Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Normans: The arrival of the Normans in Southern Italy

The following stages[1] in the Norman conquest of southern Italy have been identified by Pierre Bouet. They may suggest a planned approach to conquest. In fact, as Bouet acknowledges the Norman achievement in southern Italy was almost entirely the result of improvised or pragmatic solutions to problems.

The time of the pilgrims 1000-1017

During the 10th and 11th centuries, pilgrimage was a very important part of western religious life. The aim of these distant voyages that increased around the year one thousand was to visit the sacred places hallowed by the passage of Christ or the presence of relics of saints. The principle destinations were Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem (the Holy Sepulchre), the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome and the tomb of Saint James of Compostela[2]. These journeys were long, expensive, tiring and dangerous (often the pilgrim would have to return before the end of his voyage). The duke of Normandy, Robert ‘the Magnificent’ died in 1035 at the peak of his power, in Nicea in Bithynia (in modern-day Turkey) coming back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The ports of Brindisi and Messina in southern Italy played an important role in the embarkation of these voyages. In Apulia on the Adriatic coast, there was an important place of pilgrimage, the monastery of Saint Michael the Archangel[3] at Monte Gargano that had close ties with the site of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, where according to legend there was also an apparition of Saint Michael, at the beginning of the 8th century[4]. Norman pilgrims went to this site and thus the story of the Normans in southern Italy had begun[5].

The ‘adventus normannorum’

The reasons why the Normans came to Italy is covered in the contemporary sources. The problem is that these sources provide different and seemingly contradictory explanations.

  • Amatus of Montecassino maintain that the origins of the Norman emigration to southern Italy can be dated from Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem. Amatus argues that before the year 1000, forty Norman pilgrims successfully helped the city of Salerno defend itself against Arab attack. Invited to remain, the pilgrims declined but said that they would return later with other fellow countrymen. Amatus then passes on to describe how Count Robert of Normandy exiled a man called Gilbert Buatère for killing an individual called William, how Gilbert and his four brothers came to Italy and at Capua met Melus, the leader of a previous rebellion against the Byzantines in Apulia joining him in a new uprising. There are a variety of problems with this account especially the dating. The attack on Salerno can only have taken place in 999 when Guaimar III of Salerno succeeded his father John as prince. The first rebellion of Melus in Apulia took place in 1109-11 while the second uprising, with Norman aid, is securely dated to 1017. However, Robert did not become duke of Normandy until 1027-8. Amatus seems to have telescoped events that occurred over a number of years to imply they followed in rapid succession.
  • William of Apulia suggests an alternative explanation situated in the years 1015-1016. He makes no mention of Salerno at all, though like Amatus he said that the first Normans to come to Italy were pilgrims. In his version, Norman pilgrims to Monte Gargano encountered Melus, a member of the Lombard aristocracy of Apulia who was fighting against Byzantine forces. They recognised the fertility and wealth of the region and the opportunities it offered for mercenary activity[6]
  • Leo Marsicanus, in the original version of his chronicle of Montecassino gives a briefer explanation that differs from both Amatus and William. He described the original revolt of Melus and then how he took refuge in Capua where he encountered forty Norman ‘in flight from the anger of their lord, the Count of Normandy’ and persuades them to take part in his proposed invasion. Leo listed the leaders of the Normans as Gilbert Botericus, Rodulf of Tosny, Osmund, Rifinus and Stigand. In the later revision of the chronicle (by Leo or someone else), Amatus’ account is inserted almost verbatim and the list of the Norman leaders is omitted.

Though there are common elements in these accounts (Normans as pilgrims, the role of political exiles, the naming of Gilbert Buatère and Norman involvement in Melus’ second rebellion), the stories are discordant and contradictory. William alleged that the Normans who helped Melus in his attack on Apulia came unarmed, perhaps as pilgrims, and that the winter before the attack there was unprecedented snowfalls (the Bari and Benevento annals both date this to 1009 not the winter of 1016-17). It is not surprising that historians have tended to discount the different versions as legends pointing to the problems with Amatus and William and the incompleteness of Leo Marsicanus.

One problem is that all three southern Italian historians were writing towards the end of the eleventh century, some time after the event. However, Radulf Glaber gave another version of the Normans’ arrival that was written c.1030[7]. Glaber also refers to a man called Rodulf who had fallen foul of the count of Normandy, correctly named as Richard II (996-1026). Rodulf went with some companions to Rome where it was Pope Benedict VIII[8] (1012-24) who recruited them for an attack on Apulia. Glaber also says that news of their initial victories led to many other Normans leaving their country and moving south. Certainly relations between the papacy and the patriarchate of Constantinople were poor in the 1010s as the papacy had been trying to reassert its authority, largely unsuccessfully, over the bishoprics of Byzantine Italy since the mid-tenth century.

It is possible to reconcile these different accounts of the Normans’ arrival.

  • Muslim raids on southern Italy increased from around 975, so an attack on Salerno around 1000 is not unlikely. This is supported by one version of the Montecassino annals that refers to an attack on Salerno in 999, though it is a twelfth century document that may be dependent on Amatus. There is also support for an attack on Salerno in Orderic Vitalis. The details of his version, especially where he says that a hundred Normans defeated 20,000 Muslims may not be credible but, as he is most unlikely to have known Amatus’ account at the very least he shows that there is a tradition linking the Normans with an attack on Salerno. Amatus’ account of the events of 999-1000 need not be dismissed as legend nor does it have to be related to the second rebellion of Melus in 1016-17. Nor does his account invalidate the other versions of the Normans’ arrival.
  • William of Apulia’s account should be seen as entirely separate from the role of the Norman pilgrims at Salerno. There was a longstanding link between Normandy and the shrine at Monte Gargano. The presence of Melus at Monte Gargano is plausible. The Byzantines were firmly in control of the Capitanata but the Gargano massif was an isolated and thinly populated area with ample places to hide. The risk of arrest was much less than in the relatively thickly populated coastal region to the south and Melus may have needed to leave the safety of Capua to contact supporters within the Byzantine province.

It is possible to reconstruct the Normans’ arrival in southern Italy. First, the Muslim attack on Salerno in 999 or 1000 decribed by Amatus is confirmed and that therefore there is some truth in his story of Norman pilgrims coming to the aid of the city, though whether their role was as heroic or important as both Amatus and Orderic Vitalis suggest is debatable. Norman mercenaries were already in Italy in the early years of the eleventh century. They had already been recruited by the abbots of Montecassino and Saint Vincent of Volturno around 1010. Amatus decribes how after the early battles in Apulia in 1017 more Normans ‘from Salerno’ joined Melus’ army suggesting they were already there. The involvement by Pope Benedict VIII of Norman mercenaries in Melus’ enterprise is perfectly feasible given relations between Rome and Constantinople. Glaber suggests that Landulf V, prince of Benevento was involved, while Amatus and Leo Marsicanus agree that Melus gathered his forces in Capua, presumably with the connivance of its princes, the two cousins Pandulf II and Pandulf IV (the latter the brother of the prince of Benevento). Both Capua and Benevento (temporarily united between 1008 and 1014) has ambitions to recover land their predecessors had held in northern Apulia, so their tacit involvement is not surprising.

Political instability in southern Italy and the tales of homecoming pilgrims aroused the interest of mercenaries. Also the particular problems in Normandy at the beginning of the 11th century should be taken into account. Many people had been expelled from their land, a frequent event at this time of ducal justice at the beginning of the 11th century. After declaring them outlaws, the duke got rid of these lords, such as Osmond Drengot who fled around 1017 with his brothers after committing a crime of honour. Other later rebels against ducal authority sometimes followed the same route: for instance Robert of Grandmesnil[9], abbot of Saint Evroult and Werlenc, count of Mortain sought exile during the middle of the 11th century to escape the authority of William the Conqueror. Expatriation was the occasion for more modest people, lacking money and land to become rich and change their social position. Such was the case for the Hauteville brothers.


[1] Les Normands en Méditerraneé, University of Caen, 1994, pages 15-22

[2] Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain has been an important place of pilgrimage for the Roman Catholic Church since the 9th century, when the discovery was made nearby of the supposed bones of the apostle St James the Great (‘Santiago’ is Spanish for St James, and ‘Compostela’ means “field of stars”). Chief among the numerous medieval buildings in the city is the fine Romanesque cathedral, consecrated in 1128 that contains the tomb of St James.

[3] The earliest expressions of a Michaeline cult are to be sought in the ancient Near East. In an effort to chart the migration of Michael’s cult from East to West, this chapter begins by focusing on three geographic centres of Michaeline devotion: western Asia Minor, southern Italy, and northern Gaul. Special attention is devoted to Italy since the foundation legend of the cultic centre at Monte Gargano had a significant impact on Anglo-Saxon devotion to Michael. In at least two of these regions (the Near East and Italy) the Archangel expropriated an existing cultic site and assumed some of the healing characteristics associated with the site. After a series of apparitions and earthly interventions, each of the three great regional powers, Constantine’s empire, the Lombards, and the Carolingians, adapted and adopted St. Michael, Commander of the Heavenly Host in battle, as the patron saint of its imperial ambition.

[4] Well known is the apparition of St. Michael in 494 or 530-40 at his sanctuary on Monte Gargano, where his original glory as patron in war was restored to him. To his intercession the Lombards of Sipontum attributed their victory over the Greek Neapolitans on 8th May 663. In commemoration of this victory the church of Sipontum instituted a special feast in honour of the archangel, on 8th May, which has spread over the entire Latin Church and is now called ‘Apparitio S. Michaelis’, although it originally did not commemorate the apparition, but the victory. In Normandy, St. Michael is the patron of mariners in his famous sanctuary at Mont-Saint-Michel in the diocese of Coutances. He is said to have appeared there, in 708, to St. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches. In Normandy his feast ‘S. Michaelis in periculo maris’ or ‘in Monte Tumba’ was universally celebrated on 18th October the anniversary of the dedication of the first church in 710. J.-M Martin ‘La culte de saint Michel en Italie mérodiionale d’ après les actes de practique’ in C.Carletti and G. Otranto (eds.) Culto e insediamenti michaelici nell’Italia meridionale fra tarda antichita e medioevo, Bari, 1994, pages 375-404 is especially useful on this subject.

[5] Hartmut Hoffmann ‘Die Anfange der Normannen in Unteritalien’, Quellen und Fortschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken, volume xlix (1969), pages 95-144 remains the best study but there are also papers in English: J. France, ‘The Occasion of the Coming of the Normans to Southern Italy’, Journal of Medieval History, volume 17 (1991), pages 185-205 and E. Joranson, ‘The inception of the career of the Normans in Italy’, Speculum, volume 23 (1948), pages 353-96 consider the arguments for the chronology of the ‘adventus normannorum’.

[6] The notion of an invitation to come to Italy plays an important part in the alternative explanations for the Norman presence in the south and is relatively common in other traditions; for example, the British inviting the Anglo-Saxons to come to Britain in Gildas De Excidio Britonum, see Michael Winterbottom (ed.) Gildas The Ruin of Britain and other works, Phillimore, 1978, pages 25-27.

[7] Radulfus Glaber Opera, edited by J.France, N. Bulst and P. Reynolds, Oxford Medieval Texts, Oxford, 1989, pages 96-101.

[8] Glaber’s suggestion that the pope was the instigator of or at least party to, the attack on Apulia in 1017 is supported by the near contemporary French chronicler Adehemar of Chabannes: Chronicon, edited by J. Chavanon, Paris, 1897, pages 178.

[9] Joseph Decaens ‘La patrimoine des Grentemesnils en Normandie, en Angleterre et en Italie aux XIe et XIIe siècles’, Les Normands en Méditerraneé, University of Caen, 1994, pages 123-140 provides invaluable information on a family that played a major part in the history of Normandy, England and Italy.

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