|Return to The Normans -- Contents|
Dukes of the Normans
THE NORMANS IN ITALY.
"And therefore must make room
Where greater spirits come." -- Marvell.**
There is a famous old story about Hasting, the viking captain. Once he went adventuring along the shores of the Mediterranean, and when he came in sight of one of the Tuscan cities, he mistook it for Rome. Evidently he had enough learning to furnish him with generous ideas about the wealth of the Roman churches, but he had brought only a handful of men, and the city looked large and strong from his narrow ship. There was no use to think of such a thing as laying siege to the town; such a measure would do hardly more than tease and provoke it: so he planned a sharp stroke at its very heart.
Presently word was carried from the harbor side, by a long-faced and tearful sailor, to the pious priests of the chief church, that Hasting, a Northman, lay sick unto death aboard his ship, and was desirous to repent him of his sins and be baptized. This was promising better things of the vikings, and the good bishop visited Hasting readily, and ministered eagerly to his soul's distress. Next day word came that the robber was dead, and his men brought him early to the church in his coffin, following him in a defenceless, miserable group. They gathered about the coffin, and the service began; the priests stood in order to chant and pray, their faces bowed low or lifted heavenward. Suddenly up goes the coffin-lid, out jumps Hasting, and his men clutch at the shining knives hidden under their cloaks. They strip the jewelled vestments from the priests' backs; they shut the church doors and murder the poor men like sheep; they climb the high altar, and rob it of its decorations and sacred cups and candlesticks, and load themselves with wealth. The city has hardly time to see them dash by to the harbor side, to hear the news and give them angry chase, before the evil ships are standing out to sea again, and the pirates laugh and shout as they tug at the flashing oars. No more such crafty converts! the people cry, and lift their dead and dying priests sorrowfully from the blood-stained floor. This was the fashion of Italy's early acquaintance with the Northmen, whose grandchildren were to conquer wide dominion in Apulia, in Sicily, and all that pleasant country between the inland seas of Italy and Greece.
It must have seemed almost as bad to the Romans to suffer invasion of this sort as it would to us to have a horde of furious Esquimaux come down to attack our coasts. We only need to remember the luxury of the Italian cities, to recall the great names of the day in literature and art, in order to contrast the civilization and appearance of the invader and the invaded. Yet war was a constant presence then, and every nation had its bitter enemies born of race prejudice and the resentment of conquest. To be a great soldier was to be great indeed, and by the time of the third of the Norman dukes the relation of the Northmen and Italians were much changed.
Yet there was not such a long time between the time of Hasting the pirate, and that of Tancred de Hauteville and Robert Guiscard. Normandy had taken her place as one of the formidable, respectable European powers. The most powerful of the fiefs of France, she was an enemy to be feared and honored, not despised. She was loyal to the See of Rome; very pious and charitable toward all religious establishments; no part of Southern Europe had been more diligent in building churches, in going on pilgrimage, in maintaining the honor of God and her own honor. Her knights prayed before they fought, and they were praised already in chronicle and song. The troubadours sung their noble deeds from hall to hall. The world looked on to see their bravery and valor, and when they grew restless and went a-roving and showed an increasing desire to extend their possessions and make themselves lords of new acres, the rest of the world looked on with envy and approval. Unless the Normans happened to come their way; that of course was quite a different thing.
We cannot help thinking that the readiness of the Englishman of to-day to form colonies and to adapt himself to every sort of climate and condition of foreign life, was anticipated and foreboded in those Norman settlements along the shores of the Mediterranean sea. Perhaps we should say again that the Northmen of a much earlier date were the true ancestors of all English colonists with their roving spirit and love of adventure, but the Normandy of the early part of the eleventh century was a type of the England of to-day. Its power was consolidated and the territory became too narrow for so much energy to be pent up in. The population increased enormously, and the familiar love of conquest and of seeking new fortunes was waked again. The bees send out new swarms when summer comes, and, like the bees, both Normans and Englishmen must have a leader and centralization of the general spirit, else there is scattering and waste of the common force.
We might go on with this homely illustration of the bees to explain the way in which smaller or larger groups of pilgrims, and adventurers of a less pious inclination, had wandered southward and eastward, toward the holy shrines of Jerusalem, or the rich harvest of Oriental wealth and luxury. Not much result came from these enterprises, though as early as 1026, we find the Duke of Naples allowing a company of Norman wanderers to settle at Aversa, and even helping them to build and fortify the town, and to hold it as a kind of out-post garrison against his enemies in Capua. They were understood to be ready for all sorts of enterprises, and the bitter flowers of strategy and revolt appeared to yield the sweetest honey that any country-side could offer. They loved a fight, and so they were often called in by the different Italian princes and proved themselves most formidable and trustworthy allies in case of sudden troubles. This is what an historian of that time says about them:
"The Normans are a cunning and revengeful people; eloquence and dissimulation appear to be their hereditary qualities. They can stoop to flatter; but unless they are curbed by the restraint of law they indulge the licentiousness of nature and passion, and in their eager search for wealth and dominion they despise whatever they possess and hope whatever they desire. Arms and horses, the luxury of dress, the exercises of hawking and hunting, are the delight of the Normans; but on pressing occasions they can endure with incredible patience the inclemency of every climate, and the toil and abstinence of a military life."
How we are reminded of the old vikings in this striking description! and how we see certain changes that have overlaid the original Norse and Danish nature. There are French traits now, like a not very thick veneering of more delicate and polished wood upon the sturdy oak.
Aversa was quickly made of great importance to that part of the world. The Norman colony did good missionary work, and Robert Guiscard, the chief Norman adventurer and founder of the kingdom of Naples, was leader and inspirer of great enterprises. In following the history of the time through many volumes, it is very disappointing to find such slight reference to this most interesting episode in the development of Norman civilization.
In one of the green valleys of the Côtentin, near a small stream that finds its way into the river Dove, there are still standing the crumbling walls of an ancient Norman castle. The neighboring fields still keep their old names of the Park, the Forest, and the Dove-Cot; and in this way, if in no other, the remembrance is preserved of an old feudal manor-house. Not long ago some huge oaks were clustered in groups about the estate, and there was a little church of very early date standing in the shade of a great cedar tree. Its roof had a warlike-looking rampart, and a shapely tower with double crosses lifted itself high against the sky.
In the early years of the eleventh century there lived in this quiet place an old Norman gentleman who was one of Duke Richard the Good's best soldiers. He had wandered far and wide in search of gain and glory. The Duke had given him command of ten armed men who formed his body-guard, and after a long service at court this elder Tancred returned to his tranquil ancestral home to spend the rest of his days. He was poor, and he had a very large family. His first wife, Muriel, had left several children, and their good step-mother treated them all with the same tenderness and wise helpfulness that she had shown to her own flock. The young de Hautevilles had received such education as gentlemen gave their children in those days, and, above every thing else, were expert in the use of arms and of horses and the pleasures of the chase. They trained their falcons, and grew up brave and strong. There were twelve sons, all trained to arms. Three of the elder family were named William, Drogo, and Humphrey, and the sixth, their half-brother, was Robert, who early won for himself the surname of Guiscard, or the Wise. Tall fellows they were, these sons of the Chevalier de Hauteville. One of the old French historians tells us that they had an air of dignity, and even in their youth great things were expected of them; it was easy to prophesy their brilliant future.
While they were still hardly more than boys, Serlon, their eldest brother, who had already gone to court, killed one of Duke Robert's gentlemen who had offered him some insult, and was banished to England where he spent some time in the dreariness of exile, longing more and more to get back to Normandy. This brought great sorrow to the household in the Côtentin valley; it was most likely that a great deal depended upon Serlon's success, and the eager boys at home were looking to him for their own advancement. However, the disappointment was nor very long-lived, for at the time when Henry of France was likely to lose his throne through the intrigues of his brother and his mother, Constance of Provence, and came to the Duke of Normandy for aid, Serlon came home again without being asked, and fought like a tiger at the siege of Tillières. You remember that this siege lasted a long time, and it gives us a good idea of the warfare of that age to discover that every day there came out of the city gate an awesome knight who challenged to conqueror to single combat. The son of brave old Tancred was not frightened by even the sight of those unlucky warriors who lay dead under the challenger's blows, and one morning Serlon went to the gate at daybreak and called the knight out to fight with him.
The terrible enemy did not wait; he presently appeared in glistening armor and mounted upon a fiery steed. He asked Serlon who he was, and as if he knew by instinct that he had met his match at last, counselled the champion of Normandy to run away, and not try to fight with him.
Nobody had recognized the banished man, who carefully kept the visor of his helmet down over his face, and when the fight was over and the enemy's head was off and borne at the head of his victorious lance, he marched silently along the ranks of the Norman knights, who were filled with pride and glory, but for all their cheering he was still close-helmeted. Duke Robert heard the news of this famous deed, and determined that such a valiant knight must not hide himself or escape, so he sent a messenger to command the stranger to make himself known. When he found that Serlon himself had been the hero, he ran to meet him, and embraced him and held him to his heart, and still more, gave back to him all the lands and treasures which had come to him by his marriage and which had been confiscated when he was sent into exile. All these glories of their elder brother made the other sons more eager now than ever to show their prowess, but there was slight chance in Normandy, for the war lasted but little longer. But when Robert had put the French king on his throne again, he determined, as we have seen already, to go on a pilgrimage. There was not much prospect of winning great fame at home while young William the heir was so unpopular and Alan of Brittany was his careful guardian. The de Hautevilles were impatient at the prospect of years of petty squabbles and treacherous intrigues; they longed for a broader field for their energies. There was no such thing as staying at home and training the falcons; their hungry young brothers and sisters were pushing their way already, and the ancient patrimony was growing less and less. So William and Drogo and Humphrey went away to seek their fortunes like fairy-book princes, and hearing vague rumors of Rainulf's invitation to his countrymen, and of his being made count of the new possessions in Aversa, they turned their faces towards Italy. We cannot help lingering a moment to fancy them as they ride away from the door of their old home -- the three brave young men together. The old father looks after them wistfully, but his eyes are afire, and he lives his own youth over again and wishes with all his heart that he were going too. The little sisters cry, and the younger brothers long for the day when their turn will come to go adventuring. The tame falcons flutter and peck at their hoods, there where they stand on their perches with fettered claws; the grass runs in long waves on the green hill-sides and dazzles the eyes that look after the sons as they ride towards the south; and the mother gives a little cry and goes back into the dark hall and weeps there until she climbs the turret stairs to see if she cannot catch one more look at the straight backs and proud heads of the young knights, or even one little glint of their horses' trappings as they ride away among the orchard leaves.
They would have to fight their way as best they could, and when they reached Apulia at last they still found work enough for their swords. South of Rome were the territories of the independent counts of Naples and the republic of Amalfi. South of these the Greek possessions of Lombardy, which had its own governor and was the last remnant of the Eastern empire.
The beautiful island of Sicily had been in the hands of the Moslems and belonged to the African kingdom of Tunis. In 1038 the governor of Lombardy believed he saw the chance that he had long been waiting for, to add Sicily to his own dominions. The Arabs were fighting among themselves and were split up already into several weak and irreconcilable factions, and he begged the Normans to go and help his own army to conquer them. After a while Sicily was conquered, but the Normans were not given their share of the glory of the victories; on the contrary, the Lombard governor was too avaricious and ungrateful for his own good, and there was a grand quarrel when the spoils were divided. Two years afterwards the indignant Normans came marching back to attack Apulia, and defeated the Greeks at Cannæ so thoroughly that they were only left in possession of a few towns.
This was is 1043, and we cannot help feeling a great satisfaction at finding William de Hauteville president of the new republic of Apulia. Had not the three brothers shown their bravery and ability? Perhaps they had only remembered their old father's wise talk, and profited by his advice, and warning lest they should spend their strength by being great in little things instead of aiming at nobler pieces of work. All the high hopes which filled their hearts as they rode away from Normandy must have come true. They were already the leaders in Apulia, and had been foremost in the organization of an aristocratic republic. Twelve counts were elected by popular suffrage, and lived at their capital of Melfi, and settled their affairs in military council. And William, as I have said, was president.
Presently from East and West envious eyes began to look at this powerful young state. Europe knew well enough what had come from giving these Normans foothold in Gaul not so very long ago, and the Pope and the emperors of the West and East formed a league to chase the builders of this new Normandy out of their settlements. The two emperors, however, were obliged to hurry back to defend their own strongholds, and Leo the Tenth was left to fight his neighbors alone, with the aid of some German soldiers, a mere handful, whom Henry the Third had left. The Normans proposed fair terms to his Holiness, but he ventured to fight the battle of Civitella, and was overpowered and beaten, and taken prisoner himself. Then the shrewd Normans said how grieved they had been to fight against the Father of the Church, and implored him, captive as he was, to receive Apulia as a fief of the Holy See. This seems very puzzling, until we stop to think that the Normans would gain an established position among the Italian powers, and this amounted to an alliance with the power of the papal interests.
William de Hauteville died, and the office of president, or first count, passed to his next brother, Drogo, and after him to Humphrey. One day, while Drogo was count, a troop of pilgrims appeared in Amalfi, with their wallets and staves. This was no uncommon sight, but at the head of the dusty company marched a young man somewhere near twenty-five years of age, and of remarkable beauty. The high spirit, the proud nobility in his face, the tone of his voice even, showed him to be an uncommon man; his fresh color and the thickness of his blond hair gave nobody a chance to think that he had come from any of the Southern countries. Suddenly Drogo recognized one of his step-brothers, whom he had left at home a slender boy -- this was Robert, already called Guiscard. He had gathered a respectable little troop of followers -- five knights and thirty men-at-arms made his escort, -- and they had been forced to put on some sort of disguise for their journey, because the court of Rome, jealous of the growing power of the Normans in Italy, did every thing to hinder their project, and refused permission to cross their territories to those who were coming from the North to join the new colony. Humbert de Hauteville was with Robert -- indeed the whole family, except Serlon, went to Italy sooner or later after the old knight Tancred died; even the mother and sisters.
Robert arrived in time for the battle of Civitella, and distinguished himself amazingly. Indeed he was the inspirer and leader of the Norman successes in the South, and to him rather than to either of his elder brothers belongs the glory of the new Normandy.
His frank, pleasant manners won friends and followers without number, who loved him dearly, and rallied to his standard. He was well furnished with that wiliness and diplomacy which were needed to cope with Southern enemies, and his wild ambition led him on and on without much check from feelings of pity, or even justice. Like many other Normans, he was cruel, and his acts were those of a man who sees his goal ahead, and marches straight toward it. While William the Conqueror was getting ready to wear the crown of England, Robert Guiscard was laying his plans for the kingdom of the two Sicilies.
After a while Drogo was assassinated, and then Humphrey was put in his place, but he and Robert were always on bad terms with each other apparently. Robert's faults were the faults of his time, and yet his restlessness and ambition seem to have given his brother great disquietude; perhaps Humphrey feared him as a rival, but at any rate he seems to have kept him almost a prisoner of state. The Guiscard gained the votes of the people before long, when the count died and left only some young children, and in 1054 he was made Count of Apulia and general of the republic. We need not be surprised to find his title much lengthened a little later; he demanded the ducal title itself from Pope Nicholas, and styles himself "by the grace of God and St. Peter, Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and hereafter of Sicily." "The medical and philosophical schools of Salerno, long renowned in Italy, added lustre to his kingdom, and the trade of Amalfi, the earliest of the Italian commercial cities, extending to Africa, Arabia, India, with affiliated colonies in Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, enriched his ample domain. Excelling in the art of navigation, Amalfi is said to have discovered the compass. Under her Norman dukes, she held the position of the queen of Italian commerce, until the rise of the more famous cities of Pisa, Genoa, and Venice.*
Roger de Hauteville, the youngest brother of all, who was much like Robert in every way, was the conqueror of Sicily, and the expedition was piously called a crusade against the unbelievers. It was thirty years before the rich island was added to the jurisdiction of Rome, from which the Mussulmans had taken it. Roger was given the title of count, but his dominion was on a feudal basis instead of being a republic. This success induced Robert to make a campaign against the Eastern empire, and the invasions continued as long as he lived. They were not very successful in themselves, but they were influential in bringing about great changes. The first crusade was an outcome of these plans of Robert's, and all the altered relations of the East and West for years afterward.
We must go far ahead of the slow pace of our story of the Normans in Normandy and England to give this brief sketch of the Southern dukedoms. The story of the de Hautevilles is only another example of Norman daring and enterprise. The spirit of adventure, of conquest, of government, of chivalry, and personal ambition shines in every page of it, and as time goes on we watch with joy a partial fading out of the worse characteristics of cruelty and avarice and trickery, of vanity and jealous revenge. "Progress in good government," says Mr. Green in his preface to A Short History of England, "is the result of social developments."** The more we all think about that, the better for us and for our country. No doubt the traditions of Hasting the Northman and his barbarous piracies had hardly died out before the later Normans came, first in scattered groups, and then in legions, to settle in Italy. One cannot help feeling that they did much to make amends for the bad deeds of their ancestors. The south of Italy and the Sicilian kingdom of Roger were under a wiser and more tolerant rule than any government of their day, and Greeks, Norman, and Italians lived together in harmony and peace that was elsewhere unknown. The people were industrious, and all sorts of trades flourished, especially the silk manufacture. Perhaps the soft air and easy, luxurious fashion of life quieted the Norman restlessness a little. Who can tell?
Yet we get a hint of a better explanation of the prosperity of the two Sicilies in this passage from an old chronicle about King Roger: "He was a lover of justice and most severe avenger of crime. He abhorred lying; did every thing by rule, and never promised what he did not mean to perform. He never persecuted his private enemies, and in war endeavored on all occasions to gain his point without shedding of blood. Justice and peace were universally observed throughout his dominions."
A more detailed account of the reigns of the De Hautevilles will be found in the Story of Sicily," but before this brief review of their conquests is ended, it is only fair to notice the existing monuments of Norman rule. The remains of Norman architecture, dating back to their time, may still be seen in Palermo and other cities, and give them a romantic interest. There are ruins of monasteries and convents almost without number, and many churches still exist, though sometimes more or less defaced by modern additions and ignorant restoration. The Normans raised the standard of Western forms of architecture here as they did elsewhere, and their simpler buildings make an interesting contrast with Eastern types left by the Saracens. Outside the large cities almost every little town has at least some fragments of Norman masonry, and in Aderno -- to note only one instance of the sort -- there is a fine Norman castle in excellent preservation, which is used as a prison now. At Troina, a dreary mountain fortress, there is a belfry and part of the wall of a cathedral that Roger I. built in 1078. It was in Troina that he and his wife bravely established their court fifteen years earlier, and withstood a four months' siege from the Saracens. Galfridus, an old chronicler,** tells sadly that the young rulers only had one cloak between them, and grew very hungry and miserable; but Eremburga, the wife, was uncomplaining and patient. At last the count was so distressed by the sight of her pallor and evident suffering, that he rallied his men and made a desperate charge upon his foes, and was happily victorious. Galfridus says of that day: "The single hand of Roger, with God's help, did such execution that the corpses of the enemy lay around him on every side like the branches of trees in a thick forest when strewn by a tempest." Once afterward, when Roger was away fighting in Calabria, Eremburga was formally left in command, and used to make the round with the sentinels on the walls every night.
We must look in Palermo for the noblest monuments of Norman days, and beside the churches and palaces, for the tombs of the kings and archbishops in San Rosario Cathedral. There lies Roger himself, "mighty Duke and first King of Sicily." Mr. Symonds says*: "Very sombre and stately are these porphyry resting-places of princes born in the purple, assembled here from lands so distant, from the craggy heights of Hohenstauffen, from the green orchards of Côtentin, from the dry hills of Aragon. They sleep and the centuries pass by. Rude hands break open the granite lids of their sepulchres to find tresses of yellow hair, and fragments of imperial mantles embroidered with the hawks and stags the royal hunter loved. The church in which they lie changes with the change of taste in architecture and the manners of successive ages. But the huge stone arks remain unmoved, guarding their freight of mouldering dust beneath gloomy canopies of stone, that tempers the sunlight as it streams from the chapel windows."**
And again at Venosa, the little town where the poet Horace was born, and where William de Hauteville with his brothers Drogo, Humphrey, and Robert Guiscard are buried, we cannot do better than quote the same charming writer:
"No chapter of history more resembles a romance than that which records the sudden rise and brief splendor of the house of Hauteville. In one generation the sons of Tancred de Hauteville passed from the condition of squires in the Norman vale of Côtentin to Kinghood in the richest island of the Southern Sea. The Norse adventurers became sultans of an Oriental capital. The sea-robbers assumed, together with the sceptre, the culture of an Arabian court . . . lived to mate their daughters with princes and to sway the politics of Europe with gold. . . . What they wrought, whether wisely or not, for the ultimate advantage of Italy, endures to this day, while the work of so many emperors, republics, and princes, has passed and shifted like the scenes in a pantomime. Through them the Greeks, the Lombards, and the Moors were extinguished in the South. The Papacy was checked in its attempt to found a province of St. Peter below the Tiber. The republics of Naples, Caëta, Amalfi, which might have rivalled perchance with Milan, Genoa, and Florence, were subdued to a master's hand. In short, to the Norman, Italy owed that kingdom of the two Sicilies, which formed one third of her political balance; and which proved the cause of all her most serious revolutions."
Much has been lost of the detailed history of the Norman-Italian states, and lost especially to English literature. If the development of Southern Italy had gone steadily forward to this time, with the eagerness and gathering force that might have been expected from that vigorous impulse of the eleventh century, no doubt there would have been a permanent factor in history rather than a limited episode. The danger of the climate, to those born and reared in Northern or Western Europe, was undoubtedly in the way of any long-continued progress.** To-day the Norman buildings look strangely different from their surroundings, and are almost the only evidence of the once brilliant and prosperous government of the Normans in the South. One enthusiastic historian, who wrote before the glories of the de Hautevilles had faded, would have us believe that "there was more security in the thickets of Sicily than in the cities of other kingdoms."
A.H. Johnson: "The Normans in Europe."**
"Studies in Southern Italy."**
|Return to The Normans -- Contents|