Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A cautionary tale; part 1

William of Apulia reduced the complex history of the establishment of Norman hegemony in southern Italy to a simple linear narrative about the Norman displacement of the Greeks and begins Book I with God’s decision to kick the Greeks out of Italy. This was an epic contest. The Greeks were not simply seen as the heirs of the Roman Empire but the descendents of the heroes of the Homeric epics. Their defeat in Italy demonstrated, from William’s perspective that they no longer measured up to these epic proportions of their heroic past. This loss of stature was not lost on the Greeks: on the eve of their defeat by the Normans at Montepeloso, William has the Greek commander rebuke his men for their cowardice in the face of battle by reminding them of their heroic ancestors, Achilles and Alexander. It was Robert Guiscard who became another Achilles but in addition to his military strength he was also crafty and without him the Normans lack direction. William’s is a story of rise and fall; hubris and retribution; and, triumph and disaster.

He explores the Normans’ origins and the etymology of their name with breathless speed (Book I: 6-10). In his account, the Normans retain their mystery; their homeland unknown; they are ‘homines boreales’, driven by and as rootless as the wind. There is none of Dudo of St Quentin’s lengthy parenthesis on the origins of the Normans in this Italo-Norman epic. For William, Normandy is an ill-defined point of origin for the divinely ordained dash to Italy. Amatus offers an equally brief though variant explanation and only Malaterra recalls Rollo and his piratical crew pillaging their way among the western shores until they came to the mouth of the Seine.

All three historians waste little time in getting the Normans to Italy.[1] Amatus and Malaterra managed to introduce the Norman lust for hegemony though William is more guarded quickly progressing from the Normans’ peaceful appearance in Italy as pilgrims at Monte Gargano, through their meeting with Melus and his plea for support, to their ride north to collect arms and companions before returning to support Melus’ rebellion. The Norman offensive has begun. For Amatus and Malaterra, the conflict is between the Norman heroes and different villains: for Amatus, the true villains are Lombards like Gisulf II of Salerno and Pandulf III of Capua; for Malaterra, the entire Lombard people are indicted. They agree that the rogues meet their match in the Normans making little pretense that they are ruthlessly ambitious: Malaterra, for example characterises the Normans as being driven by ‘aviditas dominationis’, a desire for absolute power. By contrast, William of Apulia, while commenting on their bravery, emphasises that they are especially motivated by greed (Book I: 38) and tend to sell their loyalties to the highest bidder.[2]

William asserts early (Book I: 145) that the Normans were a ‘people loving war more than peace treaties’. The initial incursion of Normans took the form of a war band and this increasingly sat uneasily with the emergent hierarchies that formed within territories under Norman control. At first, theirs was a society open to anyone who would learn their customs and language and so form ‘one people’ (Book I: 168) There are some parallels between this passage and Rollo’s dream of multicoloured birds in Dudo of St Quentin’s account (Book II: 6) but with one important difference: the recruits were not people from all nations but ‘any criminals from the neighbourhood seeking refuge with them’ (Book I: 165). This is a markedly different version of the Norman myth of inclusiveness first established by Dudo. Malaterra takes this further (Book I: 3) insisting that only a firm hand could control this disparate and unruly crowd and views them as predators descending on to a relatively defenceless prey.

This message comes across very strongly in William’s text. The early pages of his poem reflect the joyful promise of a new life in a fertile land: he praises Apulia’s fruitfulness (Book I: 222-228); delights in the beauty of the area (Book I: 182-183) and especially the rich cities of Amalfi (Book III: 476-485), Bari (Book II: 470-473) and Salerno (Book III: 470-476) though he reserved especial praise for Aversa, the first Norman town in Italy (Book I: 171-173). The mood of the first three books is predominantly optimistic; the surface story appears to be one of victory. However, like Malaterra who describes the disastrous effect that decades of Norman warfare had on this prosperous land, from the outset William hints at the devastation to come. There is a strong sense of hubris in his writings centred on Guiscard, the flawed hero.

William telescopes the advance of Norman power into a sudden strike. He lingers on the momentary calm when no imperial army threatens the transquility between Greeks and Lombards and then the onslaught brings. First, Melfi falls and a swift succession of battles, three alone in 1041, follows (Book I: 396-397). With victories, as William explores in Books II and III, comes growing confidence and optimism especially with the growing power of Robert Guiscard: the victory at Civitate (Book II: 284-285); the conquest of Calabria (Book II: 413-517) and victories at sea (Book III: 132-133, 255). William delights in the victories over the Muslims in Sicily (Book III: 189-347) and in Guiscard’s successful suppression of rebellion (Book III: 686-687). Things begin to darken in Book IV but it begins by affirming Guiscard’s conquest of southern Italy and ends with his triumphs over both German and Byzantine emperors (Book IV: 566-570).


[1] France, J., ‘The Occasion of the Coming of the Normans to Southern Italy’, Journal of Medieval History, vol. xvii, (1991), pp. 185-205 and Joranson, ‘E., The inception of the career of the Normans in Italy: Legend and History’, Speculum, vol. xxiii, (1948), pp. 353-396 consider the arguments for the chronology of the ‘adventus normannorum’.

[2] In Book I: 142-44, 147-152, he manages to find three ways of restating this tendency.

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