Bogdangiusca – Earth map by NASA; Data based on w:File:Viking Age.png (now: File:Vikingen tijd.png), which is in turn based on and other maps., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Rollo from 13th century roll of dukes of normandy

Rollo from 13th century roll of Dukes of Normandy

Vikings arrived in what we now call Normandy in the 9th century as raiders. By 911, as part of a treaty deal with the French king, the Viking leader, Rollo, converted to Christianity and promised to protect his new fiefdom of Normandy from further Viking raids.

A splendid irony, I’d say.

By the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the Normans spoke Norman-French rather than Old Norse and they were firm adherents of the Catholic religion.

But many of the Normans in Normandy were land-poor and so, in the 11th century, Norman knights roamed around Europe, selling their fighting services.

The Normans in southern Italy and Sicily

There seem to have been a lot of these Norman horsemen-for-hire. Often they were ruthless, brutal but very effective fighters. Such were the sons of Tancred de Hauteville, a minor Norman noble, many of whose twelve (!!) sons distinguished themselves enough to gain land and titles in southern Italy from about 1040 on. For Sicily, the key brothers were number 6, Robert Guiscard (= the Wily), and his much younger brother, Roger, number 12. The two maps below show the extent of the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily between 1000 and 1084, shortly before Guiscard died.

maps of Norman conquest of Italy 1000-1084

Two maps by MapMaster – Own work CC BY-SA 2.5, Link

Roger had been invested as Count of Sicily in 1072 by Robert Guiscard (who never returned to Sicily again). It took years of campaigning but, by 1091, Roger had completed the conquest of the island and ruled alone.

Roger I receiving keys of Palermo in 1072 by Giuseppe Patania

Roger I receiving keys of Palermo, Jan 1072; by G. Patania

How Normans ruled: law, language and culture

It’s interesting to compare how the Vikings ruled in some of the differing areas they conquered. In Normandy, the incomers changed both their religion and their language. They became Christians, dropped Old Norse and adopted the local language which became Norman-French. They adopted many local customs, too, and developed French feudal ideas into the strict feudal hierarchy that was imposed there (and later in England).Bayeux Tapestry showing Norman invasion

In England, William the Conqueror did not adopt the local language. The language of power was Norman-French and generations of later Norman and Plantagenet kings spoke it. [It is still used to signify the Queen’s assent to laws: la reyne le veult.] William’s followers replaced the original Anglo-Saxon ruling class and the imposition of William’s power was brutal.

Wedding of Roger I and Judith d'Evreux

Wedding of Roger I and Judith d’Evreux

In Sicily, Roger I adopted a different approach. Unlike his compatriot in England, Roger didn’t have a single centralised system of administration that he could put his stamp on. Sicily had many varied systems of laws, depending on the religion and language of the various ethnic groups. So Roger let them all continue as they had been (provided they accepted he was in charge). Arabic was declared an official language, alongside Latin, Greek and Norman French. According to John Julius Norwich, in his very readable and much recommended account, The Normans in the South, 1016-1130:

“From 1072, the Great Count began to lay the foundations of a multiracial and polyglot state in which Norman, Greek and Saracen would, under a firmly-centralised administration, follow their own cultural traditions in freedom and concord.”

Cover of Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana FranklinAnd if you have read any of the wonderful Mistress of the Art of Death series by Ariana Franklin, you will know that her doctor/pathologist heroine, Adelia Aguilar, comes from a multi-racial family in Norman-run southern Italy, having been educated at the medical school at Salerno. She works for England’s Henry II, one of whose daughters, Joan, married a later Norman King of Sicily.

Towards the golden age of Norman Sicily

Roger I had laboured for decades, on the battlefield, at sea, and in diplomacy, to secure Sicily and to help his brother, Guiscard, to secure southern italy.

copper coin of Roger I of Sicily

Copper coin of Roger I, by I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Roger did not enjoy the fruits of his endeavours for long. He died in 1101, leaving two sons who were much too young to take up the reins. Their young mother, Adelaide (Roger’s third wife) became Regent for the new Count, Simon, aged only 8.

It appears she fulfilled her role well. She moved the family and court to Palermo and surrounded herself with able ministers who were mostly native Sicilians of Greek or Arab extraction. And she kept potentially troublesome Norman barons away from power (as Roger had done before her).

But then came a calamity: Simon died at the age of 12. The new Count of Sicily was Roger II, the younger son, aged only 9…

To be continued…

Palermo Capella Palatina

Capella Palatina © Joanna Maitland 2022

I intended this blog to be about the wonderful art and architecture I encountered in Sicily. You’ll have noticed that I haven’t got to any of that 😉

So there will be a follow-on to this blog, in which I will. And just to whet your appetite for what is to come, here is an image from the Capella Palatina, the chapel in the royal palace in Palermo that Roger II created.

Guy de Maupassant described it as le plus surprenant bijou religieux rêvé par la pensée humaine.”  [The most amazing religious jewel that a human being could imagine.]

And it is a jewel. Even for someone like me, who really dislikes blingy churches, this one is a gem.

More soon…

Joanna, the Sicily fan

6 thoughts on “Sicily and the Normans

  1. Sophie

    Absolutely fascinating, Joanna. I now want to know a lot more about Count Roger, the No12 son. Not to mention his widow who was a good regent.

    And that is one seriously blingy church.

    1. Joanna Post author

      “Clingy”? or “blingy”? The latter I assume. I’ve seen some dreadfully blingy churches over the years, but the Capella Palatina didn’t strike me that way, partly because the lower half is essentially white and partly because the gold mosaics tell stories. It’s all very harmonious, I think.

      Count Roger was extraordinary and I do recommend John Julius Norwich’s book which is a real page turner. The key characters are Count Roger and his much older, warrior brother, Robert Guiscard. Roger did well in battle but he wasn’t a warrior at heart, unlike Guiscard. Norwich says he “transformed Sicily into a nation, heterogeneous in its races, religions and languages but united in loyalty to its Christian ruler and well on the way to becoming the most brilliant and prosperous state of the Mediterranean, if not of Europe.”

      Adelaide’s story is rather sad. After her son came of age, she married Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, who needed her money and spent it all. Then it emerged that he hadn’t divorced his previous wife so Adelaide was unceremoniously shipped back to Sicily, without her dowry. She died the following year. As a result of that insult, relations between Sicily and the Crusader States became very bad.

      1. Sophie

        AAAARGH. I’m blaming autocorrect. My typing is crap but I don’t substitute ‘c’ for ‘b’ in the normal way of things. Have put it right.

        The more I hear of Crusaders, the more I think they were the devil’s spawn. SO not a name to conjure with.

        1. Joanna Post author

          Roger I in Sicily (very wisely in my view) stood aloof from the First Crusade. He couldn’t do much else, given Sicily’s large Arab population (and the considerable Muslim contingent in his army) and the need to preserve harmony between the various groups. Instead, Sicily got on with lots of trade. And became very wealthy in the process.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Very interesting background data on Sicily. I used it for a mafia story many moons ago. But all this data was quite unknown to me.
    I love blingy churches! But that’s me – the more ornate the better. Doesn’t mean I don’t like restrained as well, but bling is always good.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’d like to use Sicily in a story, too, Liz. One day, maybe…

      Somehow the capella palatina didn’t feel blingy or ornate to me, even though it has masses of gold mosaics. By contrast, I hated the Christian cathedral inside the elegant and restrained Mezquita in Cordoba.

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