Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Normans in Southern Italy: Lordship and Feudalism

An important aspect of the Norman domination of southern Italy was the strengthening of the military or banal lordship (both lay and ecclesiastic): in other words, those forms of possession of land that also included public duties, such as military service and justice. For a long period, in mainland southern Italy, these powers created a state of tension between the great vassals and the central power (the duke of Apulia or the king).

The way the feudal pyramid functioned required the vassal to supply his superior (count, duke or king) with military contingents and tax revenues. In exchange, he obtained the administration of an area in which the inhabitants were obliged to pay him tribute and provide labour services (corvées). The vassal lived in a different manner from the other citizens, usually in a castle, nearly always outside the towns or in the countryside and he devoted himself mainly to warfare.

An attempt was made to structure relations between the vassals and between the latter and the king in a rigorous manner. The criminal law was reorganised and the distribution of the fiefs was altered by a series of laws issued by Roger II known as the Assizes of Ariano[1] and also by the Catalogus Baronum[2], a record of military obligations.

In the early Middle Ages, feudalism did not appear to be present in Southern Italy (with the exception, in some respects, of the Lombard states). The most important new element introduced by the Normans was lordship, which, however, developed in very different forms in time and in different areas : a lord (a layman or a church) had rights deriving from the ownership of land (rural lordship) and certain public rights, such as the right to collect taxes, administration of justice, military service (banal lordship). He had, therefore, multiform authority over a specific territory and he availed himself of the services of specialised personnel. The most important aspect of this power was the military one; the lord created a corps of professional soldiers (the milites or knights).  The results of the feudal system were many and varied. In Calabria and Sicily, Robert Guiscard and Roger I distributed the fiefs in such a way as to prevent the multiplication of the large domains. However, in Byzantine Apulia and in the former Lombard states, the lordships were born of an anarchical form of appropriation of the land that subsequently caused a continuous state of rebellion of the Norman barons against the central power (whether ducal or royal). The mainly military character of the lordships founded by the Normans had two fundamental consequences:

  • The public aspects assumed took on major importance, so that the landed lordship was overshadowed by the banal or military one.
  • The Norman lordship was essentially lay in character.

On the other hand, there were not many ecclesiastical lordships (abbeys and dioceses) in southern Italy before the Norman Conquest: Montecassino, St Vincent on Volturno, St Clement of Casauria, Holy Trinity of Cava. The secular Church was always fairly weak during the Norman period, so that its power could not be compared with that of the same institution in northern Italy. Even during the period of the kingdom, the number of titulars of dioceses and archdioceses able to seriously influence the kingdom’s politics and/or economy was insignificant.

The consequence of the mainly military character of the Norman lordship was, on the one hand, the permanent state of war (in which the lords fought between themselves) and, on the other, the actual size of the fiefs. In general, the Normans replaced the pre-existing Lombard political units (principalities, counties, areas governed by gastalds) with their own lordships. In other cases, they created new, much larger ones (the counties of the Principate, Molise, Loritello, etc.). It was in Byzantine Apulia that the largest counties were set up (Monte Sant’Angelo, Conversano, Taranto and Montescaglioso). By contrast, in Sicily and Calabria there were no counties, with the exception of Catanzaro and Squillace in Calabria. After the kingdom had been founded, in order to give greater stability to the central power, Roger II tended to create counties that were fragmented over a large area. Furthermore, he intervened with regard to the size and the title of the counties in order to limit the power of the counts. As far as the recruitment of the feudal class was concerned, with the exception of the areas previously under Lombard control, all the new lords were Normans; the natives were found much more frequently among the lower levels of the nobility, especially the knights.

The functioning of the Norman rural lordships in southern Italy was based on the possession of land. Often the lords divided their land into lots, distributing these among the peasants (the contracts were known as livelli). The rents often took the form of a share of the harvest, which was very high, especially for the produce that was non-essential (wine, etc.).  Despite the fact that their lordship was essentially a banal (i.e. fiscal and military) one, the Normans did not manage to preserve the complex Byzantine system of direct taxation. They made great use, however, of indirect taxation (already applied in the Lombard principalities): an example of this is the tax on the forest paid by the community to the vassals; other taxes included the herbaticum (for pasture) and kalendaticum (paid on the first day of the month). As far as juridical rights are concerned, although the Norman lords administered civil law, only rarely were they responsible for criminal law.

The fortified residence of a lord, the castle was an absolutely new element in the landscape of southern Italian, symbolizing the new seignorial power of a military nature. It is no coincidence that the sources record frequent attacks by the citizens on such buildings. Today all that is left of the Norman castles are a few isolated towers.  The principal function of the castles was that of imposing the new power on the local population; their use for warfare was of secondary importance. In general, they were built immediately after the conquest (the castle of Bari dates from 1075, that of Troia, 1080, and the same applies to Palermo), with the dual purpose of control and defence. Although castles were generally associated with towns or villages, they were located outside them and were often built on mottes, large man-made mounds, for example, San Marco Argentano, in Calabria. On the other hand, very little is known about their interiors. During the period of the kingdom, some castles had a purely military function; in this case they were commanded by a castellan and did not constitute the residence of a lord.

The official members of the aristocracy were milites or knights. In order to serve in the higher ranks of the fighting forces it was, in fact, necessary to be rich enough to pay for the equipment. In the case of the Normans, this comprised a pointed helmet with a nose-guard, a coat of mail down to the knees, an almond-shaped shield (in wood and leather), a sword (90 cm) and a lance (2 m). The most expensive item was the horse, armoured for battle. A knight was admitted to the military career with a ceremony of investiture (adoubement), during which he received a cingulum, the belt to which his arms were attached, and his sword. Radical changes resulted from the advent of the monarchy in the twelfth century. The permanent state of war, typical of the ducal states, disappeared, thanks, above all, to the process of transformation, initiated by Roger II of the vassals themselves into royal officials. War became specifically a royal prerogative; the policy of the Hautevilles provided for a strategy that was, on the whole, defensive. In fact, it was founded, on the one hand, on the castles and, on the other, on military service organized in individual fiefs. Roger meticulously recorded the latter in an important administrative document (corresponding to the Domesday Book in England) known as the Catalogus Baronum.

Before the institution of the monarchy, the lords dispensed justice themselves, employing officials and assistants with a wide range of titles and functions (sometimes these were Byzantine titles, such as protocamerarius, strategos, catepan, etc.). With the advent of the monarchy the lords’ freedom to deal with public law was limited and royal officials, such as justiciars and judges, appeared. Another important activity of the vassals was hunting, mainly of large game, which conferred prestige on those who caught it (bears, deer and wild boar). In the late 12th century, falconry, an eminently aristocratic form of hunting, first made its appearance.   Other seignorial activities included pastimes about which, however, little is known: games of chance certainly played were dice and aliossi (knucklebones). The chronicler Hugo Falcandus referred to hastiludia, a game that involved breaking lances while running.

The most important legislative act of Norman rule in Italy was unquestionably the body of laws known as the Assizes of Ariano. Having gained political control of his kingdom, Roger II promulgated a series of laws during a general assembly of the barons meeting at Ariano Irpino in 1140. The Assizes constituted a synthesis of different juridical traditions (Lombard and Byzantine) grafted onto Roman law. This represented a sort of constitution for the new kingdom, which was founded on the centrality and quasi-sacredness of the monarchy, and was opposed to any disruptive force, especially the feudal one (thus following the example of Anglo-Norman law). The laws of Ariano broke the principle of the rights of personal status, replacing it with that of territoriality. The privatistic tendencies typical of early medieval criminal law (based on pecuniary settlement) were supplanted by a system of state criminal law. Judges had wide discretionary powers when deciding on punishments. These were of three types: pecuniary, deprivation of freedom and corporal

During their progressive penetration of southern Italy, the Normans adapted themselves to the monetary systems existing in the different areas, in much the same way that they did in England. There were two pre-Norman monetary areas: on the mainland, where Byzantine gold and copper coins were in use and, in Amalfi and Salerno, the tari, imitations of Arabic coins; in Sicily the Arabs had a monetary system based on the gold dinar and the silver dirhem. The first coins minted in Italy by the Normans were a number of anonymous follari struck under Robert Guiscard and Roger I. The latter, after the conquest of Sicily, introduced new types of tari, kharrube and follari to the island, stamped with a tau. However, the true monetary reorganisation took place under Roger II: the king prohibited the circulation of foreign coins and introduced one of his own, the ducat. With the monetary reform of 1140 the Sicilian tari was imposed as the standard coin throughout the kingdom. The striking of coins was limited to just a few mints: Palermo and Messina for the Sicilian tari; Salerno[3] for the follari of the duchy of Apulia; Amalfi for the tari of base gold.


[1] Ortensio Zecchino ‘Les Assizes de Roger II (1140)’, Les Normands en Méditerraneé, University of Caen, 1994, pages 143-159 is a useful account.

[2] Evelyn Jamison Catalogus Baronum, Rome, 1972 is the most recent edition of this central source.

[3] Paolo Peduto ‘La monnaie normande a Salerne, de Roger Borsa a Tancrède (1085-1194)’, Les Normands en Méditerraneé, University of Caen, 1994, pages 151-160 is an important paper.

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