The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

6
Muslims under early Norman rule:
churches, charters and lordships

Fortifications and early instruments of command and control

From some distance in both time and place, Ibn al-Athīr (d. 1233) recalled the post-conquest situation in melodramatic fashion: ‘Roger controlled the entire island and colonised it with Greeks and Franks alongside the Muslims; they left not a bath-house, shop, mill or oven to any of its inhabitants’.1 This picture of absolute dispossession is exaggerated, even if the conquest had introduced a new set of dynamic forces to the island, the results of which, by Ibn al-Athīr’s time, were plain to see. Central to understanding the transition of power is to account for the superimposition and privileging of certain groups over others on the island. Such an explanation is by no means straightforward, but Ibn al-Athīr’s version of events will clearly not suffice on its own.

After the fall of Palermo in 1072, a garrison of soldiers had been installed and a Norman knight called Robert was appointed as governor of the city with the Arabic title of amīr. After his successor, Greeks were to occupy this important position until 1154. A deal was struck whereby, according to Amatus, Guiscard was to gain half of Palermo, half of Messina and half the Val Démone. The rest of the island was Roger’s. Malaterra, however, suggested that Guiscard had retained all Palermo and given over the remainder.2 In practice, once Guiscard had returned to the mainland, Roger was left to assume control of the entire island. It was thus under Roger, his wife, their sons and closest advisers that the rudimentary institutions and apparatus of control over the majority Muslim population initially, and slowly, came to be constructed. This infrastructure did not, nor could not, spring forth fully armed.

Both during and after the conquest period, areas of political and military sensitivity remained, some of which were around key Muslim towns that the Normans sought to shadow with the construction of new fortifications, or with the refortification of older defences. These included walls around a city and the fortification of a smaller town or settlement, usually referred to as a castrum or castellum. The latter terms carry some ambiguity since on relatively few occasions was an actual castle built. Roger’s concessions of landed property included grants of both unwalled or open settlements (casalia) as well as walled villages,

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