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The Multicultural Kingdom of Sicily

A Medieval Cosmopolitan

Arab-Norman art and architecture in the 19th century. Source: Wiki.

Behind the glory of kings, or the vanity of empires, multiculturalism provided the backbone for many great civilizations to flourish. Glorious states such as the Achaemenid Persians, or Norman Sicilians were centres of innovation and art due to their ability to blend the different cultures that inhabited them. The latter state is a textbook example of the advantages, yet vulnerabilities of multicultural societies. The structure of Medieval Sicily is a shining star in the history of the Mediterranean, as in comparison with the other impoverished states of Medieval Western Europe, Sicily used its numerous cultures to become rich and adorned in literature and learning. Furthermore, in the modern world of increasing diversity, the rise and fall of Sicily provide a shockingly relevant example of a story of multiculturalism despite its Medieval setting.


The Normans came in with a bang. In the messy world of Italy in the early 11th century, the region was divided between the Pope in the North, the Byzantines down in the boot, the Lombards in the centre, and finally, a declining Arab state in Sicily. Eventually serving as mercenaries, the Normans from France eventually conquered the different entities inhabiting Southern Italy. Under the Hauteville Dynasty, Sicily and North Africa were added to the Norman domains.

Perhaps the greatest way to view the Golden Age of the Normans would be to follow the events of Sicily. The island was a hotbed of the different cultures that built the Norman Kingdom. First belonging to the Greek-speaking Byzantines, then conquered by the Arabs from the South, the island became a centre of piracy and trafficking. Many Kings and Princes in Europe attempted to retake the island in the name of Christendom to stop the Arab raids upon their own domains.

Monreale Cathedral is an example of the different architectural styles of Sicily. Source: Wiki.

After the island was conquered by the Normans in the 1070s, it would have been natural for the new occupiers to suppress the Arab population. However, this did not happen, as, despite their brutal reputation as conquers, the Normans were also keen empire builders and pragmatists. Sicily was a place of splendour. The island that the Normans looked upon was home to advanced agricultural and irrigation techniques, filled with lively markets, and even the first mass producers of pasta. Sicily was to be the centrepiece of the Kingdom.

Amalgamation of cultures

The legacy of the Arabs was kept in Sicily, as the booming wheat market built by Muslim farmers was allowed to continue, while the essential silk industry planned by the Arab rulers flourished until the end of Norman rule. The advanced Arab bureaucracy formed the cornerstone of the economy, and the finances of the Kingdom were mainly handled by Muslim administrators.

Scribes of different cultures in the Norman court. Source: Wiki

The Arabs were not the only people who flourished in this new environment, as the Greeks of not only Sicily, but the whole of Southern Italy continued to create stunning mosaics and domed churches. Furthermore, Greek became a lingua franca in the royal court at Palermo. The omnipresence of the court emulated the style of Constantinople, as even the kings became Byzantine-styled rulers despite their hatred of the rulers of New Rome.

The third component that made up the kingdom was the Latin immigrants from the North. Up to 200,000 immigrants migrated to Sicily at the encouragement of the Normans. Originally, I was puzzled about what this last component added to the kingdom, but then I realized; that they were the lasting legacy of the Normans.

With the rise of the Latin population, Greek, and Arabic eventually became displaced over the course of two centuries. On paper, the Latin population was the nail in the coffin for the seemingly egalitarian kingdom, but in truth, they adapted the Arabic model of administration into a Christian one, and the remnants of Byzantine church architecture were incorporated into their own. As a result, the Latin migrants represented the future of the Kingdom, and in a way, the carriers of the multicultural legacy that existed in Norman Sicily.

How Multiculturalism Fails

How did the splendour of such a rich and diverse kingdom, amongst backwards Medieval states, fall in the span of a generation? After finishing John Julius Norwich’s famous book on Sicilian History, I was enlightened by his appealing descriptions of Sicily, but in the end, my original question was left unanswered. While scouring for an answer, I realized that for all of its efficient government, and pragmatic policies, the golden age of Sicily was also an age of kings.

Byzantine-styled mosaic of Roger II. Source: Wiki.

Sicily is a unique place that truly needed administrators that understood the nature of the country. For a time, the House of Hauteville managed to fulfill the needs of the country, and with their seat of power in Palermo, the centre of Sicily, they saw firsthand the economic vitality of Arab administrators, and the potential that Sicily had as a crossroad for literature and art. Even with the change in dynasty in 1198, Frederick II of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty was born and raised in the multilingual court at Palermo, and the Kingdom continue to flourish under his home rule.

“When Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Naples, Palermo lost its capital status. It was never to regain it. It is now essentially a baroque city, beautiful though sadly dilapidated.” -John Julius Norwich

However, the kingdom began to decline under German rule, and later became a complacent provincial backwater of the Spanish. Under the Hautevillies, Palermo was a lively centre of scholarship, the home of unique architectural projects and an enormous court of Arabs, Greeks, and Normans. Within a century, the Arabs were expelled, while the Renaissance completely subsided Sicily, encouraging prominent Greek scholars to leave the kingdom. Conclusion

As stated before, many reasons were responsible for Sicily’s fall from the third-largest European state, to a third-world country during the Renaissance. Disinterest and mismanagement could be major reasons. The moment the Sicilians stopped being ruled by Palermo, policies that showed and pressured the fragile balance in Sicily were implemented. This was not helped by the divided nature of Sicily as well. Although each respective culture was respected under law, they remained and functioned as distinct entities; separate pieces of a larger puzzle.

As a result, Sicily required an administration that could not only manage the different aspects of the kingdom but rulers who understood the identity and multicultural characteristics of Sicily. It is only natural, that the moment Frederick II died, and his successors began to rule Sicily as a colony, the country declined. Norman Sicily was truly a unique place in the middle ages, but the legacy of its centuries of neglect and mismanagement after the Hautevilles is a testimony to how multicultural societies die.


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