Monday, 26 November 2007

The Normans in Southern Italy: A Christian mission?

The Normans, who were Latin Christians, found that the peoples of Sicily and Southern Italy were just as divided religiously as they were politically. Sizable Jewish communities were scattered throughout the region.[1] The Sicilian emirates, especially the thriving metropolis of Palermo, were located at the centre of the vast Muslim community that dominated the Mediterranean from Spain to the Levant. The Muslim inhabitants of the island were thus tightly linked to the vast world of Islam. Even though their overlords were Muslims, the Greeks in Sicily were not forced to convert and instead managed to maintain their religious identity.[2] The Greek Christians in Sicily and on the mainland adhered to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople and so practiced their religion according to the Greek tradition.[3] The Lombards on the mainland followed the rites as they were practiced in Latin Christendom and looked to the Popes of Rome for ecclesiastical guidance. Affirming the primacy of the See of St. Peter, the Popes dreamed of forcing the Greek Christians of Sicily and Southern Italy to acknowledge their hegemony and conform to the standards of Latin Christianity.[4]

The Normans would take advantage of this situation, since their conquest of the region could appear along the lines of a war fought on behalf of the Papacy in order to restore Muslim Sicily to the Christian world, and to compel the Greek Christians to recognise the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff[5]. This holy war was completed between 1059 and 1091. Roger II subsequently merged the Norman principalities into the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130.  In each case the Norman rulers had to receive the titles of legitimate prince, duke, count, or king by Papal investiture, obtained through vassalage to the Papacy that gave the Normans credibility in the eyes of their Norman followers, their subjects and their opponents. This would also, however, invoke the resentment of the Eastern and Western Emperors, both of whom claimed to be the true lords of Sicily and Southern Italy. This benefited the Popes because the Normans became their protectors at a time when the Papacy was on increasingly unpleasant terms with their traditional guardians, the ‘Roman’ emperors. The Holy Roman Emperors in Germany wanted to appoint Popes rather than allow canonical Papal elections and the Byzantines refused to recognise the primacy of the Roman Pontiff over the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The Normans, meanwhile, were happy to take on the attractive and intensely chivalric image of warriors charged with defending the Vicar of St. Peter. In addition, the Normans would be able to spread their influence throughout the region by taking charge of the process of reforming the Greek churches along the lines of Latin Christendom and according to the directions of the Papacy. They had a justification for appointing their allies as bishops and abbots of the sees and monasteries which held lands and commanded authority there.

The Normans pleased the Papacy by making wise appointments and expanding the limits of Papal jurisdiction by extending the borders of Latin Christendom. In the Normans, the Popes gained powerful allies against the Germans. They needed the protection of the Normans, who promised to secure Papal elections and prevent the German Emperors from installing their own appointees to the See of St. Peter.[6] The Normans throughout all their adventures in the eleventh century proved to be very successful in forging an alliance with the Papacy that was beneficial to both sides.  Church approval made the Norman conquests of Sicily and Southern Italy legitimate. Even before Roger II created the Norman Kingdom of Sicily in 1130, Norman leaders in the South made use of ecclesiastical support. Once the adventurers started in the eleventh century to carve out smaller lordships for themselves in the region, they inevitably sought to affirm their power over their territory and its inhabitants by winning approval and legitimate titles of office from the Church. Without this legitimisation, the Normans would have seemed on a par with barbarian invaders, such as their Viking ancestors who raided northern France before King Charles the Simple enfeoffed Rollo with the Duchy of Normandy in 911.[7]

Approval of Norman expeditions in Italy and Sicily was all the more potent because it most often came directly from the Pope himself. This had to do not only with the Papal territories’ geographic proximity to the Normans’ conquests, but also with the fact that the Normans were perceived by the Pope as reclaiming for Latin Christendom lands held previously by the Greek Church and the Muslims. The Pope thus had a vested interest in the Normans’ expansion: when the Normans, who were Latin Christians, stretched their influence over Sicily and Southern Italy, the area over which the Pope and the Western Christian Church could hope to command authority over religious affairs increased.  Furthermore, the Papacy in these years was trying to break free from the control of the German Emperors, who wanted to keep their customary right to appoint Popes; they did not want to comply with the Papal Election Decree issued by the reforming Pope Nicholas II in 1059, which stated that the Cardinal Bishops ought to elect each new Pope.[8] The Popes needed political and military protection from the Western Emperors, and they saw that their best hope lay with the fearsome Normans who had by the mid-eleventh century become the most dominant force in Southern Italy.

It took a long time for the Normans to transform themselves into papally approved rulers from the professional mercenaries and pirates they were upon their arrival in Italy at the beginning of the eleventh century. The bandits committed many a sacrilege, for not even pilgrims traveling through the peninsula on their way to the Holy Land or the shrine of St. Michael at Monte Gargano were safe. According to Ordericus Vitalis, an English monk who lived in the abbey of St. Evroul in Normandy, the sons of Tancred de Hauteville, who became the most famous of the Normans in the South, at first used to surreptitiously disguise themselves as pilgrims to avoid capture.[9] In fact, the Normans became so hated by the inhabitants of Italy for the way they ruthlessly plundered and pillaged throughout the country that they induced the retaliation of the Pope himself.[10] Leo IX could no longer tolerate their violence against his flock and their encroachment on Papal lands, and so he organised and led an army against them. At the battle of Civitate on 23rd June 1053, Leo’s troops, who came from the Holy Roman Empire and the Lombard principalities (even the Byzantine Emperor had promised his assistance, but the Greek army did not arrive in time for the fight), confronted the Norman warriors Humphrey de Hauteville, his younger brother Robert Guiscard, and their brother-in-law Richard of Aversa. The expedition failed, however. The Normans defeated Leo and held him in honorable captivity in Benevento until his death on 19th April 1054.[11] This episode indicates that the Normans’ desire for conquest seems to have outweighed their inclination to defer to the Papacy with regard to secular concerns. That the Normans did not back down from a declaration of Holy War upon them by the Vicar of Saint Peter shows the extent of their ambition, audacity, and unwillingness to yield to the Papacy control over the way they handled their temporal affairs.[12]

The Normans were not entirely irreverent of the Pope. They had tried to avoid fighting with the Vicar of Christ and they begged his forgiveness after they defeated his army. According to Amatus of Montecassino, a monk who between 1075 and 1080 provides a contemporary account of the Norman conquests in his L’Ystoire de li Normant, the Normans treated the vanquished Pontiff with humility and respect: “The Pope was afraid and the clerics trembled. And the victorious Normans gave him hope, and offered the Pope safe conduct, and they took him and all his people to Benevento, and they continually gave him bread and wine and everything necessary.”[13]  Six years later, they again showed that they could indeed respect the Papacy’s spiritual authority demonstrating that their ambitions could also have a religious side. At a synod held at Melfi in 1059, Pope Nicholas II sought the Normans as allies. He was a reformer and needed help in defending his claim to the Papal tiara from the antipope Benedict X, who represented the old-guard of the Roman aristocratic families. Emperor Henry III had recently passed away, leaving the throne to his son Henry IV. The new German King (he could only become the actual Holy Roman Emperor by receiving consecration at the hands of the Pope) was only five years old at the time, so Nicholas could not look for help from him.[14] The Papacy had bitterly resented the Byzantine Emperor ever since he had failed to help them at Civitate; moreover, the Eastern and Western Churches had been in an official state of schism since 1054.[15]

Because Nicholas could not look to either Emperor for help in securing his election, and also because he recognised that the Papacy could no longer afford to have the Normans as enemies, he sought an alliance with them. This alliance was embodied in Richard of Aversa’s and Robert Guiscard’s submission to the Pope and agreement to become his vassals. Once they had proven themselves to be the most powerful military force in Italy, the Normans realised that they could make the fruits of their conquests permanent and legitimate by yielding to the Pope’s sovereignty. Robert promised, “I will support the Holy Roman Church in holding and acquiring the temporalities and possessions of St. Peter everywhere and against all men, and I will help you hold the Roman papacy securely and honorably.”[16] Robert swore, moreover, to safeguard Papal elections and make sure that no one challenged the properly elected Pope. This facet of the agreement shows that the Papacy wanted to use the Normans to gain a measure of independence from the German Emperors. The paradox is obvious. The reform Papacy wanted freedom from lay intervention in ecclesiastical matters but it needed lay protection from the Normans in order to preserve this freedom. Nicholas did not want the Emperors to be able to appoint Popes, and instead he wanted the terms of his decree on canonical Papal elections to be enforced. This decree, which Nicholas also issued in 1059, stated that only the consent of “the cardinal bishops…the other cardinal clergy, and then the rest of the clergy and the people” could determine who would become Pope.[17] The Normans assumed the grave responsibility of protecting the sanctity of Papal elections, and, as a result they became champions of the reform movement which aimed to free the Church from the control of laymen.  In exchange for this support, Nicholas proclaimed Richard Prince of Capua and Robert “Duke of Apulia and Calabria by the grace of God and of St. Peter; and, with their help in the future, Duke of Sicily.”[18] The Normans were no longer brigands, pirates, and mercenaries, but instead they were established European rulers, “by the grace of God and of St. Peter.” Beyond this, even, they had entered into an agreement with Nicholas similar to the one between Popes Zachary and Stephen II and the Frankish King Pepin the Short in 754, and the one between Pepin’s son Charlemagne and Pope Leo III in 800.[19] Now it was the Normans who had become guardians of the Papacy and they subsumed the role of the Frankish Kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

In practical terms, Richard and Robert held secular power over the Pope, since he was compelled to look to them for protection. But the agreement also implies that the Normans had a practical need to be Nicholas’ vassals. It was essential for the Normans that he confers these titles upon them in order to carry out their political ambitions, tighten their claims to power and provides them with prestige and recognition. They acknowledged that Nicholas held spiritual authority over them, since he was the source of their legitimacy. At this time, ecclesiastical reformers such as Nicholas were asserting more and more the principle of divine hierarchy: it was God’s will that spiritual authority be superior to secular authority. In order to be legitimate, secular authority needed to conform to this divinely ordained hierarchical ordering of Christian society, and so secular authority needed the approval and mediation of spiritual authority.[20] The Normans were willing to subscribe to this philosophy of Papal theocracy in exchange for the elevated status the Papacy could offer. They saw, as had Pepin the Short, Charlemagne, and their successors, that the promise of service and obedience was a fair trade for Papal endorsement, which could guarantee they would not have to resort to incessant warfare in order to stabilise their reign and keep their subjects obedient.

Richard upheld his obligations by making sure that Nicholas’ elected successor, Alexander II, was firmly established at Rome in 1061. William de Montreuil, another knight who traveled from Normandy to make his career in Italy, fought in Campania on behalf of Alexander.[21] Consequently, Alexander was very supportive of the Normans throughout his reign. He blessed Robert Guiscard and his younger brother Roger and gave them a Papal banner for their campaign against the Muslims of Sicily in 1061-2.[22] Most famously, he responded to William the Conqueror’s appeal for Papal endorsement of his invasion of England by sending him, as William of Poitiers says, “the gift of a banner as a pledge of the support of St. Peter whereby he might the more confidently and safely attack his enemy.”[23] The Normans had become legitimate rulers, protectors of the Papacy and holy warriors fighting under the aegis of St. Peter.

It is clear, however, that Robert Guiscard did not believe that the provisions of his oath to Nicholas II meant that he had to heed to the Papacy in every matter. He did not relinquish his Viking heritage when he became Duke of Apulia. In subsequent years, he showed very little regard for the wishes of the Pope. Despite two sentences of excommunication from Pope Gregory VII between 1074 and 1080, he went ahead and conquered the Pope’s allies, Amalfi in 1073 and Salerno in 1077, and in 1078 he besieged Benevento, which was technically the property of the Papacy. Gregory eventually came to realise that there was no use in opposing such a powerful individual and that the Papacy could have much more to gain from an alliance with him. Moreover, King Henry IV of Germany, Gregory’s opponent in the famous controversy over lay investiture, was threatening to invade Rome, depose Gregory, and appoint his own Pope. Gregory was in dire need of military protection, and so in 1080 he reaffirmed the pact Robert had made with Nicholas II in 1059. Robert again swore to be “the vassal [fidelis] of the Holy Roman Church and of the Apostolic See and of you, my lord Gregory, universal pope.” He promised to pay tribute and protect Papal elections, revenues, and property. He also promised to hand over to Rome the government of all churches and church possessions within his territory, and he promised to stop raiding and pillaging Papal lands. In return he received Gregory’s formal investiture “with the lands granted to you by my predecessors of blessed memory, Nicholas [II] and Alexander [II],” as well as his acquiescence on the issue of Robert’s possession of Salerno and Amalfi.[24] Shortly thereafter, Gregory also blessed Robert’s invasion of the Byzantine Empire.[25]

Gregory would make use of this agreement in 1082, when Henry IV attacked and occupied part of Rome, forcing the Pope to barricade himself behind the walls of his fortress, Castel Sant’ Angelo. Gregory appealed to Robert Guiscard for help, who was at the time on the other side of the Adriatic, marching steadily through the Balkans on his way to Constantinople. Robert had returned to Apulia and was in the process of organising his army to come to Gregory’s rescue, when the Romans surrendered to and allied themselves with Henry in 1084. After this occurred, Henry had just enough time for his anti-Pope, Clement III, to crown him Holy Roman Emperor before Robert at last began approaching with his forces. Clement and Henry with his army fled north before Robert arrived, but the Romans remained true to their agreement with the Germans and held out against the Normans. When the Guiscard finally forced his entry past the city walls, he plundered and burned the Holy City and enslaved many of its citizens. In his and Gregory’s eyes, the Romans were not entitled to any clemency for betraying the Pope; but such a ruination of the Eternal City and the See of St. Peter is difficult to justify. The savagery of Pope Gregory’s Norman vassals, which recalled the sack of Rome by the barbarian Visigoths in 410 and the Arabs in 846 (Robert in fact employed Arabs in his army), earned them and Gregory himself the hatred of the Romans. Robert decided to withdraw and escort Gregory under his protection to Benevento, where the exiled Pope died a year later.[26]

From this point on, Norman protection of the Papacy, and even Papal dependence on the Normans, was an established fact. In 1086, Prince Richard of Capua’s son and successor, Jordan, installed the canonically elected Pope Victor III at Rome, in the face of opposition from Henry IV’s anti-Pope, Clement III. Robert Guiscard’s sons Roger Borsa (who succeeded him as Duke of Apulia) and Bohemund did the same for Pope Urban II in 1087.[27] The alliance between the Normans and the Papacy seems to have been strongest at this point, when a legacy of Papal service and vassalage had been established. Having quelled opposition in Southern Italy, the Normans were happy to undertake the duty of defending the Supreme Pontiff, probably because of the distinction and heroic image such a responsibility conveyed. Both the Normans and the Papacy enjoyed mutual benefits from this alliance, since it furnished the Papacy with security and the Normans with the same prestige the Holy Roman Emperors had enjoyed when they had been the official Papal protectors. Indeed, it was an alliance the Papacy could not do without, since the Normans’ military protection had become such an indispensable asset against the German King’s aggression; the Normans, meanwhile, gained respectability and unquestioned authority to supplement their military strength.

The Papacy was in very many ways just like any other player in the secular politics of Medieval Europe: it had its own territory to look after and independence to protect. Evidence of this is apparent in the Papacy’s relationship with the Normans. Neither the Papacy nor the Norman leaders shied away from making war on each other, and the Papacy repeatedly found itself in the position of granting concessions to the Normans in order to protect its own safety; moreover, the Popes had clearly political motives for forging an alliance with the Normans, since they wanted to ward off Henry IV’s attempts at ousting them from the Papal throne. It is tempting, then, to liken this relationship to those between all the other Medieval European feudal powers.  But the fact that the Normans so consistently sought out and made use of pretentious Papal blessings and confirmations of their political rights shows that they, their subjects and their competitors placed great value in Papal support. The way the Normans treated Popes as secular rulers was separate from the way they treated Popes as religious authorities. The Normans proved by their actions that they were in persistent need of protection from the Papacy as a religious institution, even though they had no trouble in subjugating their enemies and subjecting other secular magnates to their authority. In this period, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of religion. Rulers yearned to number the support of the Church among their resources as much as they yearned for a strong military and rich treasury. Medieval European society was marked by almost perpetual warfare, and rulers’ authority was constantly challenged from every angle; thus it was natural for them to solicit whatever aid holy men could offer, and to employ non-military means of maintaining their subjects’ obedience and loyalty whenever possible. The Normans were no exception; and since even the Papacy was vulnerable to challenges and attacks (not least from the Normans themselves), it was natural for it to look to strong secular rulers like the Normans for political and military aid.


[1] Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pages 92f.

[2] Aziz Ahmad, A History of Islamic Sicily, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975, page 22.

[3] Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pages 93-97.

[4] Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge University Press, 1992, page 13f.

[5] This was certainly the view of contemporaries like Geoffrey Malaterra in his biography of Roger I of Sicily.

[6] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pages 53-56.

[7] Dudo of St. Quentin 2.25.165-2.29.169: translated E. Christiansen pages 46-50.

[8] Decree on papal election (April 1059), ed. E. Friedburg, Corpus Iuris Canonici, volume I, Leipzig, 1879, columns 77-79: translated in Tierney pages 42f.

[9] Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, translated in four volumes by Thomas Forester, New York: AMS Press, 1968, 3.5 (volume 1, page 437 of the translation).

[10] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, pages 81f.

[11] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pages 99f. John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, page 95.

[12] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, page 7.

[13] Aime, Moine du Mont-Cassin, L’Ystoire de li Normant, ed. M. Champollion-Figeac, Paris: Societe de l’Histoire de France, 1835, 3.38. John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, pages 91-94.

[14] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, page 120.

[15] George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, translated Joan Hussey, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995, pages 334-337. In that year, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, Leo IX’s papal legate, and Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, had met in Constantinople to discuss various issues, especially that of Papal primacy over the four other Patriarchal Sees, upon which the Latin Christians and the Greek Christians disagreed. The meeting ended in disaster as Humbert and Michael each threw excommunications at the other.

[16] Oath of Robert Guiscard to Pope Nicholas II (August 1059): P Fabre and L. Duchesne (eds.), Le Liber Censuum de l’eglise romaine, Paris, 1910, page 422: translated in B. Tierney The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, page 44.

[17] Decree on papal election (April 1059): translated in B. Tierney  The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, page 42f.

[18] Oath of Robert Guiscard to Pope Nicholas II (August 1059): translated in B. Tierney The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, page 44.

[19] B. Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, pages 16-23. When barbarian invasions pushed the authority of the Eastern Roman Empire out of Italy, and the Greeks’ heresy of Iconoclasm alienated Eastern Christians from Western Christians, the Papacy looked to the Franks for protection. Zachary authorised the coronation of Pepin, who then donated the cities he conquered from the Lombards and the Greeks in Italy to Stephen. Charlemagne went to Rome to protect Pope Leo from the attacks of a dissident faction, and Leo subsequently crowned him Holy Roman Emperor.

[20] Humbert on priesthood and kingship, Libri II Adversus Simoniacos (1054-1058), F. Thaner, (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Libelli de Lite, volume I, Hanover, 1891, page 225: translated in B. Tierney The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, page 41f. Also see The Dictatus Papae (March 1075), translated S. Z. Ehler and J. B. Morrall Church and State Through the Centuries, London, 1954, pages 43f, reprinted in Tierney, pages 49f.

[21] Ordericus Vitalis 3.3, translated Forester volume 1, page 413.

[22] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pages 102, 133.

[23] William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English (c. 1071), translated David C. Douglas and George W. Greenaway, English Historical Documents II, 1042-1189, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, page 233.

[24] Letters 8.1(a), (b), and (c) in The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII: Selected Letters from the Registrum, translated Ephraim Emerton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[25] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, page 102.

[26] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, pages 234-243.

[27] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, page 135.

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