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Sicily and the Normans

By Valerie Shuman
The most ancient Sicilian culture can be dated as far back as 10,000 B.C.
(as established from rock carvings at Mount Pellegrino) and for most of
their history, everyone but the Sicilians have been in control.
Large, fertile, and at the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily has invariably
been somebody elses prize or, as Jane Vessel (National Geographic)
quotes, the cradle of invasion.

A brief overview of Sicily starts with the Sicels (an ancient people who
left many stone tombs and the root of the islands name) and the Sicans.
The Greeks arrived in the eighth century B.C., establishing important
colonies whose ruined temples and theaters remain some of the islands
great tourist attractions.
The Romans made it the first province of their empire.
Arabs left a flourishing legacy of crops: oranges, lemons, melons,
pistachios, and a new breed of wheat.
The Normans contributed castles, cathedrals, and blue-eye genes.
The Normans (Norsemen) themselves are descendants
from not only Vikings, but Franks, Romans, & Celts as
well, and their language is a dialect of French.

Unlike their Viking forebears, the Normans were


Christians, and their society was highly evolved in its
government, law, art, architecture and literature, which
during the twelfth century profoundly influenced not only
Normandy but England and southern Italy.
In 1061, having assumed control of much of southern Italy, a Norman force
crossed into Sicily at Messina and seized the city from its Saracen garrison.

The best estimate of the Norman migration places it at fewer than


eight thousand persons arriving between 1061 and 1161, but even
this is highly speculative. It certainly was not a mass immigration
comparable to those of the Arabs (Saracens) or ancient Greeks. The
first Norman incursions into Sicily were measured in hundreds of
Norman knights accompanied by greater numbers of non-Norman
infantry, and not all of them remained here.
The Norman occupation began around 1061 A.C.
and continued until 1266*
Palermo was already an important cultural center, but it became even
more important, with a variety of interests: literature, philosophy,
jurisprudence, science, arts; but it also became the center of the
spiritual Italian life in the 13th century AC.

Under Fredrick the second, Sicily


experienced a golden period and unparalled
prosperity. Amongst so many wonders were:
works by the Arab Ibn Edrisi, an astronomer
as well as a doctor, who carved on a silver
slate the first representation of the southern
part of the planet. Represented, for the first
time, the Earths sphericity, the two poles,
and even a note: in the South the sun rises
from North, and instead of the North Star
you get 4 stars, known as the South Cross.
The Cathedral of Palermo
A Norman keep overlooks the Abruzzi village of Cesoli
Frederick II
King of Sicily, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem,
King of the Romans, King of Germany
and Emperor of the Romans

He was known in his own time as Stupor mundi


("wonder of the world"), and was said to speak nine
languages and be literate in seven all this during a
time when some monarchs and nobles were not
literate at all. By contemporary standards, Frederick
was a ruler very much ahead of his time, being an avid
patron of science and the arts.

Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and son of the great Barbarossa, was crowned King
of Sicily by right of marriage at Palermo Cathedral on Christmas day 1194.

Henry's life and reign in Sicily were brief, however, and in 1197 Frederick succeeded
his father, with Constance as regent. He was crowned in May 1198 and his mother
died later that year. With Pope Innocent III as his guardian and protector, Frederick's
future seemed secure.
Frederick enlisted some of the greatest juridical minds of the era to
encode and collect the previous Norman, Arab and Byzantine laws in
order to establish a firm and orderly procedure for legal conflicts.

The town of Melfi was host to this endeavor. Eventually, royally


appointed judges supplanted local aristocrats in the exercise of
justice. Agriculture, currency and a new professional army were also
organized to suit the needs of an efficient state. Annual taxes were
levied on certain activities and raw materials, while the state
assumed sole production of certain others such as iron, silk and,
above all, salt.

In 1221 he established a great secular seat of learning in Naples


which even today functions as the university that bears his name.
Frederick II was struck down with fever in December 1250 in Apulia,
the land of his birth. He died just before his fifty-sixth birthday and
was interred in the cathedral of his favorite city, Palermo, where he
rests today.

Petty dynastic power struggles and a brief war of independence (The


Sicilian Vespers) followed, but never again would Sicily achieve the
glory, prosperity and true independence she had enjoyed under this
most singular of sovereigns.

In the words of John Julius Norwich:

"Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe --and indeed in the whole


bigoted medieval world-- as an example of tolerance and
enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel
for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own."