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Kingdom of Sicily (11th – 13th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Normans captured Sicily from the Arabs who ruled the island from 902 in the 11th century. The Kingdom of Sicily encompassing the island of Sicily, the whole Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy, and the islands of Malta and Gozo was established by Roger II, Count of Sicily who crowned himself King of Sicily in 1130.

Medieval depiction of Roger II riding a horse

Medieval depiction of Roger II riding a horse

Roger II (1130-1154) spent his early reign struggling for confirmation of his title, defending his kingdom against the foreign invasions and quelling rebellions of his premier vassals Grimoald of Bari, Robert II of Capua, Ranulf II of Alife, Sergius of Naples and others. Roger II managed to consolidate his power by 1140 and later conquered the coast of Africa from Tunis to Tripoli.

Roger II was succeeded by his son William I the Bad (1154-1166) who suppressed the rebellions of the barons. His heir and successor William II (1166-1189) died childless and the Sicilian crown was assumed by his cousin Tancred of Lecce (1189-1194) on his death in 1166. The Sicilian throne was also claimed by Constance of Sicily, Tancred’s aunt and wife of Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. The latter launched a campaign and deposed Tancred’s infant son and successor William III (1194). Thus the Sicilian crown passed to the Hohenstaufen Dynasty.

Italian city-states of Venice, Milan, Florence and Genoa (10th – 13th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Northern Italian cities achieved wide autonomy by the end of 10th century and chosen their sovereigns or elected their own chief of state – the doge. Besides Venice that elected doges since 762, doges also ruled Genoa and Amalfi. German Kings who were weakened by the Investiture Controversy were unable to subdue the Northern Italian cities which gained great wealth during the economic progress in the 11th century and the period of Crusades.

Map of Venice drawn by Piri Reis, Ottoman admiral, geographer and cartographer

Map of Venice drawn by Piri Reis, Ottoman admiral, geographer and cartographer

Venice, Milan, Genoa and Florence achieved independence by the 12th century and evolved into a powerful city-states. The attempt of Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa to reassert his imperial authority in Lombardy resulted in the formation of the Lombard League under leadership of Milan and Frederick’s defeat at Legnano in 1176. Frederick I signed the Peace of Constance in 1183 and recognized the independence of the Lombard cities under his nominal suzerainty. The Lombard League was renewed against the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II in 1226 and repulsed his attempts to assert his authority in Northern Italy. Venice meanwhile extended its power in the Mediterranean by conquering one-fourth of the Byzantine Empire during the Forth Crusade, while Genoa gained new holdings in the Middle East.

Medieval Life and Society

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor by Odoacer in 476 resulted in the collapse of the Late Antique political system and of its social structure. However, the social changes occurred already before the official Fall of Rome, while formation of the new social order known as feudal system evolved gradually as a combination of Roman social-economic system and tribal-military organization of the barbarian peoples who triumphed over Western Roman Empire.

The barbarian kings in Italy, Iberian Peninsula, France and elsewhere in Europe adopted the Roman titles and methods of government. Although they were practically independent they considered the Byzantine Emperor their suzerain. Feudalism developed in Western Europe in the 8th and 9th century and became the predominant political and social system by the 11th century. For that reason medieval society and related subjects are often referred as the Feudal society. The feudal system was not equal in all countries but there were certain common characteristics such as strict division into social classes: nobility, clergy and peasantry or “those who fight”, “those who pray” and “those who labour”.

Cleric, knight and serf

Cleric, knight and serf

The king was on the top of the hierarchy of an ideal medieval society. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles consisting from the nobles who held land directly from the king to those who held only a single manor. Landholding system which based on fiefs or landholding in exchange for providing military service and paying a homage to the overlord eventually evolved into a system of subinfeudation by which the recipient of the fief – the vassal granted part of his fief to one who then became his vassal. Thus evolved very complex relations within the class of nobility, while every noble was someone’s vassal and was bound by mutual ties of loyalty and service. Besides that it was not unusual for one being a vassal to several overlords, while even a king could have been a vassal to another king.

The peasants or serfs who represented the majority of the medieval population and worked for the landlords in exchange for use of his land and his protection were on the bottom of the medieval society. Instability and turmoils in the 9th and 10th centuries forced the remained free peasants to seek protection by the nearest powerful landlord in exchange for their labour and personal freedom. They accepted to became serfs and also granted serfdom of their descendants. Thus serfdom became inheritable, while the principal duty of the serfs according to the medieval perception was to work on the land on which they were bound and which placed them on the very bottom of medieval social hierarchy.

Clergy was placed very high in the medieval social order. The Christianity and the Church had an absolute monopoly over mentality of all social classes, while religious believes had great influence on all medieval institutions as well as on all aspects of life of a Christian. Vassal took his oath on the Bible or holy relics, while serfdom was considered to be determined by God with purpose of survival of humanity. Thus clergy played very important role in the establishment of feudalism, while its hierarchy was very similar to the hierarchy of feudal society. Besides that the Church held much land, while high church officials acted as feudal landlords and lived a leisurely life comparable to the life of high nobility.

The theory of the three classes of feudal society does not describe the whole medieval population. Besides fiefs some men held their land in allod and were without any obligations, while even the three classes of feudal society sometimes referred as “the estates of the realm” were not a homogenous group. Besides city population (bourgeoisie) which was not a part of the “feudal pyramid” medieval society also consisted of population which was in certain way excluded from the feudal order: Jews and other subordinate groups – lepers, homosexuals, disabled persons, foreigners, witches, heretics, beggars, unemployed and outlaws.

Medieval Conquerors and Invaders

27 Jul
July 27, 2012
Satellite view of the Arabian Peninsula

The Arabian Peninsula

The Byzantine Empire managed to repulse the barbarian invasions which destroyed the Western Roman Empire but had to face the Muslim conquests already in the first half of the 7th century. The rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula in the 630’s was followed by rapid Arab territorial expansion under Muhammad’s successors, the caliphs who were both religious and political leaders of the Muslim world.

The first to fall in the Muslim hands were the Sassanids, the Byzantine old rivals but the next to fall were the Byzantine territories: Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The Arabs established themselves as an important political and military power in the Mediterranean region by 661 but at the same time broke out serious inner conflicts which resulted in the split of Islam into the Sunni and Shi’a branches. The conflicts were provoked by disagreement over Ali’s (Ali ibn Abu Talib) right to the caliphate and resulted in the outbreak of a civil war known as the First Fitna which ended with Ali’s assassination and establishment of the Umayyads as the first Islamic dynasty.

The Byzantines took advantage of the civil war between the Sunni and Shi’a branches and retook the initiative. By using the so-called Greek fire, a flammable petroleum-based mixture which can not be put out with water, the Byzantines decisively defeated the Arabs in the Battle of Syllaeum in 678, forced them to lift the Siege of Constantinople and to pay tribute to the Byzantine Emperor. The Arab threat to the Byzantine Empire ceased for about three decades when the Umayyads laid siege to the Byzantine capital for the second time. However, the Arabs suffered another defeat and were forced to retreat in 718.

The Arabs continued their expansion in North Africa despite suffering defeat against the Byzantine Empire. Under Umayyads, the Arabs conquered the entire North Africa by the early 8th century, while the Berbers of northern Africa who converted to Islam invaded and conquered the Iberian Peninsula (with exception of the Kingdom of Asturias) between 711 and 718. The Umayyads invaded the Frankish territory several times from the Iberian Peninsula but Muslim conquests in Western Europe came to an end after the Battle of Tours in 732 in which Charles Martel decisively defeated the Muslim forces. However, it took seven centuries for the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula to put an end to the Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

Muslim defeat in the Second Siege of Constantinople in 718 and in the Battle of Tours in 732 ended the Arab conquests in Europe with exception of conquest of the Byzantine Sicily and parts of Southern Italy by the Aghlabids of Ifriqiya (today’s western Libya, Tunisia and eastern Algeria) in 827. The Muslim rule in Sicily lasted until the Norman conquest in 1061, while the Arab Caliphate under Abbasid Dynasty which has overthrown the Umayyads in 750 began to decline in the early 9th century. Abd ar-Rahman I who escaped the massacre of the Umayyads established himself as an independent Emir in the Iberian Peninsula in 756, while the rise of local dynasties and decline of central authority resulted in fragmentation of the Arab Caliphate into a loose confederation of states under nominal authority of the Abbasid Caliphs.

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