Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Normans in Southern Italy: A Holy War?

The evidence clearly indicates that the Normans who made their careers in the central Mediterranean, especially Duke Robert Guiscard of Apulia and his brother Count Roger I of Sicily, fostered their image as proto-crusaders throughout their campaigns against the Sicilian Muslims and the Byzantines. They also, as described above, took on the chivalric role of protectors of the Papacy, and as such safeguarded Papal elections and defended Pope Gregory VII against King Henry IV of Germany, who attempted to depose him and appoint a new Pope. But it is difficult to conclude that the Normans were deeply moved by the prospect of being ‘soldiers of Christ’, for in order to do so one must reconcile their chivalric Christian warrior image with their reputation for brigandage and piracy.

The reason for the arrival of the Normans in Italy is unclear, but various traditions relate that the local population asked for their assistance while the Normans were passing through on pilgrimage. Amatus of Monte Cassino claims that a group of Normans stopped in Salerno on their way back from visiting the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and that during their sojourn a group of Saracen raiders arrived and demanded tribute from the Salernitans. “And the Norman pilgrims saw this, they could not stand such injustice of the lordship of the Saracens, nor that the Christians were subjected to the Saracens.”[1]  The Normans then drove off the Saracens, and the overjoyed Salernitans invited them to stay and help protect them against future raids by the heathen. The pilgrims, however, preferred to return home, but they promised to pass the word in Normandy that there were many opportunities for employment in Italy available to brave Norman knights.

This incident may well have taken place, but the Normans’ primary reason for going to Italy was probably not to save the Christian population from the Muslim menace. The fact that a new feudal aristocracy was on the rise in Normandy in the early eleventh century, resulting in the uprooting of many families from their land, more plausibly explains the Normans’ southward migration. Because Italy was war-torn and practically in a state of anarchy, it was a good place for the displaced knights to profit from their famed warrior skills and acquire estates of their own. David C. Douglas assesses the situation convincingly: “Whatever truth may lurk behind the belief that these men were pilgrims who performed prodigies of valour against the pagans, the fact remains that the Normans who first came to Italy are better to be regarded as armed adventurers seeking their fortunes in a distracted land and living by violence and pillage.”[2]

As such, they were very successful, winning victory after victory, initially for their employers but eventually for themselves and in accumulating wealth and land. They were ruthless in their tactics and, as their power increased, so did their notoriety. They incurred the loathing of the Italians, to the point that Pope Leo IX, in response to the pleas of the Lombards who were most often the victims of Norman rapine, took it upon himself to protect his flock and rid the world of the Norman menace. He dubbed the Normans enemies of Christendom and declared a genuine Holy War against them. He gained the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Byzantine Emperor, and various other nobles by emphasising the sanctity of the mission. To those whom he recruited for the mission he provided a spiritual incentive: Amatus claims. “And he promised to give absolution for their sins.”[3] Before setting out for the battle from Benevento, Leo dramatically stressed to the German and Lombard soldiers (the Greeks had not arrived yet) their divine purpose: "And the Pope with the bishops climbed up onto the walls of the City, and looked at the multitude of his knights to absolve them of sin, and gave pardon for the penance they had to do for their sins."[4]  He is even said to have promised that anyone who died in battle with the Normans would become a martyr and go directly to heaven. Leo offered absolution in exchange for military assistance, just as Pope Urban II would do for the First Crusaders at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Civitate is the first example of the Pope directly declaring Holy War: but this time it was against fellow Christians, and it occurred 42 years before Urban called for the First Crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims.[5]

The Normans defeated Leo, however, so it is a bit surprising that subsequent Popes continued to declare wars for the salvation of Christendom or that the Normans themselves would often be at the forefront of these Holy Wars. The synod of Melfi in 1059 shows that the Papacy had not at all given up on the idea of the Holy War; Pope Nicholas II seems simply to have realised that future Crusades would be more appropriately fought against non-Christians, and that the Papacy needed to be more selective when conscripting ‘soldiers of Christ’ before it declared any more Crusades. Facing troubles in Rome and lacking the support of the Eastern and Western Emperors, Nicholas decided that it was in the Apostolic See’s best interests to have the fierce Norman warriors on its side.  The synod made the Normans the official feudal protectors of the Papacy. They were henceforth responsible not only for safeguarding the material possessions of the Pope (his lands and revenues) but they were also charged with making sure nothing prevented the cardinal bishops from conducting canonical Papal elections. This facet of the Papacy’s alliance with the Normans continued the tradition established by Leo IX whereby the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ and His representative on Earth, could call for military support in order to enforce ecclesiastical policy and direct armies in order to secure the best interests of Christendom. The fact that the specific ecclesiastical policy that the Papacy needed the Normans to enforce was the Papal election decree, which aimed to separate the Church from the influence of laymen, is indeed ironic; but the Normans did proceed in the following years to support canonically elected Popes against usurpers, and they never tried to install their own friends as popes after the fashion of the German Emperors.

The Normans carried out their job as Papal protectors with fervor. This went along with the doctrine of fighting under the Pope’s, and by extension God’s command, spread quickly to their other campaigns. In his oath to Pope Nicholas II, Robert Guiscard calls himself “by the grace of God and St. Peter duke of Apulia and Calabria and, with the help of both, future duke of Sicily.”[6] Such ambitious wording in the context of an oath of vassalage to the Papacy obviously implies that the Papacy was ready to back a Norman attempt at conquering the island, from which Muslim pirates had been conducting devastating raids against the mainland for over two centuries. The cause was quite worthy of blessing, for it meant the subjugation of dangerous and aggressive infidels and the reunification of the Greek Christians of Sicily with the rest of the Christian world or at least with the Latin Christian world over which the Pope exercised his authority.

Thus Pope Alexander II blessed Robert and sent him off with a Papal banner in 1061.[7] The contemporary sources indicate that Robert himself adopted some of this enthusiasm for the divine cause. Amatus (who, admittedly, sought to glorify Robert Guiscard and Richard of Capua) claims that reports of the Saracens oppressing the Christians in Sicily stirred Robert. Inspired to cross the straits of Messina and liberate his Christian brothers, he cried out to his knights:  “I would like to deliver the Christians and the Catholics, who are constrained by the servitude of the Saracens, and I desire greatly to break them of their servitude, and avenge the injury to God.”[8]  He then gathered an army, and according to Geoffrey Malaterra, a monk of Sant’ Agatha in Catania (Sicily) who chronicled the Normans’ exploits at the request of Count Roger I, Robert called on his followers before they left the mainland to confess their sins and place their trust in Spiritus Sanctus cooperator, “the Holy Spirit our ally,” and Deum ordinatorem et fortiorem gubernatorem, “God our commander and steadfast guide.”[9] The Norman leaders thus used the pretext of fighting, with God’s assistance, for fellow Christians against enemies of Christendom in order to boost the morale of their expeditionary force. The Norman knights were presumably inspired by their sanctified cause, and motivated to put forth their best effort in the upcoming campaign.

The Normans could also hope to utilise the ‘Holy War’ mentality in order to gain the support of the Greek Christian population of Sicily. The Muslim emirs who had ruled the island since the ninth century, however, had not oppressed the Greek Sicilians. The Saracens were tolerant of their religion, and they did not exclude the Greeks from the prosperity they had brought to Sicily, which was at the center of the Muslim Mediterranean world and thus a thriving centre for trade. But the Greeks must have been attracted by the prospect of being reunited with Christendom, and the Normans did what they could to cultivate this attraction and inspire the Greeks with the spirit of liberation from the clutches of the infidels. As soon as the Normans took possession of Messina in 1061 and sent the Saracen population of the city fleeing inland, Robert Guiscard organised a thanksgiving ceremony with the Greek population in their church in order to emphasise the spirit of deliverance.[10] From Messina the Normans advanced inland through the Val Demone, where the Greek Christians did indeed view them as liberators: they greeted them enthusiastically, running out to meet them and bringing them gifts.[11] The Norman ‘crusaders’ thus succeeded in convincing their new Greek subjects to offer their loyalty.

The theme of the ‘Holy War’ pervaded the entire venture to subdue the Muslims of Sicily. In 1063, when the Normans were outnumbered at the battle of Cerami and pondering retreat, Malaterra says that Roger encouraged them with these words: Arrigite animos vestros, o fortissimi christianae militiae tyrones. Omnes Christi titulo insigniti sumus. “Harden your spirits, most courageous recruits of the Christian knights. We are all inscribed with the sign of Christ.” While the Great Count was speaking, apparuit quidam eques, splendidus in armis, equo albo insidens album vexillum in summitate hastilis alligatum ferens et desuper splendidam crucem. “A certain knight appeared, shining in arms, sitting on a white horse, carrying a white standard on the top of his lance and a shining cross from above.” This was none other than St. George, who rallied the Normans and led them to victory over the superior Saracen force.[12]  When the crusaders finally made their way to Palermo and defeated the Muslim garrison, their first act was to reconsecrate the Church of St. Mary, which the Muslims had used as a mosque for over two hundred and forty years, and hold mass there with the city’s Greek Archbishop. This was a very momentous occasion, for the Normans had restored to Christian hands one of the most populous, prosperous, and culturally rich cities in the Mediterranean.[13] Amatus reports that yet another apparition graced the thanksgiving mass: a choir of angels sang in the church, and a heavenly light illuminated the mass.[14]

There are several reasons for questioning whether or not the Norman conquerors of Sicily were indeed as motivated by piety as Amatus and Malaterra claim. For one thing, the Normans by no means unequivocally hated the Muslims. They gained their first foothold on the island by allying with one Sicilian emir, Ibn at-Timnah, to fight against another Sicilian emir, Ibn al-Hawas.[15] They never tried to force the Sicilian Muslims to convert to Christianity; such a policy would never have succeeded, and it certainly would have made the task of governing the island impossible. The Normans could not risk provoking the Muslims into declaring a jihad in retaliation for the Christian holy war. Both Robert Guiscard and Roger went on to employ Saracen mercenaries in their later campaigns. Moreover, these accounts come from authors who intended to eulogise the Normans, for they wrote for Norman audiences and were employed by Norman patrons. Thus the authors were significantly biased in the way they projected heroic and chivalric ideals upon their Norman protagonists. But they also must have been writing exactly what the Normans wanted to believe about themselves, and what the Normans wanted the Pope and all other Christians to believe about them. Hence we can conclude that the Normans revered and actively cultivated their ‘crusader’ image. This form of propaganda must have stirred genuine religious feelings in the Norman knights and boosted their morale. The Normans’ crusader image elevated their status and made their campaigns seem like just wars and their victories like triumphs for Latin Christendom, not just successful acts of piracy and brigandage.

The same zeal pervaded the Normans’ adventures in the Balkans in 1081. Now they were fighting not against Muslims but Christians, although the Latins perceived the Greeks as heretics as a result of the schism of 1054. This time Pope Gregory VII himself declared his Norman vassals to be soldiers of Christ and sent them off with his benediction.[16] Anna Comnena, the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus’s daughter, includes a description of the Normans in her history of her father’s reign, the Alexiad, which she wrote around 1148. Anna makes them out to be just as pious and reverent as they are in Amatus’s and Malaterra’s descriptions. The night before they went to battle with Alexius at Dyrrachium, she writes that Robert led his soldiers to pray: “With all his forces he arrived at the sanctuary built long ago by the sea in honour of the martyr Theodorus. All that night the Normans, in an attempt to propitiate the Deity, were partaking of the holy and divine mysteries.”[17] Anna truly hated the Normans for the destruction they inflicted upon her father’s Empire, so it is certain that she did not give this account in order to glorify the Normans for their faith. She may, however, be foreshadowing the First Crusade that Pope Urban II called fourteen years later and in which Norman warriors played a prominent part. Her testimony thus confirms that the Normans were motivated not by the desire for conquest alone, but also by a sincere belief that they were on God’s side.


[1] Aime, Moine du Mont-Cassin, L’Ystoire de li Normant, ed. M. Champollion-Figeac, Paris: Societe de l’Histoire de France, 1835, 1.17.

[2] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, page 39.

[3] Aime, Moine du Mont-Cassin, L’Ystoire de li Normant, ed. M. Champollion-Figeac, Paris: Societe de l’Histoire de France, 1835, 3.23.

[4] Aime, Moine du Mont-Cassin, L’Ystoire de li Normant, ed. M. Champollion-Figeac, Paris: Societe de l’Histoire de France, 1835, 3.37.

[5] David C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, 1050-1100, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, pages 99-100. Jonathan Riley-Smith, (ed.) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, page 78. Steven Runciman, The First Crusade, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, page 42f.

[6] Oath of Robert Guiscard to Pope Nicholas II: translated in Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, page 44.

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

[8] Aime, Moine du Mont-Cassin, L’Ystoire de li Normant, ed. M. Champollion-Figeac, Paris: Societe de l’Histoire de France, 1835, 5.12.

[9] Gaufredus Malaterra, De Rebus Gestis Rogerii Calabriae et Siciliae Comitis et Roberti Guiscardi Ducis Fratris Eius, Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1928, 2.9.

[10] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, page 141.

[11] Gaufredus Malaterra, De Rebus Gestis Rogerii Calabriae et Siciliae Comitis et Roberti Guiscardi Ducis Fratris Eius, Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1928, 2.14.

[12] Gaufredus Malaterra, De Rebus Gestis Rogerii Calabriae et Siciliae Comitis et Roberti Guiscardi Ducis Fratris Eius, Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1928, 2.33.

[13] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, pages 176f, 183.

[14] Aime, Moine du Mont-Cassin, L’Ystoire de li Normant, ed. M. Champollion-Figeac, Paris: Societe de l’Histoire de France, 1835, 6.20.

[15] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily, Penguin Books, 1992, page 135.

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

[17] Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, translated E. R. A. Sewter, Penguin, 1969, page 146.

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