Friday, November 25, 2016

Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman

Easter fell early in the year 1282, on 29 March. Throughout Holy Week the island of Sicily was outwardly calm. A great Angevin armada lay at anchor in Messina harbor. Royal agents toured the island commandeering all the stores of grain they could find and rounding up herds of cattle and of pigs, to provide food for the expedition [to Constantinople], and horses for the knights to ride, regardless of the peasants’ sullen resentment. The Royal Vicar, Herbert of Orleans, governor of the island, was resident in Messina, in the castle of Mategriffon, the ‘terror of the Greeks’, which Richard Coeur de Lion had built a century before. In Palermo the justiciar, John of Saint-Remy, kept the feast in the palace of the Norman kings. None of the French officials and none of the soldiers who commanded the forty-two castles from which the countryside was policed noticed more than the habitual unfriendliness shown them by the subject race. But amongst the Sicilians themselves as they celebrated the resurrection of Christ with their traditional; songs and dancing in the street, the atmosphere was tense and explosive.

The Church of the Holy Spirit lies about  half a mile to the south-east beyond the old city wall of Palermo, on the edge of the little gorge of the river Oreto. It is an austere building, without and within. Its foundation-stone was laid in 1177 by Walter Ophamil, or ‘of the Mill’, and the English-born Archbishop of Palermo, on a day made sinister by an eclipse of the sun. It was the custom of the church to hold a festival on Easter Monday, and on Easter Monday of that year people came crowding as usual from the city and the villages around, to attend the Vesper service.

There was gossiping and singing in the square as everyone waited for the service to begin. Suddenly a group of French officials appeared to join in the festivities. They were greeted with cold, unfriendly looks, but they insisted on mingling with the crowd. They had drunk well and were carefree; and soon they treated the young women with a familiarity that outraged the Sicilians. Among them was a sergeant called Drouet, who dragged a young married woman from the crowd and pestered her with their attentions. It was more than her husband could bear. He drew his knife and fell on Drouet, and stabbed him to death. The Frenchmen rushed up the avenge their comrade and suddenly found themselves surrounded by a host of furious Sicilians, all armed with daggers and swords. Not one of the Frenchmen survived. At that moment the bell of the Church of the Holy Spirit and of all the churches of the city began to ring for Vespers.

To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were full of angry armed men, crying ‘Death to the French’ – ‘moranu lin Franchiski’ in their Sicilian dialect. Every Frenchmen they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word ‘ciciri’, whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed in the test was slain. The Justiciar, John of Saint-Remy, shut himself in the old royal palace; but most of the men of his garrison had been away holiday-making in the town. The few that remained could not hold it for him. He was wounded in the face during a skirmish at the entrance before fleeing with two attendants out of a window through the stables. They found horses and rode at full speed to the castle of Vicari, on the road into the interior. There they were joined by other refugees who had escaped the massacre.

By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead; and the rebels were in complete control of Palermo. Their fury had calmed down sufficiently for them to think of the future. Representatives of each district and each trade met together and proclaimed themselves a Commune, electing as their Captain an eminent knight. Three vice-captains were appointed, with five counsellors to assist them. The Angevin flag was torn down, and everywhere replaced by the Imperial Eagle which Fredrick II [of Hohenstaufen whose wife was Constance of Aragon] had allotted as the badge to the city of his childhood. A letter was sent to the Pope asking him to take the new Commune under his protection.

Already news of the uprising was spreading throughout the island. . . through-out the week news came of further uprisings and slaughtering of the French. The first town to follow the example of Palermo was Corleone, twenty miles to the south. After killing  the French it too proclaimed itself a Commune. The two Communes decided to send troops in three directions to rouse the rest of the island and coordinate its efforts. As the rebels approached each district, the French fled or were massacred. In two towns only they were spared. The Vice-Justiciar of Western Sicily had won the love of the Sicilians by his benevolence and justice. He and his family were escorted with honor to Palermo and allowed to embark for Provence,. The town of Sperlinga, in the center of the island, prided itself on its independence of view. The French garrison there was unharmed and was able to retire safely to Messina.

In Messina there was no uprising. The Vicar, Herbert of Orleans, had  a strong garrison. The great Angevin fleet was in the harbor. Messina had been the only city in the island to which Charles’s government had shown any favor; and its leading family, the Riso, supported his regime.   On 13 April, when all the West and center of the island was in rebel hands, the Commune of Palermo sent a letter to the people of Messina, asking them to join the rebellion. But the Messinese were cautious. With Herbert and his garrison dominating them from the castle of Mategriffin and with the king’s ships lying off the quay, they preferred not to commit themselves. Instead. On 15 April, a Messinese army troop, under a local knight, moved to the south to the neighboring city of Taormina, to protect it against the fury of the rebels. At the same time Herbert  sent a Messinese noble, Richard Riso, in command of seven local galleys to blockade Palermo harbor and if possible to attack its fortifications. The Palermitans hastened to display the banner of Messina with its cross on the walls, to show they regarded the Messinese as their brothers; and Richard’s sailors refused to fight them. The galleys remained off the harbor maintaining an unenthusiastic and inefficient blockade.

In Messina opinion was swaying round in favor of the revolt. Many of its citizens were also citizens of Palermo who had moved to Messina when it became an administrative center. Their sympathies were with their native city. Herbert began to lose confidence. He determined to make sure of Taormina and sent a troop of Frenchmen there under a Neapolitan to replace the Messina garrison. William Chiriolo and his men were offended by this lack of trust in them. They came to blows with the French and took them all prisoner. Two or three days later Messina broke out in revolt. Most of the French were already retired to the castle; and the massacres were on a smaller scale than at Palermo. Herbert blockaded himself in the castle, but he was obliged to abandon the fleet, which was set on fire and utterly destroyed. The Messinese declared themselves a Commune, under the protection of the Holy Church. They elected as their captain Bartholomew Maniscalo, who had played the chief part in organizing the revolt. . .

 The theme of the story is twofold. The episode of the Vespers at Palermo marked a savage and important turning point in the history of Sicily. It also taught a lesson to the whole of Europe. . .

With his own great abilities, and with the Papacy, France and the Italian Gueffs to back him, it seems at first surprising that Charles of Anjou’s career should have ended in failure. He failed through his own sensitivity and his lack of understanding of the peoples with who he had to deal with. The French had shown themselves to be the most vigorous and enterprising race in medieval Europe, and they knew it. They began to see themselves as a master-race. They had organized the crusading movement and had supplied most of its manpower and its direction. They had established their way of life in Palestine and Greece. It was their destiny to dominate Christendom. Charles was a Frenchman. He was moreover a French Prince; and it was above all the Royal House of France that had given the country unity and national consciousness. It was the Capetian Kings who bringing order an justice to the people and breaking down the arbitrary and disruptive power of the nobles. While Charles was a child his mother and his brother were busy crushing the turbulent nobility of France. As a young man he had the task of crushing the nobility of Provence. He grew up in the assumption that popular sympathies were with the centralizing power.

This pride of race and position led him into two grave errors, one of foreign politics and one of home politics. He saw himself as the heir of the crusader princes, especially in Eastern Europe. The French had taken pride in the Fourth Crusade and the establishment of the Latin Empire at Constantinople. Its fall was an insult to them. They could not quite understand it, for it never occurred to them that to the Byzantines, as to the Arabs in the East, they did not represent the finest flowers of civilization but were savage intruders with a liking for religious persecution. Charles believed that would be an easy task to restore the Latin empire, if only he were allowed to send an expedition against Constantinople. From the military aspect he was right; but he made no allowance for the passionate hatred that the Byzantines bore against the West nor the lengths that they would go to prevent an attack; nor did he appreciate properly the skill in diplomacy that they had acquired down the centuries. He despised the court of Aragon and never saw how effectively its claims could be used against him. He underrated his foreign enemies and never understood that they could be dangerous in combination [they conspired to engineer the revolt in Sicily just as Charles was embarking on his crusade against Constantinople].

Their combination was successful because of Charles’s errors in the internal governments of his kingdom. He was not unaware of the forces of nationalism. He knew that he could trust his fellow-French, and he trusted no other race. It was his practice in each of his dominions as far as possible to employ officials drawn from some other of his dominions. But he took no account of the resentment that such a policy might cause. He seems to have thought that, as in France, the element dangerous to the monarchy was the nobility, and that lesser folk would automatically rally to the king. In his Italian lands he diminished the power of the local nobility and relied on imported French nobles and knights, to whom he never allowed much territorial power. He failed to see that either these imported nobleman did not at once become efficient and incorruptible functionaries, just because they were divorced from their ancient hereditary territories, or that a local population might dislike foreign officials even if they were efficient. Charles himself was a good administrator, but he could not supervise everything. It is clear from the reforms he made that he hastily introduced when things went wrong, that his administration had been full of flaws. In particular it failed to satisfy the Sicilians.

It is here that the Sicilian theme mingles with the European. Charles neglected Sicily. He found it poorer and less useful to him than his other dominions. The Sicilians annoyed him by a long rebellion early in his reign. He never paid a serious visit to the island and never himself inspected its governmental machine. The officials there were more corrupt and oppressive than on the mainland where he could exercise personal control.  Yet, in spite of their earlier rebelliousness, Charles does not seem to have foreseen trouble from the Sicilians. They were of mixed racial origin. Only a half century earlier, the Greek and Arab elements could be clearly distinguished from the Latin. He may well have thought that a people of such diverse blood would never come together sufficiently closely too threaten his power for long. But in fact the misfortunes, grievances and aims of the whole island brought the islanders together. It gives a striking example of how little national feeling depends on the purity of race. It was a revolt in the island, plotted, fostered and organized by his enemies from outside, but carried out and maintained by the angry courage of the Sicilians themselves, which pulled Charles’s empire down. Some of the Sicilian leaders might waver. The intervention of Aragon and the naval genius of Roger of Lauria might contribute to the victory; but it was the unflinching determination of the Sicilians themselves, undiminished by the desertion by their allies later on, which freed them from the hated rule of the Angevins.

Charles’s failure as an empire-builder lay in his failure to understand the Mediterranean world of his time. Had he been content with the role of King of Sicily he might have had time to learn how to govern his subjects there, but he saw himself the soldier of God, chosen by the Holy Church to be its champion. The western empire had fallen because it had opposed the Church. He would build a new empire under the aegis of the Church, as its secular arm. He was too late. Christendom had split into too many units with their local interests; nationalism was growing too fast. Charles himself was affected by it. Whatever his own conception of his role may have been, in his actions he was partly  the agent of papal imperialism, partly of French imperialism and partly of his own personal and dynastic ambition; and the parts were confused. Later the Angevin House was to find glory when seated on the Hungarian throne, but only so long as it confined its interests to central Europe.  When it tried to combine its dominions in Italy with those in central Europe, the task was beyond it. The kings of the Angevin dynasty were nearly all of them men of outstanding  ability who made their mark on European history. But it was an ephemeral mark and did little good to Europe.

The massacre of the Vespers ruined the experiment of King Charles’s empire. But more, too, perished in the blood-bath. It was the ruin of the Hildebrandine Papacy. The Papacy had committed itself to Charles. A few wiser Popes such as Gregory X and Nicolas III, had tried to reduce the commitment, but in vain. The Sicilians  themselves did their best to offer the Papacy a road to escape. A better Pope than Martin IV might have cut the losses of the Papacy in time. But even so there would have been losses. The failure to support Charles would have been an admission that Rome had been wrong. But to support him so blindly against the wishes of a devout people and against the conscience of much of Europe, and then to be dragged by him into defeat, meant a far crueler humiliation. The Papacy threw everything into the struggle. It threw more money than it could afford. It threw the weapon of the Holy War, and all to no purpose. It emerged financially impoverished; and to recoup its finances it was forced to try to extract from the secular powers more than they would now willingly pay. It emerged with its chief spiritual weapon tarnished; for there were few Europeans outside France and the Gueff cities of Italy who could regard the repression of the Sicilians as a spiritual aim. The idea of Holy War had been cheapened already when it was used against the Hohenstaufen. It now fell into utter disrepute. The high authority of the Papacy was wasted on a losing cause, without the certitude of moral right on its side. No conception of Medieval history was finer than that of the Universal Church, uniting Christendom into one great theocracy governed by the impartial wisdom of the Vicar of God. But in this sinful world even the Vicar of God needs material strength to enforce his holy will. It proved impossible for the medieval Papacy to find a lay supporter whom all Christendom could trust. By crushing the Universal Empire, which alone might possibly have provided such support, the Popes set themselves a hard problem. Their choice of Charles of Anjou is easy to understand; but it was fatal. When Charles’s power was broken by Vespers Palermo they were too inextricably involved. The story led on to the insult offered to the Holy Father at Anagni, to the Babylonish captivity of Avignon, and through the schism and disillusion to the troubles of the Reformation.

The Sicilian men who poured, with knives drawn, through the streets of Palermo on that savage evening struck their blows for freedom and honor. They could not know to what consequences it would lead them and with then the whole of Europe. Bloodshed is an evil thing and good seldom comes of it. But the blood shed on that evening not only rescued a gallant people from oppression. It altered fundamentally the history of Christendom.

The lesson was not entirely forgotten. More than three centuries later King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm he would do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the king of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast at Milan’, he said, ‘and I will dine in Rome.’ ‘Then’, replied the ambassador, ‘Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers.’

The Sicilian VespersA History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century by Steven Runciman; Cambridge University Press, 1958

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