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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

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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.

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The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni

2. Caccamo

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

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.

Erice
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

The Feast of Orme

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Prof. Nicholas Orme in discussion with Exeter PhD student Henry Marsh

Wednesday 29th March saw medievalists from across the University and the city gather for the climax of the Medieval Studies calendar in Exeter. This annual day of events, generously sponsored by Prof. Nicholas Orme, has long included both a postgraduate seminar in the afternoon and, in the evening, the public Orme Lecture. This year, however, the programme was extended by an additional talk in the morning, a change that made for a packed programme of events. The additional talk complemented the longstanding aim of the day, which allows us to showcase some of the research being undertaken by our PhD students as well as hosting a prominent visiting speaker. The ‘Feast of Orme’, as it is informally known, is always a memorable day, but the general feeling is that this year’s ‘Feast’ was particularly intellectually nourishing.

The day began with a ‘work-in-progress’ session led by Ryan Low, a Marshall Scholar studying for an MPhil in medieval history at UCL. Ryan’s unbridled enthusiasm shone through as he laid out a selection of his research questions for comment and discussion. Ryan outlined the broad aims of his project, which is centred around producing a bibliography that aims to ‘rehabilitate’ the thirteenth-century inquisitor and Dominican prior Bernard Gui. A lively discussion ensued, touching on all five ‘phases’ of Bernard’s life, while also bringing in questions of Gui’s own Occitan identity and how he would have presented himself. This ‘nerdy little kid’, as Ryan memorably described him, was to grow up to become ‘a regional actor with international clout’; in the wake of such a stimulating and thought-provoking presentation, we were all left hopeful of a similarly bright future for Ryan’s project.

After lunch, our attention turned to the day’s second set of speakers, whom we welcomed as part of the afternoon postgraduate seminar. First to present was Tabitha Stanmore, one of our AHRC DTP doctoral students who is supervised jointly by Ronald Hutton at Bristol and Catherine Rider at Exeter. Her paper examined the economics of the occult in late medieval and early modern England. Drawing on an extensive range of primary testimonies from both before and after the 1542 Witchcraft Act, she demonstrated that there existed an astonishingly developed market for the services of so-called ‘cunning-folk’, with rates of payment regulated by a complex unwritten system that took into account the value of magic to the client, as well as the perceived ‘difficulty’ of the magic to perform. The system could even account for discounts being offered to repeat customers. Clearly, as Tabitha showed in her fascinating presentation, the cloak-and-dagger world of witchcraft, with its ‘introducers’ and ‘dark corners’, was far from lawless.

Speaking next was Tom Chadwick, a final-year PhD student at Exeter. Tom based his presentation around an aspect of his thesis, inviting us to consider the polysemic and often-problematic term Normannitas. The term, coined in the nineteenth century in imitation of Romanitas, has been used since to present, as Tom aptly put it, a monolithic and deceptively uniform understanding of ‘what made the Normans Norman.’ The problem, Tom demonstrated, is that the multiple chroniclers writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries defined Norman identity in different ways. Dudo of Saint-Quentin, for instance, attributed different levels of ferocity, belligerence, cunning and celerity to each successive Norman monarch, whereas William of Jumièges, writing a century later, declined to mention the former (ferocitas) entirely. The waters of Tom’s research were further muddied by the fact that still more chroniclers, namely William of Poitiers and the anonymous author of the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, dispensed with any idea of the Normans possessing a distinctive ethnic identity at all and focused instead on their Frankish enemies and the figure of William the Conqueror. As Tom’s presentation skilfully showed, the perception of Norman identity across these chronicles is inconsistent, with Norman traits also being used to describe other gentes, and peripheral chronicles rejecting the notion of Normannitas entirely. Tom’s lively contribution elicited a wide range of questions from a room full of intrigued medievalists, and certainly proved that his talents for communicating research go far beyond re-enacting the Battle of Hastings and getting ready to kill some Saxons.

Our third speaker was Ryan Kemp, another AHRC DTP student under joint supervision by Bjorn Weiler (Aberystwyth) and Sarah Hamilton (Exeter). He offered an equally intriguing reflection on part of his own PhD research: the provision of spiritual aid on the battlefield by bishops to their kings in England and Germany. In this comparison of ‘sacral landscapes’, he noted that portrayals of divine intervention described in twelfth-century English sources often required the intermediary of a bishop’s prayer to function properly. One particularly interesting example, which Ryan read with admirable fervour, is the case of Bishop Oda’s assistance to Æthelstan, as presented by Eadmer of Canterbury in his Life of St. Oda:

For while King Æthelstan was fighting, his sword shattered close to the hilt and exposed him to his enemies, as if he were defenceless… Oda stood somewhat removed from the fighting, praying to Christ with his lips and in his heart… [Oda] listened to the king and immediately responded with these words: ‘What is the problem? What is worrying you? Your blade hangs intact at your side’… At these words all those who were listening were struck with great amazement, and casting their glance towards the king they saw hanging by his side the sword which had not been there when they had looked earlier.

Bernard J. Muir and Andrew J. Turner, eds., Eadmer of Canterbury: Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 13-15

Lively tales such as this one are comparatively absent from the German tradition, a curious contrast that proved to be the germ of a great deal of discussion.

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Prof. Nicholas Vincent in full – and entertaining – flow as he gives this year’s annual Orme Lecture

After a quick pause for coffee, the gaggle of excited medievalists reconvened for the day’s centrepiece: the Annual Orme Lecture. This year’s speaker was Nicolas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. His lecture retraced the life and the afterlife of Henry of Bracton, ‘England’s greatest medieval lawyer’. Readers with long memories may recall that Bracton has made an appearance on this blog on a previous occasion; Nicolas Vincent’s lecture, however, offered an entirely new reflection on this singular figure. Both Bracton and the book of law that bears his name have, as Prof. Vincent demonstrated, frequently been interpreted as representing a ‘quintessentially English’ strand of legal thought, with the influential Frederic William Maitland dismissing the Roman law evident in Bracton’s work as nothing more than ‘poorly-applied varnish’. By retracing the textual history of Bracton’s Treatise, however, Vincent demonstrated masterfully that Maitland’s ‘flower and crown of English jurisprudence’ was not one man’s work alone. Instead, this 500,000-word codification of English legal practice was far more likely the product of multiple voices, and almost certainly flowed forth from the minds of scholars who were far closer to the ‘thought-world of the Continent’ than that of any ‘little England’. On the day on which Article 50 was triggered here in the UK, it was refreshing to learn that, even in the thirteenth century, scholarship could be ‘a thoroughly European affair’.

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Catherine Rider poses a question to Nick Vincent over a glass of wine
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Alcohol-fuelled conversation continues into the night…

Medieval-, Bracton- and Europe-inspired conversation continued into the night, first at the wine reception after the talk and then at dinner in Zizzi’s in Gandy Street. It was a long and full day, but certainly the high point of this year’s medieval calendar. All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to extend our sincerest thanks to our visiting speakers, as well as to all of those who gave up their time to help make the event such a success. We now head towards the Easter vacation feeling re-energised and inspired by five truly outstanding presentations, each of which demonstrated, in its own way, the vibrance and relevance of the research connected to medieval studies at the University of Exeter.

Edward Mills is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Modern Languages.

“Feeling ready to kill some Saxons!”

On 14 October 1066 one of the most renowned battles in Britain was fought between William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, King of England, near the town of Hastings. This October, 950 years later, I and over 1000 re-enactors from all over the world, attended the anniversary event organized by English Heritage at Battle Abbey. I was present as part of The Household Anglo-Norman Living History Society, a nationwide group of re-enactors who specialize in the period 1066-1216.

Norman TomThroughout the three-day weekend event re-enactors inhabited two large eleventh-century camps, one Saxon and one Norman, displaying various aspects of ‘living history’. For example, included in The Household’s section of the Norman camp was an armoury, a fletcher’s workshop, a cooking and feasting tent, a carpenter’s workshop, a chapel, a scriptorium and several sleeping tents. The actual anniversary, Friday 14 October, had been set aside predominantly as a ‘media and dignitaries’ day and involved interviews, film crews and the culmination of the long march from York to Battle Abbey by re-enactors commemorating Harold’s hasty charge down to confront William. The Household’s camp also served as a staging ground for The One Show’s groan-worthy ‘Battle of Tastings’, hosted by Dan Snow. I also ended up on national news talking about killing Saxons – see this video: Ready to kill Saxons.

Tapestry HairOn Friday at 9am, myself and two other members of the Household went to a barbers in the village of Battle to get a Norman-style haircut, one that appears on many of the Normans within the Bayeux Tapestry. Rather than merely attempting to become fashion icons, we also used the event to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Thanks to donations given over the weekend we raised over our target of £800, for which we have promised to keep the style for a month (and the JustGiving page is still open should you wish to donate!). Thank goodness the hair-cut is so fetching…

Tom Haircut

The main event occurred on the 15 and 16 October and attracted at least 16,000 spectators over the two days. On each day there were various displays throughout the abbey grounds, including medieval music, have-a-go archery and the encampments. Of course, the main focus of the event was the battle itself and thankfully for those of us re-enacting the fight it lasted for an hour rather than, as is reported, the entire day. In keeping with accounts of the battle, the recreation saw the Normans sending archers, infantry, and cavalry against the Anglo-Saxon shield wall on the hill, with The Household occupying the centre-left of the infantry.

The Household marching up the hill
The Household marching up the hill.

The battle was scripted loosely around contemporary accounts, involving three attacks from each Norman contingent, two Anglo-Saxon charges down the hill on each flank, the famous, if true, piercing of Harold’s eye by an arrow and his subsequent death, and finally the slaughter of the remaining Anglo-Saxons. However, the combat itself was not scripted: although all re-enactors adhere to strict safety guidelines the combat is essentially a full-contact, competitive sport. In short, it is rather good fun!

Aside from entertaining the spectators present at the event, the anniversary also garnered a lot of media attention, with rogue camera crews and journalists roaming the site asking all sorts of questions. One of the challenges of being involved in events such as this is that the nuanced nature of academic research does not always gel particularly well with those outside of academia. The public and the media aim to understand historical events in the context of their own experiences of modern, often political, events. Matt cartoonAs such it was unsurprising that Brexit was a regular theme of the weekend and my work on Norman ethnicity, as well as the striking Norman haircut, marked me as a target for questions on this topic by journalists and the general public alike. While large words painted on the wall of the Battle Abbey visitor centre to the effect of ‘The Norman invasion was a good thing’ demonstrate a favourable, if blunt, perception of events, it is interesting to note how the event organizers, the public and some of the more passionate re-enactors focus on a perceived shared English identity between themselves and Harold and his troops. In keeping with the conquered Anglo-Saxons’ attitude to their new overlords, modern audiences see the Normans as foreign invaders; the comparisons made by some between the Normans, the EU and other groups are no doubt easy to imagine. It is unfortunate that the evident lessons concerning the continual movement of peoples and the nature of Britain as a cultural melting pot were less prevalent.

Putting politics aside, the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was a great success and immensely enjoyable. The vast majority of those involved do this sort of thing as a hobby due to their passion and interest in history, and their enthusiasm and hard work is extraordinary. For my part this tangible and experimental hobby provides a new way of engaging with the past, informing people interested in their heritage about medieval history and the opportunity to disseminate my research to a wider audience – even if, as the Hastings event proved, my message isn’t really what they want to hear!

 

Tom Chadwick, PhD student at Exeter working on Norman ethnic identity in 11th and 12th century Normandy, England, Southern Italy and Sicily.