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On Tour with the Normans: Four Unmissable Sites in Sicily

Having finally submitted my thesis on Norman ethnic identity, I decided to celebrate by taking a holiday. And what better place for a young Norman historian to visit than Sicily?! It’s somewhere that combines exciting historical sites with the sun and warmth that seemed to bypass Devon this summer… Plus, as a newly-trained Norman expert, I was excited to follow in their footsteps and see some of the famous locations that I had read so much about. I confess that my itinerary (and thus this blog) was heavily biased towards Siculo-Norman history, though some of these sites may also whet the appetites of scholars interested in the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims and Swabians. In the interests of space, however, I will keep to what I consider the top four sites in Sicily for Norman historians and enthusiasts.

1. Palermo

Mosaic 1
Mosaic of Roger II being crowned by Christ in the Martorana

My first choice is the capital city Palermo, partly for its sites, but also for its archives. I spent a morning in the Biblioteca centrale della Regione siciliana looking at one of the few surviving manuscripts containing Geoffrey Malaterra’s history of the Normans. Admittedly, this qualified more as work than holiday – but it was too good a chance to miss. The fragmentary manuscript, containing only the first book of the text, is notably small, measuring approximately 7 inches tall and 5 inches across, and I was thankful to be lent a magnifying glass, an essential piece of kit I had foolishly forgotten. When the library closed at one o’clock, I was forced both to relinquish the manuscript and to see what else Palermo had to offer. One of the main sites is Palermo Cathedral, which houses the tombs of various kings and emperors, including the second Norman ruler, King Roger II. A short walk away one can find the Martorana, a co-cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary, founded and built by George of Antioch, who was an advisor to Roger II in the 1140s. The Martorana contains some of the most impressive Greek-style mosaics of the period, perhaps the most famous of which is a portrait of Roger II being crowned by Christ. However, these mosaics are rivalled by those in the Palazzo dei Normanni, the seat of power of the Norman kings and home of one of the oldest European parliaments. The Palatine Chapel and ‘Roger Hall’ of the palace boast mosaics from the 1130s, 1140s, and later, depicting biblical and secular hunting scenes, and are just as breathtaking. Both sites clearly reflect the multicultural society in Sicily during the years of Norman rule.

Mosaic 2
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni

2. Caccamo

Caccamo Castle

To the east of Palermo one can find the castle of Caccamo, a spectacular example of a Norman fortification, which was built by Matthew Bonnellus in the twelfth century. Although originally a Norman site, it has been extended over the centuries and I was particularly struck by some of its later early modern features, particularly a devious sixteenth-century addition to a private chapel. Unwanted guests praying in the chapel could fall victim to a secret trapdoor leading to a pit 35 metres deep. As if this were not enough, at the bottom upright swords were supposed to finish the victim off! This is something that might appeal to those family members or friends less enthralled by the Normans, especially those who enjoy the gory thrills of Game of Thrones.

3. Enna

The Norman Keep of the Castello di Lombardia in Enna

The ancient city of Enna rises 931 metres above sea level. Known as Castrogiovanni during the medieval period, it was renamed around 1927 on the orders of Mussolini to reflect its ancient name. My main point of interest here was the Castello di Lombardia, a fortification situated at the east of the city. Once an important Byzantine stronghold, its foundations are the oldest elements of the castle, some of which were repurposed for the thirteenth-century walls constructed under the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily, Frederick II. The fortification was no doubt daunting even in the Byzantine period and Muslim forces are believed to have resorted to crawling through the sewers to gain entry when they captured the castle in 859. Centuries later Enna played a decisive role in the Norman conquest of Sicily under Roger and Robert Hauteville. According to Geoffrey Malaterra the Normans defeated a vastly superior Muslim force on the banks of the river Dittaino in the summer of 1061, forcing them to retreat to Enna. It was, however, to take over twenty years, the building of another fortification nearby at Calascibetta, and a cunning ambush before Roger wrested Enna from Muslim control, a testament, no doubt, to the strength of the castle. Nevertheless, the Normans left their mark in the form of the keep, which still dominates the landscape today.

4. Erice

My final recommendation is the the town of Erice, which overlooks the city of Trapani at 750 metres above sea level. Here I made straight for the Castle of Venus, a Norman fortification built upon an ancient temple to a goddess of fertility, which was later appropriated for Venus by the Romans. The surviving ruins date back to the twelfth century but archaeological excavations in the 1930s discovered traces of the ancient building – legend even attributes the oldest section of the wall to the mythical Daedalus. Roger Hauteville is also credited with founding the nearby Chiesa di San Giuliano in 1076, one of the first churches built in Erice, though the surviving building dates from the seventeenth-century.

The Castle of Venus in Erice

Sicily boasts a great wealth of incredible sites and monuments to history but during my visit I was struck by a notable disparity between certain sites. While the most popular destinations thrive on the tourism industry others are neglected, with crumbling walls and severely vandalised noticeboards pointing to a woeful lack of funds. Such issues have not gone unnoticed in Italy. Only this summer the Italian government announced their plans to give away over 100 historical sites, including medieval castles and monasteries, to those who could demonstrate a solid plan to renovate the properties into tourist hotspots. Unfortunately, none of these properties are located in Sicily. What may become of the less popular sites here is uncertain; while the cheap, or even free, admission to many of them is a welcome boon to financially concerned researchers and holidaymakers, it speaks volumes for their future. These fascinating sites are a testament to the remarkable impact of the Normans and other peoples on Sicilian history and culture – one can only hope that they will remain open (and intact) for a long time to come.

Tom Chadwick, PhD Student in History

Sarah Hamilton, New Haven, CT: What’s the Use of Cursing?

It’s unusual for British universities to be in a position to buy medieval manuscripts. Yet the recent publicity given to the discovery of a unique leaf from the Sarum Ordinal printed by William Caxton in the 1470s amongst the binding fragments of various manuscripts and early printed books purchased by the University of Reading in 1997 testifies to the public interest in such materials. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, on the other hand, is in the fortunate position to be able to purchase entire medieval manuscripts as they come to the market. And I was lucky enough, when visiting Yale to deliver a paper to a conference on Medieval Rites: Reading the Writing last month, to consult one of their more recent purchases, Ms 1172, in the congenial surroundings of this beautiful modernist building.

Exterior: Beinecke Library, Yale University (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Beinecke interior
Interior, Beinecke Library, Yale University (image courtesy of Yale University)

Ms 1172 is a chapter book owned and used by the eleventh-century cathedral chapter of Beauvais. It includes rites for the sick and the dying, two sermons to the Virgin, and a copy of Usuard’s martyrology; obit notices for various members of the Beauvais community were added in its margins over the course of the following century. Amongst the texts added in a slightly later eleventh-century hand is this text of an excommunication formula followed by antiphons, responses and a prayer.

Medieval excommunication, that is exclusion from the Church and Christian society, has its roots in the biblical, classical and early Christian pasts. An episcopal prerogative, the declaration of a formal excommunication sentence was accompanied by curses in a formal process of anathema or cursing using formula like this one, which was added later on a blank folio just before the start of the martyrology.

I am currently collecting examples of such supplementary  texts as part of my research into the afterlife of the Carolingian penitential state through a study of the records of excommunication rites and episcopal culture in the tenth and eleventh centuries. To date I have found some 30 examples of similar ad hoc formulae in manuscripts written across northern Europe and the former Frankish Empire in the tenth and eleventh centuries; ad hoc because most of them are different from each other; no doubt others exist, as yet unidentified by earlier cataloguers. Most of these, like this example, were added into the manuscript some years after it was first copied. They make for an interesting corpus because, although the Carolingians practiced and codified excommunication, they never thought to record its liturgy.

Yale MS
New Haven, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 1172 (image: Sarah Hamilton)

This particular example interests me as it is one of only four examples I know of when such an ad hoc excommunication formula was integrated into a fuller service. My research suggests all four of these examples are eleventh-century and they all have links to northern France. The text of the excommunication formula in the Beinecke manuscript is unique, but seems to have been improvised from a stock of phrases, as these can be found individually across various other examples.   The service which follows is similarly made up of commonly circulating texts, all of which have their roots in the ninth century. The initial antiphon, Congregati sunt (inimici nostri) (Our enemies are gathered together), and response, Disperge illos (in uirtute tuo) (Shake them so that you know it is none who fights for us than you, Our God) comes from the feast of Maccabees on 1 August, and appears in the earliest chant manuscripts from the tenth century. The prayer, Hostium nostrorum quaesumus domine (O lord we pray put down the pride of our enemies and overthrow it with the strength of your right hand), is from the ninth-century Carolingian collection, the Hadrianum Sacramentary, specifically from the ‘Mass in time of war’. By the later Middle Ages this particular Mass set had come, at least at Rouen, to be specifically associated with protection against enemies, being rubricated ‘Contra hostes’.

Quite why the canons of Beauvais recorded this rite in their chapter book is a question for another post. But it is worth pointing out here how texts like this can help to investigate wider questions. These include one puzzling those who work on liturgical texts: why, in an age where liturgical performance was largely dependent on memory, churchmen recorded in writing certain rites. It can also contribute to research into the transition between the rational, well-recorded ninth-century world of the Carolingians and the seemingly more ritualistic, less well-recorded, more ritualistic post-Carolingian world. The afterlife of the Carolingian world is currently the subject of both the HERA-funded project, After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World, 900-1050, and a more informal work of a larger network of scholars, The Transformation of the Carolingian World: Plurality and its Limits, 9th to 12th Centuries. By highlighting how rites like this one bridged the divide between oral performance and written record, and at the same time represented a real change from Carolingian to post-Carolingian practice, we will begin to investigate these areas.

Prof. Sarah Hamilton

James Clark in Champaign, IL: A French Noblewoman Makes her Monastic Vows

In the heart of the American Mid-West, two and a half hours from Chicago, in the University twin town of Urbana-Champaign is a rare gem of a collection of medieval manuscripts.

Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL


An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict

UIUC MS 98, fo. 1r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedictiitself a relatively rare survival, particularly from such an early date (c. 1270), although vernacular versions of the rule were widely attested. The translation is also distinguished by an opening illumination (fo. 1ra) with an unusual depiction of Benedictine sisters gathered before the sainted father of the order and maker of the rule, clutching what would appear to represent their profession statements.


A nun’s vows

Pasted on to the lower margin of Chapter 58, ‘On the manner of receiving sisters’, (fo. 25r), is an original profession statement, written out in a formal textura hand on a separate slip of parchment (now trimmed). The statement is in the name of one Claudia de Brilly, who identifies herself as making her profession of vows to become a sister of the abbey of St Sulpice and St Glossinde at Metz in the presence of Abbot Benedict of the abbey of St Arnould in the same city. The family of Brilly were lords of Touffreville and Villers-Bocage.

UIUC MS 98 2
UIUC MS 98, fo. 25r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This Benedict can be identified as Benoit Juville who held the abbacy of St Arnould between 1545 and 1566, defending the ancient abbey church even as the Emperor Charles V laid siege to Metz in 1552. Abbé Benoit was forced to lead his brethren to the relative safety of the city’s Dominican convent, although the Imperial siege ultimately proved unsuccessful. The sisters of St Glossinde, however, held firm and, for all the tensions outside, young Claudia’s early years under vows were uninterrupted.


A symbol of continuity

In several different ways the manuscript represents continuities in medieval monastic history: the remarkable resilience of female observance at Metz, which began in the 7th century and persisted until August 1792; the enduring role of Metz, once the crucible of the Gorze reform, as a monastic hub; and the survival of the ceremonial of profession, and the materiality of the rule within it, even as the boundaries, indeed the polities of the old European Christendom came apart at the seams.

Prof. James G. Clark, at Champaign, IL