Seminars CCXLVIII & CCXLIX: dismantling expectations about statehood from Sicily and Sidon

There has been a gap here, for which I apologise; the second of those family occasions I mentioned last post was to blame, but now I am back on deck, and for this week I want ceremonially to move my backlog out of 2017 by talking briefly about two papers I went to see in December of that year, one in Leeds and one in London. The Leeds one was one of our own doctoral students, and indeed one of my advisees, Hervin Fernández-Aceves, now Dr and at Lancaster, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar we run with the title, “Reframing the Role of Nobility: misconceptions and omissions in the historiography of the kingdom of Sicily” on 6th December; and the London one was the Royal Numismatic Society Christmas Lecture, given by Lutz Ilisch with the title, “Mashghara – a Condominial Mint of the County of Sidon/Barony of Shuf and the Kingdom of Damascus” on 19th December. You wouldn’t think there was a lot of crossover there, but actually both had something to say about the ways that medieval government, especially when carried out in a disrupted environment, very often defies what seem to the modern eye to be ‘natural’ rights or behaviours of states. The modern nation-state is actually quite a strange beast, to my mind, weirdly willing to constrain itself by mutually agreed law and then be surprised when some polities won’t play. If we want to understand that better, I these days maintain, the Middle Ages is a good place to look, and so here are two examples.1

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, from Arabischer Maler der Palastkapelle in Palermo – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Hervin’s work in his thesis, which at this stage he had just finished, was to reassess the composition and political role of the nobility in the famously multicultural Norman kingdom of Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trouble he had run into, however, was that what he found didn’t match the historiography, which expected pretty much all nobles to hold their lands and offices either absolutely because of having conquered them by fire and the sword, or else to hold them by feudal grants from the kings, and their offices of state, especially the counties they ruled, to be essentially jurisdictional units attached to the territories they took or were given in fief.2 If this seems like a perspective constructed from really old textbooks about Norman England, well, that may not be a coincidence, but what Hervin found instead was that there were no templates and indeed no central administration that could be mapped out as counties. Instead, there were any number of competing nobles who fought with each other for space and office, not necessarily in the same places, and sometimes enlisted the kings or their ducal predecessors as help and backing for these claims. Meanwhile, there were also pre-existent fragments of Byzantine administration under strategoi who also looked to the rulers for guarantee of their position, which they often got. The records of the relationships thus formed do not talk about homage, vassalage, subjection or anything like that; there was no feudal constitution of this state, if indeed it was a state; that someone held a thing called a county, which in any case only emerged partway through the kingdom’s history, did not necessarily mean they called themselves ‘count’ (and if they did, others might not agree) and neither was a count’s territory necessarily a county. Counts’ children might well become counts, but rarely in the same place as their fathers, and the kings were generally able to move them around and keep them from getting too grounded.

The tendency was thus for the dukes and kings to be able to use the competition to constrain the nobility, whether local, incoming or heirs of either, with these agreements until everyone was more or less part of the same overall network, but to call it a system or a constitution would be to miss how very unconstructed this was. By the reign of William I, it was possible for the king to assert enough control to put his own officers in in many counties when they fell vacant and then make the nobility compete to be chosen as those officers, but that doesn’t mean he managed it everywhere. Heaven knows how the kings kept track of exactly how they stood with respect to any given aristocrat, but then I guess that’s partly why we have the records… In discussion Hervin had mainly to defend his anarchic picture of ad hoc government against his fellow doctorands and his supervisor, Professor Graham Loud, the former of whom especially felt that there must have been more coincidence between titles and territories, but Hervin had gone and checked… But this doesn’t seem too odd to me, and the late lamented Susan Reynolds would have been quite happy with the non-existence of the feudal model too.3 The thing I would have now liked to have heard more about is how the dukes and kings justified their right to intervene or determine allocation of these positions, and how much objection those claims met, but I could quite believe that these were basically recognitions that right fell to the biggest sword; it’s just that, as you may be aware, I’ve come to believe that medieval rulers did need both power and legitimacy and that they put much too much effort into the legitimacy for us to suppose that it didn’t really matter compared to force.4 Hervin’s picture was possible for me to accept without shifting that belief, so I was happy with all of this.

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Dr Ilisch, who had just been awarded the Society’s medal on this occasion, started from a much narrower problem of numismatics and, because coins are in fact sources for bigger things, wound up in a similar kind of larger-scale place. His problem was a species of coin like the one above; I’m afraid I can’t find an example of precisely the type he was discussing. The above is itself a weirdness with which I have several times enjoyed teaching. Its background is that, when the four Latin states established in the Holy Land around 1100 by the First Crusade ran into trouble at the end of the century, for various reasons of necessity they struck quite a lot of imitations of the silver dirhams of the Ayyubid sultans with whom they either fought or temporised for survival. These coins, of course, featured the Arabic shahada, the Muslim invocation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Crusader states were still doing this as the Ayyubids lost their position first in the south to the Egyptian Mamluks and then in the north to the briefly dominant Mongols. Once explained, these coins usually surprise people by the amount of inter-dealing between supposed adversaries they imply, and it seems to have surprised some newcomers too, for as the situation grew worse, a French bishop who found himself in charge of defending Acre in 1250 decided that this Islamicization was part of their problem and had the coinage ‘purified’ with the addition of the cross and a statement of the Christian Creed in Arabic in place of the Islamic stuff. I have always wondered whom he was paying with these things that could read them, and what they thought of this, and should obviously read more about it, but I now learned that they didn’t last very long and were soon replaced with much more plentiful coins using the bismillah instead of the Creed, but with AD dates.5 Despite that last fact, from their preservation context (said Dr Ilisch) these latter coins occur largely in Mongol hoards, not in the Crusader states, and were thus, I guess, used to pay tribute to the Mongols, presumably by Muslim issuers.

Silver imitation dirham struck in the name of the late al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Crusader Acre, in the 1240s

Here is one of the earlier Crusader pieces, struck in the name of al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Acre in the 1240s, VCoins e3014

It was one of these issuers Dr Ilisch was trying to track down, one Wajīh al-Dīn Muahhad ibn Suwayd, whom written sources claim was given minting rights by the last Ayyubid sultan and who probably ruled the city of Damascus for them, but whose coins have never been identified. The Mongols left him in place, so he had a while to strike in Damascus, but no Damascus coins fit the bill. There is, however, one particular type of imitation of the post-Acre coins which have the AD date in cursive, and which Professor Ilisch thought might be al-Suwayd’s. There are only 8 of these coins known, and 3 of them came off the same dies, suggesting that the issue might have been quite small (although also possibly very large—this is why die statistics probably shouldn’t be used, especially on tiny samples…), but one of them seems to name a mint, which after long consideration Professor Ilisch thought might been Masghara, a tiny place now in Lebanon which was actually the subject of a treaty between Crusader Sidon and Ayyubid Damascus, by which each side took 50 % of its revenue. And the relevant ruler of Damascus would presumably have been al-Suwayd, so while it’s not conclusive it does all fit. Apparently there is at least one other 13th-century Crusader condominial issue like this, so again we see here ideas about identity, autonomy and prerogatives in general that we would now expect states to care about just not being realistic in these times.

It’s thus reasonable for us to ask, I think, whether in Sicily or Damascus as everything changed around the people concerned, whether back-projecting our expectations about government, administration, sovereignty and the coinage and then declaiming our medieval subjects of study for somehow failing to do what we expect, is really useful. A better way of proceeding is surely to start by seeing what they did, asking what frameworks they had in which those things made sense, and then seeing how their responses to their own situation might speak to anything we have going on now rather than going backwards from where we are now and only grading them on what we expect to find… At opposite ends of the academic status scale, both Hervin and Professor Ilisch were offering us material with which to do that evaluation of the medieval response to circumstances in its own terms, and I’m always up for that.


1. Of coure, another famously good place to look to understand the modern nation-state is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd ed. (London 2006), online here, but I would like to encourage people to look a bit further back than he does…

2. I can’t by now tell which of these works Hervin invoked for what purpose, but the historiography he mentioned included things like Errico Cuozzo, “’Milites’ e ‘testes’ nella contea normanna di Pricipato” in Bullettino dell’Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo Vol. 88 (Roma 1979), pp. 121–163; Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993); and Annalise Nef, “State, Aggregation of the Elites and Redistribution of Resources in Sicily in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries: Proposals for a New Interpretation” in John Hudson and Ana Rodríguez López (edd.), Diverging Paths? The Shapes of Power and Institutions in Medieval Christendom and Islam, The Medieval Mediterranean 101 (Leiden 2014), pp. 230–247.

3. See Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996), where Italy is a close comparator.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online here.

5. I did, of course read something when I catalogued the coin which I’ve used as the image here, and that thing was mainly Alex G. Malloy, Irene F. Preston, Arthur J. Seltman, Michael L. Bates, A. A. Gordus, D. M. Metcalf & Roberto Pesant, Coins of the Crusaders States including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its Vassal States of Syria and Palestine, the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus (1192-1489), and the Latin Empire of Constantinople and Its Vassal States of Greece and the Archipelago, 2nd edn. ed. by Allen G. Berman (Fairfield VA 2004). I’d actually welcome recommendations for more here.

25 responses to “Seminars CCXLVIII & CCXLIX: dismantling expectations about statehood from Sicily and Sidon

  1. Those coins carry something that looks like the Star of David. What did that signify at the time?

    My father used to warn me against what he called “19th century schoolmaster nationalism”. Now I learn to beware of 12th century nationalist historiography.

    Tell me, ever since I first poked my nose into histories as a boy it’s been obvious to me that historians seemed always to take the side of the “Big Battalions” i.e. of a centralised state. Why?

    • To both questions, sadly, I have to admit I don’t know. Wikipedia tells me that the six-pointed star is known as the Seal of Solomon in Islam as well as the Star of David, and either might explain its use on materials which in some way reflect political rule I guess, but a guess is all it is. As to the latter, my cynical self supposes that it is because historians are trained in élite state-funded institutions, or on works produced by those who were, and therefore see state enterprises as inherently legitimate, but again it would be hard to prove. There is a counter-trend, of course, in the form of ‘history from below’, and the slightly anarchical trend set in motion by works of anthropology like James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak… but to my eyes counter-trend is what it remains, not by any means the ‘new normal’.

      I have to say, I find it buried in my students as well, as soon as they’re out of their own political context. The most woke antifa student there is can apparently still be coaxed by unthinking secondary literature to declaring that the reason Diocletian could solve the third-century crisis was because he was just a stronger ruler and what the Empire needed was strong rule, and the most militantly anti-Church one to gushing about Constantine I’s unification of his people under one religion… I think one needs to be protected from institutionalisation for some time to get away from what it teaches you, to be honest, and the weird thing is that universities are (still, just about) institutions that can do that, despite themselves being institutional. Which is not to say that they’re not soaked in their own weird group-thinks, but still…

      • And to follow up to myself I’d have to add that the students only do this big-state worship about the Romans. They’ve also apparently somewhere been taught instead to regard the medieval world as a pathetic failure of human organisation marinated in ‘superstition’, and it’s when you get that last word cropping up you realise that we really are a Protestant country still even though no beggar goes to Church… So, in general, we have a lot of work to do dismantling cultural biases in the first year.

        • About this one, it really does seem, as indeed the popular historian Tom Holland has noticed, that a lot of Protestant critiques of medieval religion have essentially survived intact, under the thin guise of “secular humanism” in the modern west. Indeed, its noticeable that while those who belong the Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris etc school of “new atheist” public intellectuals claim to be against all religion, they always single out medieval and early modern Catholicism and late twentieth and twenty-first century Islam for examples of the evils of religion in their polemics.

          Having been taught a few years ago as an undergraduate by Conrad Leyser, he had to, like you, get us to unlearn some of our culturally ingrained assumptions about medieval religion. But rather than starting with dispelling notions of “superstition” or “iron control” by “the church”, interestingly enough, began by working from the assumption that most of us would imagine late antique and early medieval religion to work like modern evangelical protestantism – to be all about belief, lifestyle and the individual’s relationship with God. He then proceeded to dismantle those assumptions by arguing that individual faith didn’t actually matter until 1700 (I was sceptical then and I while I can see more closely where he was coming from now, I think its pretty hard to say that it didn’t matter for at least some late antique and medieval people), and that it was instead all about community and belonging, which kind of reflects the recent critique by sociologists of the very concept of “religion” in a premodern or non-western context, and at one point brought out the football team analogy for understanding doctrinal disputes between, say, Nicene and Arian Christians (have you heard that one before?).

          • I have, and like you with the comment on individual faith I think it undersells the ways in which the two beliefs actually attacked each others’ validity, and indeed right to exist, whereas in the football analogy there must always be other teams and always be competition, or you can’t win. It’s strange in one way to gather of Conrad teaching such a basically sceptical view of religion, and then I bethink me of how much his thinking rests on anthropology and find it maybe no longer so strange; in his world beliefs have a social function. But I’m not sure that a late antique believer could manage the double-think that goes ‘because this is socially useful I shall believe it’ without also, you know, believing.

            • Exactly. While the social, anthropological and gender turns have all given us valuable insights in understanding medieval religion, its easy to have too much of a good thing. Up to a point “social logic” helps us understand why a lot of aspects of medieval religion took the form that they did, but once it gets to the point where beliefs and doctrines are effectively discounted as totally subordinate to social concerns or just not really mattering then I’m out. Granted, so many of the expressions of medieval belief we have in the written record (obviously excepting theological and devotional works) are very formulaic, but that doesn’t mean that we can discount the professed beliefs of individuals and groups as not really being their own or really all about something else, which goes well beyond the historian’s duty to read their sources with a critical eye. Like you said, maybe Arians and Homousians/ Chalcedonians/ Catholics were so willing to persecute, expel or even wage war against each other in the fourth to sixth centuries because what one thought the nature of Jesus Christ to be really was a serious matter to them, one that could literally determine the fate of your immortal soul. Obviously the confessional conflicts of Late Antiquity might seem strange, arcane and disturbing to us, as secular western liberals in the twenty-first century, but there an important cue is missed. What does make this all a little paradoxical is that Conrad is very much the sort of medievalist who is keen to stress the alterity of the Middle Ages – very often I’ve encountered him saying that medieval people are totally unlike us and we cannot truly understand them except perhaps on their own terms, and he’s argued that one of the main reasons why studying Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages is still relevant is because they show that things can be completely different to the way they are now.

              • This has been coming up a lot in my world just lately, actually. I went to a paper about modern Sufism in the US black population and was struck by how the speaker managed to give an account of the social utility of (this) religion without discounting belief, and even incorporating the power of it. When I spoke to them about this in questions afterwards they said, more or less, “yeah, it’s weird how the modern study of religion has become so scared of God.” Well quite!

      • This reminds me of a quote from the late Timothy Reuter (whose reflections and aphorisms I always find myself coming back to) in his “Modern mentalities and medieval polities” lecture, where he said (to try and paraphrase as accurately as I can) that historians of late Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Angevin England have a tendency to be strongly in favour of strong rulers and bureaucratic centralisation and view coercive state power as the only thing preventing everything from sliding into a Hobbesian “war against all”, to the point that they sound “somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun” when they’re in fact paid-up, guardian-reading left-leaning liberal members of the chattering classes. In the same paper, as a counter-example, he talks about how historians of medieval Iceland, who work with sagas rather than pipe rolls, often end up extolling what sounds like the fantasies of American anti-government militiamen, even if that has no actual bearing on their modern political sympathies.

        • Reuter was an extremely smart man whom, to my sadness, I only saw speak once and never properly met. I expected there to be more times to do so… But that book is a good way of convincing others of these facts, to be sure.

  2. Thanks for this post, Jonathan. I intend referring my own readers to it.

  3. Pingback: Two essential readings for Voynich revisionists. – Voynich Revisionist

  4. About the ‘star of David’ – that’s what it is. In the non-classical, indigenous star lore which until recently was preserved by the Bedu, the star Canopus was identified with David to whom, as legend had it, Gd had entrusted the secret of metalworking and it was taken as marker of South. It appears as the keystone of the apse at Lalibela, and in other non-Latin Christian contexts long before becoming specifically identified with the Jews. If your reader would like to know more, I can look up my old research notes for some references.

  5. “long before becoming specifically identified with the Jews.” That’s interesting.

    When did the identification happen? Does anyone know why it happened?

  6. Jonathan – I should have said ‘before the Latin west identified it specifically with the Jews’. I’m not sure it happened at a specific moment. I used to have a photograph (alas, lost in a bushfire along with much else in 2013) which showed the same star used as the large central motif of a Christian bishop’s throne in..perhaps somewhere like Romania.. but can’t be sure.
    I expect the transfer was simply due to the star’s being popularly known as ‘Davidic’ – and it is also seen in association with a script known as “ibranniya” in the Aegean. The only example I can cite for this last is very late – 17thC.
    but here’s the picture, with bibliographic details.
    https //voynichrevisionist.files.wordpress.com/2021/07/amulet-jewish-and-scripts-salonika-17thc png
    I’ve omitted the colon and the final full stop, so your spam filter won’t complain. :)

    • It still went into moderation, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to that; several people’s comments always wind up there whether they’ve included links or no. It wasn’t actually me who was asking about this, but I’m sure the information will be of interest anyway.

      • A follow-up: there is a fourth-century example of a miniature casket with a Star of David on one side and what we now call a Maltese Cross on the other, found in the Carpathian Basin, as fig. 11/2 in this:
        Tivadar Vida, “Christianity in the Carpathian Basin during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (5th to 8th Century AD)” in Endre Tóth, Tivadar Vida and Imre Takács (edd.), Saint Martin and Pannonia: Christianity on the Frontiers of the Roman World. Abbey Museum, Pannonhalma, 3 June – 18 September 2016 / Iseum Savariense, Szombathely, 3 June – 13 November 2016 (Szombathely 2016), pp. 93–106, online here, which I guess at least makes one answer to Dearieme’s question ‘after that’!

  7. PS – getting closer to your own period of interest, illustrations for the so-called ‘poems of Caedmon’ are among the early sources which show a northern and the southern celestial ‘ship’, with the northern equating to the ‘city of God’ and the southern as the ark (arca) of the Jews. Canopus was always master of that southern ship, which used to be much larger than it now is envisaged. So an association with the Jews, to that extent and among a few, at least, in the west is at least so old. But that older lore soon vanishes from the western works. I suspect it may have arrived with refugees from north-western Africa as a result of the Arab conquests. The same lore, including description of the northern ‘ship’ survives elsewhere among the Arab mariners to at least the 15thC. Hope this isn’t tmi.

    • That gives me two questions, then: firstly, what makes Canopus the Star of David? and secondly, where (and from when) are you finding illustrations of Cædmon’s poems? I don’t know of any illustrated copy of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, and to the best of my knowledge that is the only source for any poem we can confidently ascribe to Cædmon…

  8. On the ‘poems of Caedmon’ (so-called)… I meant the Junius ms.

    I daresay you know it but some of your readers might want a reference – so https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195396584/obo-9780195396584-0145.xml

    On the star’s association with David – it’s something I’ve known so long that I can’t recall my sources offhand. I’ll have to check when our university library is open again and get back to you on that. Sorry.

    • I’ve fixed the link and edited accordingly, as it’s obviously not that which is getting you queued for moderation. It makes sense that the illustrations for Genesis would include a construction of the world, but I haven’t seen it (and can’t see it in what the British Library has online from the MS here). However, I think it has to be relevant that the illustration is of a pre-Christian world! The Jews were still the people of God as illustrated there.

  9. I’ve always found it curious that religious attitudes should be tied to the cardinal directions. True that for some Latin Europeans ‘south’ had unpleasant ideas attached to it, but that wasn’t a universal attitude, even in medieval times. The Arabs’ called Canopus ‘Suhail’ – meaning the wise, the brilliant and their worldmaps were south oriented. But this is becoming tmi and o.t. so thanks for including the link, and I won’t forget when I can to provide the sources promised. Appreciate your patience.

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