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History defines our heritage. Every generation or two, a book is published that brings us an overarching, slightly-original view of a time and place. Welcome to the medieval Kingdom of Sicily!
The Legacy of Southern Italy
Despite its name, the kingdom, the Regnum Siciliae, embraced much more than Sicily. It also encompassed most of southern peninsular "mainland" Italy, including the regions of Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata, Abruzzo and Molise, and part of what is now Lazio, along with Malta and other islands. The story recounted in these pages brings us myriad facts and details — from the foundation of the kingdom in 1130 until the demise of its last "native" dynasty in 1266. It's the story of a multicultural, multiconfessional society and the ethnogenesis of the collective culture of the people of southern Italy seen today. Much that we identify with this region and its people originated in the Kingdom of Sicily under the Hautevilles and Hohenstaufens during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Neapolitan and Sicilian languages, religious practices, folk traditions, and of course the cuisine. Spaghetti, lasagna, sfogliatella, rice balls and cannoli all trace their origins to this era. This is living history.
Chronicling the Past
While scholars will find it useful, this work is written with a clarity devoid of excessive academic jargon and arcane terminology, with terms carefully explained in the text and glossary. At 900 pages and some 900,000 words, with over 1300 endnotes and dozens of genealogical tables and maps (along with 7 appendices, a timeline, a glossary and a 40-page bibliography), this is the lengthiest general history of the subject published in English in decades. Besides historical events, government, law, religion(s), art, architecture and the economy, it considers many aspects of life in the kingdom overlooked in other works. Family life, cuisine, medicine and folklore are integral topics. Movements such as environmentalism and vegetarianism are addressed. Betrothals, sexuality and gender are considered, along with knighthood, monasticism, witchcraft, contraception and abortion. The details seem endless, with iconography, coinage, heraldry, phylogeography, climate change and weights-and-measures among the many things described.
While this peer-reviewed book's point of view is fundamentally neutral and cosmopolitan, its orientation is subtly Siculo-Neapolitan. That's because, unlike the greater number of histories about southern Italy written in English, in the original, by Anglophone authors, this one was written by historians based in southern Italy who have roots in this region and a personal familiarity with its society and culture. They are not visitors, guests or "foreigners." This book is what anthropologists call autohistory — history written by people whose ancestors lived it. Over the years, Lou Mendola and Jackie Alio have contributed much to the field, from the first English translations of medieval chronicles and poetry to studies of topics such as Sicilian queenship. They have lectured students at universities, where their books have been used in undergraduate courses, and both are "resources" (lecturers) for YPO. This is the first history of its kind written in English, chapter by chapter, by both a woman and a man in southern Italy, a trend the authors could be said to have begun in 2013 with their book The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy. To these two authors, being historians isn't just what they are but who they are. Unlike most foreign historians, they didn't simply "choose" to write about southern Italy; rather, the place chose them.
Despite its scholarly approach, this unique volume is eminently readable. While the text avoids the excessive use of esoteric academese, it underwent review by leading scholars mentioned in the acknowledgments — one wrote the foreword.
Rethinking Norman-Swabian Italy
This book is not, strictly speaking, royal biography, nor is it the story of one faith or gender, and it is hardly Eurocentric. Significantly, and in stark contrast to most major histories of the kingdom, women are not marginalized. Among them we meet Margaret of Navarre, who as Queen of Sicily was the most powerful woman of Europe and the Mediterranean for five years, Trota of Salerno, author of a medical treatise, Nina of Messina, the first woman known to compose poetry in an Italic tongue, and the elusive Bint Muhammad ibn Abbad, who led a rebellion alongside her father in the mountains of western Sicily. This approach reflects current ideas about social balance and inclusivity.
"What unites us," it has been said, "is far greater than what divides us." Despite an insidious Latinization, the kingdom epitomized the coexistence of cultures. We find the Italianized Lombards of Salerno, the Byzantine Greeks of Bari, the Muslim Arabs and Berbers of western Sicily, Grecophone communities in Calabria and eastern Sicily, and many Jews eventually united by the Hauteville dynasty. At the royal court were scholars and philosophers from as far afield as Morocco, Constantinople and England. Here was the epitome of social and intellectual diversitude. The kingdom's first legal code, the Assizes of Ariano enacted by King Roger II in 1140, actually refers to "the diversity of our peoples."
For cognoscenti passionate about Euro-Mediterranean history, this book is an interesting read. For students, it's a useful reference. For those descended from ancestors in southern Italy, it is a reminder of familial heritage, something worthy of placement on a shelf between the family history and the family Bible. This is history that touches modern times in unexpected ways — recent decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States reflect views formulated by Thomas Aquinas in southern Italy during the Hohenstaufen era, while the views of animal rights espoused by Francis of Assisi have gained currency in modern times. At its best, history lends us a few sage clues about how to confront a complex future. We can learn from the past as long as we remember it.
The table of contents and a list of the authors' books follow.
Introduction: Discovering the Kingdom
Maps and Charts
1. Before the Normans
2. The Normans
3. Trial by Fire
4. Christians East and West
5. Apulia and Calabria
7. Polycultural Cities
9. Rites of Passage
11. Regnum Siciliae
16. Parenti Serpenti
19. Multicultural Monastery
23. Regnum Vivum
24. Lingua dellu Regnu
26. Society and Law
27. Culinary Culture
29. European Kingdom
30. Catholic Kingdom
Conclusion: The Living Kingdom
Appendix 1: Assizes of Ariano
Appendix 2: Margaret's Pendant
Appendix 3: Constance's Crown
Appendix 4: The Contrasto
Appendix 5: Coronation Rite
Appendix 6: Historiography
Appendix 7: Twin Kingdoms
Sources and Bibliography
Also by Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio
The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy
Sicilian Studies: A Guide and Syllabus for Educators
Norman-Arab-Byzantine Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù
Sicilian Court Culture 1061-1266
Kingdom of Sicily 1130-1266 Study Guide
By Jacqueline Alio
Queens of Sicily 1061-1266
The Ferraris Chronicle
(translation and notes)
Margaret, Queen of Sicily
Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens and Rebels
By Louis Mendola
The Kingdom of Sicily 1130-1860
Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry
The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies 1734-1861
Sicily's Rebellion against King Charles
The Story of the Sicilian Vespers by John of Procida
(translation and notes)
The Chronicle of Nicholas of Jamsilla
(translation and notes)