Vikings in Sicily
by Kiko Matsing
Coronation of Roger II, robed in Byzantine splendor
from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 195-196
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)
So under the full glow of papal benediction these freebooters of the North laid the foundations of a civilized state in Mediterranean waters. With Norman flexibility the descendants of Tancred organized government under new and difficult conditions and on original lines. In the kingdom of Roger II, who united the Norman territories on either side of the Straits of Messina, Europe witnessed a polity half Oriental, half Western, providing a shelter for Greek, Latin, Moor, and Jew, and better organized, seeing that it preserved the tradition of its Greek and Saracen past, than any other European government of that age. Among the orange groves of Palermo, Roger, the descendant of the Vikings, sat upon his throne, robed in the dalmatic of the apostolic legate and the imperial costume of Byzantium, his ministers part Greek, part English, his army composed as to half of Moors, his fleet officered by Greeks, himself a Latin Christian, but in that balmy climate of the South, ruling in half Byzantine, half Oriental state, with a harem and eunuchs, a true representative of his lovely island shared then as ever between East and West.
Monreal Cathedral (from Wikipedia)
Time has dealt kindly with this dynasty of gifted pirates. Mosaics, the best which Greece could provide, still embellish the walls of the noble cathedral of Monreale, which looks down upon the flowers and orchards of the Conco d’Oro. In that same earthly paradise an exquisite cloister still invites to repose, and the visitor, noting what he there sees of building and sculpture, of jewellery and decoration, must admire the splendour of the Norman princes now sleeping in tombs of dark porphyry, who in the twelfth century brought about so great an assemblage of the arts and crafts of their age.
Very different was the Scandinavian scene from which the Vikings had sailed forth to slay, to burn, and to conquer. No Monreale, or Caen, or Durham rose in the solitary valleys of Norway. There the Viking aristocracy bled to death in civil war. By the thirteenth century Scandinavia was empty of personal eminence, The days of her influence was over. A rude, unlettered peasantry extracted a sorry living from a barren soil.
One of the many memorable passages in H. A. L. Fisher’s A History of Europe. A signal example of what contemporary critics called “a marvel of compression” (The Spectator), while praising its “[narrative] richness and glow” (The Times). I continue to delight in reading this book I found in the dusty bins of an old thrift shop. It is a must companion on any trip to Europe.
Here Fisher describes in one nimble sweep the effect of Norse conquest of Latin Europe after the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. Like the Germanic tribes before them, the Norsemen became more humane from contact with civilizing Latin culture. Thus the conquerors, in turn, were conquered, adapting the language and manners of the Romans, the prestige of their Church and gilded glow of their liturgy. The romance and chivalry of Medieval Europe evolved from the Latin enlightenment of these Northern barbarians.
To make the point of how far these Viking marauders have come along in two centuries of Mediterranean settlement, he describes the splendor of their palaces and churches, their cosmopolitan society and civil government, and the excellence of their arts and crafts, contrasting this to their progenitor’s descent into barbarity.
But even as Fisher surveys history with a clear-sighted long view and even-handed judgment, he brings into relief those remarkable characters, scenes, and episodes in expressive, even lyrical, language rich in detail and drama, such as the coronation of Roger II, decked in Byzantine splendor among the orange groves of Palermo, or the elegiac image of Norman princes in their tombs of porphyry.
This vivid language and magisterial command is what is now lost in the tedious bureaucratese of what passes for scholarship these days in the humanities.