The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily: Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign of Frederick III, 1296-1337

By Housley, Norman | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily: Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign of Frederick III, 1296-1337


Housley, Norman, The Catholic Historical Review


The Decline and Fall of Medieval Sicily: Politics, Religion, and Economy in the Reign of Frederick III, 1296-1337. By Clifford R. Backman. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1995. Pp. xxi, 352. $59.95.) After a long period of scholarly neglect, Sicily in the late medieval ages has in recent years begun again to attract attention, notably in Henri Bresc's Un monde mediterraneen: economie et societe en Sicile, 1300-1450 (1986), and Stephan Epstein's An Island for Itself. Economic Development and Social Change in Late Medieval Sicily (1992). Clifford Backman's monograph on the reign of Frederick III is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to this growing corpus of research. Frederick led Sicily to victory in its exhausting struggle for independence from the Angevin kings of Naples. He was a charismatic ruler of some ability, and in the decade following the treaty of Caltabellotta (1302) the Sicilians experienced enough constructive political change and economic vitality to foster hopes of long-term stability and prosperity. But by the time Frederick died the rural and urban economy was in disarray, centralized government was not far from collapse, and social life was undermined by violence, corruption, and intense particularism. Backman argues that no single cause accounts for Frederick's overall failure as a ruler. The king's various foreign policy involvements, from 1312 onwards, proved to be both misguided and ruinously expensive. But this was less important than the sharp divergence between the economic interests of the coastal cities and those of the rural hinterland, and resistance to the court's attempts to create a coherent political community in the island. So structurally embedded were these features that Backman comes close to a determinist view of Sicily's fate: "The odds against Vespers-era Sicily succeeding and prospering had been against it all along. …

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