The eminent British historian returns to a subject and place that inspired his first book 50 years ago.
The Normans in the South (1967) encapsulated Norwich’s (A History of England in 100 Places, 2011, etc.) fascination with the brief but strenuous Norman influence in Sicily (especially the architecture) and his astonishment at how little his readers knew about it. In this charming, elegiac volume, the author, now in his mid-80s, lays out the broad swath of conquest in Sicily, from the ancient Greeks to the American invasion as part of Operation Husky in World War II. Norwich gives special attention to the “golden age” of the 11th and 12th centuries under the Normans. Sicily is an enigmatic place, situated in the Mediterranean exactly between West and East, Africa and Europe, the Greek and Latin worlds, constantly overrun by competing interests much resented by its largely agrarian population. Indeed, Norwich finds this home of Mount Etna and the Mafia to be one of the saddest places in Europe, despite its gorgeous natural beauty and climate. Greek tyrants, Carthaginians (Carthage being right across the Strait of Sicily in today’s Tunis), Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs: all left their marks in some fashion—e.g., the Arab expertise in terraced agriculture and irrigation and the introduction of many new lucrative crops like cotton and sugarcane. Stability was never in the Sicilian makeup, but rebelliousness was, and it took the Normans three decades to wrest control, largely driving out the Arabs in a show of new muscle against the Muslim-held lands of the southern Mediterranean. The domination by Spain, the Bourbons, and the threat of the French under Napoleon make for compelling chapters—especially the interlude between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton—as do the rise of the carbonari and the fascists.
Richly nuanced history relayed with enormous fondness.