Seminar XC: Normans? in Africa?

Still another Oxford seminar here, and one that I could maybe skip over because it has already been blogged by the estimable Gesta, but which I don’t want to let slip by because it was really cool. Alex Metcalfe, who has come at medieval studies via the unusual route of study in law (I think!) and in Arabic, is one of the very few people currently in field who are interested in getting Western and Eastern sources to answer the same questions at the same time, and this led him to be at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 21st February 2011 presenting to the title, “The Norman Conquest (and Loss) of Africa”.

Ruins at Mahdiyya, Tunisia

Ruins at Mahdiyya, Tunisia

It may be news to you—it was to me— that the Normans had any conquests in Africa, but in fact the link between their Sicilian territories and the Muslim province of Ifriqiyya (very roughly modern Tunisia) long predated the Norman presence in Italy, that being whence Sicily was conquered by the Muslims, and so once the Fatimid Caliphate moved out of Ifriqiyya to Cairo in 960 the area was left slightly open, the ruling families on either side of the very short distance between Tunisa and Sicily having fallen out of alliance and so forth. The other background, said Alex, was persistent crop failure in Ifriqiyya leading to an economic dependence on Sicilian grain and a shift to pastoralism, wrecking the Zirid rulers’ tax-base and leaving their cities in trouble. All of the which left the area looking like low-hanging fruit for the Norman kingdom of Roger II (1101-54). And who doesn’t want a doorway onto the Saharan gold trade, after all? In 1142 things got sufficiently bad in Ifriqiyya that the Zirid Amir Hassan signed himself over to Roger as a vassal and so the Norman troops went in to ‘secure the régime’. Alex drew a difference between the situation in Sicily where local élites had largely been left in place by the Normans and this one, where local leaders were reinvested with their properties as Norman fiefs, making their situation now very different. The Normans also charged for the renewal of documents (though the documents that survive had frequently not actually been update, just endorsed) and installed Genoese and Pisan merchants. Because of this sort of thing, and because of the rising presence of the Almohads as an alternative to these Christian overlords, the area was not quiet under Norman rule, and in 1156 a whole bunch of revolts broke out, coinciding with similar ones back in Sicily, and the Normans lost everything but the citadel of Mahdiyya, wrought reprisals on the population there who called the Almohads in and that was about it. One of the aftermaths may have been the beginning of the breakdown of the fabled convivencia and toleration of the Norman Sicilian kingdom, with new measures being taken to subjugate the Muslim population who were presumably now seen as a security risk. Or those attitudes may already have been hardening, but this little-known tale is certainly part of the large story, while it also caused Ifriqiyya to slip beyond the notional frontier and Sicily to drop back to a fairly marginal status on the edge of Europe, even though the distance between the zones remains so tiny.

Map of the Central Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, by Alex Metcalf

Alex's map of the Central Mediterranean; do not adjust your screen

Chris Wickham asked why Alex thought the Normans had not managed to hold this area, where local structures of society had surely been ruined to the point where resistance to the Norman conquest ought to have been harder than the resistance that there largely isn’t in Sicily. Alex put this down to the new presence of the Almohads not giving the Normans time to bed down, and to their neglect to pursue the kind of wealth creation they had nurtured in Sicily (however much that had been for their own ends). Palermo remained centre of this new province, rather than giving it back something to hold on to, so the population had no real incentive to hold off from joining the brave new Almohad world, not least because their jurists were somewhat divided over whether one should even remain living under Christian rule if alternatives existed. In Sicily the Normans managed to combine offers of advantage, overwhelming force and tolerance to good effect, and in Ifriqiyya none of these remained available for very long. All very interesting and the questions of policy failures versus circumstances remain to be worked over a bit more yet, I think.

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9 responses to “Seminar XC: Normans? in Africa?

  1. The paper sounds most interesting, but I particularly love the map. [But then, I’ve always known that was the right way up! ;) http://flourish.org/upsidedownmap/%5D It’s replete with poignancy about focal biases of our interpretive frameworks and filters in general; and noting that the Normans were even in Africa is just one small step towards a corrective. Hurrah for Alex!

    • Alex credited the upside-down map trick to Rees Davies, who used to do it with Britain to encourage people to consider how much of the island is, well, Scotland. I think there’s lots of places where it can work. Sometimes geographical terminology reflects the alternatives too. I like Catalan for this because the compass points are often described as `rising’ (llevant), `setting’ (ponent), `midday’ (migjorn) and `across the mountains’ (tramuntana). These seem less imprisoned by thought-worlds than `North’, `South’, `East’ and `West’ (though Catalan for those concepts also exists, and of course, these are instead imprisoned by local geography). With a graphical representation, though, I suppose one must pick an interpretation, so it may as well be one people don’t expect.

      • Alex Metcalfe

        Actually, Alex now thinks it was originally attributed to Norman Davies. That said, not sure anyone can claim ownership of it really.

        • Well, it does no harm to credit someone. After all, almost all the bon mots in English are attributed to Oscar Wilde just to give them pedigree. If we can’t be accurate, we may as well be impressive, as dozens of Arthur theories demonstrate… [and, yes, I’m being ironic.]

  2. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 7 « Contagions

  3. judithweingarten

    I’m too used to reading about the place as Elna not to spell it ‘en català’ (as I will below), but that’s not what they speak there now

    I was under the impression that, until at least 30 years ago, the dialect spoken in that area was closely related to Catalan and mutually intelligible (or so a friend from Perpignan assured me).

    • Mutually intelligible, I don’t know about but closely related, yes. I mean, it’s Provençal more or less and so is Catalan, at a slightly greater distance. But it’s not the language of schools, maps, television or roadsigns, and so, it goes.

      • judithweingarten

        Languedocien as once spoken in that part of France is as much a sub-branch of Occitan as is Provençal, and, of course, as Catalan for that matter. I’m quite sure my friend from Perpignan would not liked to be placed *under* Provençal :-). I suppose we must allow that Catalan is the only one to survive in schools, etc. Still, when I first went to live on the Larzac plateau in the 70’s, old people there still spoke a local sub-sub-Languedocien.

        • Sorry, I should have checked before guessing at which name was top of that tree. The main thing I’ve read about that was actually in Provençal and so I probably missed some subtleties. The which, of course, testifies to the fact that there is still writing in the other Occitan languages, but then, there is still writing in many now-dead European languages, Asturian and Cornish to pick but two.

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