Under the Heel of the Boot: The Normans in Southern Italy

If you are an English-speaker, you have probably heard of the Norman conquest of England in 1066, an event used to explain everything from the endless variety of the English vocabulary to the patterns of British landholding. While Duke William the Bastard (later known as the Conqueror) was busy pursuing rebellious Saxons in the north, however, a much quieter conquest had already been under way for several decades in the south.

It was the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily, and although their achievements may appear brief and unremembered today, they involved the Normans in some of the greatest political contests of their times.

Even a casual glance at this map of Italy demonstrates the fragmented nature of the region, open to exploitation by Norman mercenaries. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even a casual glance at this map of Italy demonstrates the fragmented nature of the region, open to exploitation by Norman mercenaries. (Wikimedia Commons)

These activities began humbly enough. Mediaeval historians, among them Geoffrey Malaterra and Amatus of Montecassino, traced the origins of Norman involvement in southern Italy to the turn of the 11th century. At this time, Northern France was a disorderly place, with little central authority and an overabundance of militarised aristocrats. These aristocrats often feuded among themselves, spinning off exiles who were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Thus, for the first few decades after the year 1000, they began to settle in southern Italy, a region at the centre of trans-Mediterranean traffic.

The peninsula, however, had its own difficulties. Territorial authority was split between a large number of competing interest groups, including local Lombard lords, outposts of Byzantine imperial authority (such as the port of Bari), and the Muslim conquerors of Sicily. Among these various stakeholders, Norman emigres made names for themselves as mercenaries, using the existing tensions to their own benefit (much as they would later do in Wales and Ireland.)

Key figures in this process were the sons of Tancred of Hauteville, a Norman aristocrat whose own modest activities in France were eclipsed by the Mediterranean exploits of his sons. As Geoffrey Malaterra, the family’s historian, attests, these sons quickly took to the mercenary game and began carving a place for themselves on the peninsula. In so doing, they not only alienated their Lombard neighbours, but also the Byzantine Empire (who found Tancred’s son Robert Guiscard a perpetual thorn in its side) and even the Papacy.

This coin of Roger I, Count of Sicily, demonstrates the centrality of military prowess to the sense of Norman rulership. (Wikimedia Commons)

This coin of Roger I, Count of Sicily, demonstrates the centrality of military prowess to the sense of Norman rulership. (Wikimedia Commons)

A powerful demonstration of this enmity, and the rising star of Norman fortune, are the events of 1053. At this time, the Pope Leo IX led a coalition of local Lombard aristocrats into battle against the Normans, whose leader at the time was Humphrey of Hauteville, Count of Apulia. Despite his claims to moral authority, Leo’s forces were soundly defeated, and the Pope himself was taken prisoner by his Norman enemies.

After this point, Hauteville success would come with the endorsement of the Popes, whose own interests became aligned with the spread of Norman rule. Accordingly, Humphrey’s brother Robert was acknowledged Duke of Apulia and Calabria by the Pope in 1059, and his conquest of Sicily (conducted in partnership with another brother Roger) proceeded under Roman sanction throughout the 1060s. In part, this was a result of the Muslim nature of Sicily’s rulers–the defeat over whom could be cast as a pious act. It also allowed for a religious victory of a different type, however, by allowing Latin Christianity into territories previously monopolised by the Greek Orthodox authority of Constantinople.

The Palatine Chapel in Palermo demonstrates the exquisite cultural production in the Kingdom of Sicily. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Palatine Chapel in Palermo demonstrates the exquisite cultural production in the Kingdom of Sicily. (Wikimedia Commons)

In this way, the Norman Hauteville brothers created lordships for themselves in the middle of some of their era’s most important events–the rise of the papacy, the ebb of the Byzantines, and the growing conflict between Islam and an expansionary Christianity. Rather fittingly, the final symbol of their achievement reflected the metropolitan nature of their ambition rather than the military nature of their origins.

The Kingdom of Sicily, founded in the 1130s on the shoulders of Robert Hauteville’s own county of Sicily, was for a brief 150 year period one of the most cosmopolitan states of mediaeval Europe. Benefitting from Islamic cultural achievement as well as the advances in governance in England and France, Sicily lay at the centre of burgeoning Mediterranean activity. We should not lose sight, however, of the origins of this fantastically syncretic courtly culture, which rose from the highly contentious atmosphere of the previous century’s conquests.

Learn More: 

I highly recommend Robert Bartlett’s The Normans, which aired on the BBC (if you can get your hands on it.)

Amatus of Montecassino, Storia de’Normanni di Amato di Montecassino, ed. V. de Bartholomaeis, trans. P. Llwellyn in Elisabeth van Houts (ed.), The Normans in Europe, (Manchester, 2000).

Geoffrey Malaterra, The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of his Brother Duke Robert Guiscard, trans. Kenneth Baxter Wolf (Ann Arbor, 2005).

9 thoughts on “Under the Heel of the Boot: The Normans in Southern Italy

  1. The last of Hautevilles is a friend of a guy I know ) He lives in a small village in the French Alps and is really the last in line. When once he was challenged to a duel (French nobles still duel, but only until the first blood, i.e.a tiny scratch) he took a battle axe as the weapon of his choice. His opponent, surprised beyond measure, cried out, “but you will kill me with this!”. The last Hauteville calmly answered, “Well, yes, this is what I intend to do”. The challenger called it off )

  2. Thanks for another interesting & enlightening post! Most of my knowledge of Norman invasions has been limited to my studies of old Paris (completely ravaged throughout the 9th century), so it’s nice to broaden my horizons and get a picture of what was happening elsewhere. Never knew that the “Conqueror” was originally the “Bastard” — what a lovely little factoid! 🙂

    • The Normans do get everywhere! Robert Guiscard’s son Bohemond, for example, was a major character in the events of the First Crusade.

      Yes, I do sometimes feel a bit bad for historical personages which get stuck with terrible epithets. There is a King Louis the Fat, a St Notker the Stammerer, and also the Anglo-Saxon Aethelred the Unready. What fascinates me about the latter is that his initial epithet was actually closer in meaning to “the poorly-advised”, but its sound morphed into the current English with a very different meaning.

      Anyways, thanks for the comments! Its great to have some discussion 🙂

  3. It is mainly the glorious and unique art and architecture of Sicily which fascinates me about the Norman period of that island. But another thing is the origin of the Norman invaders themselves. It’s such an often forgotten fact that the word ‘Norman’ came from the Old Norse word ‘Norðmaðr’, to describe a ‘north man’, or Viking–in this case those who plundered what is now the coast of Normandy and eventually settled there and adopted the local Latin-based speech and some aspects of the local cultures. How all this Viking-French heritage (if I can put it that way!) fuses with the Mediterranean world of Sicily and all the fascinating aspects of history you discuss here is phenomenal. Also: I love that Palatine Chapel!

  4. The de Hautevilles are always a fun dynasty to play in Crusader Kings. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, leave it be. Amateur medievalists will find CK a grand hole in which to throw their time.

  5. Pingback: Random History Bites: Episode One The Norman Conquest « The Consulting Detective

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