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Feudalism in Sicily
by Luigi Mendola

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Feudalism, at sword's point.Feudalism is widely misunderstood, while the very term "feudal system" is much misused. Nowhere is this truer than in Sicily, where various systems of government and administration existed side by side during the Norman and Swabian periods. Feudalism was much more than kings and knights, and it survived the Middle Ages. Here the reader is offered a few very general observations.

Apart from it being the framework of society for centuries, a knowledge of the feudal system can be useful in genealogy when seeking to find the locations of even the smallest plots of land because (until 1812) the riveli (land tax rolls) often indicated such locations only by the manor (fief) where they were located.

The feudal system (the phrase is a modern one unknown to our medieval forebears) defined the relationship of all who controlled or worked the land, which was the greatest source and measure of wealth well into the nineteenth century - whether for its agricultural value or for minerals, timber or water. From the grandest monarch to the humblest serf, the feudal system kept every man "in his place." Feudal principles defined the duties of aristocratic landholders to the crown, forming a bond based - at least theoretically - on a form of loyalty transcending that expected of the ordinary man. In medieval times, feudalism dictated that the rights of a nobleman were greater than those of the "common" people who worked his land. While it is true that (until 1266) most Sicilians enjoyed what for that time was a high degree of liberty, it was also true that in a court of law the word of a feudal lord was given more credibility than that of a common man. In Sicily, what is generally referred to as the manorial system was the part of the feudal system dealing specifically with the internal workings of feudal property - fiefs (or manors), baronies and counties. This included the relationship between the baron or lord and the people who lived on the land he owned. Later, as common people bought pieces of such land, the lord still retained certain rights over its use.

Demesnial (royal or "free") territories, be they large agricultural estates, forests, rivers or specific towns, were part of the feudal system but, as they were under direct control of the crown, not necessarily part of the manorial system. Feudal territories (fiefs) were held by nobles by the grace of the crown but were, in effect, administered as if they were tiny kingdoms, with the local lord at the top of the hierarchy.

Even fiefs administered by bishops, abbots and the knightly orders (Teutonic Knights, Templars, Hospitallers) were, ultimately, under royal jurisdiction and authority. Feudatories were initially barons, lords or enfeoffed knights who, as the king's vassals, held their lands "in fee" from the crown for a single generation. But the fiefs soon became hereditary, reverting to the crown only in the case of specific seizure or a lack of heirs.

In Sicily certain families applied the Frankish system of land transmission to their fiefs, while others preferred the Longobard system. The Frankish system preferred by the Normans (and by most non-Norman families whose fiefs were established with this provision) established inheritance by male primogeniture. The Longobard standard favoured by certain families from mainland Italy, and perhaps a few German ones, favoured inheritance by all heirs male - all the sons of a feudatory - which saw the division of these fiefs into small farms over the course of just two or three generations.

Within reason, the local lord could levy taxes and even mete out justice, though in the more serious legal cases a justiciar (similar to a circuit judge) would act on behalf of the crown. This was a medieval institution; by 1400 a more sophisticated legal system was evolving.

Around 1100, as the Normans began to consolidate their power in Sicily, certain pre-existing Arab and Byzantine practices were supplanted by northern European ones. Slavery was gradually abolished, to disappear completely during the reign of Frederick II. Serfdom, while it existed to some limited degree, was quite different from its French, English and German incarnations. By the time of the Vespers (1282), peasants tied to the land as serfs were the rare exception rather than the rule.

The abolition of Arab and Byzantine practices coincided with the conversion of Muslims and Orthodox (Greek Christians) to Catholicism, though for the latter this was a simple matter of gradual changes in liturgy over several decades rather than baptism.

Owing to female inheritance and the extinction of many aristocratic families over a few generations, few of Sicily's noble families existing in 1800 were actually Norman, Lombard or Swabian, despite their claims in modern times. This is easily proven (even without genetic testing), as few surnames or toponyms in medieval feudal rolls (such as the "Roll of Muscia" of 1296) were known among the nobles deprived of their feudal rights - in favour of seats in a parliament loosely patterned on the British model - in 1812. By then, most of Sicily's titled nobles were descendants of little more than ancestors of the petit "plutocracy" or bourgeoisie which had emerged during the sixteenth century to buy feudal property. Some were descended from Genoese, Pisan or Spanish families that arrived in Sicily after the Middle Ages.

Frederick's Constitutions of Melfi did much to "democratise" Sicilian feudal and manorial life. One provision of this legal code was "Sicilian Succession," which under specific circumstances allowed females to succeed as the holders of their fathers' fiefs if there were no closely-related male heirs. Contrary to popular belief, this was not an Aragonese introduction. While a similar practice existed in Spain (from 1282 Sicily was ruled for several centuries from Aragon and then a united Spain), Sicilian Succession was already in place as part of Sicilian law decades before the Vespers.

The principle of military service rendered in exchange for the privilege of feudal tenure lasted only until it became convenient to substitute this obligation with a tax, and by then professional armies were becoming the norm anyway, with cavalry soldiers supplanting mounted knights. Ceremonial investiture, during which the feudatory pledged his homage and fealty to the king, was replaced during the fifteenth century by a written declaration because it was no longer practical for the sovereign to invest every feudatory (by then fiefs were readily bought and sold). By that time, most kings of Sicily were also kings of Spain; in Palermo there were royal administrators and then viceroys.

Terms such as villico (peasant) were used into the twentieth century, but the fact that feudalism existed until 1812 doesn't mean that there were still serfs in Sicily at that late date. (Parts of Russia had serfdom well into the nineteenth century, and in Scotland feudalism was formally abolished only a few years ago.) What actually occurred was that feudatories lost their (limited) rights of taxation and various other privileges such as the exclusive rights to water, timber and minerals, and the control of "common" areas on their fiefs, including pastures, roads, and rivers. Where the fief was a town, feudalism had given the local lord the right to appoint mayors and giurati (aldermen), and to decide where houses could be built.

In fact, the rivelli and catasti (land tax) records dating back to the fifteenth century indicate that many non-aristocratic subjects owned their own plots of land or small farms. These were not tenant farmers. Feudalism meant that these smallholders did not necessarily enjoy the broader rights that went with being a feudal freeholder (count, baron, etc.). For example, while a man might own some land on a fief, he could not drill a well or mine sulphur without the feudatory's permission. He could not hold a fair or breed certain livestock without the lord's licence. He might own part of a forest, but the right to hunt the deer, boar and wild cats that dwelled there belonged exclusively to the lord; even cutting down a tree might be permitted only with the lord's consent. The smallholder might raise certain crops, but only the lord could issue him a permit to sell these. In any event, the lord might forbid the destruction of olive and almond trees. Milling rights, olive pressing rights and local fishing rights could only be granted by the lord.

In 1812 the term pari (peer) officially came to refer to a nobleman entitled to a seat in parliament by virtue of his feudal estates having had a certain tax value up until 1811; this included only a fraction of the titled aristocrats. In practice, the term pari had been used, rather loosely, to describe the more powerful feudatories long before the nineteenth century.

Until the abolition of feudalism, the person who bought feudal property, such as a barony, acquired that title ipso facto. Indeed, this is how many Sicilians were ennobled in more recent centuries. This practice ceased in 1813, for titles of nobility were no longer attached to the land.

The last vestiges of Sicilian feudalism died a very slow death.

Ecclesiastical lords, whether bishops or abbots, could be just as oppressive as their lay counterparts. Only with the unification of Italy (1860) were most of the large estates belonging to the Church confiscated. These were auctioned off.

The fall of the monarchy in 1946 spelled the end of formal legal recognition of titles of nobility or even coats of arms.

A series of laws enacted in 1948 and 1949 broke up the last latifondi and other large rural estates by limiting the size of a property that any single family could own; property exceeding the allotment was literally taken away (forcibly sold on unfavourable terms) from the holders and given to poor farmers.

Subsequent legislation made it illegal for a parent of more than one child to leave all his property to just one of them. Instead, a home, land and other assets have to be divided equally among an Italian's children, regardless of their gender or birth order, and any provisions of a will violating this principle are null and void. This means that the eldest son, who inherits a (non-recognised) title of nobility, is not the only heir to the ancestral home.

Times certainly change.

Suggested reading:

• The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop

• Il Feudalismo in Sicilia: Storia e Dritto Pubblico by Diego Orlando (1847)

• The Norman Kingdom of Sicily by Donald Matthew

• Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor by David Abulafia

• The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130 and the Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194 by John Julius Norwich

About the Author: Luigi Mendola is an expert in the field of Italian heraldry, and his work has been published since the 1980s in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere.

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© 2010 Luigi Mendola