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Highlights from The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily (Gordon S. Brown)

The uneasy alliance between Pope and emperor

Pope and emperor had different requirements, and often very different political constituencies. When a pope was selected by the Germans (as Leo had been), any differences were generally manageable, but when the powerful Roman aristocratic families or other groups succeeded in having their own candidate chosen bishop of Rome and pope, conflicts could and often did arise. The papacy, moreover, had become spectacularly corrupt in the first half of the eleventh century. The office had degenerated into a political prize, with rival Roman families fighting each other to obtain the benefit; sale of Church offices was widespread, vows of clerical celibacy not enforced.

The Normans in 11th Century Europe

The Normans, the men of the North, were a relatively new and still expanding presence in eleventh century Europe. Their forefathers had cut and thrust their way into the area less than two centuries earlier as part of the great Viking expansion. Dreaded and effective both as raiders and settlers, the Vikings had ravaged the coasts and penetrated up the rivers of present day Great Britain, Ireland, France, the Low Countries, and even Russia—wherever they and their versatile longboats could reach from their homelands in the Scandinavian peninsula.
When Hrolf [a Norman king] died [...], his funeral rites exemplified the state of the assimilation as of that date: as a convert, Rollo (his Christian name) provided substantial gifts to monasteries, and was buried with Christian ceremonies. But, just to be on the safe side with respect to his pagan Viking roots, a hundred captives were also sacrificed in his honor!

The feudal system was adaptive but also caused problems

At a time when central government was weak and landed estates were the principal source of wealth for the ruling class, the feudal system provided an effective way to tie the responsibilities of governance directly to landholding. A noble could only hold land (and, consequently, wealth) legally through a fief granted by his superior lord in the feudal hierarchy. In return, he became that lord’s vassal, and pledged to him both loyalty and military service. In Normandy, the ruling duke granted major fiefdoms or holdings to his counts, who in turn granted estates within their counties to their barons, and each member of that hierarchy in turn owed loyalty and specified military obligations to his lord. In practice, of course, the chain of mutual responsibilities was much more complicated. As land and its obligations could also be obtained (through inheritance, marriage, purchase, or seizure) in differing counties—or even duchies or kingdoms—the result was often, for a knight with multiple properties, a complex skein of responsibilities and potential loyalties rather than a simple hierarchy. In Normandy as elsewhere, disputes about landholding were both common, and inseparable from questions of loyalty and obligation.
Warfare, in the eleventh century, was the normal business of this armed, ruling aristocracy. Small-scale warfare for private purposes was endemic, as normal to the knights as peace; it was indeed their occupation. Since the feudal system provided each landholder with some of the attributes of sovereignty in his own territory, he was to a large degree free to compete militarily with his peers—to extend his landholdings, pursue a family feud, or simply to enrich himself by plundering his neighbor’s lands, or by seizing and ransoming unwary merchants or other travelers. This warfare involved few battles, but was rather a process of raids, sieges, and pillage in which the main victims were often the poor peasants whose crops were despoiled.

The education of a Norman knight

To be a landholder or an aspiring landholder, then, was to be a knight, since only the Church could hold lands without the attendant military obligations. And to be a knight was to be a warrior, trained in arms and in the uses of power. A Norman knight was trained from childhood in horsemanship, hunting and outdoor survival skills, and learned at least a smattering of literacy, etiquette and the practical skills of command. At adolescence, his long and arduous military training began: still more horsemanship, physical conditioning, and the use of arms. By the time he reached manhood, a young Norman knight was strong enough to wear over 50 pounds of armor for extended periods, adept at controlling his warhorse, or destrier, in a charge or a melee, proficient in protecting himself with his kite-shaped shield, and effective in the use of his lance, sword and dagger. Individually excellent fighters, with much of the courage and hardiness of their Viking ancestors, the Norman horsemen had also learned to train and fight in group formations, and the cavalry charge had become their prime offensive weapon.

Stereotypes about the Normans

An energetic and warlike people, they seemed to have excess energy to burn, and ambition to expand. The chroniclers of the time, whether friendly or hostile, are all but unanimous in characterizing the Normans as bold, desirous for domination and riches, and cunning.

Tancred and his large family

To produce and raise a family of such a size was a rarity even in those days. The effort to train and equip twelve sons for a knightly career was a major one, and we do not know how Tancred managed it. His could not have been a wealthy family, so there must have been a good deal of scrimping as well as pooling of family resources to outfit the sons as new knights. Probably, the boys were sent, as was a normal custom, to the households of wealthier lords, where they served their apprenticeships in the bearing of arms and courtly behavior. Here also they would eventually have earned their knighthoods in a simple ceremony—the passage to knight was not yet as freighted with chivalric symbolism as it was in later centuries. They also learned the basic set of political skills necessary for success in the competitive atmosphere of large feudal households. Wherever and however Tancred’s sons were trained, they apparently developed few if any lasting ties from their early days, retaining their loyalty, once embarked on their knightly careers, primarily for their family and their own self interest.

On the territory the Normans chose to settle in

The Byzantines had recently made efforts to repopulate these areas, particularly for strategic reasons, along the mountainous borders with the Lombard states. (Melfi itself had been fortified by the katapans for this reason, as had Troia.) Even so, the hills remained lightly settled, and even more loosely controlled by the Byzantine authorities on the coast. It was ideal territory for land-hungry freebooters and raiders such as the Normans; a land where hills and still extensive forests could conceal their movements, where the towns were often lightly fortified, and where armed men could seize land with virtual impunity.

Norman ambition

Moreover, in Italy the Norman adventurers had the great advantage of what the chroniclers called their “energy”—that is, their sheer determination to succeed: their greed for victory, power and wealth. It was this quality in particular that set them apart from the often demoralized, time-serving troops of the empire, and justified the cautious Byzantine military strategy after the defeats of the first years. Constantinople would work, in preference, to defeat these troublesome invaders by attrition, the persuasion of money, or the tools of diplomacy and treason.

How the Normans expanded

In spite of their weaknesses, the Norman knights were effective in expanding their territory. Their methods were as simple as they were brutal. First, small bands of horsemen would ravage the countryside, prey on trade, and deprive the population of the means of resistance. Their numerical weakness pushed them into tactics of terror—murder, rape, and arson each had a role in cowing the population and making their path to domination easier. Once they controlled the countryside, they would often settle for payments of tribute. But if they wanted to capture or subdue a large town or city, they avoided sieges, trying instead to have their way by blockading the environs and trying to starve the inhabitants into surrender. Once a town surrendered, it could be—and occasionally was—subject to brutal reprisals if it had resisted. Once again, this cultivated an image of savagery that was useful to the immediate purposes of the Normans. The subdued town usually entered into a treaty relationship with the Norman conquerors, agreeing to pay tribute, providing hostages as guarantees of behavior, and sometimes accepting a Norman garrison.

A description of Robert Guiscard

This Robert was Norman by descent, of insignificant origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire. His stature was so lofty that he surpassed even the tallest, his complexion was ruddy, his hair flaxen, his shoulders were broad, his eyes all but emitted sparks of fire, and in frame he was well-built where nature requires breadth, and neatly and gracefully formed where less width was necessary. So from tip to toe this man was well-proportioned, as I have repeatedly heard many say…. Thus equipped by fortune, physique and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to nobody in the world.

Roger and Judith

Roger’s romance and marriage to Judith was a true love story in a time of political marriages. He had been looking forward, or rather hoping, for this occasion for a number of years. He had met the comely Judith d’Evreux in Normandy even before his departure for Italy; they had fallen in love on the spot and vowed to stay loyal to each other. Judith was not only attractive, she was as well placed as a young adventurer such as Roger could have dreamed of—a descendent of the dukes of Normandy and orphaned half-sister of a great lord, Robert of Grantmesnil, who was also her guardian. So great was their romance that Judith became a novitiate in the convent of Saint Evroul in order to avoid other suitors, many of whom at that time had better actual prospects or lineages than the young son of Tancred of Hauteville. But fate has its ways, and Judith was spared the necessity of taking religious orders by the fact that Grantmesnil quarreled with his ruler, the formidable Duke William; the break between the two was so severe that Grantmesnil was obliged to go into exile. Robert Guiscard, good politician that he was, saw an opportunity to help the discomfited Grantmesnil and offered him the post of abbot of a newly established monastery of Sant Euphemia. Perhaps Robert also had Roger’s interests in mind in bringing Grantmesnil and his ward to Italy, perhaps not. But it certainly worked to Roger’s benefit. Judith let him know of her arrival in Italy, and the marriage was agreed upon in an instant. The happy couple, separated for five years, were married at Mileto at the beginning of 1062.

How Robert ruled

The basis for Robert’s leniency was not compassion; that was not in his nature. It was realism and a growing quality of statesmanship. He could no longer rule as a robber baron, or even as a parvenu count or duke. With the acquisitions of Calabria, eastern Sicily, and now the last but most glorious remnant of Byzantine Italy, he was faced with the necessity of governing a major state. And while he was still too much the adventurer knight, the conquering warrior, to have much patience for governance and administration, he was farsighted enough to know that good government would mean less internal unrest and, done right, a smoother collection of taxes to finance his ambitions. His desire to divert as few as possible of his Norman followers from the priority task of conquest encouraged him to adopt a policy of local self-rule for his new subjects. As long as his forces retained overwhelming coercive power, government through the existing local mechanisms provided an opportunity, not a challenge. Generosity to the citizens of Bari, moreover, might even win enough of their support to help maintain a balance against his still fractious barons. This pragmatic approach, later adopted as policy by Roger and his successors, prepared the ground for the flowering of a multi-ethnic state, remarkable for its time, in the following centuries.