Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

As usual, apologies are owed to you, dear readers, for a long absence; sorry. We stopped working to contract at about the time all my marking came in, and the result of marking arriving was as usual disappearance from civilisation. This last weekend that was compounded by a breakdown and impromptu eight-hour stop in Brecon, as well, which cut back my blogging chances somewhat. But quite a lot else has been happening and I have news as well as olds to report. I had some olds half-set-up to go, however, so that’s where we’ll start, with two papers from two successive days at the University of Leeds in 2019, both on the Normans in Sicily.

Now, for those in on the medieval scene it may not be surprising to hear of work on Norman Sicily at Leeds; in fact the main thing that might be surprising is that we were bussing it in, because is Leeds not after all the seat of Graham Loud, doyen of the field and supervisor of many protégés therein? And this was true even then, but Graham was at this point in the second of three years of a research project which would take him neatly up to retirement, and his students had pretty much all completed. Furthermore, because of his absence, we weren’t even really teaching Norman Sicily any more. The thing that can happen when a specialist retires, where a whole section of the library quietly ceases to be used, was already in progress. But this did not mean that there was no audience when firstly, on the 19th February, Jeremy Johns hauled up from Oxford to give an Institute for Medieval Studies Open Lecture with the title, “Documenting Multi-Culturalism in Norman Sicily”, and then the very next day Francesca Petrizzo, one of those completed students of Graham Loud’s indeed, spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title “‘Normans Don’t Cry’: grief, anger and the Hautevilles”.

Medieval scribes from three Sicilian traditions in Peter of Eboli's Liber in honorem Augusti

The masthead image of the project Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-existence, law and multiculturalism in the administrative and legal documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c.1060-c.1266, which although they don’t identify it on the website turns out to be from Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120 II, fo. 101r, online here. Really, academic websites should do better than this, but never mind, let’s move on…

Professor Johns was introducing us to a then-new project, Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-Existence, Law and Multiculturalism in the Administrative and Legal Documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c. 1060-c. 1266, funded by the European Research Council in a way that had just become rather political. The project probably also looked rather political to some, in so far as it was engaged in that most dangerous of things, attempting to check facts behind a cliché about religious, racial and cultural interaction. The cliché in question was that of Norman Sicily as a multicultural paradise of tolerance and shared artistic cultures; it is, now that Islamic Iberia is a bit more widely contested, almost the last of those we have left, but obviously it’s not everyone’s idea of paradise, and not everyone believes that it can have been possible despite certain signal memorials of it, because those are more or less by definition from élite; social strata deeply concerned in the success of the governmental project.1

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

The tombstone of Anna in St Michael’s Palermo, lettered in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew, commonly used as an emblem of Sicilian medieval multiculturalism; but Anna was mother of a priest of King Roger II, so may not have been precisely typical…

Well, this is a thing on which, to a certain extent, we can put numbers and for which we can find data, because the Normans arrived as French-speakers in a Sicily which had an Arabic administration and tax system, with older less Arabic components, staffed in part by Greek-speakers, and although survival of these systems’ documents is not what you’d call great (at least not by Catalan standards!), there are roughly 500 Latin, 350 Greek, 125 Arabic and 25 Judaeo-Arabic chancery records, quite a lot of inscriptions which at this point they had yet to count, and a good few other references that can be factored in.2 The difficulties or not that these documents describe are themselves qualitative instances of how these different cultural strata interacted, but also, and this was the main point of the paper, so is the choice and change of language in them. For example, one of the things coming out of this project will hopefully be the first ever study of Sicilian Arabic, because unsurprisingly it was a bit different. Ibn Hawqal, an Baghdadi merchant and probably Egyptian spy visiting in the 950s, thought it lamentably bad and ungrammatical; but the documents will tell us how it was actually written, and perhaps even spoken.3 Eventually, too, though this hasn’t happened yet, all the documents, in all languages of record, will be online in facsimile, transcription and translation, and that will be a fabulous resource to have.

What seems unlikely to emerge, however, is a simple narrative. The one we have at the moment is more or less that initially, the Normans needed the administration in working order so badly that they maintained it and its operators, thus practising tolerance by necessity and making a virtue of it while it did them good; but, after a century or so, partly because support for their endeavours from the Latin world was so necessary and partly just because the Normans did not naturalise very far, Latin tended to push out the other tongues and Christianity the other religions.4 What the project was already showing was that Arabic might have gone quiet, but had not completely gone, even in documents from close to the end of their sample, where boundary clauses might still sometimes be given in very local dialects of it in documents otherwise fully Latin.5 Who was the audience for that, nearly two centuries after Latin conquest? Likewise, it seems as if while the Normans may not have Arabised, they certainly naturalised to the extent that even by the 1190s, no-one seems to have been writing French on the island, rather than a local Romance more like that which would become Italian. Between Sicilian Arabic and Sicilian Romance, the most obvious outcome from the Norman period may actually have been, well, Sicily, admittedly not for the first time in its history, but ever reinvented as each wave washing over it dried into its shores.

Poster for the Medieval History Seminar, Institute for Medieval Studies, 20 February 2019

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

Francesca Petrizzo, meanwhile, had been one of my advisees while she was Graham Loud’s doctoral student, and so, disclaimer, can always be sure of a good write-up here, but I think more people than just me thought hers was a fun paper. Her doctoral thesis was on the political value of kinship among the most successful of the Norman families who made southern Italy and Sicily the new home for their endeavours in the eleventh century, by a process of hiring themselves into military disputes and slowly emerging as the masters of the situations into which they were hired, to the ultimate extent of becoming Kings of Sicily and counts of numerous other places nearby.6 However, what her thesis had not covered was emotional bonds, and this paper was an attempt to sound the evidence for that, and was therefore as much a methodological exercise as an empirical one: how can we get at emotions and feelings from the sources we have, and how can we ever be sure that they were what the subjects of report felt? There are some cases where it seems clear enough, relatively speaking: when Elvira of Castile, the wife of King Roger II of Sicily, died we are told by Alexander of Telese that Roger hid in his chambers for weeks, so that a rumour spread that he had died too and then his brother-in-law raised a revolt against his counsellors, whereupon Roger had to emerge in vengeful fashion and kill quite a few people. He then didn’t remarry for a decade, until he was down to one male heir. Love, grief and anger don’t seem unreasonable to attribute here, though one would like the hiding story to occur in more than one source.

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa, with tombs of the Hauteville family visible beneath the floor, photo by Anna Nicoletta MenzellaOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The main emotional outlet of the Hautevilles does seem to have been anger and venegance – the title quote came from a report by Amatus of Montecassino about a band of Normans whose lord was killed in a fray, who, he says, did not waste time on tears but went straight through the stages of mourning to vengeance without waiting (not his language, obviously, but the title quote is: “Normanni non plorent”, ‘the Normans don’t cry’).7 But seeing other emotions in the sources is hard: we can see patronage as an expression of affection, especially when it was extended to people who repeatedly caused trouble (though that was a lot of the Hautevilles, and there may just not have been much choice); we can also, however, therefore see a preference for kin over outsiders, despite how troublesome a kindred it was.8 And then there are memorials that show us some level of mourning, of which we have two above, though of course these are the public expression of mourning rather than a private one. Many of these emotional pathways, interestingly, occasionally let women through into what would normally be men’s roles; women counts regnant, several powerful consorts, daughters who witnessed charters, patronesses of chronicles, and so on.

The examples involving women may be the most powerful ones, for me, because they sit against the otherwise obvious possibility that these actions of violence, inclusion, patronage or dispute may have been pragmatic and political rather than emotional (in so far as the two spheres separate). Obviously female kinship ties had political value as well, but Tancred of Conversano having his daughter witness charters probably didn’t help anything except her sense of being a nobleman’s offspring. Nonetheless, most of the questions were about how results of an enquiry like this could be made reliable, with one person saying it simply couldn’t be done, as all we were getting was the emotions that the agent of record thought would have been appropriate, and another wondering if the chroniclers’ emotions weren’t the thing we should study here instead. Joanna Phillips, also of this parish, wondered if it might be more reliable to track responses to emotion than records of its expression. More interesting to me was the question that asked if this emotional profile was a Norman thing or more generally medieval, to which Francesca said that it wasn’t even general to the Normans; few other families had this kind of internal cohesion and, apparently, trust. But also, in most other cultures and kingroups of the era crying was a perfectly legitimate display of sincerely felt emotion; if these Normans didn’t cry, then they were modelling a different, less emotive kind of masculinity than was the fashion with others. That kind of relative history of emotions might work better for me; the chroniclers in question are still individual lenses which need to be gauged, of course, as are any non-chronicle sources (of which there were some) involved, but at least once we can say, this story presents appropriate emotions thus but this one elsewise, we can start to dig into why. The material for that seemed to be abundant here!


1. This is a lot to substantiate in one footnote, so maybe I can just give examples. For example, Iberia maybe not a multicultural paradise even if some current hate speechifiers go too far in denying it: Anna Akasoy, “Convivencia and its Discontents: Interfaith Life in al-Andalus” in International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 42 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 489–499. Sicily still in the frame: Sarah C. Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Ithaca NY 2017). Critical reevaluation (maybe too critical): Brian A. Catlos, “Accursed, Superior Men: Ethno-Religious Minorities and Politics in the Medieval Mediterranean” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 56 (Cambridge 2014), pp. 844–869. Lots more could be cited, often with quite different views.

2. See Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993), and indeed Jeremy Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwān, Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization (Cambridge 2002).

3. Professor Johns didn’t mention Ibn Hawqal, but the geographer’s peroration on Sicily is one of my favourite tenth-century sources, and can be found in French, at least, in Ibn Hauqal, Configuration de la terre (Kitab surat al-Ard) : Introduction et traduction, avec index, ed. J. H Kramers and trans. G. Wiet, Collection UNESCO d’œuvres représentatives : Série arabe, 1st edn (Paris 1964), 2 vols, I pp. 117-130. The only English version I know is a teaching translation of my own from that French, rather than the Arabic.

4. This is the picture you’d get from, for example, Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 1992), which was the first thing I ever read on the subject (and was new then…).

5. The example here was a 1242 document by King Frederick II’s administrator Obbertus Fatamongelia, apparently the first charter in their sample to use Arabic for a space of forty years, but I’m afraid I have no tighter reference than that. When their website’s finished, though, we’ll all be able to find it from that I hope!

6. That thesis was, for the record, Francesca Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers: Kin Dynamics of the Hautevilles and Other Normans in Southern Italy and Syria, c. 1030-c. 1140” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2018), online here.

7. Again, I don’t have a detailed reference here, but one can read Amatus in Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans, trans. Prescott N. Dunbar, rev. Graham A. Loud (Woodbridge 2004).

8. As well as Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers”, see now Francesca Petrizzo, “Wars of our fathers: Hauteville kin networks and the making of Norman Antioch” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 48 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 1–31.

4 responses to “Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

  1. By the 20th century we were all Normans: “Who’s Mummy’s brave little soldier?”; “Big boys don’t cry”.

  2. Indeed, and by the Victorian era too, ‘stiff upper lip and all that’. I saw something about this once that suggested the watershed (as it were) was the end of the Georgian period, in which it had been fine to cry, shout, fart and numerous other verbs of bodily expression as signs of real feeling, and after which all those things became distasteful. I can’t remember why they thought this had happened, however, and whether they considered either anything before their own period of interest or outside southern-to-Midland England.

  3. Did you know that “stiff upper lip” is originally an American expression, as is “keeping up with the Joneses”?

    Or so the internet tells me. I find the second claim unsurprising but was mildly surprised by the first.

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